Centered on washed up early 90s rock star Johnny Rock (Denis Leary), whose band was on the brink of becoming famous until they broke up the same day their only album dropped, Season 2 of the FX series Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll sees the sudden passing of an old friend and former bandmate force them to take a hard look at their lives and careers and decide what makes them feel creatively fulfilled. As everyone decides to start branching out into other artistic avenues to varying degrees of success, Johnny and his daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), find themselves unexpectedly bonding over their own jealousy.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor/executive producer Denis Leary talked about how he wanted Season 2 to evolve, exploring the female point of view more deeply, what Johnny Rock is actually good at, whether he might ever give up his own desire for fame, and what it’s been like to work with his son, behind the scenes.
Collider: Going into Season 2, what do you feel like you got most right with Season 1, and was there anything you felt like you wanted to change or improve on with Season 2?
DENIS LEARY: I’ve only done two other TV shows, one was Rescue Me and the other was a show called The Job, which was at ABC and only on for two seasons. I was working with Peter Tolan, who was my writing partner on those two, and he did The Larry Sanders Show with Garry Shandling, and he always said that the second season is better because you know the actors. They’ve filled out the characters, and it’s easier to write and know where you’re going. So, if anything, I felt really good about the actors, at the end of Season 1. I auditioned them, of course, and spent a lot of time with them, but everybody was so good that I was very excited about Season 2. I wanted to get more serialized. I had this idea for an event that would click onto everybody’s mortality. I said, “I want somebody to die.” Fortunately for me, when I was toying with that idea, John Landgraf, who’s the head of FX but also a very smart executive, came up with the idea of the ashes in the maracas. He called me up and said, “Listen, what about this, they get the ashes in a box and when they get them, they shake them and they sound like maracas.” And I was like, “Okay, now I’ve got my throughline.” That maracas storyline haunts us, all the way to the end. There’s a hopefully very funny ending to that story in Episode 10.
It seems like you wrote most of the first season yourself and directed a couple of the episodes, but this season, you have a bit of a writing staff and some directors. How did you assemble this group of writers and what made these directors right for the show?
LEARY: I wanted a more female point of view. I have a writer, named Julieanne Smolinksi. On Twitter, she’s known as @BoobsRadley. She was voted the funniest person on Twitter, four years ago. Anyways, I hired her for a show I produced over at USA, and she’s a brilliant writer and really fucking funny and smart. She got picked up by Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda to go work on Grace and Frankie, that Netflix show, so she was unavailable to me last year. I hate to say this, but I was like, “I’ve gotta have her. I have to have her.” So, I glommed onto her and I said, “Listen, I’ll work my writing schedule around you.” She has a history in rock journalism and she’s a huge rock ‘n’ roll fan, and she was a huge fan of Ava (Elaine Hendrix) and Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies) and of the actresses. I was really lucky to get her, in between seasons on Grace and Frankie. And then, Rosemary Rodriguez directed on Rescue Me for us, and I love her. She’s fantastic with actresses and she’s got a great sense of humor. That was a huge thing for me. I think Julieanne is only credited with writing two full episodes, but the truth is, when we were designing the season, there’s stuff in every episode that came straight from Julieanne’s life. This isn’t talking out of school ‘cause she writes about it, but she’s had a very interesting sexual history. She’s bisexual and she broke up with her girlfriend and starting going out with a guy who was bad at oral sex, so she told him to talk to her ex-girlfriend about how to give head. There’s more stuff, later in the season, that also came from her. And there’s some great stuff that came from Rosemary Rodriguez. The girls’ point of view, especially in Season 2, is so strong. I really wanted the girls to feel like they had a big say in how we developed those characters. Those two girls really are the bosses of the show. Johnny thinks he’s in charge. Sometimes Flash (John Corbett) thinks he’s in charge. But, the truth is that it’s all Gigi and Ava.
It’s so refreshing that the women on this show are hot and talented, but they also don’t take shit from any guy.
LEARY: Ava just will not take any shit from Johnny, ever, which I just love.
In Season 1, it seemed like you guys had totally clicked as this dysfunctional family that you’re portraying, but how does that change and deepen in Season 2?
LEARY: Strangely enough, there’s a bonding that happens with Campbell [Scott], and Bam (Robert Kelly) and Rehab (John Ales) over the “Hamilton” type musical. Episode 8 is like a Birdman type of episode. It’s not completely in real time, but it’s all of the opening night of the show, and you’ll get to see a bunch of numbers from the show. We all go to see the opening night to wish Bam and Rehab luck. We’re supposed to be respectful of their dream and the fact that they’re achieving this show and its success, but we’re all insanely jealous, including Gigi. We’re all so selfishly involved in wanting to be famous. Ava takes a step forward this year and gets into the spotlight, and it fucks with Johnny. The strange thing is, by the end of the year and almost by attrition, Johnny and Gigi end up closer than ever. Right around Episode 7, you start to see that Johnny and Gigi are bonding, and then, by the time we get to the end of the season, it’s Johnny and Gigi and her mom, who comes back in for Episodes 9 and 10, that get really tight. Everybody else explodes off into their own solo projects, which is really interesting.
We know that Johnny is bad at or could use improvement on things because someone is usually willing and eager to tell him so. But, what would you say he’s actually good at?
LEARY: There is no doubt that he’s got a pretty good idea for a melody for a song, and every once in awhile he’s got a good idea for some lyrics. Before the end of the season, he puts together another little solo thing and gets up on stage and does a number. But you will see that his time, as a performer, really has passed, so the only thing that he can do well is support his daughter. She can’t really write songs yet, but she wants to learn how to do it. The best thing that he has to offer is to be in the shadows, supporting his daughter. He has to come to that realization, ultimately, in the course of this year, and it’s not an easy decision. There are financial carrots that he can see, off in the distance, if he accepts that reality. Last year, he gave up cocaine. He’s not drinking as much as he used to, but he’s still drinking and he probably smokes some weed. In very small little inches, he’s learning that he could actually be a pretty good dad for Gigi and he’s accepting that position. But underneath it all, we have to figure out if he’s accepting it because he’s truly in love with her dream, or if he’s accepting it because he loves her and is probably going to get some money and fame out of it.
Do you think there would ever be a time when he would give up on his own fame, or is that something that, even if it seems like he has, that desire will always be there?
LEARY: That’s a good question. I certainly know guys in comedy, I know some actors, and I definitely know some musicians, who have survived to a certain age and make a good living doing what they do, but nobody knows who they are. They wake up every day and they have the ability to get paid practicing their art, but underneath it all, if you scratched the surface, you still get, “If I only had my own show . . .,” or “If I only had my own band . . .” It’s what people always do when they want to be their own star. So, I really believe that Johnny is the kind of guy where, if Gigi got a gig opening up for, let’s say, Adele because Gigi worships her, he would find a way, with the best intentions, to talk to Adele backstage so that he could mention a great song that he wrote that he thinks she should be doing and somehow fuck it up for his own daughter. I don’t think he can get out of his own way. As much as he hates Sting, if he saw the opportunity to hang around with Sting, he’s be kissing Sting’s ass, just because he’s be basking in some of that fame. It’s like a moth. If you hold up a light, he has to fly into nit.
Along with getting to explore this father-daughter relationship, this show is also a family affair, with your son, Jack Leary, there. What’s that been like, behind the scenes?
LEARY: He’s a talented musician. I listen to a lot of new music. Liz [Gillies] doesn’t really listen to anything new, besides Adele, Ariana Grande, and stuff like that. She loves ‘70s music and old ‘60s songs. She loves songwriters from the ‘70s that I hate, like Jim Croce and James Taylor, and she loves Stevie Nicks and old jazz classics. So, I feel like sometimes I have to play new stuff for her. So, my primary reason for bringing my son on was to have a voice on the show that would bring a 25 or 26 year old point of view to it, and my son is very capable of writing that stuff. At the same time, he knows the band guys that we use as our tech advisers and as our real band in the studio when we record the songs. They had a working relationship that was very easy. And then, once we get to the production of “Feast,” the Campbell Scott hip-hop musical, we had to have seven numbers for that. A couple of them are really funny, and a couple of them are really serious. I said, “Guys, you should just go off and write this musical.” It felt like my son had his hand where the sound needed to be, in terms of the hip-hop world, and Campbell had seen “Hamilton” ten times, so I just sent them off to the studio to record the stuff that you’ll see in Episode 8. That was stuff I could never write. He’s actually been a saving grace for me and the guys in the band ‘cause he’s got a young point of view.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll airs on Thursday nights on FX.