There's quite a lot to talk about when discussing the career of Denis Leary. He's been a stand-up comedian, a musician, a writer, a director, an actor and a philathropist. Whether it was listening to his early comedy albums "No Cure For Cancer" (which featured the comedy song classic "Asshole") or "Lock N Load," or catching him on MTV, most famously ranting about R.E.M. or another pop culture target that happened to wander into his cross hairs, you've got accustomed fairly quickly to his angry, fast-paced stylings.
Leary quickly made the transformation from stage comic to big screen actor, starting with the against-type role of Scott's stepfather Bill in THE SANDLOT before easing into roles that were more in line with his on-stage persona such as in DEMOLITION MAN, JUDGMENT NIGHT and THE REF. What followed has been a string of films including NATURAL BORN KILLERS, OPERATION DUMBO DROP, TWO IF BY SEA, WAG THE DOG, SUICIDE KINGS, SMALL SOLDIERS, A BUG'S LIFE, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and the ICE AGE.
He starred in the ABC series THE JOB before it was cancelled after 19 episodes, and later returned to TV for the widely acclaimed FX series RESCUE ME as Senior Firefighter Tommy Gavin of the New York Fire Department, a role for which he received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series twice.
Leary is at the head of two different charitable foundations. The first being the Leary Firefighters Foundation, which has distributed money to fire departments in the Worcester, Boston and New York City areas for equipment, training materials, new vehicles, and new facilities. The second is the Fund for New York's Bravest, which provided money to the families of firefighters killed on 9/11, plus provided funding for necessities such as a new mobile command center, first responder training, and a high-rise simulator for the New York City Fire Department's training campus.
This summer you've got a double dose of Leary coming to you, with the fourth ICE AGE film, CONTINENTAL DRIFT hitting theatres in a few weeks, but his role as Capt. George Stacy in Sony's reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, takes center stage.
I had the chance to talk to Denis Leary a few weeks ago (which explains the Stanley Cup Playoffs talk and less than rosy baseball standings) to talk about his role in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN as well as his MTV Unplugged special, his perspective of the current world of comedy and his charity work. Denis is, as expected, a pretty straight shooter, so enjoy this candid talk.
The Infamous Billy The Kidd - Alright. It’s nice to have a civil conversation with a Red Sox fan.
Denis Leary - Oh yeah?
The Kidd - I’m a Yankees fan.
Denis Leary - Are you really?
The Kidd - I am.
Denis Leary - We both suck this year, which really sucks.
The Kidd - Teams get older.
Denis Leary - I know, it sucks, man. Baseball’s not baseball without those two teams competing against each other.
The Kidd - I know. Without the rivalry... And even still, there’s just the respect...
Denis Leary - I know. Meanwhile, Jeter’s had an amazing year, you know. But, you know, we’ll see. It’s early. That’s the thing about baseball. When you talk about baseball like at this time of year...
The Kidd - It’s a marathon.
Denis Leary - Anything can happen. Like last year, with the Red Sox, you know? They play the whole season.
The Kidd - Have you been keeping up with hockey, too? Because I know you’re a huge fan.
Denis Leary - Yeah, I’m a huge fan, so... Not a big fan of the Devils, and they’ve got three Cups already, so I’m rooting for L.A. So last night I stayed up and watched that game because I wanted L.A. to win in L.A., so whatever. It’s just I’ve got a lot of friends out in L.A. who are big Kings fans, so...
The Kidd - My one question before we get into SPIDER-MAN is, how come we never got the "Denis Leary Unplugged" album? Because I remember watching that special back when I was a kid and that was really the first comedy take that MTV did on that. I think there’s literally like four albums that were released from that season and I was like, “How come we never got that?”
Denis Leary - Because, at the time, my record company was A&M, and the "No Cure For Cancer" album had already come out, and was a big thing for them, so they didn’t want it competing with that, and by the time we wanted to release that special they wanted the second special and the second album. So it was caught up in all that. But we actually released a couple of songs... "Life’s Gonna Suck" and something we snuck into something else...
The Kidd - The "Lock N Load" album had a couple of them.
Denis Leary - Yeah. And now there’s a new... some kind of a package deal coming out next year, I think, that has several of the things from that special in it that were never released. It was all contracts at the time. Listen, man... the biggest thing for me that night was when we were taping that special, Rod Stewart and Ron Wood did an Unplugged right before us, and Neil Young was the night before us, so we got to see... I mean, literally it was just a big mistake because we watched those guys and we were like, "What the fuck are we doing?" And these are like rock legends and then we’re gonna do one? So it was... it was still fun.
The Kidd - When did Denis Leary become less of an outlaw? Earlier in your career you were doing these... Not smart-ass characters, but a lot of criminal element, between THE REF and JUDGMENT NIGHT, and now you’ve kind of become "The Man." You’re the establishment between RESCUE ME, which still has some edgier material but you’re playing kind of a real life hero, and now with Captain Stacy, where you’re a cop. So when did that shift go...
Denis Leary - I think it was during RESCUE ME. Because when Marc [Webb] called me, I was like "Listen, man... why are you calling me about this?" Part of it was because I look like the guy from the comic books, and the other part was like, "Well, you know, on RESCUE ME, this and that." Because of the dramatic side to RESCUE ME, the heroic side of what those guys do for a living... I mean, I didn’t look at it that way because I thought I was writing a story about an alcoholic adrenaline junkie. In terms of how it was viewed, I think there’s a level of respect for what those guys do that... We certainly took into account, but it wasn’t what we were really investigating with that guy, so that’s caused some kind of a sea change in how I was perceived. Because this... normally I’m not on this side of the law, you know? And I like the other side of the law... I’m much more attracted... Like I love... I’m a big Batman fan, and I’m always... inside me, because I love the Bat... the current Batman movies, I’m always like, "I’d love to be a bad guy in one of the Batman"... I like the dark side so this is unusual.
The Kidd - Well I’m sure it’s more interesting to play, too. You can have more fun with it.
Denis Leary - Yeah. I think it is. It’s more fun to write that stuff, to me, and it’s more fun to play. This was fun, man. I gotta say, this turned out to be fun. But, I still would prefer to be on the other side. I really would.
The Kidd - There’s a bit of variation on Captain Stacy from the comics. In the comics he’s much more of a supporter, outright, of Spider-Man, whereas here it’s kind of that masked menace, vigilante kind of... It’s almost like they brought the J. Jonah Jameson character also into it. So, I mean, in terms of the character, what kind of balance do you have to walk? Because there really is this fine line between what Spider-Man is, between a vigilante and a superhero, because they’re still acting outside of the law. So can you just talk a little bit about how the character has to be percieved to make it where they don’t become an enemy, so to speak, of the hero?
Denis Leary - I think that was mostly Marc’s take, which he’d been working on with the writers before I’d ever got involved. I really liked working with Marc, because he’s a real actor’s director. So he knew how he wanted to tell the story and he knew where the balances were, so whenever I had questions about any of that stuff he had the answers at hand how he wanted it portrayed. He really had this whole thing... The vision on this thing... In his head. And he was willing to improvise around certain aspects of it, but there was a certain way he wanted the story to flow. It'd be up to the audience whether or not that works, but I thought in terms of reinventing something that people have already been familiar with, there are edges that either need to be made more pointed or smoothed out, depending on what your take is, and he was going darker. I think he felt like he knew Captain Stacy had to have this relationship with Spider-Man and he felt that was going to play the best, so that’s what we chased. We played around with it, we did some stuff... Especially the dinner scene in the beginning because we shot that early in the movie. We played around with how pointed and edgy and suspicious and all those things Captain Stacy would be with Peter. And in particular with the dinner scene we shot... We played different versions of it. And I know I’ve seen that scene, what he did with it in the movie, so... But, again, it’s up to the audience and up to you guys to decide if it works.
The Kidd - You have kids, which are older now than when you used to talk about in stand-up, so, do you take from your experiences, because you have a daughter, in dealing with your daughter, in having this kind of protective sense as far as who she’s involved with, as far as the way Captain Stacy relates to Gwen?
Denis Leary - Yeah. No question. My daughter is only a couple years younger than Emma, and my son is just about Emma’s age. So yeah. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. It’s different with your daughter, or with daughters, if you’re a dad. So that stuff was really easy for me to relate to in terms of being suspicious of a guy and also giving him a hard time. There’s also the aspect which I’m very familiar with as well, because I grew up with sisters and I have a daughter, is feeling that you have power over her. Your son, for the most part, you’re always... Like, my son’s bigger than me now, but I have a psychological advantage over him. You always have that with your son. My dad certainly had it with me. With your daughter, there’s always this... Like they know what buttons to push so they... So, that stuff was easy to play with Emma, too, where I kinda want to tell her what to do or how to behave or how to spend her time, and she finds her way around it. So that stuff was a blast to play.
The Kidd - I want to go back to your comedy a little bit because you’ve kind of gotten into some flaps with things that you’ve said. The autism thing, which kinda got blown out of proportion. But as a comedian there’s kinda been this shift towards people being really sensitive about what people have to say and it’s almost like you can’t say anything without someone wanting an apology or somebody to get fired. Where do you think that this shift kind of happened? Especially as a comedian, you’re walking the line with saying things that people normally wouldn’t say, that’s kind of your outlet. And now, I know even comedians have been getting hit as they’ve gotten a lot more mainstream with their reach. So, where do you think that shift came from?
Denis Leary - Well, I’ll tell you exactly where it came from. I could use myself, or Louis CK, or Chris Rock... I’m trying to think... Back in the day, even Richard Pryor. If you wanted to go out and say something really controversial, what would happen is... And I know I work this way, Louis also works this way. I don’t write everything out in advance. I could go onstage with five notes written in my hand and talk for an hour, because I have it in my head but I like to let it be alive when I’m saying it, right? So if you know you’ve got a controversial bit about gay people or whatever it might be, you could pick several. Autism, whatever the subjects might be. Race, right? You know where you want to get to... But you know, with any comedy like that, especially if you’re not even per se a “joke writer” like Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg or whatever, you need to perform it, and work it out first to get it to the point where it meshes. So there’s going to be points where you’re saying something controversial where it’s not necessarily all funny yet. And the way that you do that is you go to the clubs and you work it out. Even... You go into a live performance, you could book a theatre in Miami and go onstage and do an hour, right? But it’s not all going to be your HBO hour.
The Kidd - Your finest material.
Denis Leary - Right. Most of the times, and this is what I would do, too. You’ll probably tour for like a month and at the end of that month it would start to really gel, and the second month it really starts to come together. So in the beginning you might be doing a bit about gay people. You might be using the word “fag” or a politically incorrect word, but you’re hoping to make a point. But if somebody sees you the first or second night, at The Comedy Cellar, or wherever you’re performing it first when it’s not there, and they have a telephone camera, or whatever...
The Kidd - Because now everything is recorded.
Denis Leary - Right? So not only are they going to see it and go, “Hey, man. Fuckin’ Tracy Morgan or whoever just said this thing and it wasn’t funny.” It goes out, like right then, and within an hour the entire world is going “How dare he say that he would stab his son if his son was gay.” We’re never gonna know where Tracy Morgan was going with that bit, or how early it was in the gestation period. I think Louis actually said this at the time... There are nights when you could catch any guy that’s a... Even a capable stand-up comedian, who works on controversial stuff, and go, “I’m sending this out on Twitter right now, I can’t believe he said that.” Because it’s not finished yet. And that’s the... It’s gonna be a real problem.
The Kidd - Well it used to be that if somebody said something bad or that you didn’t like, they just... You kinda just chalked it up to, "That guy’s an asshole," and then you just moved on with your life. But now there’s...
Denis Leary - Right. But also it’s.. It’s like criticizing a song when it’s in the demo stage. You gotta really give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Especially if he’s a capable comic, that he was going for something and maybe he missed, or maybe he hasn’t even completed the target yet. You know, it takes time, and... Now, there’s no such thing as time. Listen, I’ve done it. You do a live performance and... There’s no stopping it. It’s in stand-up comedy, or in rock and roll. They turn their cameras on, on their phones, and you see ‘em out there. And I think that’s great, that’s fine, you know, and if I was a fan I’d do the same thing. I think it’s weird to be at a live show and be like this. [Motions holding up a phone and watching through there]
The Kidd - Yeah, nobody watches anything actually live anymore.
Denis Leary - But if you’re a comedian, it’s dangerous territory. It’s just like... I go out there some nights, when you’re... Even when you do like charity gigs, which is mostly how I work in stand-up now, you go out there and something in the news caught your ear, and you start talking about it. You’re gonna hit bumps, because the bit is not complete, and it’s the first time you did it, whatever. People react like it’s the end of the world. And that also empowers the politically correct people to think that they can shut me down, which is a really dangerous thing in terms of comedy. I just think that’s a really bad practice to get into because you’re gonna get people second guessing even trying the bit.
The Kidd - Well because somebody’s going to be offended by everything.
Denis Leary - That’s what comedy is. If you’re not offended... Some guys don’t like to work that way, but I just think if you’re not offending somebody, you’re not doing your job. Half the time your job, especially if you’re a controversial comic, is to piss off this half of the room and make that half of the room laugh because you’re making a point about something that’s controversial to begin with. But if you’re a comedian, certainly you need the time to put the pieces together. And I’ve seen... You know what’s funny, and I’ll give you an example on the Tracy Morgan thing. This is another thing they do, and recently they did it to me with this old Charlie Brown video that we did about two years after 9/11 on Comedy Central. They took offense at something I tweeted and they went back and they said, “And he’s got this Charlie Brown video...” The thing was like literally seven, eight years old. When Tracy did the bit that they got at angry at him about, about stabbing his son if he was gay, they then brought up and said, “He’s also doing this bit about dating a handicapped girl,” which on his HBO special a year before that. I was like, "You’re gonna take him to task for that? It’s a fucking year old." And it was actually a great bit, it’s a really funny bit. So, it’s just, at that point, politically correct people, and they’re entitled to their opinion, there’s already a given that they don’t have a sense of humor about that subject. They’re not the people who should be shutting down the comedians, whoever the comedians are. That’s my opinion. Everything is fair game, that’s why we live in this country.
The Kidd - Let me ask you one quick question about your charity work, because you do do a lot of charity work for the firefighters, which is amazing. Everything I’ve seen as of late on Comedy Central is, especially after 9/11 you did a lot with the firefighters, and I know you have a personal connection to them, too. Why is it that you think we don’t take care of these guys? Because we’re talking about Spider-Man and these are real life superheroes who are putting their life on the line every single day that we don’t seem to take care of, whether it’s cops or firefighters or veterans.
Denis Leary - Well, it’s inherent in the job, and the nature of the guys who do it. And the women. They don’t want to... They tend not to brag, and they don’t want to make a big thing for the most part about themselves and what they do, so...And they never go on strike. The firefighters have literally... It’s just something they will never do. So, they don’t draw the spotlight to themselves, unless there’s a tragedy, or some incredible rescue. That’s when we all go, "Oh my God, look at them." It’s one of the positives of fame I learned from a couple of friends of mine who were famous before I was, like you can use your face to draw attention to people who wouldn’t normally draw it to themselves. So, I’m glad to do it, and I really admire what they do... And in the case of firefighters, especially in New York, they were the first people who responded that day, so I’m always gonna be astonished by what they do, and I’m always going to take the opportunity to talk about them because I love ‘em. And they need money, and equipment, so that’s like... my message. That’s my charity message.Yeah. We need to stop Michael J. Fox from shaking, we need to cure cancer, and we need to pay firefighters. Those are my three charity messages.
The Kidd -Thank you very much.
Denis Leary - Absolutely. That was fun. I wish they were all this easy.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN opens in theatres on Tuesday, July 3.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
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