Q&A with Denis Leary
He plays Tommy Gavin, a recovering alcoholic, father and New York City firefighter searching for redemption in FX's Rescue Me. Denis Leary, who lost his cousin to a fire in 1999, created the series as a love letter to the men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day.
Q: What's it like writing for a show like this?
A: I say this all the time, and it's really true. You can have good writing, but a great actor will make it feel and sound like great writing. You can have great writing, and mediocre actors will make it feel mediocre. Without the actors, you have nothing. The main six to 10 characters on this show are extraordinary actors. We only write two episodes at a time, so we're capable of seeing how the actors kind of play with each other. So it's very organic. Therefore, we kind of fly by the seat of our pants because we don't have the scripts done way in advance. But I think that kind of energy keeps everybody going. It's been very much the case this year. The actors have been having a lot of fun in front of the cameras. ... Hopefully that will reflect in the episodes.
Q: The firefighting scenes in Rescue Me seem very grueling. What's it like dealing with the chaos on set?
A: It's the closest you can get to being in a real fire and not being in it. And obviously for us as fake firefighters we feel unappreciated because if we don't put out these fake fires, then I don't know who does. ... We have real firefighters who work with us on the set. Our technical adviser is Terry Quinn, who is an old old friend of mine who is still a working New York City firefighter. And we have a really fantastic special effects team who do the live smoke and flames for us. So we feel incredibly safe. And when we need to feel scared, believe me there's enough smoke and flame to make that happen.
Q: We've heard you say music influences your work. How so?
A: I sometimes write scenes because I hear a song and I know I want it or the energy of it. And there are other times when we know we have a certain ending or a certain moment, and I go out looking for the music. My son helps me a lot with that. [Musical director] Adam Roth, he's a friend of mine now for 30 years. We used to be in bands together when we were teenagers. He's been a member of The Asshole Band, which is my comedy band, for years. So having him as one of our music mainstays is great because he does a lot of the composing. So what I can't find, I can have created by Adam on the show. For us as writers, it's really important to have songs we believe in—even before sometimes we shoot a scene. If we have a song that's so perfectly designed for a scene on Rescue Me, we'll play it on loud speakers during the shooting. It helps the cameraman and it helps the director, and it helps the actors know what the feel is.
Q: So the music is sort of like another character.
A: Usually it isn't in most people's direction process, but for us is such and integral part of the scene sometimes. Especially we've done some very large fire scene montages at the end of episodes where there's no dialogue recorded and we just play the music over and over again as we do all the different pieces. It really helps to set the mood. And it makes the camera move with the rhythm of the scene and the actors as well.
Q: Tell us about your comedy tour.
A: We realized they wanted us to do a 10- to 12-city press tour live to help rejuvenate the interest in [Rescue Me] having been off the air for so long. That's a long time to just be out there talking, and I realized that two other actors on the show—Adam Ferrara and Lenny Clarke—are also stand-up comedians, and that's where the idea hatched. Instead of just going out and talking about ourselves, we could actually make a tour out of it. And we have clip packages where we show clips from the upcoming season, and I could raise some money for my charity. ... We have my band The Enablers. Everybody on the show basically is connected to Rescue Me, so it's interesting to watch the crowd react to the clip packages and then they see the people they see on the show live on the stage. ... I guess we're like circus people at this point.
Q: You've done a lot of great work with your charity, The Leary Firefighters Foundation. Tell us about what you do.
A: My charity is in the business of helping firefighters in any way that we can. For instance, after 9/11 we were the second-fastest charity to raise and distribute money to the widows and surviving family members of the 343 firefighters who died that day. Predominantly what we do, our mission, is to secure and build training facilities and equipment for firefighters. We've concentrated on Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts, and New York. I started after a fire killed my cousin Jerry Lucey in December 1999 helping the Worcester fire department. And then we started to help the FDNY and the families down here after 9/11. We've since helped in New Orleans and in the Carolinas—and we're about to do some fundraising for the Philadelphia Fire Department because they've had some massive layoffs due to the economy.
Q: What is one of the things you're most proud of?
A: We just dedicated a high-rise simulator here in New York, which is the first of its kind in North America. It's a facility that allows the New York City Fire Department to train for any kind of a high-rise situation, whether it be a fire or a terrorist attack, because up to this point they've never had the capability of training in advance for something that might happen in a skyscraper. So this facility has smoke and fire and adaptable layouts, so they can basically mimic any floor in any building in a high rise in New York City, and it's really, it's terrific. And it went right to work as soon as we opened it last week. They had 300 firefighters from all over the world, including Dublin and some other countries overseas, who came to train in it.
Q: How can we help?
A: Go to LearyFirefighters.org. We pride ourselves on [the fact that] we don't hold on to our money. We spend our money. We spend our money on equipment and training facilities. We're either buying trucks or pieces of equipment, or we're building buildings, training buildings for the fire department. So our money goes to work very, very quickly. It takes six months to one year to obtain a fire truck. It takes half that time to get certain pieces of equipment. ... We pride ourselves on the fact that when you give us money, from six months to two years you physically see where your money went.
Denis Leary's favorite things