Denis Leary is one of those guys who needs no introduction — he’s been a fixture on the stand-up comedy scene since the ’80s, gaining mainstream recognition with his records “No Cure for Cancer” (1992) and “Lock ‘n Load” (1997). He also happens to be the author of cult classic song (and one of my personal favorites), “Asshole” — which he fields requests for to this day. He transitioned into acting by making cameos in films such as “Strictly Business” and “National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1,” and quickly moved on to meatier roles including Ted Demme’s fantastic “The Ref,” “Wag the Dog,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Monument Ave.” and even voicing a character in the animated “Ice Age” series. Aside from his 40-plus film roles, Leary earned critical acclaim including Emmy and Golden Globe nods as writer/producer/star of “Rescue Me,” which ran for seven seasons on FX.
Even after such a robust career, Leary has yet again found a way to tackle new territory — his next big screen appearance happens to be in a little movie you may’ve heard of, “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Knowing nothing of the comic universe upon which the film is based, Leary dove in and entrusted his role as Captain Stacy to director Marc Webb and producers Avi Arad and Matt Tolmach. CBR News caught up with Leary while he was in town to talk about this new challenge, and learned that he bonded with the only other smoker on set, Rhys Ifans (who plays villain The Lizard), improvising with Emma Stone, and met Stan Lee. Oh, and he thinks “Asshole” is pretty great, too.
CBR News: I’m your last interview of the day! I think that means you get to talk about anything you want. You’ve earned it.
Denis Leary: I’ll tell you what I don’t want to talk about: the Celtics.
You’re in luck — I don’t follow sports!
There you go! Thank God!
I have to say, one of my best memories with my dad was listening to “No Cure for Cancer” in the car with him.
How old were you?
What was that, 1992? I was 11 or 12.
And he was playing that in the car with you?!
Totally. So inappropriate, right? But the ironic thing is, he didn’t care about filtering what I listened to — but when it came to me swearing, he was totally strict. So when I sang along to “Asshole,” I felt like I was getting away with something naughty. Thanks for that!
Ohh! [Laughs] That’s a great song!
It is a great song!
When I do a gig now — even for charity — if I have my band with me, they cannot get away without playing that song. And I love singing it! But me and the guy who plays rhythm guitar in my comedy band — he’s the guy who co-wrote it with me. And he was with me in “No Cure for Cancer” — he directed it over in Edinburgh. And then he co-directed it here in off-Broadway when we were doing it. So we look at each other and we’re like, “I can’t believe they still want to hear this song!” It’s amazing!
And I’m sure when you wrote it you had no idea it would haunt you for this long.
No! We needed a song to start the show, and that’s what we wrote. But once “No Cure for Cancer” was done, I said, “When the show is done, we throw all this material away and I never do it again.” And so we tried to not do it. The next time I went on tour, which was five years later, for “Lock ‘n Load,” the first couple gigs we didn’t play “Asshole” and people were screaming. And so the third gig, I remember — we went to the theater and the guy goes, “Listen I heard you’re not playing the “Asshole” song — you gotta play it!” So that night, at the end of the show, I just said, “So it’s time to say goodbye,” and he just went [sings the first notes of “Asshole”] and the place just went insane! And I looked at him and I was like, “What the fuck?” But now we love playing it!
You started talking about a possible new comedy tour during the press conference this morning. Perhaps it’ll be called “Out of Work” — since you joked that that’s the only time you’d go on tour?
It might be!
I have a pitch for that tour — I think you need to do a bit with Rhys Ifans in his Lizard getup, and you in your police uniform, where you guys stand on a movie lot and smoke cigarettes and riff on each other. Because it sounds like you guys were a riot together as the only smokers on set.
I love Rhys! He was dressed like a lizard and I was out there in my SWAT gear and the two of us — by the way, we were shooting in “The Wizard of Oz” sound stage, it’s a famous sound stage — we’d be out there — me and him — he’s like half man, half lizard and I’m like a SWAT team guy. And y’know, walking past us they were like shooting a Matthew Perry sitcom, so there’s people walking by dressed in evening wear. And there’s like a guy walking by in like a monster thing from some monster movie. And then we just look at each other like, “How the fuck did two guys like us end up getting paid to do this?” And meanwhile, Emma and Andrew [Garfield] are walking around like — we’re the fifty year-olds — and they’re the ones going like, “Come on guys, let’s go! Let’s go back inside and do the scene!” And we’re like, “Uh… okay! All right, we’re coming!” It was like they were our parents! That’s what it felt like. It was kind of a reverse thing.
Those two seem wise beyond their years. It’s impressive.
They act way older than we do.
They’re so disciplined at such a young age. They make me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life.
What the fuck do you think Rhys and I were talking about? [Laughs] There was a kid that interviewed us yesterday — he was 12 years-old. Comes in on the junket, right? Walks in, sits down where you are. He’s dead serious but he has a sense of humor. And I’m like, “How old are you?” I thought he was like 16, he’s like, “I’m 12.” And I’m like, “What do you want to do with your life?” He’s like, “I dunno, probably be a journalist.” I said to him, “When I was 12, I was already smoking, sniffing glue, I was doing everything!” I thought that was a normal 12 year-old thing to do! What the fuck did I know?
You said something interesting earlier — that most actors think they know how to improv, but they don’t. Where do they get it wrong?
It’s a thing that you have to learn. Nowadays you can take a class in New York — in the old days you had to either go to Chicago or find a teacher that would know how to do that. I fortunately, at Emerson, had a couple of teachers that made us work through those kind of scenes and learn the parameters. It’s not just “come out and be funny.” Anybody who’s funny can come out and steal a scene. It’s about, you have to know your character and know the scene and you have to be within those limitations, which is where the real strength is. So the laughs are coming from the character and the situation, and not just because you’re funny and you picked this up and went, “Hey look — my hat is a bottle of wine!” You know what I mean? So when [Marc Webb] starts saying he wants to do some improv, these kids are young kids, you know? Emma’s 22 when we’re making the movie! And it ends up she’s better at it than I am.
Emma talked about improvving the scene where she keeps you out of her bedroom by using the cramps excuse.
We did like eight variations on that. Her mission was not to let me in the room, and not to come out when I was asking her to come out. So I would throw curveballs at her, she would throw curveballs at me. I think that was probably the eighth variation that we did. Or it was the next to last one, but when she did that one, even Marc said, “That’s the keeper.” That was the one where I went like, okay, the conversation’s kind of over! I’m not going in there, and I’m not going to ask about her cramps!
It’s incredible to me that someone so young can go up against a comedic veteran like you and hold her own.
I know! I heard Bill Murray had said — after “Zombieland” — that she was comedy gold. And I don’t care what anybody says about Bill Murray, Bill Murray is like — he’s no bullshit. He doesn’t say shit like that lightly. So when I heard that I was like, okay. But then again — maybe she just had a good day that day with Bill Murray, who knows? But he was right. She’s good. She’s really good.
Emma now has the Bill Murray and Denis Leary stamp of comedic approval. That’s no small feat at 23. Did you meet Stan Lee while working on the movie?
Was he on set a lot?
No, he was only there for a couple of days when he was doing a cameo. And I happened to be dressed as Captain Stacy when I ran into him. And I was like, “Ah, fuck man — what if he doesn’t think I’m Captain Stacy?” Because you know, I could get shitcanned — it was fairly early in the production! And he walked up and he went, “Captain Stacy!” And I went, “Yeah!” And he was like, “You’re Captain Stacy!” And I was like, “All right!”
You got the blessing!
I got the blessing! Then he talked to me about his scene. And I was like, “I’m fucking talking to Stan Lee about his scene in a movie based on his character.” This is like, when your head explodes. Then I took a picture with him. Weird. It’s weird.
I think it’s funny that Captain Stacy was always traditionally on Peter’s side, so you were kind of playing against the character’s origin in this. In the film, you have to be convinced to get on board.
Yeah, but I didn’t know that — I was told that. But that that didn’t mean anything to me, so I just went off — Avi [Arad] was a great source of what was right and what was wrong, in terms of the Marvel characters, and certainly Spider-Man movies. And Marc had a very clear definition of how the story was going to run, so I just paid attention to him and to Avi and Matt [Tolmach], who was a great producer. I have this one buddy who’s a Captain Stacy/Spider-Man nut, and I was like, “You know what — I’m not talking to you about him any more!” And when I would have dinner with him during the course of production, which was quite a lot because it was about a year, he would start talking about Captain Stacy and I would go, “Stop talking about him! I don’t want to hear it! It doesn’t mean anything to me — I have a director who’s in charge of my character, not you!” Because he’s like a nut!
It’s interesting that it actually helped you to not know as much about the original comic book character.
Yes, it did. It would’ve just gotten in my way, I think.
So do you think not knowing much about your character took some of the pressure off? I mean, you’re in a Spider-Man movie!
I was really happy to be there, but like I said — I listened to Marc. Marc told me everything!
“The Amazing Spider-Man” opens nationwide on July 3.