After appearing in more than 30 films and multiple HBO comedy specials, caustic actor-comedian Denis Leary cocreated the controversial FX series Rescue Me, in which he stars as troubled New York City firefighter Tommy Gavin. While waiting for his show’s fifth season to ignite next spring, the 51-year-old Emmy and Golden Globe nominee releases his book Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid on November 18. Beware: No one’s safe from his flames — including Oprah and “fags.”
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: What can gays learn from your new book?
Denis Leary: Well, I don’t know if they can learn anything, but I think there’s something for men of both persuasions in the Oprah chapter. I really didn’t watch enough Oprah to know much about her, but I had her on my list of people I wanted to attack just because of how big she is and how sick I was of hearing “Oprah this and Oprah that” from almost every woman I know. But when I finally did the research, I thought, Oh, my God. She might as well be the president.
Are you afraid you might offend Oprah with this chapter?
As a comedian, if someone isn’t offended, you’re not doing your job right. We’ve actually already heard back from Oprah’s camp. They called up my publicist and said, “We really love the Oprah chapter and we want to have him on the show, but we don’t know what to do.” I can tell they’re afraid of all the other things in the book. How would Oprah have somebody like me on?
In the chapter “Testicle-Colored Towels,” you blame “some gay man” for the fancy names used to describe shades of pink. What else can you pin on the gays?
There’s also the thing in the book about when you go to a restaurant and the waiter, even if he’s not gay, has to describe an “heirloom tomato tower” as opposed to just “tomatoes and mozzarella.” I just like to cut to the chase. But hey, that’s coming from a man who just wore a Gucci dress on national television for a Fashion Rocks gag.
Yes, you made a beautiful host. Did you get any expert gay consultation on that outfit?
I chose this powder-blue dress because it was the least complicated dress I could find and I was looking for something I could change into quickly. My gay stylist, Sam Spector, said, “You can’t wear this dress. It’s not good enough.” I said, “Sam, this is comedy. It’s not the fashion world. Lay off.” But when I went to the dress rehearsal he had this incredible dress and said, “This dress you can step into and it was worn by Keira Knightley at the Pirates of the Caribbean premiere. It’s funnier and better-looking.” And that dress got a huge fuckin’ laugh that I don’t think I would’ve gotten in that powder-blue dress.
Was that your first time in drag?
No, I was in drag once on television years ago when I was first starting out. There was a dream sequence gag where I had to walk down this giant staircase and start doing stand-up in front of a live studio audience, and then I realize it’s a dream. I had to wear a miniskirt, high heels, fake tits, a wig, and the whole nine yards for that, and the most disconcerting thing — besides walking on six-inch heels down the staircase — was that a chick that worked on the show looked at me when I got dressed and said, “Oh, my God, you have really great legs” — meaning, “for a chick.” I said, “What the fuck are you telling me that for? Don’t tell me that!” That was the first time, so I swore it off until I thought of that gag for Fashion Rocks.
You also have a chapter titled “Matt Dillon Is a Giant Fag.” What gives you the right to use the f word?
Well, because I also have a chapter called “We’d Hate You Even if You Weren’t Black.” I don’t believe in the power of words. My parents came from Ireland, where the word cunt is literally a word your mother and father would use to describe the weather or the car: “That cunting car won’t start!” And I come from a Catholic background where the nuns were always telling you, “Don’t do this, don’t say this,” so anytime anyone tells me I shouldn’t say something, my reaction is, “Why not?” So when I was writing a book, I wanted to make sure I got all those words in there.
One of your best friends is openly gay comedian Mario Cantone. Do you know many closeted comedians?
Comedy’s about truth. You’re not going to get far if you’re not telling the truth about yourself or about things in general, because that’s what the audience is there to laugh at. Someone like Mario’s a good example: If you’re out there and everything’s available for the audience to see, it just makes the performance that much better. I’m not gay, but boy, lying about yourself would be a terrible way to live your life on so many levels. But I also have respect for [the closet], to a certain extent, because it’s not anyone else’s lie to uncover.
A gay-bashing plot in the first season’s second episode of Rescue Me was based on the true story of a retired fireman who claimed that 20 of the 343 New York firefighters who died in 9/11 rescue operations were gay. Why was it important for you to tackle homophobia so early in the series?
That was an interesting angle on 9/11 for us to take, especially with this group of tough, macho men. When people got to know more about the FDNY after 9/11, there were a lot of secrets people didn’t want coming out. For a long time people didn’t want to talk about the fact that the FDNY chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, was gay. To me, one of the greatest stories about 9/11 was that he gave his life in the line of duty—trying to be there as a presence for these firefighters that he had dedicated his life to. Meanwhile, he was a religious man who was also gay.
After flirting with homosexuality for much of the series, “probie” [probationary firefighter] Mike ultimately decided he was a bisexual who preferred women. Why the cop-out?
All of the main guys are based on real guys smudged into fiction, but that was one of those stories that didn’t happen to the guy he’s based on. It did happen to another firefighter who had questions about his sexuality when he was still a young guy, and he was obviously really concerned about the other guys finding out. What was interesting to us was how that would play out in that macho environment, and it was a more interesting story to us if Mike lived the way the guy in real life had: He thought he was gay, then he thought he was straight, and then it turned out he was bisexual. Plus, as writers, that just gives you so many more different places to go. The guys might be homophobic in general about that stuff, but when they say they really don’t care if a person is green, black, fat, or skinny as long as they can do their job, that’s the living truth.
Any more gay subplots on the horizon?
We’ve always had a story in our back pocket about eventually getting a gay chief assigned to the firehouse. There are a couple of gay guys in the FDNY who are highly decorated and really well respected firefighters who have become chiefs. One in particular became chief a couple years ago based on attrition after so many of the older members of the FDNY were killed in 9/11. Then this guy decided to let everyone know, “Hey, by the way, I also live with my partner.” But nobody could say anything because they supposedly didn’t have balls as big as he did on the job. So I think that’s a really interesting story for us in the future.
Your character, Tommy, actually found it preferable when his daughter went through a lesbian phase. Did you and your wife ever discuss how you might react if one of your children were gay?
I’m sure it would’ve been difficult for my parents, because they come from a different world, but with our kids I don’t think we ever really cared. I can’t imagine not loving your kids if they told you they were gay as much as you would if they told you they’d gotten in a little trouble and needed your help. They’re your kids. But I do think a lot of dads, just because we’re men and it’s our daughter, think, Gosh, it would be so much easier if she were with a woman.
In a 2006 interview with Elle, when you were asked which man you’d sleep with if your life depended on it, you said, “I’d shoot myself in the head.” That’s pretty harsh, eh?
I don’t know. I guess that’s just my genetic makeup. I’d have to have my wife dress up as a man. I never met him, but I always really loved Paul Newman — not only as an actor, but also the way he carried himself and what he did with his celebrity. So I guess I’d have to dress my wife up as Paul Newman.
The Advocate, November 2008; extended online version.