Denis Leary loves “The Business,” the Big Apple and his family and friends. And that’s about all you need to know to determine how he likes to spend his days.
“It’s hard to get me to go to work, in some regards,” the multitalented movie, television and comedy-circuit star chuckles during a phone interview from the set of his F/X hit, Rescue Me. “I produce a lot of my own stuff, and I write and star in this TV show which I do here in New York, and the only movies I’ve done — with very few exceptions — I’ve been lucky enough to do in New York, too, over the last 10 years. I got very picky.”
One can only imagine, then, Leary’s reaction when he was asked to do a movie that would require him to do research in sniffy Washington, D.C., and then spend three months filming in the neon-colored confines of sunny Florida.
Or maybe you can’t. Especially when it’s Kevin Spacey who’s doing the asking.
“When I get off Rescue Me every year, I usually turn down everything, because I want the time off and I’m developing my own stuff,” Leary says. “But Kevin and I had done a movie called The Ref years ago and we stayed friends. So when he called to say that he had this movie in mind, of course I got excited.”
THE ELEMENTS OF SURPRISE
The movie in question is Recount, premiering May 25 on HBO, that revisits the five nerve-and-ballot-shredding weeks in America’s late 2000 presidential election that put all eyes on Florida, “hanging chad” in the international vernacular and, ultimately, George W. Bush in the White House. Spacey, already tapped to star as Ron Klain, Vice President Al Gore’s former chief of staff, wanted his buddy to take the role of Michael Whouley, national field director for Gore’s subsequent presidential campaign.
Considering that both actors are earnest (and vocal) students of American political culture, and that Leary clearly relished any chance to cross paths with his old pal, he accepted the offer in a New York-ditching minute — right?
“I immediately expected to get disappointed in the idea of me and him doing a movie that would be politically motivated,” Leary laughs. “And when I got the script, knowing the subject matter, knowing what went on, as we all do, I thought there is just no way they could do this in two hours. But it was a really good script. And the great thing about it, to me, was that you end up thinking it’s equally biased against both candidates.”
In other words, skeptical Republicans, conservatives and diehard Bushies, don’t be scared off by the notion that Hollywood’s notoriously liberal bent will skew the tenor of the movie.
“The funny part is, in politics — as in everything else, but in politics especially — everybody’s ego is slightly out of whack,” Leary muses. ‘The reason that somebody says to Rudy Giuliani, ‘You could be the president of the United States!’ is not just because they think he should be the president of the United States. It’s because, if they’re close to him, they see in his success their own success. So of course they want him to become the president, because then they can become somebody close to the president. And that’s really what the movie is about, I think.
“There’s a great scene where Kevin’s character and my character are sitting in the bar,” Leary continues,” and Kevin’s character says, ‘I don’t even think I like Al Gore.’ They’re trying to achieve a goal that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the person who is supposed to be achieving the goal. It’s a hard story to tell that way.”
To that end, Leary freely admits he was startled to find out Recount is the work first-time screenwriter Danny Strong, who parlayed a 2-week, HBO-funded research trip into nearly unprecedented access to both political parties, securing a total of three dozen interviews with almost all of the major players in the drama — players who ultimately contributed script revisions, vetted the final product, and took liberal advantage of an invitation to lend advice to the actors who played them on TV. The result was a no-stone-left-unturned screenplay that fast became the most talked-about script in Hollywood.
“I didn’t know anything about Danny Strong,” Leary explains. “To me he was just a writer. And then I started to hear through Kevin and (Recount director) Jay Roach that Danny was an actor, and I was like, ‘Oh really?’ And then my daughter, who is a huge fan of Gilmore Girls, hears him name, and she’s like ‘Oh my God, that’s Doyle McMaster from Gilmore Girls!’
“I was like, ‘WHAT?'”
“It was surprising,” the actor continues with a chuckle. “But I gotta give the guy credit, because when we convened in Florida to rehearse, that rehearsal involved my notes, Kevin’s notes, several other of the major characters’ notes, and we all went into this room [having] done a ton of research. Danny was sitting there with his notebook and his pen writing all this stuff down, and I turned to him at one point and said, ‘Is your head about to explode?’ And he said [mimicking mild hysteria], ‘Uh, yeah.'”
SOME HAIRY SITUATIONS
In addition to the appeal of a great script and appealing costars, what Leary also found irresistible, if occasionally agonizing, was the chance to play a real, living, working political figure — even though his Rescue Me character, fireman Tommy Gavin, is also based on two of Leary’s real-life firefighting friends.
“This was tough,” Leary stresses. “Because you know you’re compressing 36 days of their lives into a two-hour movie. And as an actor, and as a writer, too, when you get in a room with the person that you’re playing, God, I can’t describe what that feels like! You’re like a human sponge: You can’t get them to talk enough or walk enough or move enough. Because you’re just drinking in everything.
“And at the same time, you’re getting all these facts from that person: what they did. What they said. What they said they said. What they said Al Gore said. It’s overwhelming. Eventually you just have to boil it down and get out there and start playing the character.”
Which for the shaggy-haired Leary — and, hence, Tommy Gavin, too — nearly involved a rather radical follicular adjustment. Seems the only public photo of the very private Whouley displays a clearly balding pate, so Leary decided he should have one, as well.
“This was before the [Hollywood writers] strike happened, and Rescue Me was supposed to start shooting right after the movie,” says Leary, clearly amused by the memory. “Everyone on Rescue Me went crazy: ‘It’s not happening! There’s no way! Your hair won’t grow back!’ And continuity-wise, yeah, it was a problem. So I said, ‘Then let’s back up the start date for Rescue Me and I’ll try something else.’ Then I went to meet Michael.
“The last thing I thought about Michael Whouley when I was in that room with him was the fact that he is losing his hair. Because his eyes are so intense. His demeanor is so intense. It was probably an hour or two into the first time I met him and I went, ‘Aw @#$% — I forgot to look at his hair!’ Because he was just so @#$%ing intense.
“And that’s when I said, ‘Guys, I think you can put the hair worry to bed,” Leary chuckles.
Ultimately, the actor says, he came to clearly understand that the most compelling and cathartic part of the Recount story is finally having some understanding of how — and why — the Democrats lost a battle that seemed to be theirs to win.
“I remember Al Gore after everything had fallen apart and the judgment had come down against him,” Leary sighs. “He made a speech after it was all over, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why the hell couldn’t he make a speech like this when he was running for president?!’ All of a sudden somebody took the stick out of his ass and he was a great speaker. It infuriated me — because I was voting Democratic in that election.
“That’s really what it’s about for me. We all know the end of the story — but it’s more about the ‘How did it go wrong? Where did it go wrong?’ Because it wasn’t even about Al Gore or George Bush. It was about the cause. And the effect. I hope that’s what people take away from the movie — that we really should not let this happen again. And the way to do that is by voting.”
With Recount in the history books, what’s currently occupying Leary’s mind is when he should make his beloved Rescue Me — still white-hot after four searing seasons — history as well.
“We thought we’d maybe do a season,” the star says of the unexpected success of his and writing partner Peter Tolan’s sophomore foray into television, following 2001’s “learning experience,” The Job. “It’s hard to describe. It’s the closest you’d get to writing a novel. I’ve never written a novel, but you get to examine these characters in detail for a long amount of time, and we have a lot of stories to tell. It’s almost like peeling an onion.
“As an actor, it’s fun because you get to investigate a character way beyond what you normally get to in a movie or on the stage. As a writer, it’s great because you’ve got a group of people you really like to write for, and a terrific amount of back story and real-life things to write about. So, I really hate to say this, but it is the truth — we’re getting into Season 5 and Season 6 and we are in that position of saying, ‘When do we end it?’ Because you don’t want the audience to walk away going, ‘Ahhh, I wish it would’ve ended earlier.'”
Leary says he’s chosen an organic approach to the quagmire, with the idea he and his crew already know how they’d like the tale to end. “It’s just up to us as to when we’re going to pull that trigger for the audience,” he says. “You hate to see the characters go, but it’s that whole show-business maxim: You always leave them wanting more.”