Denis Leary: Making Hay

Taking a break between movies, comic charmer Denis Leary chats about his Two If By Sea co-star and pal Sandra Bullock, gamely reviews his checkered movie career to date and explains why he is "old-fashioned" when it comes to sex scenes.

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Remember when Denis Leary was The Hot Guy?

The rapidity with which pop-culture phenomena are excavated, assimilated and discarded makes it seem like a hundred years ago, but, in fact, not much time has passed since his smoke-stained presence was unavoidable. MTV's judicious use of bite-size chunks wrenched from his scabrous stand-up act sent his career hurtling onto the fast track. Suddenly he was the guy in the battered leather jacket who condoned carnivorousness and nicotine addiction as lifestyle choices. The guy with the ranting, teeth-clenched, machine-gun delivery, spewing bilious truth between deep and frequent cigarette inhalations. The guy known for catchphrases like "I've got two words for you," and "I think you hear me knockin' and I think I'm comin' in."

Added to his array of visual and aural hooks were a theatrical background, which meant he could act, and a healthy dosage of Irish-American street-punk pugnacity, which gave him a bad-boy appeal to the female audience. His sneer, cigarettes and succinct turns of phrase were quickly embraced by a variety of mediums. While continuing his MTV spots, he also appeared in commercial breaks as a Nike pitchman: his No Cure for Cancer one-man show became a successful lour, book, album and video; and he signed a movie deal with Disney. There was a moment when Denis Leary seemed on the verge of becoming the hottest comic property since Eddie Murphy. Then the moment passed.

The Ref, the best of his films for Disney, performed only modestly at the box office. Meanwhile, the press was scrambling to catch up with Jim Carrey, a comic performer whose rise they had failed to anticipate. So where does that leave Denis Leary'? Optimistic and relieved, so he would have me believe as we sit in his production company, Apostle Pictures, located in New York City. The optimism springs from a healthy slate of forthcoming roles, the most imminent of which, Two If By Sea, finds him co-starring with pal Sandra Bullock. The relief comes from resuming a career as a working actor without the burden of living up to the Flavor of the Month status.

"I'm glad," he says of his diminished hotness. "It's not that I wasn't savvy. I just didn't expect it to become as big as it did. Suddenly, I was getting all these offers." He assumes the seductive voice of Hollywood Temptation: "We wanna work with you, but you're gonna wear the leather jacket, smoke the cigarettes and say the Two Word thing. You're the fast-talking guy in the leather jacket and you come out of the truck and kill all these people, or you're the fast-talking guy and you live next door to these really nice people."

A long drag on his cigarette, then he continues in his own voice: "I saw plenty of scripts, believe me--all with titles like Two Words--suddenly, out of the blue, within months. You could tell that they were nailed together from other scripts; you could see where it had been pasted in. All these bad retreads from the MTV monologues or stuff from No Cure for Cancer. They'd just taken scripts that existed and put this character into it. If you'd said, 'Well. I don't like the script, it's not ready yet, but I'd like to get involved,' you'd get millions and millions of dollars to do that project, but then you're on the edge, because if it bombs, you're done. And if it works, you're that guy--and it's the only guy you can be for the next five years.

"You start to realize that there's huge chunks of money that people have in a secret Hollywood vault and as soon as they see something that might have a chance of working, they'll just throw all this money at it. You have the choice of taking the money---and waking up, five years later, going. 'Holy shit, I'm stuck in mud, my feet are cemented in one place!'--or trying to do something worthwhile."

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