Denis Leary has the somewhat thankless task of being the voice of reason in The Amazing Spider-Man. As a police captain — and Gwen Stacy’s father — George Stacy thinks he lives in the real world, so the last thing that he’d imagine is that his daughter’s boyfriend is the very masked vigilante that his squad seeks, or that there’s a giant lizard rampaging through the city. He’s a gruff, no-nonsense man, and when he lets loose with a zinger like only Leary can — “So, 38 of New York’s finest versus one guy in a unitard, am I correct?” — he hones in on some of what’s lovably ridiculous about the movie’s plot points. The Rescue Me creator chatted with Vulture about improvising with his co-stars, slipping in subliminal messages, and why Bloomberg’s health crusade won’t fly in New York.
“Do I look like the mayor of Tokyo to you?” is one of the best lines of the movie. Was that improvised?
It was! You know, originally when I was talking to [director] Marc [Webb], because I was wondering why he was making a giant blockbuster, he was telling me about how he wanted to do all this improvisation and character study, which they almost never do in these big-budget action movies. So a lot of the stuff in the movie, we would do the scripted version once, and then five, six, seven more takes where we could play around — which, again, is unheard of in these kinds of movies. And this scene, with just myself and Andrew [Garfield], was one of the scenes he had earmarked in rehearsal that we could play with. So we did eight or nine takes on that one. At one point, Marc came up to me and said, “What about this?” And I said, “Let’s shoot it!” So that one was completely his idea. But you never do that, man! You never get to improvise that much in these things.
What other scenes did you get to play with?
The dinner scene was another one where we got to play. It was the first week we shot, it was our first big acting scene, and we had three days on that one. I have a daughter who is two years younger than Emma [Stone], actually, so it was really easy for me to relate to that relationship, and to relate — or not relate — to Peter Parker, Andrew. I got to say, those two are not just young Hollywood stars. They’re great actors, and they have deep toolboxes. And they came into work every day, “How do we make the scene better?” I’m supposed to be intimidating Andrew’s character, and at one point, Marc kneeled down to tell me, “You got to step it up.” And I went, “Holy shit.” Because Andrew and Emma were so good, I had to step up my game. Wow. Everybody thinks they can improvise, but very few actually can, because they haven’t taken the training, but Andrew and Emma are really good at that. You have to be able to do it, and they can, and it was a wake-up call for me.
I don’t know if you saw him in Death of a Salesman, but he can really act. Wow. It was great to look at Andrew as we were working together and go, Wow, this kid is really into this thing. The fact that he did Death of a Salesman is just ridiculous — in the middle of all this? We just wrapped the film, and he’s started rehearsal? They’re going to be around for a long time, Andrew and Emma, and I am going to attach myself to them like a parasite and ride into the sunset with them, you know? [Laughs.]
You worked with Campbell Scott before in The Secret Lives of Dentists. You don’t have any scenes together in The Amazing Spider-Man, but did you cross paths on set? Hang out?
Yeah, we did. I love that movie. I did a movie with Campbell that he directed called Final which was one of the first digital movies, which nobody saw but I didn’t care because I loved it. I love working with Campbell. Campbell makes a lot of small movies, small budgets, so there’s no trailers, so the first day he was on set, he stuck his head out of his trailer and he was like, “Look how big my trailer is!” And I was like, “Yeah, they’re all big!” He’s like, “I have a giant plasma television!” And I’m like, “I know!” So the two of us are sitting, laying in his trailer in awe. We’re independent movie guys. We’re not used to this.
Well, you’ve done action movies before and big-budget movies. Although a lot of them recently have been animated, like the Ice Age movies, so it’s voiceover work.
I love Ice Age because it’s just the easiest. It’s like Chris Rock said — it really is the easiest gig in the show business. It’s just fantastic. You just show up, and you can look like shit. I basically wear the same shit every day, so you can wear sweat pants, whatever, talk into the microphone, and kids love it, if it’s good. It’s fantastic. When you can walk in the room and pretend to be a tiger and they give you all this money for it? It’s fantastic. I’m not going to stop until they stop coming to them.
You managed to slip in a Leary Firefighters Foundation placard in Captain Stacy’s police squadron.
Yeah, Marc was kind enough to let me plant that. He actually had a couple of things he was going to put in, references that were close to him, and he said, “Hey, if you want to put something in … ” It’s funny that you noticed it. So, if someone who’s watching the movie in 3-D doesn’t know why they want to donate to my organization, but all of a sudden they do, it’s subconscious. It’s subliminal. [Laughs.]
You used donations to fund your firefighters documentary, Burn.
I don’t deserve any credit for it, really, because it’s the idea of the two directors, Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez, and they wanted to do the story of this one crew at this one Detroit firehouse, tell the story through their eyes — not just the Detroit Fire Department, but the story of America right now, with the city unions and financial distress of people who are first responders. And they did a fantastic job, which is reflected in the fact that we won the Audience Award at Tribeca. And it’s a really touching, funny, and everything else that a dramatic big-budget film would be, and it’s all real. It’s coming out this fall, and part of the proceeds go to my foundation to directly help the Detroit Fire Department.*
You’re getting back into television with the paramedics comedy Sirens and some other shows.
We’re still casting the pilot for Sirens. We haven’t picked anybody yet, and the earliest we can shoot is August or September. It’s going to be all unknowns, so it’s pretty exciting. I want the show to be all new talent. We’re looking at all the actors in New York first, and then we’re setting it in Chicago, so then we’ll look at the actors in Chicago. So I’m about to start looking. I want really good unknowns.
Well, the U.K. version of the show that it’s based on gave us Richard Madden — Robb Stark on Game of Thrones.
I know, I know. [Laughs.] So, you never know. I hope we do get someone like that. I want a piece of his career. But this will be very different than the U.K. version. The only thing that’s similar is that it’s about this group of EMTs. It’s got some of the same feel, but ultimately, it’s a different show. I hope it’s good. I hope it works. I hope it ends up on the air.
By the way, does Bloomberg’s recent crusade against soda, salt, and trans fat inspire a rant?
Yeah! Listen, I like the guy, and I’ve actually dealt with him on a personal level, dealing with the Firefighters Foundation and funding some stuff we did, and honestly speaking, the great thing about him is that he is so wealthy, he doesn’t have to understand how to make you like him, because he doesn’t have to care about that. So I believe he’s truly motivated by what he believes, especially now that he’s not up for reelection. But first of all, it’s New York. I actually went to the movies that weekend right after he announced it, with my daughter, and you know, I don’t ever want a giant soda or a giant popcorn except when I go to the movies, and we had a giant popcorn and a couple of giant sodas. It’s impossible, really, to negotiate around that idea. It’s like, remember when you weren’t able to smoke in bars and restaurants? So what did we have? Everybody’s outside smoking. You didn’t stop them from smoking. This is New York City! It’s like Paris! You can’t do that here. It’s the wrong place. But I understand his motivation. It’s just not going to work. It’s not going to work.
*An earlier version of this response included incorrect information about Detroit fire fighters getting a pay and pension increase.