A young star flourishes in the old (bleeping) rock world of Denis Leary

From the moment "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll" debuted last season, I was impressed with Elizabeth Gillies. She's a terrific singer who also knows how to handle drama and acerbic humor. Now the show starts its second season Thursday (June 30); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In one sudden swoop,
Elizabeth Gillies' world transformed.

She had worked with
kids her age, on Broadway (“13”) and in TV (“Victorious”).
But now she was an instant star on “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,”
surrounded by show-business veterans and by cynicism.

And somehow, she
says, she fit it. “They all share this kind of East Coast feeling
.... It felt so natural, all the cursing and the joking around.”

Denis Leary, 58, a
master of creative cursing and cynicism, created the show (which is
just starting its second season) and stars as Johnny Rock, whose
career imploded after one hit. He was floundering ... until the
arrival of the daughter he never knew; she had so much talent that
the band got back together.

“I had to have a
girl who could really sing (and) be sexy and be able to do comedy, be
able to do drama and improvise,” Leary said, “because I like to
improvise with the actors .... I wasn't expecting to get a response
that would have all five.”

Then he met Gillies,
who, at 22, does it all.

She grew up in New
Jersey, surrounded by a variety of music. “My dad was always
playing music,” she said. “The Beatles, Rolling Stones. .... I
have a real affinity for '70s music, in particular.”

But the family also
caught a lot of Broadway shows. She loved “Little Shop of Horrors,”
did a community theater “Sweet Charity” ... and at 15 was on
Broadway in “13.”

The musical only
lasted three months, but it made history as the first Broadway show
to have only teen-agers in its cast and band. “Just stepping onto
that Broadway stage was amazing,” she said.

Fortunately, teen-TV
was rediscovering ways to use music. Set at a performing arts high
school, “Victorious” starred Victoria Justice, but saw many of
its co-stars – Ariana Grande, Avon Jogia, Danielle Monet and
Gillies – emerge.

It also continued a
trend that started with “13”: Gillies – with dark hair and
Jersey attitude – would play the one with a gothic look and cynical

That's partly her
real persona, she said. “I definitely have a biting wit sometimes.
But I'm much sillier; I smile more than I scowl.”

She and Grande
sometimes fit their opposite images, she said. “There were times
when she would wear all those bright colors and I would be into
black. But we could both be very silly sometimes.

Gillies did a duet
on Grande's Christmas album and was in one of her videos, but then
came the break: Leary's casting director had seen “13” and asked
her to audition.

“She sent us this
tape of herself playing piano and singing from home,” Leary said,
“and it was amazing. And then she came in and she was complete
unimpressed by me.”

Well, Gillies said,
she was impressed, but kept it secret. “I was so driven because I
really wanted this.”

That worked, Leary
said. “We did some improv stuff; every time I threw something at
her, she threw it back in my face. And then she left, like 'See you
guys later.' We're like, 'Holy (bleep)!'”

She got the part,
playing the sometimes-lover of John Corbett, 55, and the bandmate of
Elaine Hendrix, Robert Kelly, John Ales, Corbett and Leary. “I've
always been drawn to older friends anyway.”

Gillies has mastered
most of this, but there's still one skill to learn: When possible,
the show has the band do its songs live on film; when time is tight,
however, it has to simply lip-sync to its recording.

“I'm just a bad
lip-syncer,” Gillies said. “It's pathetic .... I'll see it and
say, 'What were you thinking?'”

Hey, it's reassuring
to know that at 22, she still has a skill to learn.

“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, FX

-- Second season
starts June 30; episodes rerun at 11 p.m., with previous episode at