Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll: Rutgers Theater Major Carves Out a Niche in Sinister Character Roles

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll: Rutgers Theater Major Carves Out a Niche in Sinister Character Roles

John Ales credits his training in the Meisner Technique at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School for his success as an actor

John Ales, right
John Ales, holding the bass on the right, with the Denis Leary, John Corbett and the cast of FX TV series, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.
Photo: FX

'As I've grown older, I’ve become more of a sinister character actor. But there is always a comedic bent, a lightness to it.'
 – John Ales, actor and Mason Gross School graduate

When Denis Leary’s new FX show, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, premieres mid-July, the rough-edged bassist wearing dark glasses in the reunited ‘90s band, “The Heathens,” may look familiar. Chances are you’ve seen him on a favorite TV show (Mad Men, Ray Donovan, NCIS), or in movies like The Nutty Professor or Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil.

John Ales plays Sonny “Rehab” Silversteen in the midsummer series about a washed-up, aging rock band reunited to help the lead member’s daughter ignite her career. Ales has worked steadily since he graduated from Mason Gross School of the Arts with a BFA in 1992, starting with a nicely timed MTV hosting gig on the Lip Service game show and leading to Leary’s latest show.  

While his earlier roles were “rosier,” Ales says he’s having the most fun he’s ever had, acting and jamming (for real) alongside Leary, John Corbett, Bobby Kelly and Elizabeth Gillies. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more of a sinister character actor,” he says. “But there is always a comedic bent, a lightness to it.”

Here’s the Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll backstory, which Ales says Leary carefully crafted with lots of detail and history between the characters. In the first TV series he’s developed since Rescue Me, Leary directs and stars as Johnny Rock, who has done everyone in his disbanded band wrong at some point. The hard-partying musicians broke up on the verge of their big break and now Johnny Rock is trying to get the dysfunctional rock ‘n’ roll family back into the recording studio to help his daughter (Gillies) launch her singing career.

Denis Leary and John Ales
Denis Leary and John Ales on the set of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, courtesy of John Ales on Instagram.
Photo: John Ales on Instagram

“What’s really fun is there is a strong vein of animosity between me and Johnny Rock,” Ales says. “Denis loves sparring with characters. He loves to be in disharmony. Immediately, he made it so we didn’t get along and never did. But we need each other and we love each other.”

Ales’s journey to “Rehab” began with his cross-country move to Rutgers’ Mason Gross. As an acting student at California State University not thrilled with his classes, one day when he and his roommate were both sick with mononucleosis, they talked about making a change. They heard lots of great things about an arts school in the East called Mason Gross. “We both had mono, but we got up and walked across campus and filled out the forms,” said Ales, a Californian then and now. “When we got in, we had to explain to our parents that we were moving to New Jersey.”

Ales credits his training in the Meisner Technique at Mason Gross for his success as an actor. For him, “behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances” with other actors has been the right approach to his varied roles. Attending Mason Gross was “the best thing I ever did,” he says.

That’s not to say it has been a bump-free run since his days in New Brunswick. Knowing there would be (and were) times when roles were scarce, he followed advice offered by James Earl Jones backstage at one of the venerable actor’s Fences performances. “He saw me and a few of my acting-student friends, brought us into his dressing room, and told us to have a trade you can depend on because ‘acting will make you hurt.’ ”

So Ales turned his love of photography honed while a college student into a side business. A photographer and filmmaker, directors have hired him to take onset shots. He’s also the creative director of the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, the Los Angeles-based school for special effects and character creation, and he’s spent five years filming and producing the short subject documentary series, Fatherhood with Hank Azaria. “It’s important to keep busy,” Ales says.

John Ales, John Corbett and Robert Kelly
John Ales with Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll cast members John Corbett and Robert Kelly.
Photo: John Ales on Instagram
Rutgers reaped another serendipitous connection for Ales, when he reunited with fellow alum Gregg Klein, an agent who was representing Ales’s wife, Wendy Gazelle. At a pivotal point a few years ago Ales, too, starting working with Klein, who grew up in East Windsor N.J. and now heads the theatrical department for AKA Talent Agency in Los Angeles. Klein helped Ales snag some small but memorable roles, such as the heroin-addicted husband of Don Draper’s fling, Midge, in season four of Mad Men.

“That little six-minute scene can do a lot of good for a long time,” said Ales of his guest spot as Perry Demuth. “It’s been a great tool for Gregg and my manager to point to.”

Klein isn’t sure if it was Ales’ Mad Men scene or his Meisner training that impressed Leary. But he is equally excited his friend and client landed Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.

“It’s going to show a wonderfully deep, dark and ridiculously funny side of John,” Klein says. “There’s nothing better for an agent to hear than an actor who is artistically satisfied and having a blast. It’s why I do what I do.”

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