Michael Lombardi plays Mike Silletti, the young probationary firefighter on FX's gritty late night dramedy, Rescue Me. Created by the artistically fearless Denis Leary and Peter Tolan, Rescue Me takes a no holds barred look inside the lives of FDNY firefighters. The storylines are not for the faint of heart and Denis Leary does little to edit the dark and dysfunctional personal lives of this fictional group of New York City firefighters. The characters' romantic relationships, families, finances, sexuality, substance abuse every issue is up for grabs and no detail is left untouched in the lives of these characters who are heroic in their profession, yet profoundly flawed in every other aspect of their lives. One dynamic that remains constant is the strong bond these characters share, evident by their overly familiar gestures and ribbing toward one another. Perhaps the character with the most to prove is Michael Lombardi's character, Mike Silletti. As the "probie" or probationary firefighter in the firehouse, Lombardi's character is on an endless quest for the admiration and respect of his peers, most importantly, Denis Leary's character, Tommy Gavin.
In the third season of Rescue Me, which premiered on FX on May 30, 2006, Michael Lombardi has his work cut out for him, as his vulnerable character Mike "the probie" Silletti grapples with being low man on the totem pole in his firehouse and a storyline that draws his character into a spin cycle of sexual confusion. In this interview, we discuss his character's ambiguous sexuality, the responsibility of portraying a New York City Firefighter and some of the more questionable storylines from Rescue Me that have cast a darker shadow on men that have otherwise been regarded as America's heroes.
I think Rescue Me is genius. It's neither drama nor comedy, in the traditional sense; the dialogue is real and the characters are neither heroes nor villains. Some of the language in this interview is graphic, but necessary within the context of my discussion with Michael Lombardi about the complexities of what is quickly turning into one of the most controversial, yet impeccable shows on television.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): They sent me a bunch of episodes of Rescue Me last week and I was shocked at the kind of content that you guys get away with on FX!
Michael Lombardi: Yeah, FX has been a great vehicle for us because, you know, Denis [Leary] is a pretty edgy guy and I don't think the show would work on any other network. We can do or say anything but the F word. So it's good stuff (Laughs).
PR.com: I thought that they sent me a gag reel at first
Michael Lombardi: Really??
PR.com: Because some of the stuff I saw, I was like "No way!" Because I know that FX is owned by Fox. And I heard the male C word and I'm watching simulated sex and I'm like, "This is a joke." I thought they were playing a joke on me.
Michael Lombardi: Laughs.
PR.com: But that's the way the show is. It's an edgy show.
Michael Lombardi: Yeah, it's an edgy show.
PR.com: I guess they want to accurately portray how firefighters are
Michael Lombardi: I think so. They're showing these guys, not only at their job at the firehouse, but the stuff that goes on in their personal relationships with their wives or girlfriend. There are a lot of dark doors that these guys have to open. It's pretty intense, a lot of twists and turns.
PR.com: Is it because the job is so traumatic? Do they wind up with a lot of vices because it's a very stressful job?
Michael Lombardi: I think so. I think being in a fire is sort of like going to war. And you're not going to come out unscathed. And also, these guys live together and it's like a boys club. It's like a fraternity. I guess all of that mixed in with the stress level that these guys face, day in and day out, they definitely have their vices, you know?
PR.com: What did you know about New York City Firefighters (FDNY) before you got the part on Rescue Me?
Michael Lombardi: I went to Randall's Island, which is a Proby School (training school for firefighters), to train for this part. It's here in New York and a guy took me to the training facility, and he's been to over a hundred fires. This guy is basically like a living Popeye. He was a really hard nosed and intimidating, blue collar guy. His lungs were really badly infected in 9/11 and he comes from a long line of firefighters. Two of his brothers died in 9/11. He took me to the main training facility and in the main building there are the pictures of the firefighters who died, plus two of them were his brothers by blood. He looked up at them and he said, "Those are my brothers." Tears came to his eyes and he said, "But these are all my brothers." It was just like, "Wow!" Just to see the sensitivity that this hard nosed guy had and the feelings that he had about this and the brotherhood that he shared and how much they cared about one another. I have the utmost respect for these guys. I went from that to going to various firehouses in New York. We also have a technical advisor on set everyday, Terry Quinn, who's a real FDNY guy. He makes sure that we're doing everything right, and Denis [Leary] holds the fire department so close to his heart with The Leary Firefighters Foundation. He raises a lot of money for these guys and he knows a lot about them, so he pulls a lot of the stories from them.
PR.com: What made Denis Leary become so involved with firefighters and start The Leary Firefighters Foundation?
Michael Lombardi: His cousin died in a fire in Worcester, Massachusetts years ago. And to date, it was the worst fire and the worst loss of any fire department. There were six guys who went down in a big warehouse fire, one of them being his cousin. He started The Leary Firefighters Foundation for them. At first, it was just to help the Worcester Fire Department. Then as it grew, they started helping Boston. Then post 9/11 he raised he's raised millions of dollars, and he's the second charity out of all charities post 9/11 to actually give the money to the families of the fireman who perished in 9/11. He's still constantly raising money. We're constantly doing charity events
PR.com: Many people probably think that he started that foundation after 9/11. So it was actually before 9/11. Did you go through Proby School, or did you just observe everything?
Michael Lombardi: I went through it. I didn't go through the hardcore stuff. I went to a smoke house. My first day ever being exposed to any sort of fire, I was the third guy on the line, which is the hose, and I would feed the hose to the guys and make sure that there weren't any kinks and pull it back if they needed it or give them some slack if they needed it. I was in the hallway crouching down, feeding them the line and these guys came up who were going up to the third floor and they trampled over me, because it's so smoky and so dark that you can't see anything, and it's so chaotic. You quickly learn to keep your back against the wall when you're feeding that line. Even us as actors, with our bunker gear and our tools and it's fake fire and fake smoke, it's still really chaotic and scary.
PR.com: And Denis Leary discovered you?
Michael Lombardi: I worked on a show, The Job on ABC, with Denis and Peter Tolan, co-creators of Rescue Me. That was how I met Denis. I play ice hockey and he's a huge ice hockey guy, so I maintained a friendship with him. When he wrote Rescue Me, he had me in mind for "The Probie," so I went in and read for Fox and FX and Sony and I got the part, and here I am.
PR.com: Have you visited any firehouses in New York City?
Michael Lombardi: Yeah, I have. I haven't recently because our shooting schedule has been pretty crazy. But I have visited firehouses and I intend on visiting more, if they'll have me. They always seem to accept us with open arms.
PR.com: What's been the feedback on the show Rescue Me, from actual New York City Firefighters? Have you guys gotten phone calls or letters from them?
Michael Lombardi: Yeah sure. We've gotten all that. I think some of the aspects of the show have bothered them a little bit, because they're not always put in the best light on the show. But I think at the end of the day all the characters have redeeming qualities, and I think it doesn't change the fact that they're running into these burning buildings when everyone is running out. I have the utmost respect for them and the whole cast does. We just try to portray the fire stuff in the most real and true to life way. The rest of the stuff that happens on the show, in their personal lives, that's life. We're human beings. We deal with stuff.
PR.com: A lot of the characters on the show are extremely dysfunctional in their personal lives. Is that an accurate portrayal?
Michael Lombardi: I would say what that is, is TV; entertainment. You know what I mean? It's television. I think they have to deal with all these dark doors and all these twists and turns in order for it to be entertainment. But I also do think that whether you're a firefighter or a cop or a nurse or an accountant these are some of the things you have to deal with. It's life. I think it's true to life in a lot of ways and I think the writing is so fantastic that it's pretty easy for us as actors to come in and do our job.
PR.com: Do you think it's that much more fun to play characters that are dysfunctional?
Michael Lombardi: Yes! I absolutely think it's so much fun! I'm constantly challenged as an actor, not only morally at times, but also artistically. When I got this last storyline, when I read the script because I didn't even know until I read the script, and that's how it goes with Denis
PR.com: Are you serious?
(The latest storyline shows Michael's character, Mike "the probie" Silletti beginning to experiment with homosexuality.)
Michael Lombardi: Yeah. So we shoot two episodes simultaneously and I read the script and I saw where my character was going. I had a meeting with Peter and Denis. We talked about where the storyline was going and I think that it really told the story, and I think it's for the shock value for the show. I think that there are going to be people who can relate to that story; as twisted as it may be.
PR.com: Your character is the probie on the show; you're the probationary firefighter, the least experienced. You're kind of being hazed as it is
Michael Lombardi: Yes.
PR.com: The way your character is developing this season, is that he's confused about his sexuality. It's going in the direction where they're showing that he's gay. As an actor, you get hit with that script, are you thinking, "I want to do the best job I can do and I'm just going to go full force with it," or is there a part of you thinking, "I don't want to do too good of a job because I'm a little self conscious?"
Michael Lombardi: That's a very good question, and here's my take on it. I try to do the best possible job I can do to portray that character and what he's going through. When I got the script, or in certain moments, I have been like, "Wow, you know, people think you're your character."
Michael Lombardi: I have let what people may think creep into my head at times. But at the same time, I've done so much with this character already and the show is so wild, that there's no real cap. So in the context of the show it's fine; it's safe. And as I've said, the writing is so good and it's so funny. I think what's happening is, it's very dramatic to the [character], so to viewers it can be funny. That's what's really cool about the writing as well. I've been playing him for three years, so I'm a little protective of him, and I think the writers are as well. That's one of the discussions that we had, was that they need to protect this character. He comes from a point of view of constantly wanting to prove himself to the other guys, and prove to them that he's the guy that they're going to want next to them in a life or death situation. So after striving for the respect and admiration of these guys for three seasons, he's just tired. He's tired of being "the probie," he's insecure, and he's not getting love or admiration or respect not only from the guys, but people in his personal life. He's had some really sort of crazy relationships.
PR.com: In your interpretation, does your character know that he's gay and he's trying to come to grips with it? Or he's still in denial; he still is really convinced that he's not gay?
Michael Lombardi: My character does not think he's gay, no. You'll see that dealt with over the course of the next few episodes. Obviously this is a gay act that's happening (oral sex with his male roommate). But there's no, like, kissing it's only that. He's getting serviced by this guy.
(That expression cracks me up. We're not talking about an oil change.)
There's a funny act that Denis [Leary] and Peter [Tolan] have. They talk about baseball and blowjobs. Like if you were dating a guy, or being gay, it would be so much easier, because you wouldn't have to deal with all the stuff that you have to deal with in a normal relationship with a woman. So it's sort of touching upon that thing too. I think obviously getting blown by a guy is gay, but the probie's not gay, in the sense that I really think that he's really sensitive and he's caring and he found this guy who may be, as things play out, manipulating him as well.
PR.com: This is your character's roommate on the show, and he is gay.
Michael Lombardi: Well, yes he is.
PR.com: That I can tell you with 100% certainty (Laughs).
Michael Lombardi: That's absolutely right. But my character does not know that. He thinks it's the first time this guy's ever done anything like this.
PR.com: Right, because the guy puts on like he's experimenting also. Like he doesn't know what's going on either, even though he knows.
Michael Lombardi: Exactly!
PR.com: And then I like when your character says, "it's just blowjobs and that's not even considered sex anymore. So we're definitely not gay."
Michael Lombardi: That's right. And the guy's like, "So would you do it to me?" And I'm like, "No, never dude!"
PR.com: "I'm saying never!"
Michael Lombardi: Yeah, "No, I'm saying never!" So he's like, "Are you saying I'm gayer then you?" And I said, "Dude, if I'm not gay at all, then "
PR.com: "then how can you be gay?" (Laughs)
Michael Lombardi: And then we end up fighting
PR.com: That was hilarious!
Michael Lombardi: Funny stuff
PR.com: Was that paying homage to Bill Clinton? The fact that oral sex is no longer considered sex?
Michael Lombardi: You know what? I didn't even think of that. I'm sure it was. Peter Tolan's a genius! (Rescue Me's co-creator) I'm sure he incorporated that in there.
PR.com: I said, "Oh, they're paying homage to Bill Clinton, under the umbrella that oral sex is no longer considered sex."
Michael Lombardi: Good Point.
(We both laugh.)
Michael Lombardi: Some of the future scenes about it are really funny. The last thing I'll say is, most of the guys in the firehouse find out. So I have to deal with that.
(How's this for a smooth segway?)
PR.com: What's it like working in an ensemble cast where you have many different storylines going on at once?
Michael Lombardi: The cast is so strong, and you'll hear Peter and Denis, they'll tell you themselves that they can go anywhere with either comedy or drama, which is a really special thing. I have so much respect for all the guys and I think that there's not a weak link. I think that everyone does such a good job that it's amazing, and I'm honored to be on a show with this type of cast. Also, we have become so close and we get along so well that I don't know if it's due to playing firefighters who have that brotherhood, that band of brothers and that fraternal relationship, or I think that that definitely adds to it. We hang out, we go out to dinner together, and we go to events together. We're all really close, so it's a blast.
PR.com: Are you a native New Yorker?
Michael Lombardi: I'm from an hour north of the city near Danberry, Connecticut. I've been [in New York] for ten years though.
PR.com: And you guys shoot on the streets of New York?
Michael Lombardi: We have a studio in Long Island City, Queens which is like, a block away from where they shoot The Sopranos. But, we shoot on location all over Manhattan. We shoot up in the Bronx, in Harlem a lot, like the old tenement buildings. We shoot in Brooklyn, Queens all over.
PR.com: Is the firehouse built in a soundstage, or do you shoot in an actual firehouse?
Michael Lombardi: The kitchen is a soundstage. Where we park the trucks is a stage but not in the studio. They built what looks like a firehouse from the outside. That's in Queens.
PR.com: There was an episode of Rescue Me this season, and I actually Googled it, and a lot of major newspapers have written about it. It's the scene where Denis Leary's character rapes his soon to be ex-wife.
Michael Lombardi: Yeah, it's a heavy scene. It just happened in episode four, which is the last episode. In the [New York] Post today there's a huge article on it as well. Here's what I have to say about that. I think obviously, rape is wrong. I think the thing about that scene is there's going to be a lot of twenty year old kids who may walk away thinking that they can force themselves upon their girlfriends or whatever. Hopefully not. I think people are smart enough to know that it's television. But I think if you really understand the dynamic of the relationship between these two characters, how flawed they are and what they've been through, then that scene makes sense.
PR.com: I've only seen a few episodes of the show. I'm not familiar with past seasons. I've been watching it this season. And to me, it made sense, even though I only know a little bit about their back story. But it was interesting, because I saw something about it in The Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, Seattle Post-Intelligencer it's really gotten a lot of coverage and the common denominator in every one of these articles was that they said it was very disturbing that it was obviously a rape, but that the actress, Andrea Roth who plays Janet, that it started as a rape and then she seemed to enjoy it. That's what made people get up in arms. You know what I mean?
Michael Lombardi: Tommy's (Denis Leary) brother, when Tommy and Janet (actress Andrea Roth) their son died and Tommy's brother came in to help out and take care of Janet and he ended up now sleeping with her and being with her. So Tommy finds out this season. That smirk when Tommy leaves (after the rape) it was like he one-up'd his brother. His brother disrespected him so badly. He got his girl back in a way, you know? She liked it and enjoyed it, and what really proved that was how she covered it up at the end as well.
PR.com: Did you watch that episode?
Michael Lombardi: Yeah.
PR.com: Ok, here's what disturbed me. What disturbed me was that it was fun to watch, because it was kind of a turn on.
Michael Lombardi: I know.
PR.com: And I'm like, "I shouldn't be liking this, this is a rape scene "
Michael Lombardi: I know!
PR.com: I'll be honest with you, I was like, "This is a hot scene!"
Michael Lombardi: I love that honesty. Yeah, I was turned on too, and I work with Denis everyday. It was a hot scene. A lot of people feel that way, but aren't bold enough to admit it.
PR.com: I turned it off and I felt bad that I liked watching it and maybe that's what really disturbed people
Michael Lombardi: The show makes you uncomfortable, which is good, I think. It's like watching in through a window, sneaking in and watching some stuff go down. It's so real. You're uncomfortable. You're laughing, you're crying... you don't know what to feel about certain things. That's good television to me.
PR.com: Absolutely. I wasn't aware that FX provided this kind of content. We're a lot more sophisticated now as a society and privy to a lot more information about the world. I feel like a lot of the programming they have on the networks, it just doesn't cut it.
Michael Lombardi: I completely agree with you. [FX] isn't scared. They go for it. They tell it how it is.
PR.com: A lot of press has also accused the creators of Rescue Me (Denis Leary and Peter Tolan) of adding shock just for shock value's sake. What's your take on that?
Michael Lombardi: It's television so I think there are things that need to be added, because the show would be boring if they didn't have the shock value. But I think everything is done in such a real way and it tells the story in a truthful way. It has artistic integrity, and it works for each character. So it doesn't bother me that it needs to be done for television. And you see from episode to episode where these characters could possibly go, and maybe they don't. They go somewhere completely different, but that works even better at the end. I think things are thrown in because it's television. It's entertainment and it has to be done. But it's done so well, and it's so real and the writing is so good, that it doesn't bother me at all.
PR.com: How did the show attract such incredible guest stars this season? You have Susan Sarandon
Michael Lombardi: Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei will be on I think what's attracted these actresses to come on is the quality of the writing. It's the quality of the show. I think they have a lot of respect for Peter Tolan and Denis Leary and I think that they think we're doing good stuff, so they want to be attached to it. There's a lot of people who have approached Denis and want to be part of Rescue Me.
PR.com: And Tatum O'Neal plays Denis Leary's sister on the show. Has she been on from the beginning?
Michael Lombardi: Tatum O'Neal came on, I think, at the end of last season and she's been on, obviously, this season.
PR.com: I thought that was excellent casting
Michael Lombardi: Excellent casting, right!
PR.com: And I was happy for her
Michael Lombardi: I know, from being an Oscar winner when she was just a kid, and then not working and going through what she's gone through, I think she can bring a lot of life experience to the part. Yeah, it is great casting and I'm happy for her too. She's great.
PR.com: Tell me about the movie you did for the Oxygen Network.
Michael Lombardi: Between the second and third seasons of [Rescue Me], I shot a movie called Banshee with Taryn Manning. She starred in the movie Hustle and Flow.
PR.com: I love her.
Michael Lombardi: She's awesome. I love her! We shot up in Montreal for six weeks and internationally it's going to be released in movie theatres. I don't know to what degree, but that's what I've been told. It premiered this past Saturday night on the Oxygen Network. It's their first action thriller. I'm sure they're going to play it a bunch more [on The Oxygen Network]. For me, it was great carrying a film, and it's also a very different character then the probie.
PR.com: Oxygen is Oprah's network, right?
Michael Lombardi: Yes it is.
PR.com: I thought that The Oxygen Network would wind up going in the direction of Lifetime Television, and it seems like it's really not.
Michael Lombardi: This movie is definitely very edgy for The Oxygen Network. For me, coming from Rescue Me, it's not at all, but for The Oxygen Network it is.
PR.com: I have another question to ask you and you have to choose A or B.
Michael Lombardi: Ok.
PR.com: Which is a better line for picking up girls if you're in a bar or a club? A) I'm on television, or B) I'm a New York City Firefighter.
Michael Lombardi: B. I'm a New York City Firefighter.
PR.com: (Laughs) Why?
Michael Lombardi: Because I have so much respect for those guys. I mean, as an actor, I'm so lucky. There's so many fantastic actors out there. I caught a good break, and I'm on a great show. I don't like to take myself too seriously. I mean, it doesn't hurt that I'm on a television show
PR.com: You know what. It's a toss up between the two.
Michael Lombardi: Laughs.
PR.com: It's definitely a toss up. If I was somewhere and both of those people came up to me, it would be a toss up. I swear to god.
Michael Lombardi: (Laughs) That's funny. You make me laugh.
"Rescue Me" airs Tuesdays at 10pm EST/PST
on FX. Check local listings or go to