Jason Lee Gives Us the Lowdown on <i>Memphis Beat</i>

The actor stars as an Elvis loving Memphis police detective thriving in the heart of the blues on TNT

On June 22nd, TNT will premiere the new series Memphis Beat with Episode 1.01: That's All Right, Mama, which centers on Dwight Hendricks (Jason Lee), a quirky Memphis police detective with an intimate connection to the city, a passion for blues music and a close relationship with his mother. He is "the keeper of Memphis," a Southern gentleman who is protective of his fellow citizens, reverential of the city's history and deeply rooted in its blues music scene. Despite his impeccable instincts as a detective, Dwight's loose, relaxed style of police work rubs his demanding new boss, Lt. Tanya Rice (Alfre Woodard), the wrong way. But Dwight may eventually win her over to a Memphis state of mind, especially when he takes the stage at his favorite hangout to perform a legendary song or two.

We recently hooked up with Jason Lee to chat about his new series. Here's what the actor had to say:

Are you guys actually out here, shooting the show in Memphis?

Jason Lee: Some of the time we are. We shoot mostly in New Orleans.

Why did you decide to jump right back into another television series so soon?

Jason Lee: Because it was a damn good script. I didn't see it coming. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do another TV show. Because it's an awfully big commitment. This one was really special, man. And I am happy to be here.

Earl had such a distinct and unique style. Will you be bringing a sense of that humor to Memphis Beat?

Jason Lee: I think a lot of the humor here is coming out of these guys. Dwight and Whitehead, his partner. The police at the station. There's that guy-to-guy, man-to-man playfulness. The jabbing. That's a way to escape the job and the heaviness of it all. I think a lot of the humor comes from there. In terms of pure silliness, as I got to demonstrate on My Name Is Earl? That was a blast. This is definitely different overall.

What do some of the upcoming episodes look like in terms of the story being told?

Jason Lee: It's a very character driven show. It's not just about the case of the week. It's about Dwight's music as well. And his performing every episode. Balancing out the heaviness of the work. Having those two lives, we get to see a lot of that and explore a lot of that. We see these two worlds that Dwight inhabits. We see his relationship with his ex-wife and his mother. And the job at hand. It's quite a burden for him to have taken this upon himself. He is looking after his city and its people. It's a very layered, multi-driven show. That makes it interesting from week to week. There are going to be continued ups and downs; character development over the course of the first season. And a lot of interesting cases.

Is Dwight a straight-up Elvis impersonator? Or is he just pulling in some aspects of Elvis for his stage performances?

Jason Lee: He is just pulling in some aspects of Elvis. Once he becomes an impersonator, the show has to become a sitcom. Or it has to become something so silly and offbeat that it's hard to ground in reality. This show needs to be grounded, because the characters are real. So are the scenarios. It's a very human show. Its more about a deep respect and appreciation for Elvis. It's about a guy that just loves to perform his music.

I know Keb Mo is putting together a lot of the music on the show. Are you going to be singing in these episodes?

Jason Lee: No. I am not singing, Unfortunatly. I've been hearing that it's working. That's what really matters for me at the end of the day. That the musical scenes are working.

How do the stories themselves move past some of the quirks in the set-up to become more of a character based drama?

Jason Lee: It's the scenarios. The cases. Its what is happening to the people in Memphis. These people are very real. It's a real day-to-day police station operation. You get people that have crimes being commited against them. People are getting kidnapped. There are real things that are being investigated. And you've got real guys who only care Southern style about the people they are around. What makes it interesting is that this is not just a job, where a check is being collected by these people. It has that small town vibe. We see these guys caring genuinely for the people around them, that they are serving. It makes it more human in that why. It becomes less about the case at hand. It's not a procedural in that way. We are quite happy about being a more old school cop show .

You were a producer on Earl. Do you still have that same creative hand here?

Jason Lee: I do like to get involved. Both with story ideas and day-to-day set issues. I keep my eye out. I watch things. It's a very exciting process for me. And I like to be a part of it.

Ethan Suplee and Abrham Benrubi have played brothers in the past, and they are close friends. Is it a coincidence that Benrubi is now on Memphis Beat after you just spend so much time working with Suplee on Earl?

Jason Lee: I don't know. The writers, on their own, hired him. He is great, man!

I don't know if he is Native American in real life, but Benrubi's character adheres to that spirituality in solving cases.

Jason Lee: Yes, his character Lightfoot. He is Native American. And he wears it very pridefully in the show. It is very cool.

Kevin Smith and you tried to get Fletch off the ground for a long time. Does this satisfy some of those detective urges inside you as an actor, that you never got to realize in that unproduced film?

Jason Lee: I hadn't thought about that. But that's a good idea. That's a pretty good thought (laughs). Of course I didn't think, "This is similar to Fletch." But at the end of the day, you are right. This is an interesting world. There are aspects of it that have simple, likeable humor. It has that detective quality to it. I guess it does parallel in some ways.

You were able to work with a lot of your own personal friends on Earl. Were you able to bring any of them into this? Maybe Kevin Smith? Or Giovanni Ribisi? Do you have any cool guest stars coming on during this first season run?

Jason Lee: I would love to get Kevin Smith involved. I tried to get him involved in My Name Is Earl, but the scheduling never worked. Juliette Lewis has already come on and done a guest-starring role for us. This week's guest star is Giovanni Ribisi. As we tried to do with My Name Is Earl, I would certainly love for this show to have some great guest stars. I'd like to get as many people as I can.

With it being such a music based show, is Juliet got to bring some of her talent as a musician into the episode she is guest starring on?

Jason Lee: I think it was a one-time gig for her, and she didn't play a musician on the show.

As far as Memphis goes, are you able to go into the town and study the culture, and read what is going on in the news there and incorporate it into the show?

Jason Lee: I don't know. Along those lines, the writers are tailoring the storylines to what is going on in those parts of the country. How things are addressed. How these detectives do things less by the book, as opposed to New York City, or San Francisco. That is a big part of the show. To see the intuition factor. That small town understanding and care. It gives the show a real accessibility. It makes our characters feel like down home, grounded, human beings at the end of the day. We shoot mostly in New Orleans, and some in Memphis. We don't get up there as much as we like, but of course there are things we have to shoot in the city. We are going up there soon. I would hope to shoot there more often.

Are they going to let you guys shoot in Graceland?

Jason Lee: I'm sure that will play a part at some point. That would be great. It's a staple of Memphis. At some point, something will take place there, or near there.

You guys have such a great cast here, with DJ Qualls and Alfre Woodard. Did you have a hand in ushering them into a weekly series?

Jason Lee: Well, DJ Qualls had done a couple episodes of My Name Is Earl. That was his first time doing TV. And Alfre Woodard just came from a TV show, didn't she? Three Rivers.

You guys are the three leads in the show. What is that working relationship like between the three of you?

Jason Lee: Its great. You have Lt. Rice and Dwight butting heads and trying to get along. There is a lot going on with that relationship. DJ Qualls is a really earnest, well-meaning beat cop that looks up to Dwight. He eventually wants to become a detective. There is a little bit of a mentor-student, younger brother-older brother relationship there. It's fun, and kind of lovable. Dwight's partner, Whitehead? There's a very fun and layered relationship. We have the most scenes together. And we get to play a lot with this old school cop partner relationship that harkens back to The Streets of San Francisco. It's this old school vibe, where you have guys who don't float any BS. You know?

You mentioned the commitment it takes on an actor's part to join a show like this. TNT is very devoted to its series, and they let a show have time to breath and flourish in finding its audience. How concerned are you about how long this particular show could go on for?

Jason Lee: You want to go as long as it feels appropriate. A show like this is god and strong for a couple of seasons. Earl needed more time so he could finish the list. But they canceled that, Unfortunatly, very prematurely, I felt. But this is something where it just depends. Is the show still strong? How do people feel about it? I would like to see it go for a few good, solid quality seasons.

In regards to Earl, they cancelled a show that was so good, that also ended on a cliffhanger. How frustrating was that for all of you working on the show? That you were still setting up more storylines? And then you don't get to have any sort of conclusion at all?

Jason Lee: It was very bothersome. Man. Because, had we known, we would have changed the writing at the end of season four. We certainly wouldn't have ended that season on a season cliffhanger. But there was no real heads up. It was just a pulling of the plug. No one seemed to care that we didn't get to finish the show. It didn't bother anyone except for us and the fans. Unfortunatly.

As a fan, I was disappointed to see it end like that. I thought maybe on the season four DVD there would be some sort of wrap-up.

Jason Lee: Nope. We didn't have a budget for that.

Outside of this, are you going to continue doing film work? Or are you going to just do the TV show, and when you have time off, that's your time off?

Jason Lee: I like the idea of having time off. I am also open to whatever comes along. I would like to keep my options open.

I know I talked to you a few years ago, and you told me about your extensive art collection, and at that point, you were just beginning to show it off. Are you still able to have exhibits?

Jason Lee: Yes. I still show it off. And I still collect pieces. There are always plans to do things. That is still a big part of my life. Collecting, and supporting, and hosting expeditions for artists. That is something I will continue to do for the rest of my life.

How does working in New Orleans and Memphis open you up to new and different artwork?

Jason Lee: I have already met with a couple of galleries here. I have seen some interesting work that is being done by different photographers out here, that are being represented in New Orleans by a certain gallery that I went to. I have seen some local painters' work. It is interesting to go to a different city and see what is going on around certain parts of the city where art seems to be flourishing. And what scenes are like in different places. It is very cool.