Jason Lee has traded man-child Earl Hickey for a fully mature man with his new TNT drama ‘Memphis Beat’ (premiering Tuesday at 10/9c). As Detective Dwight Hendricks, Lee solves Southern-fried crime by day and oft retreats to a bar to sing the blues by night. Fancast spoke with Lee about how far he has come from ‘My Name Is Earl.’
What was the hardest thing to shake about Earl Hickey as you tackled this new role?
The sadness of [NBC's 'My Name Is Earl'] being canceled and no longer being a part of our lives. But specifically, there were little mannerisms that I picked up over the years – facial expressions and what not. I had to be mindful of not wanting to duplicate any of those and leaving all that behind.
Yeah, at one point in the ‘Memphis Beat’ pilot I was waiting for Earl’s famous eyebrow raise.
That’s right. I literally had to avoid that and not once do the eyebrow raise.
Were you resolved to star in a drama series this time around?
I never really plan much; I just see what happens. But I certainly liked the idea that this was different from anything I’ve ever done. It was much more contemplative and internal, something that I’d have to get into every day. I had to build this character from the inside out. I really embraced and the scripts are fantastic. It’s been a great challenge for me.
Is there anything you’ve gotten to do for the first time as an actor, on ‘Memphis Beat’?
Well, it’s the first time I’ve played a man. It’s my first time playing a leading man, somebody that could be played as vulnerable. He’s a Southern momma’s boy, yet he’s a very strong man at the same time.
What is your own personal connection to Memphis?
The South in general for me is very important. There’s the music I’ve listened to since I was young – old country, old blues; traveling a lot to see family in Mississippi and Alabama; loving the humidity, the architecture, Elvis, barbecue, two-lane highways… It’s just a fantastic place. And right in the middle of that you’ve got this guy Dwight, who whether he’s a detective or a musician, he’s one of those [Southern] guys. It’s an honor to play someone like that.
Which on-screen relationship has been the most fun to play?
The one with Sam Hennings (‘JAG’), who plays Dwight’s partner, Whitehead; they have this great, brotherly relationship. The relationship with DJ [Qualls, 'Road Trip'] is also fun, because [officer Davey Sutton] is earnest and endearing and he looks up to Dwight…. Lieutenant Rice (played by Alfre Woodard) brings out Dwight’s stubbornness. And then the music brings out a very sincere side of Dwight, one free of all the burdens of work.
Lastly, tell me about the guy who does your singing.
He is a better singer than me; what else do you need to know? [Laughs] Hey, I gave it my shot – I went in and I sang for the pilot, and it just wasn’t cutting it. So I swallowed my pride and said, “OK, let’s get somebody who works” and this guy came along. It comes off pretty genuine and as long as that’s the case, I’m pretty happy.
How fast would people be changing the channel if you had done your own singing?
Uh, not so fast – but fast enough!