Walking in Memphis
by Jay S. Jacobs
After a few years of playing the title character in the popular sitcom My Name Is Earl and starring in such kid-friendly comedies as Alvin and the Chipmunks and Underdog, Jason Lee is taking a totally different tack for his return to series television.
Memphis Beat is a moody and slightly downbeat, yet rather funny in its own way, police procedural about the southern musical mecca. Lee plays Dwight, a smart-but-unconventional detective who solves murders by day and impersonates Elvis by night.
With a quirky and smart supporting cast which includes Alfre Woodard, Abraham Benrubi, Celia Weston and D.W. Qualls, the series has a smart, bluesy vibe that feeds off of the city and the soul of the people.
Lee sat down with us and a few other websites to discuss the series a few weeks before it was set to premiere on the TNT network.
What’s it like working without the mustache?
It’s quite nice to have a completely different look. Yes, it is.
What made you want to be a part of this show?
Well, the character was very appealing and the fact that it’s a very different and unique show. And certainly, that he performs Elvis songs at night.
In the pilot, we didn’t get to see a lot of side-by-side interaction with Dwight and Whitehead. In other cop shows like Law & Order detectives are rarely seen apart. Will we see more of that or will they work together and separately both each episode?
No. They’re connected. They’re joined at the hip for the rest of the series very well. Yeah, there’s a lot of interaction with those guys.
I was wondering about the format of Memphis Beat. Is it going to be more like a procedural format where it’s a new case every week or will some of the case kind of take multiple episodes to resolve?
Some might take multiple episodes, yeah. There’s still a lot to explore. We’re only shooting nine episodes for the first season. It’s also very much about the characters and the relationships, as it is the cases. So, we’re trying to make it as well rounded a show as we can.
You’ve been doing mostly comic relief things like My Name is Earl and The Chipmunks lately. Is it nice to be able to do a more dramatic role again?
Yeah, it’s fantastic. It’s definitely something that I’ve never done, a role like this. It’s a great opportunity for me. It’s nice to have a balance. This is definitely providing that balance for me. I’m really pleased with the work so far.
How were you approached to star in this role? How did this role find you?
The writers Josh Harto and Liz Garcia, they came to me with a very beautiful, passionate letter, a very personal letter about what the project means to them and why they created it and that they would very much like me to come on board and play Dwight. I was very flattered and coupled with the material itself, it was something very important to me.
I wondered if we would get to see Dwight with a love interest at all this season.
Yes. There are many, many things taking shape in that area, dealings with his ex-wife and we see what ends up happening with that. A lot of surprises, a lot of interesting angles. That’s a big part of Dwight’s life and of course the other woman in his life, his mother. We see some interesting things with that relationship as well.
The Memphis city also plays a really big role in the show. I read that you guys were actually filming in New Orleans, but Memphis recently had all that flooding. Is that something that’s going to be worked into the show? Or do you know if that will be part of the story line?
I don’t think that will happen. You know, we’re shooting sort of part time in Memphis as well because, you know there are just certain things that you’ve got to get and Memphis is such a great city, you know. So, we want as much of real Memphis on the show as possible. We’re going to be going up to Memphis and shooting up there.
You mentioned the singing and I was wondering if that’s something that’s going to happen every episode. Are we going to see him sing every episode?
Yeah and in different ways. You might see him rehearsing. You might see him just playing guitar and singing at home. You might see him performing at the beginning of an episode or at the end. Yeah, so I mean it’s a big part of his life, so we will see that side of him in every episode.
Following up on the singing, you have done a lot of singing in the past in things like Earl and the Chipmunks and particularly in Almost Famous which I loved by the way. Is that something that you really enjoy? Is that something that you’d like to do more of?
Yeah. You know, I’m always up for it. I like playing guitar. I love music and Almost Famous was an opportunity for me to play guitar as a character and try and sing. Now with Memphis Beat and I get to play guitar on the show. That’s always nice when it’s you doing the singing yourself, as the character. So that’s been good for me.
Besides guitar, what other instruments do you play in real life? Will you have the chance to play something besides guitar on the show?
No. I normally just play guitar and I just kind of fiddle around here and there with it. But, yeah, I’d like to be able to play it stronger, but I just can’t do it. I wish I could but I’m a little limited musically.
There’s been a lot of talk lately of the blurring of the lines between network television and cable stuff and Southland. Now that you’ve kind of been in both areas, do you see that you can do more with this show because it’s on cable? Or do you think that there is no difference?
I don’t feel much of a difference. It’s tough to say because these two shows are totally different. Earl – they’re just two completely different worlds. We actually had a good deal of freedom on Earl. They were very kind and let us do what we wanted. TNT is also very, very supportive of us here creatively. So, it’s really hard to say. Both have been great opportunities for me. They both feel like they are what they are, and they are what they should be.
Do you feel that there is some boundary-pushing though with Memphis Beat?
Yeah. I mean a lot of this stuff could be done elsewhere. It’s not a show that really needs to prove anything or that needs to be raw or rough or tough or gritty. It’s a fairly gentle show that’s very character driven. I think we’re at a good home and I think we’re just about where we should be.
I think that Clark Johnson is a really terrific director as well as a good actor too. Had you dealt with him before? What was he like to work with on the show?
No, I hadn’t worked with him before. He was very excitable, and he pushed a lot for the pilot to be different and unique and with a great energy to it and depth. The whole energy was – everybody was really, really excited and really wanted to make the best pilot that we could make. He certainly pushed for that.
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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 11, 2010.