For those still distressed that NBC canceled My Name Is Earl, they’ll be able to get their good-guy-Southerner Jason Lee fix with the new TNT drama series Memphis Beat, premiering June 22. It was featured in the summer TV preview in this past weekend’s issue, and the show casts Lee as Dwight Hendricks, hard-nosed Memphis cop by day and charismatic performer of Elvis Presley and blues songs by night. He also loves catching crooks and hanging with his mom, not necessarily in that order. Lee reported in from the set last week, and they have a few more episodes to finish up before the first season wraps production in July. “The heat’s starting to creep up on us down here in New Orleans but it’s going well,” he says. Read below for Lee’s thoughts on his favorite Elvis tune, what’s cool about his new character and what he’s planning to do with the 1970s RV he just bought. Also, check out an exclusive clip from Memphis Beat featuring Lee and Alfre Woodard, who plays Dwight’s lieutenant boss.
Photos courtesy of TNT
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Now that you’ve filmed most of the first season, do you have a favorite part of Dwight yet?
I love that he likes music so much and appreciates music and loves to perform. It’s admirable how genuine he is about it and how genuine he is about his job, and how much he cares about the city and the people and the traditions of the south. We certainly have a character we like because he’s genuine, and I hope the audience feels the same way.
Is that actually you singing during Dwight’s musical performances?
No, it’s someone else singing.
Had you considered maybe taking some vocal lessons and doing it yourself?
I’d love to, absolutely. To have the whole package like that would be fantastic.
There are many cop-centric shows on TV, but this is pretty different. Is that what appealed to you?
It was really about the character for me and the music. I didn’t really think much about it being a cop show, because it’s not in a lot of ways. It’s not just focusing on the case every week – you’re really looking at Dwight, his world, his relationships, his music and the characters around him. The city of Memphis is a character as well, and the growth and development of all these characters and these relationships make it very interesting and movie-like to me. It’s a lot deeper than television – that’s how it feels. And it’s work I’ve never done before, a character I’ve never done before.
It’s the second straight TV character you’ve played with a definite Southern charm to him. What is it about you that lends to that trait so well?
I don’t know, man, you’ll have to ask the people who want me to do these things. [Laughs] I’ve spent a good deal of time in the South over the years, but I was born in California. It really comes down to the likeability factor, the accessibility factor, and feeling like you could identify with this guy. The rest of it is the cast as well. It’s full of Southern people. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re serious and sometimes it’s dramatic. Sometimes it’s a go-with-the-flow kind of good time. There are cases and it is a fun ride, with people you want to be on a ride like that with.
Did you have an affinity for the blues before Memphis Beat, or did you foster that love as the show started?
I’ve always loved blues and old country, and I’ve really grown to appreciate Elvis a lot. [Laughs]
Do you have a favorite Elvis song?
Ohhh, man, there’s a lot of them. It was really appropriate in the pilot performing If I Can Dream, which is an amazing song. It just locked everything into place. It was very emotional in terms of the whole point and message of this guy is in that song, really. It kind of set a course for us on who this guy really is.
Because it was so Memphis-based, did you guys ever think about actually filming there?
I don’t know why it ended up in New Orleans — logistical reasons that are probably beyond me. Being in the South helps, although the weather isn’t great. It’s hot, it’s real, it’s believable and we feel like we’re in the South. We’re here and in it for the most part, as opposed to being in Newport Beach, Calif.
Do you have a favorite part of the real Memphis?
It’s just the whole vibe, everything from the neighborhoods to the houses to the parks to Beale Street. The great thing about New Orleans, even though it’s not Memphis, is it feels very much like it. You’ve got people from all walks of life, architecture, the old streets, the humidity. It’s a different city but it really feels similar in those ways, and production has done a great job of making it look and feel like Memphis.
Did your experience on Earl lead you to wanting to get back to TV pretty quickly?
I didn’t want to go back to television quickly. [Laughs] It’s a lot of work. You’ve just got to keep an open mind, and you never know what lay ahead. Something like this comes along and it’s like, ‘Wow, this is different,’ and I’ve always liked the idea of things that are different and in some ways challenging. This was certainly both of those things.
What can fans look forward to with Dwight in upcoming episodes?
He’s always got the ongoing struggle of trying to fix everything for everybody all the time, and that’s a pretty big burden for him. You see how that’s affected his relationship with his ex-wife and what happens with that. He’s got his relationship with the lieutenant and his relationship with his mom ,where he’s constantly trying to fix his mom and his lieutenant’s on his case all the time. He’s stubborn, but at the end of the day he think he’s doing the right thing for the right people for the right reasons, and it’s a struggle for him. It gets him into trouble. We see his relationship with himself and with others, and then we have fun along the way and we get to see him perform. There’s a performance to a greater or lesser degree in every episode. It’s pretty layered, and specific cases he solves are pretty exciting.
In the South, moms are very special to their kids, sons especially. Are you close to your own mom?
Yeah, I’m a mama’s boy as Dwight is. There’s a special sense of pride that comes with that. Maybe some men wouldn’t admit it, but I’m quite proud to be a mama’s boy. It gives you a perspective on things that you otherwise wouldn’t get. I think Dwight is aware of that – he’s very sensitive to things and appreciative and pretty well-mannered and respects women. He’s very prideful and a lot of that comes from being a mama’s boy. He’s got great intuition and he’s keyed into his emotions. A lot of that comes from mom.
Once filming ends in July, do you have a break till you start thinking about maybe a next season?
Yeah, I have a nice long break. I’ve got an old ’70s RV, and I’m going to drive that out to L.A. and make a camping road trip out of the trip back. It’s a recent purchase actually. I’ve always wanted to get one, and I found one I really like. So we’ll be heading out on the road. We’ll go see the Grand Canyon and all the stuff you go see in an RV. [Laughs] I’m gonna try and get out of the heat as fast as I can.