Jason Lee never wanted to be a TV star. In fact, a few years ago, he would never have considered auditioning for a TV show. In a 2000 interview, he even said he hates sitcoms. That stance made sense for a movie actor who cut his teeth playing smart-aleck sidekicks (Mallrats, Chasing Amy), and funny, troubled supporting characters (Almost Famous). But his latest project, NBC's successful My Name Is Earl, isn't the average TV sitcom. For one thing, it's funny, and the list-making, karma-believing Earl is one of the weirder, more complex characters Lee has ever played—even if he is on TV.
Recently, to commemorate Fox's release of My Name Is Earl's first season on DVD, The A.V. Club called Lee at work and filled his between-shots break by talking about his leading-man status, the current state of cinema, Burt Reynolds, and, of course, moustaches.
The A.V. Club: Can you talk now?
Jason Lee: Yeah, I'll be in the next shot, and I have so much dialogue it's ridiculous. It's a big scene. It's with Roseanne. She's awesome. She's our guest star this week. She's really funny. She has that great laugh that makes you laugh no matter what.
AVC: What's she playing?
JL: A cranky old lady who in flashbacks used to manage the trailer park. She's always really mean to us, and handing out citations for doing things like playing music too loud and stuff.
AVC: How did you get Roseanne?
JL: I guess she was a fan of the show, and her name came up, as many names do each week when they're trying to cast each episode. Sometimes the actors say 'No, not interested in doing TV.' Sometimes they say, 'Love the show, I'm a fan of it. I'd love to do it.' That's what Burt Reynolds said, and Roseanne. So I've worked with some interesting people so far.
AVC: You're a big fan of Burt Reynolds. What's his appeal for you?
JL: Smokey And The Bandit. I was a young kid growing up in the '70s. That was the era of like, you know, hot rods, and cool movies like Smokey And The Bandit. And it was car chases and trying to be cool and tough-guy, you know? We were all listening to heavy metal and rock. It was the '70s. Smokey And The Bandit was a staple of that whole period. I mean, he's an icon. So you meet someone like that, and it's very surreal.
AVC: What was your first meeting with him like?
JL: Well, you see him as being kind of a tough guy, a guy who's from the old school, who probably doesn't dick around much. And so the first day we were working together, one of the PAs came to my trailer and said, 'Mr. Reynolds would like to have a word with you.' And I was like, "Oh, shit, he probably thinks I'm some cocky smartass young actor kid, and he wants to show me the ropes, because maybe I did something that, you know, goes against the etiquette of the old school. This guy's been around, and he probably doesn't take any shit. And he wants to come and give me some pointers. I'm a little scared."
He comes to my trailer, and I literally think he's going to say, 'Now, Jason, I know this is your show and everything, but I gotta few pointers for ya.' And he proceeds to sit in my trailer for four or five minutes and tell me stories, which was really cool. He told me stories about Deliverance, Smokey And The Bandit, and that whole period. He was a really cool guy.
AVC: Did you compare mustaches?
JL: [Laughs.] Kinda. He's like the real deal. The moustache, the boots, the jacket. He was That Guy, you know. And we don't really have that any more. Tom Selleck's clean-cut now.
The 'tache isn't really around any more. But Burt's still holding on, and he's the same guy that he was back then. He's still kind of stuck there, which is great. I love it. So my hat's off to him.
AVC: Does your moustache require a lot of maintenance?
JL: Yeah. Well, every episode I trim it a little. But if you notice, mine's not well groomed. It's not the Magnum, P.I. moustache. It was just normal to have a 'tache back then. Not so normal now, though I'm thinking that if I'm going to have a moustache, I may as well have a real moustache, and not play around. So I let it go, and I make it real. But I can tell it needs some trimming and grooming every once in a while.
AVC: Is it true that the network didn't want you to have a moustache initially?
JL: Yeah, and I said we had to. It just doesn't work for Earl to be clean-cut. It's just going to become a thing that people are going to talk about. And it's going to make me look funnier, add to the look of the character. And then they saw me, and they said okay, finally. We didn't back down, and I'm glad we didn't.
AVC: Now that Earl is sort of a hit, do you get a lot of input?
JL: Yeah, it's more from the creative angle in terms of Greg [Garcia] and Marc [Buckland], the two executive producers, and myself. We're good friends, and we've worked well together since the beginning. So I let them do what they do. They run the show great, deal with all the writers. But in terms of suggestions of music, characters that I want on the show—I look at all the episodes ahead of time and give any notes that I may have. And they're always very open to that. It's a very collaborative process, which is cool. I really wanted Giovanni Ribisi on, and that happened, and that was very cool, because he was funny as hell on the show. My interest is mainly in how the shows turn out—the music, the actors. We have great editors. Most of the music that you hear in the episodes comes from our editors listening to great music while editing and all of us liking it and keeping it in. It's just been a total nice flow from the very beginning, since the pilot.
AVC: What's a typical day on set like?
JL: Well, it's 14 hours. It's fast-paced, because we have pretty complicated scripts that are very involved with the characters, and we have to shoot everything in five days. So, luckily, we have a very fast cinematographer who shoots in such a way to keep it from being a six-day show, which it really is. But we decided to get it down in five days to save money. So it's really fast-paced. The only real breaks I get are like right now. Somebody else is being shot, but I'll be in there in a minute now, and then at lunch. And Ethan [Suplee] and I, because we've been friends for so long, we just goof off. We try to play games with the crew to pass the time, like throwing half-empty water bottles from 60 feet into a garbage bin for a hundred bucks or something. You know, we just try to pass the time… stay unbored. It's fun. We don't have a real serious set, fortunately. There's never been a serious day where you can't tell a joke or not feel free to laugh if you mess up your line or whatever. It's always been very loose. If it were any other way, I'd go nuts.
AVC: Have your views about television changed since—
JL: Uh, no. I don't actually watch TV.
AVC: You don't watch any TV?
JL: No. My whole thing with Earl was, I couldn't ignore how good the material was, and my thoughts eventually turned to how it really shouldn't matter if it was a film or a television show. I mean, there's only one My Name Is Earl, and I really saw that, fortunately, and didn't turn my back on it. But I was really very, very close many times to saying no or not sticking with it, because it's such a big commitment. But it's unbelievable material. And it's unique as anything I've ever done film-wise, if not more in some respects. In a lot of ways, we do have to follow certain television formulas, but it does feel like we're filming a film every week, or chapters of one long film. So…
But in terms of TV, I can say there's bad TV out there, but I can also say there are bad movies. So to me, it doesn't really matter if it's a movie or television show—if the quality is there, it's there. So that's my stance, but I don't really watch TV. I'm not anti-TV, but I would just rather read a book, or go to the movie theater and watch a movie. Or listen to music. Yeah.
AVC: Did you watch TV growing up?
JL: Oh yeah. I watched CHiPs and Dukes Of Hazzard. Tom & Jerry, Spider-Man, that kind of stuff. But if I want to see The Office, I'll watch that on DVD. Shows that I like, like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Comeback—I watch that stuff on DVD. There aren't any shows that I follow. I'm not the guy that knows what happened on episode 14 of Lost. You know? And I don't have my mom tape it for me or something. I never really got into TV shows like that. But there are some good ones on.
AVC: It feels like there's been a television renaissance.
JL: Yeah, cause people are getting sick of movies. And trying to find work as a film actor, you're never guaranteed. And what's an indie film these days anyway? And how much credibility is there in being in an indie film? I mean, shit's being made everywhere you look. It doesn't matter if it's indie or a mainstream film, or a television show. You gotta just find what's good, and it seems like TV is getting better. And with movies like The Fast And The Furious being made all the time, it's discouraging.
There's really no room for what used to be common in the '70s, when great films were being made and that was the common thing. Whereas now the common thing is like Poseidon, and the overproduced, huge remake. Everything's being remade. Everything's so stylized and over-polished and big and it's too much. Too chaotic. So I've got my own little corner in the world with My Name Is Earl, and people like it. We have a great fan base. I have a job. So I'm pleased with that.
AVC: Do you think people are realizing they can do different things with television?
JL: Yeah, exactly. You can break rules in TV, and people are realizing, I think, that you can do something smart and not compromise and actually be creative. That's definitely changing. And it seems like it's going the opposite way with films. It seems like the state of cinema is getting worse.
AVC: Do they still make the shoe you designed for Airwalk?
JL: No, my Stereo skateboard partner and I make shoes with Etnies now. Now it's a Jason Lee design shoe, a limited edition with some black-and-white photos of mine on it. And then my friend Chris [Pastras], who runs Stereo, our company, he does most of the artwork for Stereo. So he has a shoe with his drawings on it. And we do these collaborations creatively, with like Kangol hats. We have a line of Stereo Kangol hats, and I've had some of my photos on the hats, and his drawings, and then we have these shoes. So I try to keep that going as much as possible as a creative outlet, but he runs the company and is the creative brains behind it. But yeah, there's still a Jason Lee shoe out there. It's just less of a skate shoe and more of a limited-edition art shoe, if you will. The shoe as the canvas, so to speak.
AVC: What would you be doing if you hadn't become an actor?
JL: I'd probably be involved in skateboarding still, and that world. And running Stereo with Chris. And I'd be a photographer still, as I am now, but my day-to-day thing wouldn't be acting, being in Earl.
AVC: Do people on the street call you Earl?
JL: Yeah, all the time. Like when I go to the mall or somewhere. They yell out, 'Hey, Earl.' And at first, it kind of bothered me. But then I just stopped caring, because that's them saying they like the show. And I can't be responsible for whether they know my actual name. And does it really matter? You know?
I went to a NASCAR race for the first time in my life not too long ago. It was awesome, like a slice of Americana. But I don't think I ever would have really experienced it had it not been connected with Earl. I went and drove the pace car. And man, the fans went nuts. They loved the show. It was really so cool. They were like, 'Hey, Earl, man, I love the moustache. You're all right, buddy. Whooo! Hey, Earl!' And I just kind of took it all in. It was such a great experience.
AVC: Are you inundated with offers like that because you're playing a redneck?
JL: No. Which is good. That's the other thing, too. I did work before this. So people in the industry know that I've done other things and can. And also, people know that I'm going to be sort of too locked into this thing for a while. So [I do] the occasional movie here and there during the hiatus, but I'm pretty much in this world for a while.