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Jason Lee: a Southern-fried cop in 'Memphis Beat'

The Associated Press, Friday, June 18, 2010, 2:58am (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- When Jason Lee was approached for "Memphis Beat," he didn't hesitate.

"My first thought was, 'Hell, no! It's a big workload.'" He'd learned his lesson after four seasons headlining the comedy "My Name Is Earl," and responded, "I don't think so."

He had another, maybe less expected qualm: The show would be shot on video.

"I'm not much of a fan of video over film, so I almost pulled the plug entirely," he says, though adding hastily, "They're making it look good."

High praise indeed for a guy who describes himself as a "die-hard photographer who only shoots film" and "will never switch to digital."

And he's right about "Memphis Beat," which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT on TNT. It has a rich, vibrant look as it chronicles the hectic life of Dwight Hendricks (Lee), a Memphis police detective who loves his city, his job, his mother and the blues (not necessarily in that order).

Lee's co-stars include Alfre Woodard as Dwight's take-no-guff lieutenant, Celia Weston as his vivacious mom and Sam Hennings as Charlie "Whitehead" White, his partner.

For some sort of business reasons, "Memphis Beat," ironically, is shot not in Memphis but New Orleans.

"But you GOT to have Dwight and Whitehead walking down Beale Street in Memphis," Lee says, "so we're going to sneak up to Memphis as often as possible to shoot the real stuff. Meanwhile, they've been doubling Memphis with New Orleans pretty well."

Despite his many films, Lee remains best-known from TV as Earl Hickey, the dimwitted born-again Samaritan who set out to right a list of wrongs for the sake of "karma stuff" with a $100,000 lottery prize.

He worked long days on "My Name Is Earl," but says the character was easy to play.

Dwight Hendricks poses more of a challenge — and not just because he's shorn of Earl's goofy, scene-stealing 'stache.

"To me, Dwight's got a certain presence to him," Lee says, "and I have a need to do justice to that presence, that energy, so I can walk away from a scene feeling that it was Dwight — and not me playing Dwight.

"I mean, this man's got the weight of protecting Memphis on his shoulders, his mom that he's always dealing with, an ex-wife and his own personal demons. When I took on this role, I thought, 'Oh, man, after Earl, this is going to require a lot more thinking.'"

Now 40, Lee was born in Orange County, Calif., where, as a child, he began perfecting his skills as a skateboarder. Active on the professional circuit for more than decade (he retired in 1996), he landed a role in a music video, which led to movie work, including Kevin Smith's "Mall Rats," Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" and Tony Scott's "Enemy of the State."

These days, he describes acting as an enterprise not unlike a skateboarding move.

"When you get a scene figured out and it feels right, and then you're done with it, it's like when you land a perfect trick," he explains. "Awesome!"

As he singles out the things that make him happy in life, he returns to photography. No digital media. Just the pleasure of emulsion, whose adherents tout its satisfying tactile, hands-on quality and what they insist is higher image resolution.

"I'll be an old man still shooting film," Lee vows. "I shoot in every format. Super 8. 16mm Bolexes. Polaroids. I ride my bike around New Orleans with my little point-and-shoot Leica. And I've got my 8-by-10 camera and the big tripod and the dark cloth over my head shooting landscapes."

He was hooked about a decade ago, he says, and pored over how-to books and websites. When "Memphis Beat" wraps in July, he's got a road trip in his RV planned to photograph his way back home to L.A.

"I'm all crazy into photography, man," he says with a laugh. Granted, other things do come first: "My kids, skateboarding, photography, acting — that would be my order." Then he pauses to rethink his ranking: "Well, maybe photography and acting are tied."

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TNT is owned by Time Warner Inc.

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Online:

http://www.tnt.tv

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

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