[17 December 2007]
The Orange County Register (MCT)
BURBANK, Calif. - It’s the last day of shooting on the “My Name is Earl” set in the San Fernando Valley. The Writers Guild of America strike has taken its toll, and the hit NBC sitcom has run out of new scripts.
To make matters worse, the star of the show has to spend his final day on the set with a rat.
The well-trained rodent is integral to a prison escape scene, which is reshot several times, but Jason Lee seems unfazed by his proximity to it. In fact, one suspects that the 37-year-old actor is thrilled to be performing with a live animal of any kind.
The last time the former Huntington Beach, Calif.-based professional skateboarder worked with animals, they were of the computer-generated variety in the family film “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” which opened Friday.
“Actually, it’s a little refreshing to be working with a real rat,” a smiling Lee said between takes. “It’s a nice change from the chipmunks. And a little easier.”
In the live action/animated film, Lee plays struggling musician Dave Seville, who discovers Alvin, Simon and Theodore, gives them a home and molds them into a pop singing group. The movie is timed to coincide with next year’s 50th anniversary of the celebrated chipmunks’ introduction to the world - the triple-Grammy winning single “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).”
The chipmunks have rarely been out of the spotlight in the ensuing five decades, including a multiplatinum album in 1964 called “The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles,” an animated television series in 1983 and even an animated feature film in 1987. Oh, did we mention the chipmunks’ punk album in 1980 that sold more than one million copies?
The chipmunks were the brainchild of the late songwriter and singer Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who recorded under the stage name David Seville (“Witch Doctor”). He toyed with a tape recorder to create the high-pitched voices of the mischievous Alvin, the practical Simon and the cuddly Theodore.
For most of the film shoot, Lee acted with nobody named Alvin, Simon or Theodore. Off-camera actors fed him lines, and the chipmunks were added later through the magic of computer wizardry.
“The first thing I had to get used to was the fact that it was really acting,” Lee said. “Then I realized that it really was acting. I was acting as if I was talking to somebody.
“It was unlike anything I’ve done before, but isn’t that the point of acting? At least that’s why I got into acting - to try a little bit of everything. I wouldn’t have been able to do this kind of acting 10 years ago. All the different kinds of experiences you have as an actor pay off. All those experiences are tied together somehow. I was able to pull this off because of something I did before.”
Lee, who has a 4-year-old son with fiancee Beth Riesgraf, insists that he was a pretty good student at Ocean View High School until he discovered skateboarding. At that point, his academic career hit the skids and he had to settle for being rich and famous.
A contemporary of the iconic skateboarder Tony Hawk, Lee had his own company and a shoe endorsement deal while his Orange County friends were still studying for final exams at college. He became well known in the skating world for his signature “360 Flip,” and traveled the world. But it wasn’t enough. He wanted something else, but he admits that he didn’t have a clue as to what that might be. It certainly wasn’t acting, in which he had shown no interest.
When he was 21, he moved to a loft in downtown Los Angeles where a lot of his friends had settled. This was long before the downtown revitalization had begun, Lee points out.
“The lofts weren’t very expensive back then,” he said. “I had made some money but it wasn’t like today. The skateboarders today make 10 times what I was making when I was on the tour.”
So he moved into a loft and was dating an actress. It was a good life. The actress had a mother. The mother was her daughter’s show business manager. She liked Lee’s handsome face and offered to represent him as an actor. She still represents him as an actor. The girlfriend is no longer in Lee’s life.
“I swear that I had never given acting a second thought,” he said. “But I did have a curiosity about the movies, so I thought I’d give it a try.”
After a very brief appearance in the 1993 film “Mi Vida Loca,” Lee was sent by his new manager to meet with a producer who introduced him to a rising young director named Kevin Smith. The director cast Lee in his film “Mallrats,” which began a collaboration and friendship that has continued through five more films - “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma,” “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” “Jersey Girl” and “Clerks II.”
There were other, mostly forgettable, roles in films such as “Heartbreakers,” “Stealing Harvard” and “A Guy Thing,” and one memorable role as a neurotic rock singer in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.” Lee also provided the voice of Underdog in the animated film of the same name, and as the villain Syndrome in the mega-hit “The Incredibles.”
Lee was well on his way to a modest independent film career in the middle of the celebrity pack when “My Name is Earl” creator Greg Garcia made an unexpected decision to offer Lee the role of Earl Hickey, a petty thief who discovers the wonders of karma and tries to make amends for past misgivings.
Garcia said Lee was one of only a few actors considered for the role. “I loved him in “Chasing Amy” and thought he would be perfect as Earl because I needed an actor who was likable and charming, but who could seem gritty enough to have had Earl’s checkered past.
“He had to be tough, but the audience still needed to be able to root for him.”
Garcia offered Lee the role, and Lee promptly turned him down. He offered it again. Lee turned it down. Garcia tried a third time. Lee turned it down.
“I genuinely liked the pilot script,” the actor explained, “but I wasn’t sure about doing television. The workload is so heavy, and you’re committed to this one character for the next seven years if the show’s a success. I like movies because you work for a few months and then you’re done with it.
“Finally, I realized that if the material is good, then it shouldn’t matter whether it’s on television or in the movies.”
“My Name is Earl” is doing well in its third season, and Lee said he has no regrets about doing a television show, although the work is just as hard as he thought it would be.
“Man, it’s a lot of work, but I really like the show. It’s fun to be in, and I guess people feel it’s fun to watch. It doesn’t exclude the audience. It doesn’t try to be smart for the sake of being smart.”
Lee, who rode a motorcycle to the set for his final day of shooting, said he’s exhausted from finishing the TV show and promoting the movie, and looks forward to his forced vacation. He said he’s also looking forward to spending more time with his son.
“I have a new friend,” he said of parenthood. “I hang out with him and do things with him. He’s so cool. And he’s already standing on a skateboard.”