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Lee shifts to drama in 'Memphis Beat'

Considering that Jason Lee has spent the past five years of his career either playing a guy with a goofy mustache on a karmic crusade on the NBC sitcom "My Name Is Earl" or acting opposite CGI rodents in the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies, it was not surprising when TNT issued a press release announcing that his next role would be as a Memphis cop who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator.

The skateboarder-turned-actor has made a career out of playing absurd characters or characters in absurd situations. The thing is, his new show, "Memphis Beat," which premieres Tuesday on TNT, is a drama, and his character, Dwight Hendricks, is not nearly as quirky as he sounds.

While on a break from shooting the series in New Orleans, which has been substituting for the show's titular city (there are plans to shoot some later scenes on location in Memphis as well), Lee told us about his new beat.

>While there are some comedic elements in "Memphis Beat," has it been refreshing to do something more dramatic for a change?

It made me do some thinking, in terms of diving into a completely different world episodically, where it's not me with a silly mustache goofing off on set all day. This is something a lot more thoughtful and introspective. ... It's been a nice little shift, but I think I'm ready for it. I'm really excited about it.

>To my knowledge, there are not many TV series set in Memphis. What role does the city play on the show?

Well, the city is a character itself. You've got the people, and you've got Beale Street. In the South, people are very tied to where they come from, and they're very passionate about it and very respectful of the past -- and, of course, the music. The heart that's beating under the surface is the music, and what's great about Dwight is that he appreciates that very much. ... Dwight loves all kinds of music. He'll be performing music from other musicians aside from Elvis, which is great. It makes it a little bit more diversified and well-rounded. A lot of people have been under the impression that it's sort of the Elvis impersonator thing, which isn't really the case. That was a little misleading, because when you hear "Elvis impersonator," you think rhinestone white jumpsuit with the big bell-bottoms. It's much more a celebration of the South and music from the Delta. Dwight basically honors that. He's performing mainly Elvis songs as Dwight Hendricks, not really as an impersonator, [but] with a lot of heart. But we'll see him at times performing perhaps some country music and some Southern rock 'n' roll. For him, it's a way to escape from the day-to-day grind of being a detective and the pressure that he has put on himself to protect his city.

>While we're on the subject, who is that singing when Dwight is onstage?

Well, I wish it were me, but they found a great singer. I gave it my best. I went into the recording studio, and I sang "If I Can Dream," and I did a little rendition of "Love Me Tender" -- you know, I almost got it, but it's tough. I'm practicing, though. I play guitar, so I'm always playing guitar and singing some Elvis tunes, so maybe as the show progresses we'll transition over into my voice, but not anytime soon. I don't want to scare off the audience.

>Do you consider yourself an Elvis guy?

When somebody's that iconic and that legendary and just such a big figure, you know about the person. I've heard many Elvis songs over the years, but I wasn't that invested until I imported by way of CD about 600 Elvis songs onto my laptop and started listening to them on my iPod religiously. I will say that without a doubt, the guy had a tremendous amount of soul and was a really damn good singer, and my respect for him went through the roof.

>Were you OK with the way that "My Name Is Earl" ended?

Well, they essentially pulled the plug on us with very little warning. We fought a lot to at least do a few more episodes to close out the series. There were some shots on getting it onto a few other networks, and then there was talk of doing a two-part closeout episode, but nothing came to fruition. ... It was really disappointing. I mean, it's just out there in the universe somewhere floating around -- Earl's list is just kind of out there floating around, and nobody knows what happened to it.

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Memphis Beat

Premieres 10 p.m. Tuesday TNT

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