Jason Lee by Any Other Name

By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 21, 2006; WE29

"Hi, this is Jen Chaney with The Washington Post. I'm calling for Jason Lee."

"Yes?" says a familiar, scratchy voice on the other end of the phone.

"Is this Jason?"

Pause. Very long pause.

"Were we supposed to talk today?"

The reporter responds in the affirmative.

"What are we supposed to talk about?" Lee asks.

"Monster House" (see review on Page 30), the animated chiller in which you play a punk-rocker named Bones. "Clerks II," (see review on Page 30), the Kevin Smith sequel in which you make a cameo appearance. Oh, all kinds of things.

Lee thinks for a moment.

"I totally forgot about this. Is this a number where I can reach you? Can I call you back in a bit?"

It's tempting -- so tempting -- to deem this an Earl moment. As the star of last season's break-out TV comedy "My Name Is Earl," people must confuse Lee with his character -- a former degenerate seeking good karma by repaying his moral debts -- all the time. And forgetting about an interview seems like something Earl Hickey, or at least pre-karma-seeking Earl Hickey, would totally do.

But Lee, as he will eventually point out in this interview, is not Earl. Roughly 40 minutes later he calls back, apologizes (no one had reminded him the interview was today, he says) and tells me he's ready to discuss both movies, his TV show and oh, all kinds of things.

"It was like acting on another planet," Lee says of "Monster House," a film that uses the same motion-capture technology as 2004's "The Polar Express" to depict actors' movements, as well as their voices. "It kind of felt like being in a play. All the props were gray metal so the infrared cameras couldn't pick them up. The only things that had markers on them were us actors.. . . It was almost like a weird, futuristic installation piece."

Even though he had an animated film on his résumé (he was the voice of Syndrome in Pixar's "The Incredibles"), Lee says he auditioned to play Bones, a teenager who bears a striking resemblance to the late Joey Ramone. No audition was necessary, however, for his bit part as a snotty Internet mogul in "Clerks II."

"It's a little like writing music," Lee says of working with Smith, who has featured the actor in six of his seven feature films. "It's like I have a guitar and he's saying, 'Go to the G chord, now go to the C chord.. . . Kevin's movies are never improvised, but they feel like they are, in a way. That's why people don't ever really question [his direction]. You just go with it because he's a friend and he's not threatening at all."

With both "Clerks II" and "Monster House" opening Friday, that's a whole lot of Jason Lee in one weekend: The number of cineplex screens showing each flick exceeds 5,000. "Wow, that's pretty cool," Lee says when confronted with this impressive figure.

By now, the California native is used to mass exposure. Already a familiar face from films such as "Almost Famous," "Mumford" and Smith's "Chasing Amy," the former professional skateboarder coasted into household-name territory last year with "Earl." It's a role he nearly rejected, partly because of the time commitment, but also out of fear that he would become synonymous with his TV counterpart. But he says he's very happy with the show and appreciates having a regular gig, even though that aforementioned fear essentially became reality.

"There are days where it does get bothersome to be called Earl all day long," he confesses. "But people do it with enthusiasm. It's beyond a celebrity thing. People connect with it. When they see me, they really think they're seeing Earl."

Lee, who has a 2-year-old son, Pilot Inspektor (!), with fiancee Beth Riesgraf, is comfortable addressing most questions, even one about why he, a Scientologist, rarely speaks publicly about his religion.

"My identity comes from my acting, the things I produce as an artist and actor and as a human being," explains the 36-year-old. "What I do personally, whether it's meditate or see a therapist, that's not my identity. That's why I'm not a preacher or spokesperson.. . . I have a much different take on it than Tom Cruise. He's more of a spokesperson."

Lee would rather focus on his art, which includes directing (he submitted a short film to this year's Telluride Film Festival) and working on a book of his photographs. Unfortunately for "Earl" fans, though, the immediate future won't include a trip to the podium at this year's Emmy Awards; Lee's performance on "Earl" was snubbed when nominees were announced earlier this month. Not surprisingly, this laid-back guy doesn't seem to care.

"To be honest, before 'Earl,' I never watched the Emmys," he says. "I didn't know what they were. I didn't give a [expletive]. 'Earl' will only be one chunk of my life. It will be a very proud and a very creative chunk, but I'm not just an actor or a television actor."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company