PLAYBOY: On NBC’s My Name In Earl, you play a former criminal whose discovered Karma. He makes a list of 200 people he’s wronged in his life and vows to make amends. Who’s on your list?
JASON LEE: Wow. Where do I begin? I’m a 35-year old human being, so I’m sure I’ve made some big mistakes along the way. It’s not in the 200 range, I’ll tell you that much. If I had to point to one thing, my family has become a very serious priority for me. I’m very conscious of correcting any laziness or carelessness from my past that might effect my son.
PLAYBOY: Earl’s funky mustache has become his most recognized feature. Do you regret growing it?
JASON LEE: Not really. I think it gives Earl some flavor. I originally tried to grow a Fu Manchu – a ‘stache with extensions that go down the side – but I looked a little too scary. NBC said absolutely no to the Fu Manchu, so I shaved it. A mustache can be a burden sometimes, especially if I haven’t trimmed it in a while and I start to get bits of food in there. But I can live with it. It’s a sacrifice for my art.
PLAYBOY: When you hosted Saturday Night Live last November, you claimed to have “one of the greatest mustaches ever.” That’s a pretty bold statement. Which celebrity mustache would rank a close second?
JASON LEE: Burt Reynolds, obviously. And Tom Selleck is definitely on the list. I also have a lot of respect for Bill Suplee’s ‘stache. He plays Willie the one-eyed postman on Earl, and he has the most insane handlebar mustache I’ve ever seen. It curls in ways that can’t be described.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of Burt Reynolds, he’s been a recurring motif in your work. You’ve referenced him in nearly every Kevin Smith film, and you even devoted an episode of Earl to Smokey & The Bandit. What is it about Burt that’s so fascinating to you?
JASON LEE: Smokey & the Bandit was such a huge part of my youth. It was my fantasy to be the manly man with the hot rod and the cowboy hat. Which is kinda funny, because I turned out to be the exact opposite of the tough guy. Doing the Earl episode about Smokey & The Bandit was such a huge thrill for me. When I drove the Bandit car, I remember thinking, “Man, I need to get a cowboy hat and a Trans Am and some cowboy boots, and I’m just going to drive cross-country.” There’s something kinda appealing about that. I want to be on the run from the law with stolen beer in my trunk.
PLAYBOY: Do you think audiences actually sympathize with Earl, or do they just enjoy mocking a white-trash loser?
JASON LEE: They definitely sympathize with him. We’re not making fun of Earl, and I don’t think people would like the show as much if we did. If Earl was just some redneck asshole, it wouldn’t be as funny. It’s rare anymore that a comedy wants to move you on an emotional level as much as make you laugh. There’s this ironic, cynical gloss that permeates a lot of films and TV shows. But we really care about Earl. We’re rooting for him to succeed, and I think that’s why it works.
PLAYBOY: Before accepting the role on My Name Is Earl, you sat down and wrote a pro-and-con list. What were some of the cons?
JASON LEE: I was apprehensive about doing TV because I didn’t want to be known for a certain character. When I did Kissing a Fool with David Schwimmer, I realized how trapped he was by his role on Friends. Everywhere we’d go, people would shout out to him, “Ross! Hey, Ross!” It’s difficult to get away from the shadow of a TV character. Hopefully I’ve done enough movies already that I won’t be pigeonholed as Earl for the rest of my life.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you have a similar problem early in your film career? For years, you were known almost solely as Brodie from Mallrats or Banky from Chasing Amy. Did that ever bother you?
JASON LEE: Not really. People are going to see you how they want to see you. I used to get a lot of college guys who’d come up to me and say, “Hey Brodie, you wanna smoke a joint?” They assumed that I was the same guy they saw on screen, who just sits around and smokes weed all day. But for the most part, I think people know that I’m an actor, and that I’m not really the characters I play. It still happens occasionally, but there’s not much I can do about it.
PLAYBOY: Your “Stink Palm” routine from Mallrats (shaking a person’s hand after wiping your ass) is still a favorite among young fans. Do you care that you might never escape the scatological humor of your past?
JASON LEE: No, I dig it. That’s an admirable legacy. When Mallrats first came out, I couldn’t walk down the street without somebody yelling, “Hey, wanna shake my hand?” It died out after awhile, but it comes back every few years. Recently, I’ve been approached by a lot of 15-year old kids, and they’ll quote lines back to me. Y’know, the usual thing. “You want a chocolate-covered pretzel?” At first, I didn’t think anything of it. But then it hit me; when the movie came out, these kids were six years old. That’s so bizarre to me. They’ve grown up with Mallrats and made it their own.
PLAYBOY: There’s an action figure based on your character in Mallrats. Do you own the toy version of yourself? And if so, do you ever take it out and, uh, play with yourself?
JASON LEE: (Laughs.) I’ve never really played with myself in that way. But again, I’m a 35-year old human being, so the chances are good that I’ve masturbated at some point. It’s a pretty cool action figure. Actually, I think it’s technically called an “inaction” figure. My son has one in his room. We call it “Brodie Daddy”.
PLAYBOY: You’ve played both ends of the spectrum, from multimillionaires to slackers living in their parents’ basement. Which of your characters do you least identify with?
JASON LEE: I identify with all of them, to some extent. But Skip Skipperton (the multimillionaire in 1999’s Mumford) was probably the most challenging for me. He was more introverted and uncomfortable around people than I am. In films like Chasing Amy and Almost Famous, my characters were more outwardly pissed off, so it was easier to draw on my own personality. But Skip was a sweet guy who just didn’t know how to connect with people. It required more acting.
PLAYBOY: You were one of the first professional skateboarders, long before Tony Hawke and the X-Games brought skating into the mainstream. Do you regret retiring before you had a chance to rake in some fat endorsement cash?
JASON LEE: No, I was never interested in that. When I decided to retire, I thought I was getting a little too old to be skating for a living. There was a lot of pressure to be at the top of your game all the time. And my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. But I haven’t given up skating completely. I still cruise around now and then just for fun. I’m way past my prime, so nobody expects much from me anymore.
PLAYBOY: Unlike many athletes, you were able to make the transition from sports to acting. What’s your secret?
JASON LEE: It might be because skateboarders aren’t considered real athletes. It was never as popular as something like basketball. But I think the real reason it worked was because I went into it with no expectations. I was just curious about acting, in much the same way you might be curious about how cars are made or how you’d get to the moon. It was naiveté. My girlfriend’s mother was a talent manager, and when I told her that I wanted to do movies, she said, “Okay, let’s give it a shot.” So many people would’ve said, “Oh, I don’t know. Let’s get you into some acting classes first and see how it goes.” That would have been a bit deflating, and I think I would’ve lost interest eventually.
PLAYBOY: If Earl continues to be a hit, would you be content doing television for the rest of your career?
JASON LEE: Oh, sure. The best thing about Earl is that it’s a steady income. I can do films if and when I want to, as opposed to doing a film that I don’t really believe in because I have to pay the bills. I’ve never been on a Vince Vaughn or Ben Stiller level, so I don’t get offered a lot of starring roles in comedy blockbusters. I’ve done some independent films that I’m proud of, but it’s seven weeks of work for not much money. So then you have to find as many acting jobs as you can just to keep up financially. Earl came along at the right time for me.
PLAYBOY: You still haven’t achieved household name status. Do you yearn for the day when you’re finally bigger than your former Chasing Amy co-star, Ben Affleck?
JASON LEE: Not at all. When you reach a certain status in Hollywood, you have to play a lot of games to stay in the limelight. It becomes more about being famous than being an actor. It’s a cult of personality. Who’s the “It” person this week? Who has the hottest girlfriend and the most bling-bling? Who showed up at the MTV Video Music Awards in a hummer-limousine? For me, it’s always more rewarding when people come up to me and say, “I loved you in Mumford. What’s your name again?” That’s how I always wanted it to be.
PLAYBOY: You played the frontman for fictional rock band Stillwater in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Do you miss your brief career as a semi-legitimate rocker?
JASON LEE: Oh, man, are you kidding me? I miss it every day. That was probably the coolest thing I have ever done. I still remember meeting for band rehearsals before the shoot started. Every day for about six weeks, we’d get together and just jam. We had cases of beer and all this vintage equipment to play with. I still get positive reactions from people about that movie. I got stopped on the street once by Kenny Loggins. He just walked up to me and said, “You’re in one of my favorite movies of all fucking time!” He told me how we got it exactly right, how it was everything he remembered about being in a touring rock band during the 70s. All I could think was, “I’m having a conversation with Kenny Loggins!”
PLAYBOY: Were you feeling a little footloose?
JASON LEE: (Laughs.) Yeah, I started 80s-dancing in the street.
PLAYBOY: Any chance that Stillwater might reunite and go on a non-fictional world tour?
JASON LEE: That’d be amazing. But the only problem is, I can’t sing. That’d kind of ruin the experience for everybody. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to hear my actual singing voice. It isn’t pretty.
PLAYBOY: In Chasing Amy, your character showed off the scars from his many sexual conquests. Do you have any real scars with interesting stories behind them?
JASON LEE: I have lots of scars, but they’re mostly from my skateboarding days. I have scars on my knees from smashing into the corners of cement benches. I have scars on my pelvis from jumping off my board and sliding like Superman down a hill. One time, I snapped my wrist in half and had to get a cast on my arm. Like an idiot, I skated before the cast was taken off, and I fell again and broke my other arm. For the next three months, I had to brush my teeth using only my thumb and pinky.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been dumped by a lot of girlfriends in your movies, from Jennifer Love Hewitt in Heartbreakers to Shannon Doherty in Mallrats to Selma Blair in A Guy Thing. Do you have a personal favorite cinema breakup?
JASON LEE: The Mallrats one was pretty brutal. You don’t want to be dumped with a letter. That’s about as cold as it gets. I guess my favorite was when I did the dumping. There was the “friendship breakup” in Vanilla Sky, when I’m with Tom Cruise at the police station and I tell him, “I was your only friend,” and then I turn around and walk away. Sometimes losing a friend can be more devastating than losing a girlfriend.
PLAYBOY: Be honest, were you as confused as we were by Vanilla Sky’s plot? What the hell was going on in that film?
JASON LEE: I’ll give you the easy answer. It’s open to interpretation. I just went along with Cameron Crowe (the writer and director). It was enough that he knew what the movie was about.
PLAYBOY: In Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, you performed something called “The Tongue Song”, which basically involved rhythmically flicking your tongue. Was this an improvised bit, or are you an accomplished tongue soloist?
JASON LEE: It’s just something silly that I’ve always done. When I was a teenager, a friend and I would hide in the bushes in front of his parent’s house, and when somebody would walk by, I’d start flicking my tongue at them. We videotaped everything. One night, these two girls walked by and when they heard me, they just started screaming bloody murder. When I was on the set for Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, it was just something I’d do to pass the time. (Director) Kevin (Smith) heard it and said, “Oh, you’ve got to do that in the movie.”
PLAYBOY: You co-star with the notoriously eccentric Crispin Glover in the upcoming indie film Drop Dead Sexy. Does Glover scare you as much as he does us?
JASON LEE: Not at all. He’s very professional and articulate and intelligent. He’s eccentric, sure, but in a non-ironic sense. He’s not just putting on an act; he’s genuinely like that. Everybody thinks he’s psychotic and likes to collect eyeballs and stuff. But he’s not a nut. He knows what he’s doing. It’s not like he’s going to bite you and drink your blood or anything. He’s actually a pretty sweet guy once you get to know him.
PLAYBOY: You’ve done a lot of voice-over work recently, first in The Incredibles and again in the upcoming Monster House. Are voice-overs like a paid vacation for you, if only because they’re so much easier than a regular movie role?
JASON LEE: Not necessarily. It can be tough at times, because you’re alone in a room with a script and a microphone and there’s only a director telling you what to do. You don’t get to act with anybody else. I met everybody in The Incredibles cast for the first time at the premiere, which was kinda weird. For something like Monster House, it’s actually motion-capture, like they did with The Polar Express. You’re wearing a skintight suit covered in reflective markers, and you’re surrounded by dozen of cameras in a big, mesh square. It almost feels like you’re in a wrestling ring.
PLAYBOY: You named your son Pilot Inspektor. Do people still give you flak for choosing such an unconventional name?
JASON LEE: (Laughs.) All the time. (My wife) Beth and I just thought that Pilot Inspektor sounded like a cool name, but I can understand why some people would be baffled by it. A girl came up to me at a diner recently and asked, “Why would you name your son Pilot?” I said, “What should I have named him? Would ‘Dan’ have been better? Or ‘Brad’?” I’m not trying to be self-consciously weird. But it’s so easy to succumb to thoughts like, “What will my neighbors think? What will my co-workers think?” I think it’s much braver to follow your own instincts.
PLAYBOY: After Tom Cruise’s outspoken comments about Scientology resulted in such a fierce media backlash, are you less apt to be open about your own Scientology beliefs?
JASON LEE: There are certain things I’ve found to be true for me. But that’s not something I want or need to share with the world. I’m more concerned with making a good television show than putting out my personal beliefs. If somebody wants to ask me about my thoughts on music, I’ll tell you. But I won’t go off on an hour-long rant about how much I hate Britney Spears. Why bother? It’s not that I’m more guarded. I’m not trying to lay low about my beliefs because of a fear that I’ll be judged harshly. I’m just not interested in being a spokesperson for anything.
PLAYBOY: You’ve played characters with names like Brodie, Banky, Beaver, Puggy, Skip, Donner, and Bones. Is it a coincidence that your resume sounds like the roster of a cartoon animal fraternity?
JASON LEE: (Laughs.) Not at all. I kinda like that. It makes me feel like I’ve done my job well. Those are characters you remember. It’s just like with my son Pilot. I’d rather have my resume filled with names like Puggy, Bones and Beaver than Dan, Brad, and John. It makes life more interesting.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June 2006 issue of Playboy magazine.)