Jason Lee’s career has had many incarnations, starting off with the pro skateboarding days before he became an actor. There are the Kevin Smith movies, most notably Chasing Amy, which launched him into the spotlight. There’s the questionable romcom phase, including Heartbreakers with Jennifer Love Hewitt and A Guy Thing with Julia Stiles. There’s the hodge-podge of supporting roles in films ranging from forgettable (Dreamcatcher) to noteworthy (Almost Famous). Then there is, of course, his current role as an atoning redneck on the TV show My Name is Earl.
But after the birth of his four-year-old son, Pilot Inspektor Riesgraf Lee, in 2003, Lee entered a whole new universe of moviemaking: kiddie fare. (And if you’re wondering where the heck a name like Pilot comes from, it’s pulled from a Grandaddy song. Inspektor? He just liked the sound of it.) Starting with the villain in The Incredibles, Lee went on to voice characters for Monster House and Underdog. Now he stars as Dave Seville in the part-CGI, part-live action Alvin and the Chipmunks, playing the father figure to the famous, singing rodent trio. Lee spoke to Babble about his discipline style and his son’s questions about CGI characters. – Mina Hochberg
Is your son familiar with Alvin and the Chipmunks?
He is now, yeah. He came to the set a couple times and wondered where [the chipmunks] were, and when he didn’t see them on the set I told him they’re not working today.
Do you think working in CGI, without actors in front of you, tested your acting skills?
I don’t know if it tested my skills necessarily, but it definitely tested my patience. Because most of the time there really was nothing other than nothing. If the space that [the chipmunks] were occupying was on camera, I couldn’t even have tape marks. The director would say, “Here’s where they’re standing or sitting or lying,” so I’d just have to move my eye line around and know where they each were.
What made you decide to take this role?
I thought of [The Chipmunks] as being a classic, and hopefully an opportunity to be in something that itself could go on and become somewhat of a holiday classic. It’s something different from Earl completely, down to no facial hair. And [there's] the bonus of having a son who’s going to be very excited about it. Because when we saw the preview, he got so excited: “Dad, that’s you up there with the chipmunks!” I’m just really getting a kick out of the fact that I’m acting with these chipmunks that he thinks are real.
Dave Seville is always yelling “Alvin!!” when Alvin gets in trouble. How are you with discipline when it comes to parenting in real life?
I don’t yell. I think Dave is a little bit of the easily frustrated type. I tried to figure why that was while we were shooting. I knew that it had something to do with the fact that he hated his job – he was a struggling musician. So I just figured that this was a guy that had sort of gotten used to failing and was a little bit grumpy about it. But in terms of my own son, I don’t yell. Unlike Dave, I try to talk to him.
Does your son have a favorite film of yours?
I know he likes The Incredibles, but the advantage of Alvin and the Chipmunks is that I’m on camera. So he likes The Incredibles, but it’s not as exciting. When I took him to see Underdog, the whole time he just kept asking questions: “How do they get your voice to come out of the dog’s mouth? How does the dog fly? Why does the dog wear a cape? Are you inside the dog? Is the dog a costume?” So now this way he’ll see me with them and it’ll be a little bit easier.
Does he get to watch Earl?
Yeah. He’s bored with it, though. At first when he saw me on television, he’d point at the TV and walk to it and touch it. Now he’s just like, “Whatever. You’re Earl and you have a big ugly moustache seven months a year.”
When you first started acting back in the good old Kevin Smith days, did you ever imagine you’d end up where you ended up?
Absolutely not. I was kind of young and I didn’t know what acting meant until I did Chasing Amy . . . I watched Chasing Amy again about a year ago for the first time in five or six years. As good as it is, there’s definitely part of me that sees myself in the movie as being very green. So on one handit’s a bad thing, but on the other hand it’s a good thing because it shows progression.
Do you have any other projects lined up?
I don’t really have anything lined up. I was just expecting to work the season through [before the writer's strike started]. It’s a little bit of a blessing because I get a little bit of a break – for a few weeks or so, hopefully. Fingers crossed. I just bought a house like three weeks before the strike, so the sooner the strike is over and I get back to work the better.
Are you getting to spend a little more time with Pilot?
Yeah, every day. I skateboard with him – he’s skateboarding now. I can’t wait to get back. We try to go to Disneyland every few months, so maybe we’ll go back to Disneyland this week.
Do you see any of yourself in his skateboarding?
Yeah, he’s pretty good. He’s got good balance. And he’s one funny, smart kid, so I’m curious to see what he ends up wanting to do. I wouldn’t discourage him from acting, but I would definitely say maybe wait a little bit. Maybe wait until you’re a teenager.