TNT's new series Memphis Beat is proving to be a hit with both fans and critics alike. The series follows Dwight Hendricks (Jason Lee), a quirky Memphis police detective with an intimate connection to the city, a passion for blues music and a close relationship with his mother. He is "the keeper of Memphis," a Southern gentleman who is protective of his fellow citizens, reverential of the city's history and deeply rooted in its blues music scene.
DJ Qualls plays Davey Sutton, a young police officer who fancies himself to be Dwight's protégé, yet he struggles to get Dwight to even like him. Davey is not a dumb guy. More often than not, he's just a victim of trying too hard in his quest to be successful and appreciated. There's never any question that Davey's heart is in the right place. And every once in a while, his insights into Memphis and its people prove to be very valuable.
On Tuesday July 13th, Davey Sutton will take center stage on Memphis Beat in Episode 1.04: Poke Salad Annie, which finds the attempted murder of a BBQ king bringing suspicion upon someone in his own inner circle. Davey is required to go undercover as a ladies man to get the true story on what actually happened.
We recently caught up with Qualls just as he was taking a break from shooting on the New Orleans set of Memphis Beat. Here is our conversation:
DJ Qualls: You're calling from a (615) number. That's Nashville.
Yes, I am in Nashville right now. Where are you?
DJ Qualls: I'm in New Orleans. I'm sorry if it's a little loud. They are moving a wardrobe trailer. I just finished a really long scene that had eight people in it. I lost count at sixty-two. That's how many times we shot the scene. It was four pages long.
What exactly did that scene entail? And why did you have so many people on set?
DJ Qualls: We have a murder that takes place in a hotel. During this wedding, we are questioning the wedding party, and all this other business. My character is this really over-eager cop. He doesn't really understand the rules. During this particular scene, I recognize a pro basketball player amongst the wedding party. I start flipping out. It was really high energy for me. I had to keep doing this scene again and again. I am so tired right now. I hope I am making scene for you.
I'm sorry to nab you right after you got off of work. It sounds a little crazy over there.
DJ Qualls: No, this is great. I am on a break, and I went and grabbed a drink at the local cafe. This week we are shooting in my neighborhood in New Orleans. I'm getting to hang out in my local spot. This is where I come when I have a free moment from work.
Did you move to New Orleans specifically for the show? Or had you lived there for a while before the show even got picked up?
DJ Qualls: They move you down here. If you do a TV show, they want to hire you as a local. So they give you a tiny apartment and say, "Good luck!" I was so shocked. Normally when you do a film, everything is taken care of. They have you move into a hotel. There is a car arranged for you. On this show, I'm surprised they stop the airplane to let us out. Seriously. We are on our own down here. We had to make a new life for ourselves.
It's a little crazy here in Nashville, because these Memphis Beat billboards are everywhere. It's promoting the Memphis lifestyle, and the Tennessee lifestyle. Is it weird to be shooting in New Orleans, especially since Memphis and New Orleans are so different from each other in terms of the feeling, the flavor, the atmosphere, the people, and just the general vibe.
DJ Qualls: Right. They are completely different. But I will say, I have spent plenty of time in Memphis. I am from Nashville. I know Tennessee so well, so I cant tell when we go to a location how much it looks like where I am from. The location people are really the stars of the show. They find places that look like Memphis. They represent. We do shoot some of the exteriors in Memphis. The reason we shoot in New Orleans is completely financial. I cannot understand for the life of me why the Tennessee State legislature won't match incentives.
That is a good question. It would make my job easier. That's for sure.
DJ Qualls: Hundreds of millions of dollars. That's what the state is losing out on. It's not just the people that work on the project. It gives a lot of support business to restaurants, and hotels, and car rental places. So many people make a living off the movie making business. Don't get me wrong. I love New Orleans. But I'd rather be home. I'd rather be in my own state.
You can also add into that the local excitement factor. People want to visit the places they see on TV. Justified mentioned Prince's Hot Chicken Shake, and the line at the Hot Chicken festival this past weekend was insane, due in large part to that mention.
DJ Qualls: That's an important thing to consider. Our biggest critics live in Memphis. They are annoyed because we are not giving a documentary style feel to their city. I want to make it clear to them, even though we don't shoot there, Memphis is being added to a list of places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Vegas. They are all cities where shows are set. But the shows don't necessarily shoot in those cities. Yet they support those cities. If you look at our fan boards on Facebook, people are talking about the fact that this takes place in Memphis. People don't realize we're not shooting the bulk of our show in Memphis. This makes them interested in the city. That is a huge service to the state. There is a huge Memphis/Nashville rivalry. I read a funny quote that is so Memphis recently. It said that the Tennessee State Legislature would pass Tax incentives when Nashville loses out on a job at bay. Not just when Memphis is losing out, but when Nashville is losing out too. The state will make a change. Memphis looks at Nashville as an older, better treated sibling.
I haven't been here long enough to know the different politics, and how the local people play with each other. I'm just learning the local habits here within Nashville.
DJ Qualls: It is completely like that. The two cities couldn't be more different. Nashville did something that I completely disagree with. Nashville tore down most of the stuff that was historical and Southern to put up a bunch of Walgreen's. Memphis maintains its Southern heritage in a way that Nashville doesn't. Even though I love Nashville, and my heart is there, I am really more drawn to Memphis as a Southerner. It feels more authentically Southern to me.
You mentioned getting to shoot exteriors in Memphis. What exactly does that entail. How long do you guys actually stay within the city?
DJ Qualls: The time spent in Memphis is so minimal. Its mostly driving shots and shots of the skyline. Driving past a local landmark. We were just in Memphis two weeks ago to do a press event. They flew forty radio Djs in. They got to stay the weekend in Memphis. Jason Lee and I were on the rooftop of the Peabody hotel there in Memphis, and we were lamenting how much we love the city, and on the fact that we can't shoot there. It's just financially impossible the way our state is set up. Film and TV is a business before anything. You'll see shows that you love. And they will be the best shows ever. But if they are not getting the ratings, or they are not cheap enough to make, those shows aren't going to make the air. They aren't going to be on very long. If anything, I wish there was a call of action for this change in our state. Because we all want to be there. That said, I love New Orleans. And we are having a blast shooting this show. This is the most fun I have ever had in my life. When I got called for this audition, I initially flew out of town. A George Clooney produced show where I get to play a cop? I was like, "Who the Hell would put me in that part?"
You've been on so many TV shows recently. You were on Earl. You were on Breaking Bad. Did you slowly grow to love working on TV? Is that what made you want to become a series regular?
DJ Qualls: I grew up in a town with no movie theater. TV was my only link to the outside world. Film wasn't such a big deal to me. It was TV. So much so, that when I meet TV stars now...Not my co-workers, but real TV stars, I get nervous. I freak out around them. I don't know what to say to them. I did get a love for TV. I was coming out of film, and I was at this luxury position of only doing shows that were really popular. I got a taste for it that way. I didn't think I would ever do a regular role on a series. Twenty-two episodes is a season. That's nine months out of the year. The cast would start to hate each other. Films take three months. If you're not getting along with someone, you can always go onto the next job. I was surprised when I signed onto this show. We are only doing ten episodes. That is much easier than doing twenty-two. Obviously. But you let your guard down more on TV than you do in film. A film has a beginning, middle, and an end. There is a certain amount of time that you have to embody these people. You know the entire story arch. But on TV, you have to let your guard down. You don't know how long the show is going to last. There is this excitement that comes with developing a character long-term. I wasn't really aware of that. But when I get scripts, it's exciting for me to see where this character is going to go. Another thing about our show is that we're not a procedural. We get to see more of these characters' personal lives, and how what they do really affects them as people. Our characters and personalities are just as much a part of the show as are the crimes.
I was just looking at the episode list for this season alone, and all of the shows are Elvis song titles. Does that mean the show stops when you finally run out? Does that make you feel like you are trapped in a particular box?
DJ Qualls: They have really been quite ingenious about that. They've been pulling Elvis Presley songs that aren't really his songs. They are his covers. Some of these were never even released. The title of my episode is Poke Salad Annie, which wasn't one of his songs. The reason I am doing these calls right now is because this is Sutton's first big episode. He wants to be a detective so bad, and he doesn't understand the procedure. He is missing up all the time, because he is so overeager. What you will see on this episode that airs on the 13th is Sutton's first opportunity to go undercover. He ends up really crossing the line with the suspect. In a major, major way. He does learn from it. The title is Poke Salad Annie, and I am familiar with the original song. That was the one that was played for me. Elvis covered it in the 70s, and I have still never heard the Elvis version. I think his catalogue is so big, we could be on the air for the next ten years and not run through every one of his songs.
That's what I was thinking when I was looking at this episode list. I've seen the first episode, but I never really looked at the upcoming episodes before today.
DJ Qualls: You see. There is this misconception that Jason Lee, the lead of our show, is an Elvis Presley impersonator. He's not at all. He is an original blues singer. We tapped into that Elvis thing. My character's relationship with Jason's character is based on a relationship that Elvis had with his best friend growing up. His name is Jerry Schilling. He wrote this book called "Elvis and Me". It's a very compelling story about what its like to grow up, and for the rest of your life have this bigger than life influence that the whole world knows. That is my character's story on Memphis Beat. The whole city of Memphis knows Dwight Hendricks. Davey wants to be like him so bad.
I didn't realize that's what the relationship in the show was based on. I don't think I have read that until now.
DJ Qualls: I didn't realize it until we went to Memphis and we were attending this press event. I met Jerry. The creator of our show was there, and he told me that this was where the idea for Sutton and Hendricks' relationship came from.
So you actually met Jerry. Did that at all change your performance, or influence what you are continuing to shoot up through today?
DJ Qualls: It didn't in the fact that we were already so into our groove. It can't be exactly alike. And also, Jason and I have a certain chemistry. I worked with him before on My Name Is Earl. And I did my second movie with Jason called Big Trouble, which Barry Sonnenfeld directed years ago.
I love that movie.
DJ Qualls: Thank you. So, we came into this with our own dynamic. That relationship does inform things for me. Jerry also showed us Graceland. He gave us our own personal tour. I have been to Graceland a hundred times. Every kid in middle Tennessee has this night where it hits midnight, and they are like, "Let's go to Graceland!" It's a rite of passage. I did it. But this was very cool. I got to see Graceland through Jerry's eyes. Jerry lived there. It wasn't the regular tour. He'd say, "In this room, we did this. And here in this room, it was my room." He showed me Graceland in a completely new and different way. I have to say, there is the best billboard in downtown right now. It says, "What happens in Vegas...Started in Memphis."
I dig that. Its cool.
DJ Qualls: It is so cool.
I spoke with Jason Lee right before the show hit the air. He said you guys would be going to Graceland at some point. Has that happened yet?
DJ Qualls: No, it hasn't. But Jerry is actually on our show next week. We haven't gone to Graceland yet. It will eventually happen. We haven't been renewed for season two yet, but we are already making plans. We are pulling some pretty excellent numbers for TNT. If I am not mistaken, I think we are the second highest rated show on their network.
And that's only after three episodes. That's pretty good.
DJ Qualls: Its all boring stuff, I know. But for me its pretty exciting. This is my first TV show, so when the numbers come in, it's different than watching financial numbers for movies, and checking out what numbers a movie did for that week. Because you know you debuted to whatever money you are gong to make, and you are going to have a steady decline. It's interesting to watch the TV numbers go up and down. For our premiere, we did really super well for our network. The second week we dropped 4%. And this past week we were up 10%. Its weird. You get to have this sense of ownership and pride. Which you don't have on a film.
The interesting thing about it is that it's a summer TV show. And the summer movies this year are horrible! The people I know here would rather stay at home and watch Memphis Beat than go through the hassle of getting to the movie theater.
DJ Qualls: Its certainly cheaper. And it's not as hot. You don't have to get in your car. That's the cool part about being a summer TV show. When I was growing up, summer television was all reruns. It was boring. To get new programming every week? This is across the board. It's not just us. And it's exciting. Summer used to belong to reality TV. Now we are seeing scripted series. The luxury of being on cable as opposed to being on a network is that we get to push things further. You're not in a box. Our show, on a major network, would have to become a standard procedural. We get the luxury of shooting the majority of our show on location. That affects the look of our show, the feel of our show, and how this show is executed. Its much more fun as an actor.
You mentioned the fact that Jason Lee is not playing an Elvis impersonator. He is a blues singer. And he does his own thing, and it has elements of Elvis in his act. I want to know if we are going to see you getting on stage at any point in this series. Will you be singing? Will you be bringing some of your other talents to the show?
Yeah, Jason has a different guy doing all of his singing for him.
DJ Qualls: Right. But when I first heard it, I thought it was Jason. I was in that first scene, in the pilot, when he gave that first performance. I thought it was him singing live. The guy doing the singing sounds so much like Jason's speaking voice. Also, Jason can sing. I have heard him sing. It's more a logistical problem. He can't go into the studio to record anything. Because he is in every scene of our show. He works seventeen hours a day. There's no way logistically that he could go into a recording studio to record those songs.
How many more episodes do you have to finish shooting before this season is over?
DJ Qualls: We just shot episode 8. We have two more left. Then we are done with this season, and we will see what we get ordered next season. The word is good and the hope is high. I went into this thing knowing that we had a guaranteed ten. Which is a real luxury. Ten is our season. On a network, if they order thirteen, and after episode five its not doing well, they will pull the rest of the episodes. TNT will actually allow a show to grow. It will be interesting to see how many we get if we're renewed for next season. I am hoping fifteen.
Are you planning on taking a break after these ten episodes are all in the can? Or are you going to jump right back into your film work?
DJ Qualls: I'd just done a movie in the Philippeans. I did a movie with John Sayles. It stars Chris Cooper. It was a war picture, and it was really, really tough because we shot in the jungle. Then I came right into this show. About three weeks into this, I told my representation that I really wanted to roll right into a film. Because I was going to be sad once this was over. But now I am starting to rethink that. I think I might need to take some sort of a break. The luxury and beauty of our show is that we won't start again until the winter. I'll have some time. I can take some time off and then find a movie.
What are your guys Comic-Con plans? Is Memphis Beat heading down this year? TV is huge this year.
DJ Qualls: We aren't going to be there. It just doesn't fit into our schedule. We've had to leave here so often. Most of our free time has been spent flying away to do press. It became so tiresome that we can't do it. I would love to. I have never had that experience. There is always next year. I personally couldn't do it right now. I still have a bunch of talk shows I have to do before the end of the season.
Have you ever been there just as a fan?
DJ Qualls: No, I have never been there. No. I have been invited a couple of times. And I can't figure out why. They want me to do autograph signings. First of all, I have never, besides The Core, which didn't fare well, done a science fiction oriented movie. I did one comic book inspired film. But it was so independent that it never really saw the light of day. I don't know what I would do there. I certainly don't want to be the one guy where no one comes to his booth. But if this show goes, I am down to go.
The autograph booths upstairs span every genre. Not just sci-fi, superhero, and horror.
DJ Qualls: The idea of sitting in a booth, and having someone pay me to sign autographs, seems so gross to me.
It seems weird that you'd even be asked to do that. Especially since you are a working actor with a fairly large fanbase. They usually reserve those booths for people who can't get work anymore. Like old wrestlers and guys that were on shows that didn't last too long back in the 70s and 80s.
DJ Qualls: I can pretty much say right now, unless something goes horribly wrong, you will not see me doing two things. You wont see me charging for an autograph, ever. And you won't see me shilling bread makers at four o'clock in the morning on an infomercial. Those are two things you'll never see me do.
I don't think you'll ever have to do that. You have such a strong fan base. I know a lot of people who love you. Half the people I talked to wanted to watch Memphis Beat because of Jason, then the other half want to see it because of you.
DJ Qualls: Its very nice. When I mentioned at seven or eight years old that I wanted to be an actor, and everyone laughed at me, I never thought I would have such a cool, devoted fan base. People are so cool with me when I meet them in the street. It also makes my life a little more difficult, in that I'm not the type of actor that people are afraid to approach. I am doing a series of interviews today, and they started off in a café across the street. People are constantly coming up to me, and they are so nice. But it does zap your energy. We had Essence Fest here in New Orleans this past week. I went to see Janet Jackson. I had to leave half way through because people kept coming up to me and grabbing my clothes. They put me in a headlock. They hug me. I got my collar bone broke a few years ago in Vegas by a bunch of overzealous frat boys that were hugging me. I am a frail dude. It's so flattering, and so nice. At the end of the day, I am so thankful that I've done the type of work that makes people feel as if they know me. And that they can come up to me and say whatever they want.
You do seem quite approachable. Me, myself? I see actors and celebrities all the time, and I am always a little apprehensive about approaching them no matter who they are.
DJ Qualls: I've seen actors that I am afraid to approach. There have been other people I have worked with that I am afraid to approach. Some of those people do nothing to levitate that.
Who have you been afraid of?
DJ Qualls: The people I am afraid of are the people who have not been nice to me. I am not going to say who they were.
That's understandable. What about Jason Lee? He seems personable, yet he is quite guarded in his personal life.
DJ Qualls: He has a family. It's a little different for him. When he is in public, he's usually with his children. There's more of a barrier there for him. I think. People love him. He has his My Name Is Earl fans. But he also has those independent, skateboarding fans that really love him. He is great with it, but he has a persona that is a bit darker, and more anti-cool than mine. People are more trepadatious about approaching him. Also, on our show, he has jet black sideburns. Those make him look a little more mysterious. I'm a goofy kid in a cop uniform. Of course you're going to come right up to me and say whatever you want.