Jason Mewes woke up one Christmas morning and discovered the couch he was sleeping on was engulfed in flames. He knew long before this moment that his life had to change. But it took a warning flare like this to penetrate the heroin stupor he'd vanished into, off and on, for almost a decade. None of his friends were speaking to him anymore. His apartment had no lights, no electricity, no food in the kitchen. Worst of all, he feared he'd lost his greatest resource: Kevin Smith, a guy who had repeatedly rescued him from varying degrees of doom and dead ends.
Mewes had wondered if he'd know rock bottom when he saw it. Now that he had nearly set himself on fire, it was hard to miss. He'd fallen asleep on Christmas Eve with an empty stomach, a vein full of dope, and a candle burning. Now he was left with an unpleasant choice: Stay in L.A. and face a slow march toward a junkie's demise, or return to New Jersey where he was a wanted man due to a probation violation and do six months of court-mandated rehab or a year in jail. He thought to himself, ''This ain't no way to live,'' got in the car, and drove east from Los Angeles to begin the process of untangling his life.
It's been more than three years since his rendezvous with the flaming couch, and on this sultry summer afternoon, Mewes is hardly the portrait of a calcified ex-addict who narrowly escaped serious jail time (a lenient judge sentenced him to six months of rehab). In fact, there is a striking lack of world-weariness to the wiry, kinetic ball of energy ricocheting around the porch of an aging Hollywood bungalow that serves as the Clerks II production office. He's instantly familiar, amiably greeting a visitor he's never met. Then, seconds later, he's a little too familiar: ''So, are you wearing a thong under that dress?''
Such is the indiscreet charm of Jason Mewes. With all the subtlety of a jackhammer, Mewes, 32, has created an indelible onscreen persona as Jay, the rapping, ranting, break-dancing half of Jay and Silent Bob (played by Smith), the profane, pot-dealing duo who appear in nearly all of Smith's movies, including Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and this month's Clerks II. Smith first gave him license to uncork his persona on camera in 1994's Clerks, by casting him as himself. The movie became a Sundance sensation and made Mewes a cult hero to a generation of anti-strivers. ''He's revered,'' says Smith of Mewes' status in the ''View Askewniverse,'' the filmmaker's term (derived from Smith's production company, View Askew) for his fan base: pop-culture omnivores who worship the wisecracking counter jockeys in his movies.
''The thing I hear most is 'I know a guy just like Jay.' Everybody has a Jay in their life.''
Today, Mewes has seven new movies shot and awaiting release, including David Arquette's directorial debut, The Tripper; Bottom's Up, the unfortunately titled romantic comedy costarring Paris Hilton; and Clerks II, which follows the careerless wonders to a McJob where Jay's twisted antics are especially revealing (think: full frontal). But Mewes' resurgence has less to do with his own passion and persistence than with his ability to inspire friends in the industry to seek out his company, which often includes a role in a movie and an honest paycheck. Unlike most flameout tales, in which actors fall prey to ubiquitous temptation and the cold pressure to succeed, this is the rare story that casts Hollywood as the hero.