EXCLUSIVE: Dax Shepard on Casting Kristen Bell as a 'Sh*thead' and Directing His Own Nude Scene
By John Boone
Not 24 hours before I met up with Dax Shepard to discuss his CHiPs reboot (or as it's now called, CHIPS), Kristen Bell had done the same, interviewing her husband and their costar, Michael Peña, as a special correspondent for Entertainment Tonight. That's a tough act to follow, and even more so after hearing how she did from Shepard: "Much hotter than your average host, I gotta say," he deadpanned. "I don't actually know who she was replacing, so that's not directly comparing her to someone else. But any question that she asks goes down with a spoonful of sugar."
Despite the taste of my questions (salty?), Shepard happily discussed his wife and how she ended up playing a "sh*thead" in his movie, the perks of casting famous friends, and hard-R ratings -- it's the same CHIPS you love, now with more dick jokes!
ET: Nowadays, when you sign on to reboot something that people loved, you have to assume you're going to take heat for it from the fans. Did you get any of that?
Dax Sheperd: Absolutely. It's like a doubly whammy. You're going to get heat from people who, you know, it's sacred ground to them, because it was their childhood. Then you have people who are just always going to kneejerk hate any reboot of anything. But that doesn't really bother me.
To me, this show had three magic ingredients: It had California, it had motorcycles and it had this odd couple, this goofy, tall, white dude and this Latino stud. I think those are the things that made it a global show that people liked, and we still have those things. I think you can only write and direct a movie that you yourself would watch, so that meant there was going to be a huge departure, for sure. I compare it to the Adam West Batman on TV, which I loved as a kid, and then [was] just so delighted Christopher Nolan went 180-degrees opposite of that for Dark Knight.
What did you want to add to those three ingredients to make this yours?
I'm just trying to make Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys every time I work. Those are my favorite movies. [Laughs] I knew more what I didn't want to do, and I didn't want to do a parody version. I didn't want to do a campy version. I wanted the actors in the movie to be taking the movie seriously and for the world to be scary and threatening and the stakes to be real. I knew that.
Did you ever get the chance to speak with any of that original cast? Have you gotten that coveted "blessing"? [Shepard and Peña previously denied feuding with the original CHiPs cast.]
The creator of the show, Rick Rosner, was one of our producers and he's older, he's in his 70s. So, I emailed him this R-rated action-comedy, and I was just nervously awaiting him calling me to say, "What have you done?" But he loved it more than anybody else. He was like, "It's so fun to see this thing I created for primetime, family-friendly TV go through your head." Once I had his blessing and [knew] that he was genuinely excited about it, I wasn't really too worried about what other people would say.
Never Erik Estrada or Larry Wilcox, then?
There was no reason for me to do that. Yeah.
When you're doing a hard-R movie, how do you decide how many F-words is funny before it starts to become gratuitous?
I definitely see movies where the red band trailer comes out and really the only thing that changes is they're saying "f**k" a lot. I'm not conscious of it at all. I write how I talk and so I say about the same amount of "f**ks" [in the movie] that Dax Shepard would probably say in an average sentence. That's my barometer. And then you test the movie and you find out if something's too much, but it was never, like, the language was too much. It turned out my sense of humor is too perverse at times, that's what I found out.
You also direct your own nude scene, which must be an interesting day on the job.
For them! Not for me. I think in the morning I started off putting my robe on in between every take when I would go over and talk to the camera department. But, as less and less time was available to us, I found that I was not putting my robe on between takes and I'd be like, "Wow, I haven't put on any clothes on in three or four hours and everyone seems to be fine with it." By the way, that was the second day of filming, so I was relative strangers with most of the people, except for my department heads. The rest of the people were new faces. And Peña and I didn't know each other, so that was day two for him as well.
As the director, is there any conflict of vanity of wanting to make sure you look good in those scenes, too?
I probably would have been thinking about it more if it wasn't such a technical scene to shoot. It sounds silly to say that, but of all the different stunts, that was by far in the top three hardest things just to film correctly. I was in a harness on a trolley with an air ratchet and I got slammed into the wall. There are a lot of elements involved with that, so I lost track of [the nudity]. If I was just there as an actor, I would have been thinking about it a lot, like, "Oh, I gotta do pushups. I gotta do this or that," but the much bigger priority for me was making sure I wasn't screwed in the editing room.
This is, I believe, your fifth time working together with Kristen--
Probably! If you're not counting commercials.
Does she get first dibs on roles in your movies?
She does. She could have played Ponch, if she wanted. Because I did not write [the role of] Karen for her. I was thinking I would cast someone who's kind of inherently unlikable and she decided she was going to play Karen and she did. And she's great.
Did she have to pitch you?
She did, yeah! Because I was going to probably ask a favor of some actress I knew that I thought would be funny, but she read it and she said, "I want to play Karen." I said, "But you're so likable and this person is such a terrible person." And she's like, "I can do it." I think not only did she do it, but she was actually right. It's more fun to see someone that you actually know is good be such a sh*thead. I think there's another level of fun to that.
You and Kristen seem to work well together, which isn't always the case for couples, whether actors or not. Does your dynamic have to change on set? Or does it just feel like fun?
It's just totally fun. We've been together almost 10 years, so she's auditioned in 10 years, I don't know, 300 times? And she'll work on the audition with me. I help her with her lines and then I'll also go, like, "I think it's cooler if you do it like this way," or, "I think it'd be fun--" So, we had already kind of developed this rapport where she trusted my instincts and she would use them when she would audition. By the time we did Hit and Run, it was far from our first time of me going, "Oh, I think it's more fun when you do this..." Unlike me, she has no problem being directed.
You guys are just running lines together at home? That's pretty cute.
Oh, yeah, always! The best was Hit and Run, I could've never made that movie without her, because it was such a harder schedule and I had so many more lines in that movie and she had a lot of lines in that movie, so on the way to and from set -- we always had like an hour drive to set -- we would learn the scenes we had to do that day. I don't know where that time would have come from if not for carpooling with your wife to work.
I also loved Mae Whitman's cameo. She's becoming, like, the queen of cameos. Between this and Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, she really sticks by her Parenthood costars.
She does! Which is so nice that she does that for us, because she's a better actor than all of us. I think when you're in this business for a while, you fall in love with people on set and the only sad part of that is that the schedules rarely match up so you don't get to spend as much time as you'd like. Weirdly, working becomes this excuse to hang out with each other.
Like, Kristen and I love [Josh] Duhamel. We like him so much, but he lives in f**king Brentwood. We'll never see him. We are not going to spend two hours in the car to see him. To have an excuse to spend a whole day together, it's just awesome for everyone involved. Or Maya [Rudolph]! I love Maya so much. We had such a good time on Idiocracy. We fell in love and we don't get to see each other, so we got to spend a day together on this.