Since tackling more serious material than, say, “Without a Paddle” or “Employee of the Month,” with the excellent indie “The Freebie” and NBC’s solid “Parenthood,” Dax Shepard has noticed that critics like him a lot better. But he hasn’t seen a change in public opinion.
“My most successful movie’s still ‘Without a Paddle,’” says Shepard, whose latest, “Hit and Run,” opens Wednesday. “It’s more successful than ‘The Freebie’ or any [makes air quotes] quote-‘good movies’ I’ve done. And those people didn’t see it because they hated it. They saw it because they love it. So they like me in ‘Without a Paddle’ as much as any ‘Parenthood’ fan likes me as Crosby. So to me it’s like, if I’m making people happy, I don’t have a hierarchy of what’s more important to me: to make people who like ‘Without a Paddle’ happy or people who like ‘Parenthood’ happy.
“Happy people are happy people.”
As star, writer and co-director of “Hit & Run,” Shepard, 37, splits the difference, offering intimate moments between Charlie (Shepard) and his girlfriend Annie (Shepard’s real-life fiancee Kristen Bell) as well as broad comedy, like a hotel room filled with naked elderly people. That encounter occurs when Annie and Charlie, whose dangerous background remains unknown to his better half, must run from the criminals (including Bradley Cooper) Charlie testified against before going into the witness protection program.
At the Park Hyatt, Michigan-native Shepard talked about coming to terms with a significant other’s past, the reason for Cooper’s dreadlocks in the movie and his fiancee’s fixations, both real (sloths) and fake (Taylor Lautner).
I’m interested in the real-life inspirations behind this movie. Most importantly, how much is Kristen actually, as your character says to hers in the movie, distracted by Taylor Lautner?
That’s just an inside joke with her and I. Because we went and saw the “Twilight” movie—I think it’s pretty hilarious that it’s appropriate for 40-year-old moms and their daughters to go and for the 40-year-old moms to be screaming, like, “Take your shirt off, Lautner!” Whereas if a father and son went and saw Kristen Stewart in “Zathura” and were screaming, “Take your shirt off!” guys would end up in jail. I just think it’s a pretty funny paradox that women are allowed to gawk over Lautner. So any time Lautner would be around I’d constantly accuse her of liking Lautner. But she doesn’t really like Lautner. I would always tease her and say she was going to that Lautner action movie. Every time we’d see a billboard I would say, “Oh, there’s your movie, honey. You’re going to be first, opening day, going to that Lautner movie.”
How does she respond to that?
She laughs or plays along and talks about how gorgeous he is and natural he is.
You’ve talked about the relationship between your characters having similarities to you and Kristen, regarding things couples have to learn and understand about each other and their past. Is there a story that you can share that particularly shook up Kristen about yours?
There’s not one specific story, but I was a raging addict for 11 years, so there’s all kinds of terrifying stories within that 11 years. That I find humorous and she finds terrifying. I think at the beginning of our relationship we were coming from such drastically different backgrounds that it was very scary for her to commit herself to a guy with my background and potentially have children with. And I gotta imagine we’re not the only two people in the country that have had that dynamic in the beginning of our relationship. And a lot of friends of mine, they don’t overcome that. They don’t communicate about that, they don’t work through that, and we were lucky enough to do that and I believe she feels very safe with me but that was a process. So yes, this movie explored that, albeit in a car chase movie. [Laughs.]
So you weren’t involved in a car chase when you spilled the beans to her?
No, no, but a lot of those arguments that we have in the movie are very, very similar to ones we’ve had. Just with mildly different specifics.
Going through that again in the film, would you classify that as cathartic or just interesting to revisit those dynamics?
It was more interesting. 'Cause all those issues at that point, we had been together for four years when we shot this; those had pretty much been straightened out, hammered out. So I more had to, when I wanted to [bleep] with her on her close-up, I would more dream up the worst possible thing that I could have done and just tell her that I did that. With whatever friend of hers is the hottest or something.
What was the worst possible thing?
I think [bleeping] your fiance’s best friends is, if not the worst thing, it’s gotta be in the Top 5.
Where would you see the line at which something becomes unforgivable?
For me in life everything’s forgivable. There’s not one thing that you can’t be forgiven for. Well, if she murdered my mother, that would probably be a deal-breaker. But anything other than that—
What if you found out she was a professional puppy-kicker?
That’d be a drag, but I could get past it. People are infinitely fallible, and my expectation of humans is that they will err and not that they’re going to be perfect. I expect people to [bleep] up; it’s kind of what makes us human. So I don’t have any expectations of her being perfect, so because of that I’m not going to be that let down when she proves not to be.
When Charlie reveals that his real name is Yul, he talks about being made fun of as a kid for having an unusual name, I couldn’t help but wonder if that came from your life, too.
For sure. Well, now, what’s really ironic is it went straight from people making fun of my name to now people thinking I gave myself a cool name as an actor. So there was never a period where it was just a name … There was nothing cool about the name Dax growing up in Michigan on the playground. It stood out.
Just because it was different?
Yeah, exactly. Anything that’s different obviously attracts tons of scrutiny from classmates and jerks on the playground.
At least it went in the right direction, rather than starting positive and getting worse.
It’s just really funny. Now people are like, “That’s bull[bleep]. That’s not your name. You gave yourself this cool name.” And I just think it’s pretty ironic that it wouldn’t be the cool name that I would have picked based on my experience with the cool name.
Why did you think dreadlocks were the way to go for Bradley Cooper’s character? Tell me about the conversation in which you told him about that.
It wasn’t my idea for him to be in dreadlocks. He knows a dude that lives in Venice, Calif., who’s got long dreadlocks. A white dude. And he wears red Adidas tracksuits. So Cooper knows this guy and he’s like, “He reminds me a lot of this guy; I think I want to look like him.” And I was like, “I’m open to however you want to look.” I just want him to be passionate about coming to work, so if that involves having dreadlocks, then cool.
How guilty will you feel if he falls 50 places on the list of the world’s sexiest men?
I have no fear that he’ll claw his way immediately back. “The Hangover III” I’m sure will right the ship for sex appeal.
What if he said, “This character reminds me of someone who walks around on stilts all the time?”
I would have had to deal with that. He’s Bradley Cooper, and he’s the one doing me the favor.
I’m a big fan of “Parenthood.” Tell me how you feel about where Crosby’s at right now and what you want for him.
Well, it is funny that Crosby at the end of last season ended up where I was fighting to get him, yet now I’m immediately concerned that my character will be boring because [he’s] married, and how many theatrics can occur while I’m monogamous and being a good husband? So it will be interesting to see what kind of storylines I get because I had so many obvious storylines as someone who’s single or trying to get his fiancé back. I fear that I’ve been neutered somehow, storywise—
Jim and Pam syndrome?
Yeah, yeah! But [executive producer] Jason Katims is infinitely talented and I guarantee he’ll come up with an equally exciting storyline for me this season.
What do you mean you got what you were fighting for?
Well, you form a weird bond with the character you’re playing and you have an ego about the character you’re playing and you want that character to be as healthy and successful and good of a person as possible. So I was rooting for him to become a very responsible, married, dependable guy because I like him as a character. I’m linked to that person, so I want to be the best version of Crosby that I can be, but now that I’ve got that I just worry that maybe I’ll be boring.
I’m also a fan of “Idiocracy.” What’s something in real life that reminds you of that movie?
Every [bleeping] time I turn on Fox News or go to a Walmart. [Laughs.] [The movie is] set 500 years in the future, and it was more probably accurately set 30 years in the future. I’m trying to think if there’s one singular experience that makes me feel—well, I mean, “Wipeout” the TV show is “Ow, My Balls!” There’s really no difference between those two shows. That’s astounding that that’s a hit show to me.
Is there anything that you enjoy that would fall under that umbrella?
I wish Starbucks gave out handjobs. ‘Cause I’m there regularly, so I could be getting a ton of handjobs.
Especially for free.
I was just texting with [“Idiocracy” creator] Mike Judge this morning actually. ‘Cause as I tour around on these Q&As and whatnot I interact with a bunch of people, like normally [I don’t interact with many people]. I’m at home or I’m at work. So out on this tour I’m interacting with tons of different people and I was telling Mike Judge this morning, I hear at least five times a day, “I like money.” And it’s just really cool because that movie made nine cents when it came out, yet all these people now have found the movie and love it. It’s a very rewarding thing for people to find [something] you thought no one was going to.
I told my wife about the video of Kristen crying after you got her a sloth for her birthday, and she wanted to know where you get a sloth. And where you keep one.
Let’s please clear up this seemingly common misconception which is I did not buy her a sloth. I just found an animal wrangler who brings animals into movie sets. Who happened to have a sloth. To bring the sloth over to the house for like four hours.
It was a rental.
It was a rental. It was a very funny process because that’s not a common animal. So I had to go through like six other people to find this guy.
Did you Google, “Where can I get a sloth?”
No, it was like I went down a rabbit hole because we had hired an animal wrangler for our movie and then I asked him if he knew someone and then the other thing is normally they get hired to bring an animal to a set, and the production has an insurance policy to cover these kind of things. This wrangler made me put a rider on my homeowner’s insurance in case the sloth attacked anyone or there was any kind of fallout lawsuit from having him. So I talked to my insurance adjuster and they said, “No problem, but we can’t cover the cost of life if the thing dies at your house.” [Laughs.] It got really morbid. So I had to tell the guy, “OK, well, we just can’t insure about the death of the sloth.” And he was like, “All right, that sounds good” and came over.
What will you get to top yourself this year?
Bengal tiger. Just let it loose in the house.
No insurance issues there.
I’m going to get in the car and drive away when they drop it off. Yeah, I really peaked out way too early. I don’t know how I’m going to top that. And it’s in like 10 days.
Memories of going to Chicago as a kid: “My mom used to bring us here just prior to Christmas so we could look at all the window decorations in all the big department stores. I remember seeing a huge Lego display of a full spaceship made out of Legos. That’s probably my most memorable trip. That and the Chicago Science Center was something that we really loved as kids. They had two big dishes and you could sneak into it—my brother would be at the other end of the center. He’s listening and you can hear each other whispering from a great distance. [It] defied logic. We were a thousand feet apart and we were whispering and could hear each other.”
Why he and Bell enjoyed working together so much: “Because it’s not often that we get to team up on a project, have a shared goal and common direction we’re both sprinting toward. Typically she’s waking up very early and going to ‘House of Lies,’ and I’m waking up early and going to ‘Parenthood,’ and we don’t see each other except for an hour at night. So to wake up and have the same goal that day is very nice.”
Shepard’s next effort as a filmmaker: “It’s loosely based on my last week as an addict, which took place in Kauai in August of 2001.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “One that I love that I’d be kind of embarrassed to admit. Let’s just be sure I’ve got the definition of guilty pleasure down. I really liked ‘He’s Just Not That Into You,’ but that might have been because Cooper was in it. That was one I was shocked that I really liked. I like most movies, though. I’m not a snob. I go to the [theater] twice a week. I see everything that comes out. And most of the time, I’m delighted that I went. ‘Shame’ is by far the best movie I’ve seen in 10 years. I can’t imagine how no one gets nominated from that movie. And worst, I hate saying negative [bleep] because I’ve been a part of a lot of movies and they’ve turned out in all kinds of quality level but each movie I was on everyone worked equally as hard. Everyone tries their hardest. I guess the ones that will offend me [are] when it looks like some people got together and said, ‘You know, we could really cash in on this.’ When it seems calculated or insincere, I guess those are the movies I hate the most. There’s definitely a lot of those films in the pipeline. You can just hear the conversation that led up to hiring the director. It’s just like, ‘Come on.’ It’s insulting. And I love when movies like that backfire. When you see a huge star going, ‘You know what, I’m going to do a holiday movie and just cash in,’ and then it tanks and you’re like, ‘Oh, really, you didn’t cash in?’ There’s a Schadenfreude pleasure in that.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.