Dax Shepard is a lot of things: an actor with a knack for goofy comedy, a former addict, a lifelong car nut, a husband and dad. But he is not a huge box office star. You don’t need a talent agent or a studio executive to tell you that. Shepard is perfectly happy to tell you himself.
“I can’t open a movie – we have pretty good data on that,” Shepard says matter-of-factly at a cafe in Los Feliz on a late February afternoon, having arrived not long earlier on his motorcycle. “Granted, the only movie I was the straight star of, ‘Let’s Go to Prison,’ they didn’t even put me on the poster – they put a bar of soap on the poster. But no, I don’t think people leave the house to go see Dax Shepard in a movie.”
This may seem like a surprising – and possibly inadvisable – thing for Shepard to say on the eve of the release of the biggest, most high-stakes movie of his career: the action-comedy “CHIPS,” which hits theaters Friday. But as celebrities go, Shepard – who wrote, directed and stars in the Warner Bros. big-screen version of the late-’70s, early-’80s cop series – is utterly lacking in the standard-issue filter.
Tall and lanky with a perpetual boyish grin and a slightly askew nose from a long-ago drunken altercation, the 42-year-old actor – best known for comedies like “Without a Paddle” and “Idiocracy” and from his role on the erstwhile TV series “Parenthood” – tends to be an open book, whether he’s talking about his past drug and alcohol abuse, his marriage to actress Kristen Bell, his character defects or his career failures. During an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” last year, Shepard recounted a long and detailed story about his vasectomy.
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“I overshare,” Shepard says. “I’ll tell strangers anything. I think it’s from being in a 12-step program for 12 years.”
In “CHIPS,” Shepard plays Jon Baker, a banged-up pro motorcyclist turned California Highway Patrol officer who partners with undercover federal agent Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Pena) to try to crack a multi-million-dollar heist. In contrast to the relatively tame and family-friendly series – which starred Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox – the film is stuffed with R-rated jokes and over-the-top action set pieces. “Every day there was either a huge stunt, something blew up or someone was naked – it was a 12-year-old’s dream,” says Shepard.
Though films like “21 Jump Street” and “Starsky & Hutch” have parodied the cheesier qualities of old TV series for laughs, Shepard chose to largely steer clear of satirical genre deconstruction or ironic winks. “CHIPS” is less a spoof of a pop culture relic than a relatively straight-ahead buddy-cop action-comedy with a high degree of vehicular mayhem and a steady stream of absurd and sometimes crude gags.
“I was shooting for ‘Lethal Weapon’ or ‘Bad Boys,’ ” Shepard says. “I obviously landed far left of that – my movie is probably sillier. But I was aiming for that.”
Shepard has worked steadily in Hollywood for well over a decade, but by his own admission he has never achieved the lofty heights of, say, comic actors Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell. Nor has he had an especially high-profile career as a director, having made two low-budget films, the 2010 mockumentary “Brother’s Justice” and the 2012 action-comedy “Hit and Run,” neither of which were widely seen.
So how exactly did he come to be writing, directing and starring in a big-screen adaptation of a much-loved cop show for a major studio? Like much else in his life, he says with typical self-deprecation, it was something of a fluke.
“Two years ago I would not have ever thought I would have a studio movie billboard on Sunset – that was not in the cards,” Shepard says.
In a stroke of good timing, Shepard says he pitched the movie to Warner Bros. then-production head Greg Silverman on the same day it was announced that films released by the studio had received 21 Oscar nominations. “When I walked into his office, I think he would have bought anything.” He laughs. “If I had gone in the day the ‘Suicide Squad’ reviews came out, they wouldn’t have bought (a thing).”
A big-screen version of “CHIPS” had been in development at the studio on and off for years – at one point, Wilmer Valderrama was on deck to play Ponch – but no one seemed quite able to crack it.
Though previous iterations had played up the show’s campiness as a ‘70s lunchbox nostalgia piece, Shepard, who had only hazy memories of the series from his early childhood, pitched a radically different take that would boil down the show to its simplest elements, remix them into the context of a modern-day R-rated action-comedy and dispense with everything else.
“Ponch and Jon, motorcycles, California – for me, that’s what I thought was the magic of the show,” says Shepard, who grew up in Detroit and has been a die-hard car and motorcycle buff since childhood. “I do think there will be some die-hard fans who will be upset that not every single character is in the movie or it doesn’t have the same tone. But I felt obliged to do something different.”
Indeed, though original series creator Rick Rosner serves as an executive producer on the movie, Shepard’s take on “CHIPS” hasn’t sat well with everyone. Wilcox, for one, has sounded off against the movie on Twitter, writing, “Way to go Warner Bros – just ruined the Brand of CHIPS and of the Calif Highway Patrol. Great choice!” and “Can’t wait for the latest version of Dumb and Dumber in CHIPS uniforms.”
“Larry Wilcox definitely does not like me, and I sympathize with it,” Shepard says. “If he’s mad that the tone shifted, I understand that because, as Pena says, we’re taking his daughter to the prom. But I couldn’t make a movie for Larry Wilcox. I had to make one for Dax Shepard.”
Estrada, for his part, agreed to do a cameo in the movie. For Pena, who had grown up with a mother who idolized the actor, meeting the 67-year-old actor on the set was a trip. “He’s still got that swagger,” Pena says. “He walks in and he’s like, ‘I’m Erik Estrada.’ I’m like, ‘Whoa, yes, you are, my bro.’”
With “CHIPS,” Shepard finds himself at a crossroads. Having figured out a way to fuse two of his greatest passions – comedy and cars – he would love nothing more than to turn “CHIPS” into an ongoing franchise, continuing to follow in the footsteps of one of his heroes, the late stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, who directed car-chase-centric comedies like “Smokey and the Bandit,” “The Cannonball Run” and “Stroker Ace.”
“CHIPS” producer Andrew Panay, who has been friends with Shepard for years and produced his earlier film “Hit and Run,” thinks he has a promising future as a filmmaker. “He can do comedy, he can do action and he’s also very grounded so I can see him doing dramedy as well,” Panay says. “He’s making his own path.”
But how exactly that path unfolds hinges largely on how “CHIPS,” which cost roughly $25 million to produce, performs at the box office. Given the generally low awareness of the original series among younger audiences, success is hardly guaranteed.
“There are two drastically different outcomes,” says Shepard. “If it opens big, I’ll do three of these. If it fails, I’ve got to probably try to sell a TV show or sell more scripts as a writer, and I’ll probably act on a TV show. This is an all-in wager, no question. We know what we’re up against.”
For the moment, Shepard is co-directing a new CG-animated take on the “Scooby-Doo” cartoon called “S.C.O.O.B,” due in theaters next year. In the longer term, he hopes to direct his passion project, a darkly comic autobiographical script he wrote called “Send Lawyers, Guns and Money,” based on his final two-week drug-and-alcohol binge in Kauai that led to him finally getting sober in 2004.
“It’s a hard topic for studios to wrap their heads around because – spoiler alert – it’s wall-to-wall cocaine,” he says. “But it’s a cute story, because I’m married to Kristen Bell now.”
Despite all that’s riding on “CHIPS,” Shepard is philosophical. Once a self-described “scumbag in every way,” he has already achieved more than he ever imagined when he was a hard-partying struggling actor scraping by on $8,000 a year: a happy marriage, two young daughters, a job where he sometimes gets paid to ride motorcycles at high speed and crack penis jokes.
“I’m not crazy goal-focused,” Shepard says. “I’ve taken things that didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to – and I’ve taken things I didn’t want that turned out to be the best things that ever happened to me.”
He shrugs and smiles his cockeyed smile. “I know enough to know that I don’t actually know what’s best for me.”
Cast: Dax Shepard, Michael Pena, Adam Brody, Jessica McNamee, Kristen Bell
Theaters: Oakmont 8, AMC Bradenton 20, Hollywood 20, Sarasota 12, CineBistro