“I feel like the Jude Law of comedy this fall. Prepare to get Daxed-out,” says actor Dax Shepard, who stars in three movies this year – Employee of the Month, Idiocracy and Let’s Go To Prison – all released between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
Dax is perhaps best known for his role as a field agent on the first season of MTV’s celebrity prank series, Punk’d, but how does a dude with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA wind up getting paid to make Justin Timberlake cry on national television?
“I was going on probably 15 commercial auditions a year for six years and booking none of them,” says Dax of the days when he was a struggling actor trying to make it in Hollywood. (To be fair, he did play the coveted role of Vomiter at Party in a movie called Hairshirt in 1998.) While auditioning and attending UCLA, Dax also performed improv with the Groundlings Theater in L.A. (famous for having launched the careers of Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell and others), and pursued another hobby: racing cars.
“I was really into cars and I met the right people and I was gonna go and try to get a job racing,” says Dax. “At the exact same time, I got into the last level of the Groundlings […] and I thought, ‘Well, you can maybe parlay an acting career into a driving career, but not the other way around.’”
Then, in 2001, Dax auditioned for a role on Punk’d, which his experience as a Groundling had prepared him for. Seven callbacks later, he landed the part. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, I got a pilot, and the pilot’s going great!’ And then the pilot got sued and there was a full year of sorting that out before I finally went back to work.” When it aired in mid-2003, Punk’d was a hit and Dax was on the road to celebrity.
In 2004, he starred in Without a Paddle, alongside Seth Green, Matthew Lillard and Burt Reynolds – whom he describes as one of his “childhood gods.” (And who among us doesn’t have the fondest childhood memories of sitting fireside, surrounded by loved ones and watching Deliverance?)
“Oh, [Burt Reynolds] is so great,” says Dax, adding wistfully, “The only thing I regret is not having gotten to see his balls on set, because I wanna know if they’re as big as they look in those tight pants.”
Although Without a Paddle is no Smokey and the Bandit, working with Burt was still pretty sweet. But, Dax says his ultimate Hollywood experience thus far has been working on a movie that was never actually made. Dax was to star in Car Wars with Dustin Hoffman – whom he speculates “may be the most charming man on the planet” – and the two hung out quite a bit, something that left an indelible imprint on Dax.
“At one point we were with a third person, [who] asked Dustin something about [a] scene in Rain Man […] so Dustin starts explaining the entire scene and how it went down, and the next thing you know, he’s on the couch next to me, and I’m playing Tom Cruise, and he’s […] doing the lines. I had to stop and say, ‘In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be reenacting a scene out of Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman.’ ”
In fact, for a dude whose career only took off in 2003, Dax has been keeping a lot of excellent company. Idiocracy – a shamefully under-publicized Mike Judge movie that was released in September (though one wonders where) – features Dax, Luke Wilson and SNL’s Maya Rudolph. A role in the children’s action adventure film Zathura (2005) paved the way for a close friendship between Dax and Jon Favreau, who directed. Add to that Dax’s fellow Employee of the Month stars Dane Cook and Jessica Simpson, and you’ve got one really dope rolodex.
And speaking of the elder Simpson, is she as gifted an actress as she seems to be? “What I thought was good about her acting was that she wasn’t trying or working hard at it, which in my opinion is always the worst kind of acting,” says Dax. “[Jessica] just listened and said her lines, and that’s really all any of us can do. But she did great in the movie, she was super-cute […]. And her boobs are really big.” OK, so her range as an actress isn’t tremendous; but at least something about her is.
Dax also made his own physical contribution to this movie, albeit less sexy. “I don’t know if you can catch the finer details of my character in [Employee of the Month], but I want you to notice that I have waxed my forearms for the role, and I have bleached my hair for the role.”
You have to respect that level of commitment – and hey, short of starring in a Holocaust picture, changing your physical appearance for a movie role is the only surefire way to lock down an Academy Award, right? “There is Oscar buzz, I’m not gonna lie,” says Dax, in a tone that actually seems to say, ‘There most definitely is not, nor will there ever be, anything even remotely resembling Oscar buzz about this movie. Never. Not ever.’
For comedy nerds who are on the fence about Dax, the fact that he’s down with Arrested Development’s Will Arnett may earn him some street cred. This November, Will and Dax are starring in a little picture called Let’s Go To Prison, which promises to deliver.
“Let’s Go to Prison I really like, because that was a four million dollar movie that we made in 25 days, which ended up getting picked up by Universal and has an actual marketing budget now, and that’s kind of a rare thing to happen. If you like Will Arnett you’re gonna get your fill.”
And if you don’t like Will Arnett, chances are you’ve either smoked way too much weed or not enough.
Although Dax and Will met on the set of Let’s Go to Prison, the two already have plans for a future project. “Get ‘Em Wet is a script that I wrote for [Will] and I to star in. While we were on the set of Let’s Go to Prison we started thinking of different ideas that we could put together because we had such a good time, and Get ‘Em Wet was the product. Will and I play American hottub salesmen who go to Japan and try to blow the lid off a burgeoning market that’s not really there.”
Don’t get it twisted: Dax Shepard is no post-SNL Jimmy Fallon; he knows that just because a bad movie exists, doesn’t mean he should star in it.
“[Even before Punk’d] I was passing [on projects] sometimes when I shouldn’t have been, financially-speaking, because I’ve watched other actors who’ve been in the same spot I’ve been in, and I’ve watched them kinda disappear – it always boils down to doing something they know is shitty. It is very tempting – I have a house payment, I need money as much as I did when I was broke – so, it’s very hard to turn down […]. My theory is that as long as I don’t ever do a really shitty one, I still have a shot of working again. But if I do a couple of real shitty ones in a row, then I could permanently go away.”
Smart guy. “Well I was Magna Cum Laude at UCLA – I’m no slouch,” he reminds me.
With so many projects on deck (including a mockumentary about “me switching genres from comedy to martial arts movies”), Dax’s future looks bright. “If all my dreams come true I will become Paul Newman and start racing cars when I have money to have my own race team, and then do that in my retirement. I mean that would obviously be the greatest thing ever.”
And so far, it looks like he’s on the right track.
(A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN YRB MAGAZINE COPYRIGHT © 2007)