In between his work on the final season of Parenthood and writing the script for his upcoming CHiPs remake, Dax Shepard stayed busy, shooting The Judge and This Is Where I Leave You at the same time. Playing a young lawyer alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in one, and a jerk radio host alongside Jason Bateman and Tina Fey in the other, Shepard didn’t originally plan on starring in either of the films. But after one email and a few auditions for The Judge and one favor and a table read for This Is Where I Leave You, Shepard suddenly found himself starring in what he claims is one of the best scripts he’s ever read, for The Judge, and in one of the most highly anticipated adaptations of the year, for This Is Where I Leave You.
EW has an exclusive first look at Shepard in both films. Below, read a conversation with him about landing the roles, being punched by Tina Fey, and more.
EW: Your hair in this Judge photo is just amazing.
DAX SHEPARD: It was an exercise in breaking my vanity, getting in those suits that didn’t fit and parting my hair on the side. It was rough, but I got through it.
But it was good. I had a similar experience to playing The Judge—this is such a terrible story. But I’m so into cars; especially from where I’m from in Detroit, your car is everything. It’s who you are. In high school, that’s all you care about is what car you drive, and then the second I made $5, I made sure I got a car I loved. One time went to a film festival in Austin, and I borrowed a friends really old rusted-out piece-of-s–t Toyota, and it broke several times on the way to the festival, and then I went inside and we had the screening. When I came out, some people from the screening followed me to get some pictures and autographs and whatnot. And I got into this old jalopy, rusted up Toyota, and I could feel that my ego was very affected by the experience, and then I thought, “I should probably buy one of these and drive it for two years just to really get myself under control.” And I felt like parading through Boston [for The Judge], looking like that, was also very constructive in some way.
So it helped you as a person.
Yes. Generally speaking, I don’t have a great self-image, so if I can be in an outfit I like, that certainly helps. So I didn’t have any of my go-to weapons.
And you’re standing in a room with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.
F—ing tough. Tough business. If every photo you’re in in a movie is standing next to Robert [Downey Jr.], it’s rough on the self-esteem.
So how did you get involved in The Judge?
I had a nine-hour flight home, and I read I think four scripts on the plane. It’s really hard to read that fourth script if you’ve just read three. It’s not my favorite format for literature by far, so by the time I got to the fourth script I was like “Oh god, here we go, I gotta get through this last one. It’s a goal I set on this flight.”
And then the fourth one was The Judge, and it just was if not the best script I’ve ever read, definitely in the top three, and I’ve been reading them now for 12 years pretty regularly. I just was so blown away with this script that when I landed. I had a layover in Seattle and I can still see where I was seated in the terminal. I emailed Susan Downey, who I know personally, and I just wrote her an email saying like, “I’m so happy for you guys that you have this script, it’s just beautiful and I would love to be a waiter in this thing or cross in the background as an extra. I just would love in any way to be associated with such a great script.” And she said, “Oh, great, I’ll set up a meeting for you and [director David] Dobkin.” She didn’t laugh at me for being interested. A
I got home and I met with Dobkin, we had lunch, and we had crossed paths a few times over the years for different things he’s made, and then he said, “Yeah, you can audition to play that lawyer.” That’s who I kind of gravitated towards. I think my agents had said to me to try to chase one of the brother roles, but I just really thought I had a take on this really eager, kind of nice, naive lawyer, so I went and read for the casting director—then to my shock, Dobkin really, really loved it. Then I went and read for him one more time and[there was] like a three- or four-week period where it looked like I was gonna get it, but at the same time, I wasn’t getting an offer, so it was an emotional roller coaster. Ultimately I did get it, which was very rewarding, and Robert [Dowey Jr.] called me personally to say, “You’re going to do this movie with us.”
He called you?
Yeah. It was pretty spectacular. And I was shooting [The Judge and This Is Where I Leave You] at the exact same time, so I was flying back and forth between New York and Boston being both those characters: one an outspoken, arrogant douchebag, and the other a humble, nice, sweet lawyer.
So how would you describe your character in The Judge? I read that he was sort of the comic relief in a way.
Not in the sense that I make jokes. It’s not a comedic role, but it’s so opposite of Robert’s character. It is the polar opposite, and so I think just seeing me be just so contradictory to him is really funny. It’s certainly not played as a comedic role by design. But it does come off as very funny. He’s so confident and sharp and cunning, and then I’m just so from-the-heart and naive that, yeah, the execution ends up being pretty funny. But it certainly wasn’t ever playing the comedy of it.
How is it that your character gets pulled into the case?
So Duvall, who is a long-standing judge in this small town, has seen many lawyers come through his courtroom and what he values most is character. That’s what he puts the ultimate prize on. And in fact, there’s a moment where Downey asks him who the best attorney he ever saw was—and he wasn’t an F. Lee Bailey type who had won the case; he’d actually just taken a case that he knew was going to ostracize him from the community and he did it anyways because it was the right thing to do, so that’s where Duvall’s priorities lie. So he hires me, who he knows is a very, very good man, and within five seconds of kind of cross-examining me in my office, Downey realizes that this is going to be a major disaster, which it quickly is.
Switching gears to playing a not-so-good man in This Is Where I Leave You: Had you read the book before you got the role?
I had not. This was nearly the opposite experience from what I had on The Judge. The Judge, I knew I was auditioning, I was rehearsing a ton, and I knew it inside and out when we started. This, I got a call basically saying as a favor to Shawn Levy who I also know, “Will you come to this table read on a Saturday morning at Warner Brothers?” And I said “Absolutely.”
I went, and there wasn’t really any talk of me doing the movie because I knew I was already doing The Judge and that was going to be in Boston, and I also was during a portion of that going to be filming Parenthood, so I knew those two schedules were already at odds. So I went to this table read just as like, “Yeah I’ll go hang out with my friends Jason [Bateman] and Tina [Fey] and then I’ll do a favor to Shawn.” Then I did this table read and shortly thereafter, I went on vacation with my whole family and we were in Utah and I got a call that was, “You need to be on a plane in two days if you want to be in This is Where I Leave You.” And I was like “Oh my gosh, how is that going to work?” And they said since it’s the same studio, now all of a sudden it’s going to be easy to schedule. Suffice it to say I left vacation, and two days later I was in New York shooting the scene where I get punched by Tina Fey.
Which was obviously the highlight of the experience.
Uh, yeah. Yeah. As luck would have it, I think I shot their first two days of filming and then I went and shot their last two days of filming, so there was a good seven weeks in between when I worked.
Let me back up: When I got the call to say, “Do you want to do This Is Where I Leave You starting in two days?” my first question was, “When is that naked scene? I’ve been on vacation pretending I was at the Nathan’s hotdog eating contest for six days, there’s no way I’m screen-ready for a naked scene.” So luckily, that was on the back of the schedule and I said, okay, I guess I have seven weeks to get my s–t together. I was still working through all the compassionate weight I put on during Kristen’s [Bell] first pregnancy, so luckily I had a good enough window that I was able to get back in shape to be naked. I feel a certain obligation to look okay when they hire you to be naked.
There’s also been times where I felt it was my responsibility to gain 40 pounds for a movie too, so it’s not all vanity-driven. But in this case I certainly thought the guy who’s emasculating [Bateman] should be in pretty good shape.
In the book, your character gets a lit cake shoved somewhere you don’t want a lit cake shoved. Were you at all intimidated that they were going to try and do that?
Well, that was another sticky point. Yeah, I did not want a cake shoved up my ass. It was already a dicey proposition to take a role where you destroy the very lovable Jason Bateman’s life, so I was already a little hesitant to be that guy—and then add getting a cake stuck up my ass, that was kind of a dealbreaker. But luckily, that didn’t end up being in the movie. That’s something you can definitely do in a book, but I think if you start a movie where in the first five minutes, you watch a man put a cake up another man’s ass, that’s a hard hard level to maintain for another two hours. I think Sean rightly realized that would be a pace he was setting that just maybe wasn’t maintainable, tonally speaking.
Did you enjoy getting to play the lesser-loved character?
Yeah. Well, what I really enjoyed was that the movie opens with me doing my radio show, and that was really, really fun because what is in the movie is five or six improvised rants kind of edited together. And I got to vocalize a side of my ego that I would probably never say out loud in public but some thoughts I actually do have. So that was really fun, to kind of unleash that side of myself, which probably we all have that we are smart enough not to say out loud. That was actually really fun.
This Is Where I Leave You arrives in theaters Sept. 19, followed by The Judge on Oct. 10.