I do a lot of interviews and have met and interviewed many actors, writers and directors. Some are fun. Some are not so fun.
Once in awhile there is a connection that makes you forget you're the interviewer and your subjects forget that they're being interviewed.
That was the case in my 25+ minutes with Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell. We were there to talk about their great new movie Hit and Run. And we did. Somewhat.
Mostly, though, it was three people just enjoying an afternoon conversation, and our discussion went to interesting places while still staying within the framework of movies and entertainment.
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Dax and Kristen are real people. They're interesting, likable and funny. I really liked them and look forward to the day when we get to meet and talk again. And their movie? It's a hoot and the most fun I've had in a theater this year.
By the way, Dax, if you're reading this. You're a drummer. I'm a drummer. The invitation I gave you to join us at one of the regular jam sessions we have in my studio stands. You'd have a great time. And my editor knows how to find me.
Before the interview, a little about Dax and Kristen.
Dax Shepard is a comedian, actor and now writer/director. He's been in supporting roles and prominent roles in Employee of the Month, Baby Mama, Zathura, When in Rome and Idiocracy. He is part of the ensemble cast on TV's hit show Parenthood.
Hit and Run is Shepard's first screenplay and trip behind the camera as director.
If acting and directing don't work out for him, Dax does have a degree in anthropology from UCLA.
Kristen Bell does TV, movies and Broadway -- on and off. She's an exceptional actress whose accomplishments include being the infamous Sarah Marshall in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. She also starred in You Again, When in Rome and Big Miracle.
On television, she was one of the stars of Gossip Girl and got raves for her work as Veronica Mars.
In 2006, Bell was named the World's Sexiest Vegetarian by PETA.
Gary Wolcott: You're a couple. How long have you been together?
Both: Five years.
GW: You played the parts so well, and it seemed so easy. Do you have the relationship that Charlie and Annie have?
Dax Shepard: Yeah. Pretty damn close.
Kristen Bell: We're very affectionate. We can get very vulnerable with each other, yet somehow we're always in a power struggle.
DS: We put a high premium on communication and believe that's the resolution to all of our ailments.
KB: Talking about your vulnerability is really the solution to everything.
DS: We are similar, but I've never been in witness protection. (Shepard's character in this movie is in witness protection.)
KB: That we know.
DS: What happens if you go into witness protection and you get famous with your fake name? I suppose that could happen.
KB: I'll bet you'd find there's something contractually that keeps you from doing anything where your face would be shown.
DS: It's looser than you think. When I read about it I was shocked by ...
KB: Things the government will let you get away with when you're in a witness protection program?
DS: That's like all government programs. Shit falls through the cracks.
GW: You had Tom Arnold doing the government. And doing it in a rather slapstick way. To me, that's the government.
DS: I tried not to get a political angle in the movie, but when you hire him to be the face of the government (laughs) that's saying something.
GW: The film is really good. Here's what I liked. It was obvious to me you were doing your own driving. It was interesting watching your face in the high-speed scenes. You were pretty intense.
KB: It wasn't movie driving.
GW: No. It was, "I have to turn here. I have to spin here. I have to hit my brakes at this spot," kind of driving. "And she's in the car with me, I don't dare screw up."
DS: We edited the movie at our house. Kristen would come in and watch the scenes. And she'd say, "Honey, you have your mouth open a lot." But it's the same thing I do when I play basketball or concentrate on anything. So I say, "Honey, that's what it looks like. I'm trying to go for what's real. So tough shit, that's what it looks like when you're doing that."
GW: I'm a drummer. I quit playing for a number of years and when I started doing bands again, I told my mom I was playing again. Her first question was, "Do you still play with your face? You always play with your mouth open." I post music from my jam band on my Facebook page and people who know me always comment on that.
DS: You know, I have the single most embarrassing story about this. I'm a drummer, too. I play drums on the TV show Parenthood and I didn't know how bad it was until they shot me in an episode playing the drums. I got so many tweets about how ugly my face is when I play drums. It was like the most embarrassing thing that happened all last year.
GW: Comedian, movie star, screenwriter, director, stunt car driver, drummer. You also have a degree in anthropology. How does that fit in?
DS: I was lucky enough that my mom was super-committed to education. She said, 'If you go to college I'll pay your rent in California." And I needed to be in California to pursue acting and comedy. So I went to college solely to get my rent paid, and I was allowed to study whatever interested me. I knew I was going to be an actor, so I didn't need to get a business degree or a communications degree. I could study what fascinated me. And what fascinated me was anthropology and particularly primates.
So I studied that at UCLA, and I have a degree that's almost more useless than my skill as an actor.
GW: The only degree I can think of that would be more useless is English. Same question to both of you. Who inspired you?
DS: On the directing front, Hal Needham and Quentin Tarantino. They're both great directors, and I'm stealing liberally from them in this movie.
DS: Dax Shepard.
KB: Dax Shepard, obviously. In this movie in particular, Sally Field was a real inspiration to me because his favorite movie is Smokey and the Bandit and to be able to live up to what his No. 1 leading lady was, I took a lot of cues from Sally Field.
GW: But looking at your bio. You've acted with some heavyweights. Jamie Lee Curtis, Cher, Sigourney Weaver, Anjelica Huston...
KB: I've worked with a lot of babes. All of those women would definitely make it into my top-20 best actresses. But I also love more obscure actresses like Toni Collette. She's really special.
DS: You tend to idolize Broadway actors more.
KB: Oh, yes. Like Cherry Jones, Bernadette Peters.
GW: Did you do a lot of live theater?
KB: I left college my third year to do my first Broadway show, and then I worked in New York for two or three years after that. I did a show in D.C. at the Kennedy Center. At that point, I was just doing theater and making a very stable living and loving it. Then two of my girlfriends moved to L.A. and on a whim I just did it with them.
I did a few plays in L.A., and then luck led me to audition for movie and TV, which I didn't anticipate, but it worked out. At least up to this point.
DS: She was in one of the greatest TV shows ever. Veronica Mars. Cult favorite.
GW: I never watch TV. I just don't.
KB: TV is so much better than movies.
DS: A few days ago, we were watching Broadcast News at a friend's house. It's a great movie. But our friend -- who is a great actor -- said, "Yes, it's good, but you can see this on TV now." He's right. That caliber of cinema exists now on television. AMC has shows that are that quality. You used to have to go to the movies to see that. Now you don't.
GW: You both do both TV and movies. Do you like TV better?
KB: I do.
DS: There's better writing on TV by far. There are five great movies a year where the writing is spectacular.
KB: There are 15 excellent shows on television.
DS: There's about 80 hours a week of excellent writing on TV.
KB: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Damages, Homeland. So many.
GW: Would you rather do TV? Is TV harder work?
KB: It's like comparing high school and camp. One is so short and so intense and creatively fulfilling. The other is long and arduous, tiring...
DS: But you develop these relationships over the years, and it's such a wonderful place to work. You feel like your grandparents did who worked at Wonder Bread bakery for 40 years. You have a sense of not being transient. You have a life and a lifestyle. We both work and live in L.A., so it's nice to be stuck there. A few years ago, she did a movie in Alaska in the fall. It's terrible for us. The movies are a lot harder.
GW: That was Big Miracle. You were the lady who wanted to be a star. You did that character well.
KB: Catherine O'Hara. She's another actress who inspires me. Her and Fred Willard in Waiting for Guffman. There will never be another performance like those two -- when they are doing their solo stuff and just talking to each other.
GW: I really liked her in For Your Consideration, the spoof about the buzz that actors get for awards like an Oscar. It would have been poetic if she'd have gotten an Oscar for that work. She was brilliant and was as good as anyone else that year.
Do you like doing drama?
DS: Parenthood is a drama.
GW: The movie was a kind of drama. It is one of my all-time favorites.
DS: It ages beautifully. I saw it before we shot the pilot four years ago, and it holds up.
GW: Family stuff never changes.
DS: I play the Tom Hulce character, but I'm not as scumbaggy as him.
GW: And you get to play your drums.
DS: I have a recording studio in the show and great musicians drop in.
GW: Do you jam with them?
DS: Not yet.
GW: I have a studio and 10 or 15 guys who pop in from time to time for some very good jamming. We record the jam sessions, and the music is very good, and it's just fun. These days, I never miss a chance to sit down and play. Jamming is like improv comedy.
Your movie is so much fun. How much of it is improv?
DS: Very little is improv. I'm a big improv actor, but there isn't much in the movie. I didn't need improv. I wrote what I wanted to hear. Not that I wasn't open to some improvisation. There is some. We were moving at a real good clip. We shot the movie in just six weeks, and three of those weeks were car chases. Improv is a luxury of time and we didn't really have that.
GW: Did you [Kristen] help him write?
KB: No. I provided him with snacks so his blood sugar stayed high while he was writing. I did listen to a lot of pitch ideas and story lines and he'd say, "What about this, what about this, what about this." And I may have contributed to .01% of the script.
DS: Lines she's said in real-life are in the movie.
KB: Dax has a very specific idea of what he wants, and it's not that he's not open. He can see it in his head so clearly. That's what makes a good director. I need a lot of input. He doesn't because he sees it so clearly.
Now we have extensive proof in this 92-minute film that what he sees is probably going to be top shelf.
GW: There's the movie in your head. Then, there's the movie you write, the movie you shoot and the movie you edit. How close is this to the movie in your head?
DS: About 60 percent of what you see on the screen was in my head. That's a very good percentage. We had a lot of time and money constraints that prevented me from making it 80 percent or 100 percent. The scenes that came closest to my imagination, we got them, the ones I wanted the most.
Note there is a scene where Shepard and co-star Bradley Cooper have an intense discussion about how he was raped in prison and it gets very, very specific. We're leaving the language of the discussion out at this point. Our apologies to Dax, but the reader will get the drift as the conversation continues.
DS: That's a hard scene to pull off. I'm very proud of that scene. It's very sincere, but the humor is not lost. We're laughing the whole time, but we never wink at the camera. I'm truly trying to comfort him and doing a bad, bad job of it, as often happens in real life.
I could write that all day long, you know, and it was there on paper. But pulling it off in a performance, I thank God it was Bradley and we have been best friends for years. For us to play off each other that way worked out really well, and I'm happy that it did.
GW: It was a different role for him.
DS: Yeah, it was. It reminds me of when Brad Pitt was in True Romance. Bigger actors at their height got to fly under the radar and do something different. That is what this is for him.
GW: I like a lot of scenes in your movie, but what I liked most was the chemistry between the two of you. Kristen, you were in his face. You never stopped asking questions. "What about? What about? What about?"
The first scenes in the movie have the two of you in bed. The camera was so close that it was almost uncomfortable. I felt like I was intruding on a very personal moment.
DS: That was on purpose. The whole movie hinges on that relationship. We get away from the story quite a bit, but I tried to pour a foundation that makes you want this couple to stay together.
GW: In most movies getting that close, and that personal turns me off. This one didn't. There is something very sweet about it, and at the time I didn't know you were a real-life couple.
DS: You know what's great? When we shot it, we had no idea it would be coming out on nearly 2,000 screens. We didn't treat it like that. We said, "Let's make the movie we want to see." And we broke a lot of rules and wouldn't have done it that way had we known about the 2,000 screens.
The beginning of the movie is very much an independent movie; a Sundance movie. Then we go straight into a more broad, traditional, set-piecey comedy with Tom Arnold. Then we go into Michael Mann's Bradley Cooper character. We did all these genre-breaking things that we wouldn't have done had we known. And I'm real grateful that we didn't know.
GW: What's next? Kristen, you have a lot of movies just coming out or in the can?
KB: I'm voicing the new Disney princess.
GW: You do a lot of vocal work, don't you?
KB: I do. I studied music in college, and I miss it and enjoy it. I like being in the booth with the headphones on and wearing whatever I want -- my pajamas or whatever. That's been fun to work on.
DS: I'm going to direct a movie that I wrote called Lawyers, Guns and Money in February.
GW: Are you going to be in it?
DS: I'd like to not be in it, but as of right now I am.
GW: You're really good. You're the guy next door. You're the buddy I used to go have a few drinks with. You're the regular guy who works at the foundry.
DS: I like to think that. I didn't go to theater school or anything like that. I wasn't on that trajectory.
GW: You're just very natural, and it seems to come very naturally for you.
DS: I've had a lot of practice on the show Parenthood. That's helped me a lot.
GW: And Kristen?
DS: She's the most liberating human being to write for. I wrote all these characters for friends of mine. I know what they can do, and I know what I have to work with.
Kristen, I can have her make a joke in one second, have her start crying two seconds after that, and beautiful a second after that, then be mean. Anything I can imagine she can do. She's the ultimate instrument.
GW: Tell me a movie you've seen recently that you liked.
DS: Shame. It is our favorite movie of the last 10 years.
KB: It's beautiful, but it's heartbreaking and it's about not being judgmental.
GW: I imagine you work a lot and don't get to theaters much. Me, I want to see movies in theaters. I don't like DVDs or Netflix or any of that. Give me the big screen.
KB: You and Dax will get along just fine. He loves going to the theater.
DS: I like going there plenty early, getting my snacks, watching the trailers. If nothing else, even if the movie sucks, it's a few hours that I'm unaccountable. I love that.
GW: They're made for a big screen. I grew up going to movies. There wasn't much on TV. The first movie I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz. I was 6 years old, and it was in a theater the last time it did the circuit before becoming an annual television event. It blew my mind, and I've been in love with movies since.
And now I'm a movie critic.
DS: That's a good racket. It's up there with what we do.
GW: Except you make better money than I do.