‘CHiPs’ stars Shepard, Peña a regular Jon and Ponch
Michael Pena likes to rehearse. Dax Shepard doesn’t.
That’s just one way the two actors differ. A few others: Pena has read many books on the craft of acting, Shepard hasn’t. Pena has appeared in five films nominated for Best Picture, none of Shepard’s have been nominated for any Academy Awards. Pena does deep research for his characters, Shepard chooses to go the more instinctive route.
But those differences in style and approach helped inform “CHiPs,” the loose remake of the late ’70s-early ’80s TV show, which opens in theaters Friday. And the process of making the film together made them bond as individuals.
“We are friends, absolutely,” says Shepard, seated on a couch next to Pena inside a suite at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel earlier this month. The pair has been on the road together talking up the film in Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago and now Detroit, and Shepard is discussing the pair’s respective acting choices.
“We have much different styles,” Shepard says. “His approach to acting and my approach are almost opposite.”
Still, Shepard — the Milford native who wrote and directed “CHiPs” — knew he had to have Pena in his movie, ever since he saw him in the 2012 cop drama “End of Watch.” During a pitch meeting with Warner Bros., Shepard sold execs on the film starring himself and Pena, even though he had technically never met the actor.
The sales pitch was nothing new to Shepard, who has been a hustler since his father put him in a call bank selling sub-leases on autos when he was 13. He got so good at slick talking that when he was in 10th grade, he says he convinced a Foot Locker employee at 12 Oaks Mall to sell him a pair of Air Jordan 5s for $25 off the retail price.
Selling an R-rated, action-packed “CHiPs” — more like “Bad Boys” or “Lethal Weapon” than the mid-’00s spoof jobs on retro TV shows such as “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Starsky & Hutch” — was a bit tougher. “CHiPs” had been kicking around as an intellectual property for years and no one was able to put a fresh spin on it.
Shepard, who has fond memories of watching the sun-splashed TV series (which ran from 1977-1983), wasn’t necessarily wed to the original, other than its big bullet points: It takes place in California, it involves motorcycles, and it revolves around two mismatched partners, John and Ponch. And he didn’t want it to be one of those wink-wink “hey look, we get it!” —type self-reflective in-jokes.
His pitch worked, and Shepard, whose 2012 directorial debut “Hit and Run” was made for under $2 million, was granted a $25 million budget for “CHiPs.” Still, there was that small matter of actually meeting his co-star and getting him to agree to do the film.
The pair hooked up through actress Erica Christensen, a good friend of Pena’s and Shepard’s TV sister on the NBC series “Parenthood.” They met for breakfast and hit it off.
There was one issue: Pena needed time to rehearse, and Shepard hadn’t built any into the film’s production schedule.
“I was like, ‘OK, let’s rehearse,’ ” says Shepard, 42, “and we rehearsed for six weeks.”
From those rehearsals came rewrites which helped shape some of the movie’s running jokes, including a recurring bit about a certain taboo sexual act.
“We weren’t trying to be funny, that’s just real talk,” says Pena, 41, who also delved into research about addictive behavior to help inform his character’s sex addiction and obsession with yoga pants, a joke in the script that he turned into a full-fledged character trait.
In “CHiPs,” Shepard is Jon Baker, a ragged, beat up motocross rider who joins the Los Angeles police force and Pena is Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, an undercover agent looking to take down a ring of dirty cops. The pair has an opposites-attract-style chemistry that is not different from their real-life rapport.
Pena, who hails from Chicago, will go back and forth with Shepard about the Bulls and the Pistons, who were in the glory years of their rivalry when Pena and Shepard were teenagers. But the two Midwestern actors, both married (Pena to Brie Shaffer, Shepard to actress and fellow Metro Detroit native Kristen Bell), found plenty in common, and took a lot away from the “CHiPs” experience beyond what’s on screen.
“This is the only way I really want to work,” says Pena. “I want to have a good time filming. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to do this, so I just want to have fun going forward.”
Shepard, whose next film is a take on “Scooby Doo” due out next year, agrees.
“My work mantra is, if given the choice at the end of your life, you have eight posters on your wall that were smash hits, but the experience was terrible, I’d rather have fun and not have the success,” he says. “I would love to have both, of course. But if I had to pick one, I’m much more about the journey of making a film than I am the results of it.”
Rated R: for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use
Running time: 101 minutes