have to upfront with you people – I am no longer impartial when it comes to Dax Shepard. When I interviewed him in the W Hotel in Los Angeles last weekend he told me he liked my beard, which has grown to Old Testament proportions. “Some of my friends don’t like it as much,” I said. “Girls?” he guessed correctly. “Well, I like it because I’m not thinking about making out with you and worrying if it’ll scratch my face.”

Dax Shepard, you liar.

Let’s Go To Prison sees Shepard, who starred on Ashton Kutcher’s prank show Punk’d, as well as Without A Paddle and Zathura, playing a convict who has been in jail on and off for his whole life – usually because of the same judge. He hatches a scheme to screw the judge, but the judge dies first. So Dax goes after his son, played by Will Arnett, and gets him tossed in prison.

I know all of that because I read the synopsis; Universal wouldn’t let us see the movie. Which is a bummer, because it’s directed by Bob Odenkirk of Mr. Show fame. Shepard, Arnett and Odenkirk? I’d pay to see that. And I guess I will be.

This interview begins with Dax telling me he knew CHUD…

Shepard: You’re from CHUD. CHUD’s been intermittently mean and nice to me – they can’t decide if they like me or hate me.

Here’s the thing: I think we like you, but we’re not always so hot on the movies.

Shepard: That happens.

Well, that takes me to the first thing I wanted to ask you – we’re very used to seeing you in friendlier movies –

Shepard: Yeah. I had done three movies – Without a Paddle, Zathura and Idiocracy – and this was the first time I had read a script and could breathe some life into it. I found the script and it was a really low-budget movie; my involvement actually helped get it made, which was a weird situation to be in. It was the first time I was responsible for the movie I was going to do – before that I had been auditioning and getting parts. But this was something I read that was really dark and my sensibility, and I said I would love to do this, and it took off from there. it harder for you to get into a film that doesn’t have your sensibility? Is it harder to get into a Without A Paddle or an Employee of the Month, something that’s more mainstream?

Shepard: No, I approach them all the same way. I try to find what’s funny about the guy I’m playing and go in through that. There’s this weird paradox as an actor – my favorite movie of the last fifteen years is Bottle Rocket, which made five dollars. I can’t have a sustainable career making movies that make five dollars. I have to purposely try to get myself into commercially successful movies and pepper in movies that I would go see personally.

Without bagging on any movies that I’ve done – Idiocracy is a movie I would have gone to see on my own whether I was in it or not. Let’s Go to Prison is something I would see on my own.

Nobody could go see Idiocracy because Fox totally shit on that movie. What happened?

Shepard: I don’t know. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories surrounding it now, but there are a couple of issues. One is that it tested poorly, and they base all their P&A funds on how well it tests. But what they didn’t step back and think about is that the people who go see a free test screening on a Saturday night are the people being made fun of in the movie, so of course it didn’t test well. And then I think there are also issues with all the corporate attacks and Rupert being a very immersed guy in the corporate world, globally. That has to do something to do with it.

Because they did more than dump it – they sabotaged it. They intentionally listed it wrong on Moviefone, in my opinion.

They didn’t let Mike Judge finish the picture from what I understand.

Shepard: We finished shooting and they did a reshoot.

I mean post.

Shepard: Yeah, they did not fund the special effects the way it should have been. I know [Robert] Rodriguez donated some shots; he and Mike Judge are friends.

Can you really test comedies, especially non-mainstream ones?

Shepard: That’s the thing. But I get it – Fox is not in the business of making boutique comedies that appeal to you and I. Searchlight can do that, but big Fox doesn’t do that. They don’t know how to market that kind of movie.

The only perplexing thing about the Mike Judge movie is, why did they make it? The ballsy thing, in my opinion, was making the movie. The movie was the script – they knew what it was going to be. I don’t understand them making it in the first place. It doesn’t shock me that they didn’t know how to market it, but I’m shocked they made it.

How is Mike Judge taking the whole thing? I know that after the problems he had with Office Space he said he would never make another movie.

Shepard: I think he had a similar knee-jerk reaction to the whole thing, and he’s certainly done working with studios. But I don’t think it’s put him off directing. He still wants to direct, but he wants to do it on a much smaller scale. This was an infinitely bigger movie than Office Space was – it was a 30 million dollar movie, it was set in the future, there were huge sets. I don’t think he loved that aspect of it.

How is Bob Odenkirk as a director?

Shepard: He was awesome. He was the most enthusiastic man I have ever worked with. I’m sure every actor is different; I’m sure some actors need the director’s approval, or they need to told they’re not doing a good job so they’ll work hard. I don’t know. I respond best to appreciation – if Bob’s laughing after a take, that just gives me confidence to try something bigger, better. That’s how it was with Mike Judge; after he called cut he would be laughing and I would think, ‘I don’t care about anything else, Mike Judge is laughing.’ It takes all of the guesswork out of what I’m doing. If one of my heroes is laughing at what I’m doing, I don’t have to worry about it.

But Bob was great. I can only imagine what it was like to do Mr. Show with him, because he’s so hands on, he wants to run lights, he’s go, go, go. He’s just so enthusiastic. He’s a blast. I was just flattered to be working with him – I love Mr. Show, I love the Ben Stiller Show. I just assumed he thought I was too hacky to work with.

When you’re shooting inside a real prison, what does that vibe give you?

Shepard: I compare it to starting junior high. My first week in junior high I was like, ‘Wow, this place is so big and scary and there’s so much in it and it’s so cold.’ Then after a while you get into a little pattern.

Similarly, Will and I got there for rehearsals and we were like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to suck. Two months in this?’ If I reached my arms out I couldn’t stretch them all the way out – I had no idea how small [the cells were]. There’s a residual history of the place, it’s palpable in there. But after a week – there’s a yard, and Will and I would go throw a ball around. There was a cafeteria and we would go to the cafeteria and eat. After awhile I felt like I was in 7th grade and I had a blast in there. Then again I was surrounded by much more creative people than you are in general population.

Well, you might have found people in gen pop who had some creative ways of doing terrible things.

Shepard: We actually had a lot of extras who had done time at the prison we were at, in Joliet.

Did they bring something…

Shepard: They were trying to out-prisoner each other between scenes. The alpha male energy was crescendoing, they were yelling shit at us while we were in scenes. A guy hit me in the back of the head and I confronted him and it was a big deal. It was a tumultuous set when there were more than 20 extras. You didn’t know what was going to happen.

Have you ever been in jail?

Shepard: Amazingly, no. I should have been.

Never even in the back of a police car?

Shepard: I’ve been in plenty of police cars. I’ve just never been arrested.

They let you go.

Shepard: Well, I was from a relatively small town outside Detroit, and if you were hanging out in the parking lot the police wanted to talk with you. And I drank excessively in my youth, so that was always an invitation to talk to the cops.

The cops came to my high school in 11th grade because I gave a lawn job to an enemy and they got my license plate. I’ve had all kinds of dealings with them, but I have never been in jail. Thank God. I think I’m out of the woods now. I’m a boring adult.

Really? I think people might have this image from Punk’d that you might be crazy.

Shepard: I’m way into motorsports. I want to race Baja. But I’m not passing out in the alley in back of a bar anymore. seems like a good time to be in comedy. I feel like there are a lot of very good comedy films.

Shepard: There have been a lot of great successes in the last few years. For me, Wedding Crashers changed the playing field in the best possible way. A 209 million dollar R-rated comedy – that’s awesome for everyone. Borat last weekend is so encouraging for everyone. And on 800 screens – again, Fox kind of almost botched that one too, but it overcame that.

Those are very comforting things. The bad news is that they’re not making as many movies, period. They’re cutting everything. It’s scary to be doing it at this moment, but at the same time there’s good news as well. And I’m not on par with Vince Vaughn or Will Ferrell, but I’m in a different age group. I’m in the perfect slot for me – if I had come out against Chris Farley and Adam Sandler and that crop, I’m sure I would have been a day player.

Who are your peers?

Shepard: I’m 31, so… I don’t know. When I first came off Punk’d and got Without A Paddle, my two big rivals were Jamie Kennedy and Jimmy Fallon.

And you smashed both of them.

Shepard: [laughs] I don’t know if I smashed them, but I didn’t do Mask 2 and I didn’t do Taxi! The only really cheesy movie I did made a lot of money.

It’s hard to figure out how you stick around, and I’d like to stick around. Again, you’d like to go and pick good movies, but it’s not like you have an option of picking from ten offers and I get to pick the best one. I’ve got to fucking work.

Your career is at that point where you still have to do the work but you’re also establishing your identity with the audience. That must be a tough crossroads.

Shepard: The only thing I’m confident in at this point is… in Without A Paddle I’m pretty much me, but in Idiocracy I’m 200 pounds, have black hair and I’m a retard; in Zathura I’m an astronaut with brown hair and brown eyes and I’m a hero; in Employee of the Month I’m a freak with blonde hair and I’m an asshole; in this I’m a prisoner with tattoos everywhere and long hair. The only thing I’ve been really adamant about – I can’t control getting work – but the one thing I can control is how much energy I put into playing different roles and demonstrating early on that I can play different characters. I want to be versatile, because God knows which one of these is going to pan out. Maybe I’ll have a career playing fucking hero astronauts- I doubt it, but maybe!

I thought you were great in Zathura. Is that something that you are considering, going to the lighter kid stuff?

Shepard: The thing about Zathura is that it came at a point in my career when I was a little cocky. I had done Without A Paddle – it hadn’t come out yet – but I went from that directly to a Mike Judge movie. At this point I was thinking, this is going to happen, I’m on the Will Ferrell train. When I first read Zathura I didn’t want to do it because it was a kid’s movie, but then I saw [Jon] Favreau was directing and it piqued my interest. Favreau actually called me and said, ‘I want you to be the hero of my movie,’ and I was so flattered that I did it.

I’m glad I did it because it established that I could act, I guess, but I don’t… it’s not gratifying for me to watch myself in a movie where I’m not scoring with big laughs. I got in to this to make people laugh, and it’s not like with Zathura you walk away going, ‘That guy’s hilarious!’

So you’re not going to be doing the Robin Williams, Jim Carrey thing, going after the Oscar?

Shepard: No. I hope not. I’m fine with being just funny. There aren’t a lot of funny people out there. There’s a shitload of guys who can cry in a movie, but not a shitload who can make you laugh.

It’s funny, because the guys who can cry get more respect.

Shepard: Yeah, but I don’t have a big hangup about that. I’m not like Jim Carrey. Dude, I’m already in the NBA, I don’t need to be Michael Jordan. I made it into a pretty small group of people – I don’t need to be the best at all things. I don’t need to be Tom Cruise and produce shit. I don’t want to be a military leader. If I can make a living doing what I’m doing now, I’ll be happy.

So what’s next? Smother?

Shepard: Yeah. Again, that’s a cool thing because it’s Diane Keaton –

That’s awesome.

Shepard: It’s so awesome! I can’t believe I’m going to be in a movie with her. It’s a cool, offbeat – I don’t want to say dark, because it’s not that dark – but it’s not a big, goofy studio comedy. It’s not Stepmonster or whatever the fuck that was. It’s a legitimate somber comedy with awesome actors.

I play a physical therapist who gets fired at the beginning of the movie, and my mom – Diane Keaton – thinks my dad is cheating on her and moves into my house and drives me absolutely insane. She’s the kind of mother that leaves 12 messages a day… like my mom.

You don’t produce, but writing…

Shepard: Yeah, I’ve sold three screenplays in the last few years.

Where are they going?

Shepard: One I sold to Revolution and they went out of business right when we got our start date. The second one I sold was with Steve Brill, who directed Without A Paddle. We sold it to Donald DeLine when he was president of Paramount and then he got fired and everything he bought died. It’s somewhere in the basement at Paramount. And then this film Get Em Wet, which Will [Arnett] and I sold and I wrote. That one I feel like is very promising, and it’s the best thing I’ve written. It’s funny. Hopefully we’ll be going to Japan in ’07.

And that came out of you guys –

Shepard: Doing this movie and falling head over heels in love. We came up with the idea on set, came home, went around and pitched it. I did the first draft in three months, we just turned in the third draft a couple of weeks ago, and I feel good about it.

Will’s attached to 472 movies next year.

Shepard: Theoretically he’s in more movies than anyone. More than Michael Caine.

We play America’s two greatest hot tub salesmen who go to Japan to blow the lid off the hot tub market. It’s basically two ugly, lanky, tall white guys in Japan making asses of themselves.

It’s actually an homage to our hero Dave Koechner. He’s in Let’s Go to Prison, and Will and I were so enamored of him that we started imitating him. Our imitation of him became this character we both did, and this whole movie is based on our impersonation of Dave Koechner. Who plays our boss in Get Em Wet. It’ll be the three of us again.

He doesn’t work enough.

Shepard: No. But he’s leading a movie right now, The Comebacks, which is Fox Atomic’s first movie. Will and I did a day on it.

A cameo?

Shepard: It was slated as a cameo but when we got there we realized we were shooting six scenes from six different parts. Now we’re fucking supporting. We got a little bit taken advantage of. But whatever, for Dave. Honestly, if Koechner does a fucking Arby’s commercial, I’ll be there.

I feel like that’s what is making the comedy scene so great these days – all these guys are friends, and if you see one comedian’s movie, you’ll see all these familiar faces supporting them.

Shepard: It’s self serving to the actor because if you’re the sole lead of a movie and you strike out twice, you’re done. There are two guys you can hang an entire movie on, and that’s Jim Carrey, and who knows what he’ll do next, and Sandler.

I’ve noticed that in the 80s and the 90s it was all about one comedian leading a movie – the Eddie Murphy years – and now it’s all about the ensemble. Is that better for you?

Shepard: I like that because I’m competitive. Not in a negative way. But I got to set, and I didn’t know Will Arnett at all – I hadn’t seen Arrested Development, although I’ve gone on to buy all the box sets – I didn’t know Will at all, I just kept hearing his name as this town sweetheart. I got to set and on day one I was like, ‘Fuck, I have to dust off the A game.’ I would get blown away in this movie if I didn’t show up every day with a zillion ideas and ready to work. And that’s perfect for me. You end up trying to one up each other and the product gets better.

And I like it because any one schtick gets old. It’s more sustainable to have two guys, or three guys.

You’re from the Groundlings. Does that make it difficult to do a for hire picture, where you’re expected to come in and just do your job?

Shepard: Luckily that is already somehow my reputation – if you’ve got some C material in a script that you want to bring up to a B, hire this guy and you won’t have to rewrite it. That’s a great thing to be known for because it gives me a lot more leeway than some people get. I hope that continues, because my best lines in movies tend to be ones I came up with on the day. Employee of the Month – that whole trailer campaign, all those lines in the trailer, not one was in the script.

Would you go back to TV?

Shepard: I’d rather not. I don’t want to say I wouldn’t, because I may end up having a family one day or maybe I won’t be able to get hired to do movies. But I get bored way too quickly to do TV. I’m the best guy on set for the first month and a half, then I start getting itchy and three months in I’m ready to try something else.