Dax Shepard And Michael Peña Explain Why ‘CHIPS’ Needed To Be A Movie (Sort Of)

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The television-to-film adaptation is a tricky thing. While 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie and its 1997 sequel, the appropriately titled A Very Brady Sequel have since achieved cult film status, the art of the TV-to-film transition has yet to be perfected. In 2000, there was the feature film version of Charlie’s Angels, which — depending on who you ask — is either an underappreciated classic or the true beginning of an unnecessary trend. But even if that film called out the practice with a T.J. Hooker: The Movie joke early on, it did little to slow the tide.

But 2012 had 21 Jump Street strike gold, both monetarily and creatively, proving once and for all that a nice balance of appreciation for the source material and a genuinely humorous deconstruction of the bizarreness of an original TV premise is really all you need. This May will see The Rock and Zac Efron don the red shorts for Baywatch, and based on trailers, it looks like it too might try to take the 21 Jump Street approach. (Though it would be pretty interesting to see an overly serious attempt at a Baywatch adaptation, just saying.)

Now Warner Bros. has decided to throw CHiPs — with its name modified slightly to CHIPS, the first of many “modern” changes — into the ring. Running for six seasons between 1977 and 1983, the NBC procedural followed the lives of two highway patrolmen, Officer Jon Baker (Larry Wilcox) and Officer Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Erik Estrada), as they attempted to navigate dangerous Los Angeles roads. They were motorcycle cops with attitude, and Dax Shepard — who wrote and directed the film, in addition to starring as Baker — alongside Michael Peña (as Ponch) — is taking that set-up the 21st century. Now they’re motorcycle cops with attitude and raunch, taking down corrupt cops, facing aggressive (both professionally and sexually) superiors, and soaking in the Los Angeles sun. That last part could never change, whether its 1977 or 2017.

We spoke with Shepard and Peña about the film — as well as Erik Estrada’s sexiness — to get more of a feel for the new buddy cop pairing’s dynamic. For Shepard, this was the obvious natural progression after his first effort as a writer-director, 2012’s action-comedy Hit & Run. But for Peña, who has been more known for his serious roles in films like Crash, End of Watch, and Fury, a role in a comedy like CHIPS — even as the lead — feels slightly out of left of field. Especially with the Lothario status of Ponch cranked up to 11 in the film.

Though, before we got started with the interview, we were distracted by the sounds of the “haunted” (Peña’s word) bathroom in the suite where we were conducting the interview. Air bubbled up from inside the toilet. At least that was the official, rational explanation. So yes, buddy bathroom humor started us off on the right note, with an eventual detour to the crafts of acting, writing, and directing, as well as the memory of Bernie Mac.

First of all, the obvious question: Why CHIPS?

Michael Peña: Por que?

Dax Shepard: Por que? Because I’m always looking to do something with action — specifically motor sports action — and comedy, and this was a show that was centered around two heroes on motorcycles. So to me, it was a lay-up as far as getting to do both things. [Toilet sounds.] I think we’re in trouble. I think there’s deeper problems going on, to be honest.

Peña: I just feel like, are we haunted or what?

Current ghosts aside, I’m sure a lot of younger people are going to be seeing the movie. So can you explain CHIPS more, both the concept of the series and how the movie differs from it?

Shepard: Well “CHiPs” is the nickname that California Highway Patrol have. “CHiPs” or “Chippies.” And it was a popular show from ‘77 to ‘83. And when I was a kid… Both of us actually are from the Midwest, and it was grey and cold eight months of the year. And you would turn this show on and for an hour, you were in California with palm trees and beaches…

Peña: Bikinis.

Shepard: Bikinis. And this odd couple on motorcycles — this tall, lanky white dude and a Latino. So it was a cool original pairing that was appealing.

Peña: Yeah, I remember as a kid, you’re like, “Where is that, mom?” You’re looking at the screen like it’s some island.

Shepard: “What world is that?”

Peña: Yeah, “What world is that?”

Shepard: “Where a Latino is the star. And the good guy!”

Do you think the show would have been as successful had it been called Chippies?

Shepard: Probably not. You never know though.

Peña: I don’t think so. I think Erik Estrada…

Shepard: That’s true.

Peña: I don’t know, he’s a very charismatic dude, especially in that time.

Shepard: If anyone could have pulled that off—

Peña: Had a great smile. Could’ve pulled it off.

Shepard: The best smile.

Peña: I’m not underestimating him. I think he could pull it off.

Shepard: Perfect buns in that outfit.

In the interest of not underestimating Erik Estrada, Michael, what was it like to play a character who was this huge sex symbol in the ‘70s/’80s? I actually asked my mother about the show because she was around to watch it, and she didn’t have much to say about the show, but she had lots to say about Erik Estrada.

Shepard: Yeeeeaaaah. Totally. He was 25, by the way.

Peña: I know. I’m lucky not a lot of people remember it… jJust a little bit north of 10%. If not, they’re like, “Oh yeah, it’s Michael

Peña.” Thank God for that. There’s no way— I don’t know if you could even do anything that will bring up your sex appeal. I don’t know if that’s even a thing.

Shepard: I think you’re sexy in the movie.

Peña: Oh, thank you, man. I appreciate it.

I agree.

Peña: Okay, thank you. I appreciate it.

It’s different from Erik Estrada’s sexiness though.

Shepard: Swag is what’s sexy.

Peña: Yeah. I was always the dude that would… If not right away, after two weeks of hanging out with a girl, they’d be like, “You’re cute.” I’m like, “Uh, okay, cool, thanks.” Took two weeks but it’s all good. It happened. I got my wife like that.

On the other hand, Dax, how did you resist the urge to write yourself as a sex symbol in this?

Peña: Ha, I think he did.

Shepard: No, I very much wanted Michael to do the movie. And so it was very important for me to make sure that he was the stud when I wrote it, so I had to be selfless for a selfish purpose of keeping him in the movie.

Peña: Still got naked in the movie, showed off the abs.

Shepard: Well you know: If you don’t have the face, you better have the body.

Peña: Yeah, there you go.

So were you guys actually friends before the movie?

Peña: No.

Shepard: Yeah, we met for the movie.

And now you have a life-long bond?

Peña: Yeah, we met for it. Now we’re buddies for sure, but we had four weeks of rehearsal. And even when you’re doing that, it’s mainly: He’s my boss and I’m conveying ideas, and I start off as a nervous wreck every time. Because, especially during movies, it’s a different character, it’s a different show. It’s probably how, maybe in a television show, the first season, you’re a little rough. Some actors are and then they get into it. But after you get comfortable, after like two or three months, it’s over.

Shepard: Yeah, but rehearsals are confrontational by nature. You’re kind of like testing these things.

Peña: Yeah.

Shepard: Doing these scenes and you’re challenging, especially the writer or director.

Peña: And he’s both.

Shepard: Like, “Why would he do this?” “Why would I do this?” “Why does that make sense?” It’s not the best scenario to become friends with somebody. It’s fun if you’re both actors and you’re doing that together against this third party. But yeah, it wasn’t the ideal way to fall in love, but then once that was all over and we really understood each other and understood what we were going to do, we were both on the exact same page. Then it was—

Peña: Party time.

Shepard: Yeah, it was party time. Shooting was just a blast.

Peña: Because they teach you in acting class, you gotta ask questions, which is exactly correct. It’s the way that I approach things, because you just don’t want to do something like [just] follow somebody’s directions. It’s not self-motivated and you can see when somebody’s just painting by numbers, so to speak. And I think it’s a very subtle difference, but I think it’s an important difference, if you know why you’re doing certain things. You know just by asking questions. It might be a pain in the ass, because sometimes writers just write a script based on instinct and blah blah blah and they don’t know all the answers yet. And so then they have to break it down if they don’t already know.

Shepard: Other writers, obviously.

Peña: No, obviously.

By casting Josh Duhamel in this movie, were you hoping to attract the very specific When In Rome demographic?

Shepard: Well, no. I had no other intention than spending an afternoon with Josh, who I don’t get to see very often unless we work together. Even more specific than that, I thought what would be a fun twist is that the guy actually likes the dude who’s fucking his wife. I thought that would be a fun left turn. Then I’m like, “Well who could you actually not help but like if they were fucking your wife?” And I was like: “Josh Duhamel!” He’s so likable! Even if he was plowing your wife, you’re like, “He’s still a pretty cool dude.”

Would Josh Duhamel also be your choice for this type of situation, Michael? Who would you choose?

Peña: I mean, anybody who’s above a 6, I’m like, “Oh man. What’s going on? I don’t like this shit.”

Shepard: [Duhamel’s] such a stud. Have you met him in real life?

Peña: Yeah, dude. He’s tall and perfect looking—

Shepard: Perfect looking!

Peña: Great guy.

Shepard: He’s a high school football star, played in college — like a super athlete.

Peña: One of those dudes that you sit down and can have lunch with, and you’ll have a little bit of talk and he’s like, “Dude, you want to do something else?” And you’re like, “Yeah, okay, dude.” You don’t feel like you need to act around him. He’s a just a down-to-Earth kind of guy.

Shepard: Absolutely. I worship him. I wish I were Josh Duhamel.

Peña: I wish I were Josh Duhamel. It would’ve been a lot easier, to be honest.

Were there any cameos you wanted for the movie that you just couldn’t get? I mean, you had Ed Begley Jr. in one scene, so it seems like you were pretty blessed on that front.

Shepard: Yeah, I was completely blessed. You do this for awhile, you make friends along the way from different movies, and it’s really fun to get to call them up and go, “Oh hey, I have this stupid scene you’d be perfect for, and we could spend the afternoon together.” And it’s very nice when they say yes.

Then what was the casting process actually like? Since you and Michael didn’t really know each other beforehand, yet there are so many of your friends and your wife Kristen Bell are in the movie.

Shepard: Yeah, we did very little casting for what a big cast we have. So many of the people— Like even Rosa Salazar, who plays my love interest, she was on Parenthood and I’d got to know her there. Mae Whitman’s in the movie, from Parenthood. Peña…When I pitched this idea to the studio, they said, “Who would play Ponch?” and I said, “Only one person could play Ponch. It’s Michael Peña.” And they were like, “We love that.” And so I basically sold the movie with him starring in it, but I’d never talked to him or met him—

Peña: Not even a text message.

Shepard: Yeah. So I had to then go woo him into doing the movie.

Peña: Is it because you didn’t think that it was gonna work?

Shepard: Well no, the movies you did prior to that were like mostly dramas.

So what was it like to go from “serious actor” Michael Peña to starring in a film where neither of are really the straight men? You’re honestly both kind of insane in this movie.

Peña: Well, that’s what I did like about it, that he wrote something that I could do. And this was a tough part, to be honest. I had to wrap my head around it, because it’s so easy to act like the stoic, leading man guy. And I was like, “Well, you know what? He’s taking care of the case, let me just focus on that.” And then to also pay attention to the fact that I’m also playing Ponch — there’s people who loved him from back in the day — but not exactly play his style. More substance, I guess. Just, hats off and shout out to Dax. He’s here, but shout out to Dax.

Hypothetical: You both have your choice of three to five old shows you’d want to reboot into a movie. Points for extra creativity, like a Seinfeld movie but recasting—

Peña: No way! You can’t do that!

—someone like Jay Baruchel as Jerry.

Shepard: You know what’s funny? One of my jokes on this tour is that there are certain shows you shouldn’t remake, and I would never attempt to make Seinfeld the movie. It’s funny you’d say Seinfeld because that’s been my go-to.

I went with the most sacrilegious choice.

Shepard: Absolutely. We were saying Cheers. You could never remake Cheers.

Peña: Sopranos, you could never remake.

Shepard: Yes, Sopranos you don’t wanna touch. But I would do Fall Guy, I would do Starsky & Hutch, I would do Dukes of Hazzard, I would do Hardcastle and McCormick. You notice every one of these things has a car star.

Peña: I would do Knight Rider, which I think is really cool. And there’s not a lot of TV shows that I think I would really do. Magnum P.I., maybe?

Shepard: Facts of Life! Magnum P.I. would be a really cool one though.

Peña: Or What’s Happening!! Remember that?

Shepard: Oh yeah.

Peña: That would even be tough to make. Especially with television, it’s such magic in a bottle, it’d be tough.

What’s Happening!! could probably be a pretty good movie though.

Peña: Yeah, that would be cool.

Shepard: Who would play Rerun though? Or is that Good Times? Nah, What’s Happening!!’s Rerun.

Peña: Yeah, Rerun. Dee. Roger! Who would play Roger? Because he was the perfect lead for that television show. That would be the toughest one to cast.

So that’s obviously your next project.

Shepard: Young Will Smith. We’d have to go back in time. I always wanted to do a full black cast of Smokey and The Bandit.

Peña: That’d be fucking awesome.

Shepard: Will Smith as the Bandit, Sam Jackson as the Snowman. Bernie Mac as Buford T. Justice.

That one would have been perfect.

Shepard: It would’ve been.

Peña: Shout out to Bernie Mac — from Chicago.

You each have three words to sell CHIPS. What are they?

Peña: “Good fucking time.”

Shepard: Nice. “Party. Explosions. Motorcycles.” “Explosive motorcycle party!” That’s what it is.

Peña: I thought you were gonna do “party in your pants.” Or “party in your” and then blank.

Shepard: Three words: “party in your.”