A few weeks ago, Dax Shepard saw the screening of his new Netflix movie, El Camino Christmas, for the first time, and when it was over, the 42-year-old actor had a revelation. He immediately called his co-star Vincent D’Onofrio to declare how his paradigm had shifted.
Normally, when he first sees a movie in which he’s starring, Shepard worries how much he enjoys the finished product. How is this film going to be marketed? How many theaters will show the movie? Will it make the studio plenty of money? What if the film flops?
“It kind of isn’t healthy,” Shepard told the Daily Dot. “But when I watched this movie, I just went, ‘Wow. I went and acted in this thing. And that’s that.’ There was something pure about it.”
That’s because his newest project is with Netflix, and Shepard doesn’t feel the pressure of hoping the movie studio is happy with the box-office totals. He doesn’t worry about the length and success of the film’s initial theater run. He doesn’t have a million questions running through his head.
He made a movie. One day, it appeared on Netflix. People will watch it, or they won’t. And then he moves on.
“In comedy, there’s no denying the shared experience [of watching a film in a theater] heightens it, and that part surely is a bummer,” said Shepard while on a press tour for Charmin and its new public restrooms in Times Square. “But maybe the stakes are lower. If you get a babysitter and then go to the theater and buy a ticket and buy the popcorn, you’re $100 into the night, and you think this movie better be a fucking 10 or you’re disappointed. With this way, you lob off the potential of a lottery winner where it’s one of those movies that crushes. But you also lob off the other end where you’re one of the 30 movies that year that failed.”
In El Camino Christmas—which premiered on Netflix on Friday and which also stars Jessica Alba and Tim Allen— Shepard plays Deputy Billy Calhoun. He’s trying to help the customers who are barricaded with a gunman inside the liquor store of a tiny Nevada town.
Though Shepard joked that, like so many of his other characters, the deputy isn’t a bright man—“That’s my specialty as an actor,” he said—the film is another step in Shepard’s career progression.
The same man who first made his mark as Justin Timberlake’s tormentor on the first episode of Punk’d, a scene that went viral before anybody had heard the term “going viral,” has embraced the new media scene where movies appearing only on streaming services are becoming more common. It also involves a strong social media presence and the ability to pivot from the old Hollywood model where films and TV are separated into a new streaming era where that line is blurred.
“Flexibility is maybe the most quintessential ingredient for longevity,” he said. “There used to be all these very defined compartments of acting. You were either a movie actor or a TV actor or you did commercials or you did shorts or you did the festival circuit. I don’t think those delineations apply anymore.”
For Shepard, they don’t. After all, he’s starred in movies (Employee of the Month, Idiocracy); on TV (Parenthood, About a Boy); and he’s a writer and a director (CHIPS). He’s constantly on social media. All of it, he said, is basically the same.
“There’s only content,” he said. “People can consume all of this on the device in their pocket. They just want the content. You really do have to shift your thinking about it.”
Shepard and his wife Kristen Bell have built an impressive social media following. Together, the two have combined for 9.4 million followers on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
He Instagrams himself renting out a rollerskating rink with his wife and some friends.
Or he posts photos of himself riding motorcycles.
“We just do these things in real life,” he said. “We take pictures and take videos because our friends are on Instagram. Some of that stuff does go viral and some of it doesn’t. But we don’t put our videos online with the hope it goes viral.”
Shepard doesn’t try to monetize people enjoying his rollerskating photos, and there’s not much of a chance to make money in extolling his love of board games. So, he posts what he wants.
“If you go through my Instagram, it’ll be very clear what people respond to and what they don’t,” he said. “Ninety percent of it is me just doing wheelies and shit. Those get 20,000 likes. If me and Kristen are eating sandwiches, it gets 100,000 likes. If it was calculated, it’d be 95 percent pictures of Kristen and 5 percent of me doing wheelies. Instead it’s me doing wheelies because that’s what I do.”
Still, the ability to stay in the limelight in all kinds of outlets is helpful to Shepard’s career. Like he said, it’s all about the content and producing more of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Netflix movie with an impressive ensemble cast or if he and Bell pose in all-American costumes on July 4.
It’s a different world than the one in which Shepard began his career. But he’s pivoted, because he wants to keep working—and because he likes it.
“There are two ways to look at it,” he said. “I could lament the fact they don’t make 12 comedies in the studio system a year anymore. Or I could just look where the river is flowing and join that. That’s what I’ve chosen to do.”