In Conversation: Johnny Knoxville

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Dressed in a punkish tattered T-shirt and green military jacket combo, surrounded in his Hollywood office by memorabilia from his movies (a droopy pair of prosthetic testicles among them), and with a gleam in his eye, Johnny Knoxville seems as rascally as ever. “There’s always going to be an adventure to what I do,” he says. “That’s the part I’ll always love.” But Knoxville, who’s starring in and co-produced the upcoming stunts-packed and oddly charming comedy Action Point (he plays the proprietor of an anything-goes theme park) is also feeling his 47 years. “How much longer can I be the stunts guy?” wonders the erstwhile Jackass ringleader. Then he lets out a loud laugh. “Oh, well! Too bad I didn’t go to college!”

It’s been a few years since you’ve done a stunts-heavy project. What made you want to get back to that with Action Point? Getting older can’t make the prospect of physical pain any easier to deal with.
God help me, I love stunts. But after this one, which I got hurt on more than any film I’ve done, I started to think, Why do I love it? Am I addicted to it? Is it coming from a good place? I don’t want to overthink things, but I don’t want to underthink them either because in this line of work you only get so many chances.

Did you land on some good middle-ground thinking then?
I’m in the thick of mulling it all over. I do love the idea of an actor really doing his stunts with no cuts in the action. That adds so much energy and immediacy to a film. Some other actors do their own stunts, but the difference is that their stunts are designed to succeed.

And yours are designed to fail?
Yeah, that’s the only way mine are designed. I still get scared to do them beforehand, but I can override that fear. Maybe it’s not so good that the producer side of me convinces the performer side that we need the footage. Yeah, it’s also — my mom passed in the fall.

I’m sorry to hear that.
That’s okay. We all have to deal with it at some point. But you know, it got me to thinking about how that feels for a kid. Wow, we started off really heavy.

I know. Usually it takes a minute for people to get to the heavy stuff.
[Laughs.] I’m just being honest!

And I appreciate it. So your mom’s passing made you think about the work you do?
One-hundred percent.

Tell me about that.
Things can go seriously wrong at any time with a stunt. I always know I can get to the ramp, per se, but after that, I don’t know what’ll happen. And thinking about that made me fearful of making my children feel like I felt about my mom when I knew I was going to lose her.

You were still in the middle of filming Action Point when things were going south with your mom?
Yeah, we were. I had a fall and I knocked out three of my teeth and I got a concussion — my fourth concussion of the film. It made me think about how on one hand I love what I do, but I also realized that at some point I’m not gonna be able to do it anymore. And when that time comes I want it to be my choice.

So Action Point is probably the last time you’ll do a bunch of stunts in a movie?
I — I don’t know.

It’s hard to stop doing something you love.
Honestly I may have a little left in me. But for my sake and my family’s sake, I should start winding down.

Since we’re already into the heavy stuff: At 47 years old, do you have a clearer sense of why you were driven to put yourself on the line the way you did? I know that in old interviews about Jackass, when people would ask you that question you’d always brush it off. But I don’t believe you haven’t done that kind of introspection.
Right, well, I didn’t want to discuss it with journalists back then. Or with anyone really. Even my therapist. When I first started going to her, I’m like, “There’s some things I want to work on but let’s not fix that side of me.” And she said, “I would like to talk about if you want to talk about it.” I just said, “I don’t want to go there.”

Were you worried that talking about why you do stunts would make you stop doing them?
Yeah. I thought if I fixed that side of me then stunts would go away. It’s not like I don’t get how crazy it all is. I do. I get it. But I guess you could also argue that shutting the discussion out is not getting it.

That depends on what you want your life to be.  
Obviously this is tough to talk about. But it’s something I need to talk about. It’s just odd doing it in the press and not with my therapist. It’s like, I already give up so much of myself to the public. I can’t give up all of it.

I understand.
You know, what I do probably comes from a number of things. There’s the open, fun, adventurous side of the coin. I was always a little inclined that way. But I opened that side of me way up as I came into adulthood. And then there’s the other side of it: I’m sure some of wanting to do stunts comes from an unhealthy place. You know what I mean?

I do. This is all especially interesting because I just rewatched the Evel Knievel documentary you made, and in that you articulated so clearly what Evel meant to the culture and what his motivations may have been. But you’ve always been reluctant to do similar thinking about you and your own work.
Yeah, it’s a weird thing. Like, me doing stunts and hurting myself is a perverse part of my self-worth. Wow, people like me because I fall down and go boom. But what happens when I no longer fall down and go boom? I can stand in front of a bull, but can I be myself? I hope I’m not coming across like I’m whining about some existential crisis. People have real problems out there. This is something I bring on myself.

Do you see any of the Jackass spirit in the culture today? Are you watching YouTube stunt videos?
I’m so insulated. I’ll film or come to the office and then I’ll go home and be with my wife and kids. That’s it. It’s embarrassing that I don’t know more of what’s going on with YouTube stunts. I couldn’t name anybody that’s doing it. It’s completely passed me by.

Did you make a conscious decision after Bad Grandpa to develop other aspects of your career that weren’t about stunts? You do a lot of producing now, for example.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do stunts, it’s that I was figuring out the next thing. I did Bad Grandpa and then I was working on Being Evel and then I spent years trying to develop Action Point. I was also producing things and trying to pursue more dramatic work. Yeah, I don’t know. I wonder how much my mom’s passing figured in the way I’m thinking now.

Seems like quite a bit.
Yeah.

How much pressure did you feel over the years to live up to the Johnny Knoxville persona? Was it ever hard to turn that energy down?
After the first movie things got a little fuzzy for a while. I felt like I had to be that wild guy. You don’t even know at the time that you’re only doing what you think people want you to do. You’re just expending energy and not thinking about why. Eventually I realized that you can’t give so much to this idea of who you’re supposed to be. I guess I’m realizing that with the stunts, too.

Realizing what exactly?
You know, it’s like I loved Hunter S. Thompson so much, and I couldn’t maintain that side of me, the side that was running wild in 2002, three, four, five. Nor did I want to. Also I met my now-wife and I wanted to be a better person for her. Then I got into it and thought, I gotta be a better person for me, too. I’d never really thought like that before.

So how’d you dial back?
I had a couple of close friends, people I really respect, go, “You maybe need to dial it back a little.” I got what they were saying. Things started to slowly come around. They’re still slowly coming around.

You mentioned Hunter S. Thompson, who you’ve pointed to before as an inspiration. And I know that you love Jack Kerouac and that you’re working on a David Allen Coe documentary. All these people — Evel Knievel, too — share a particular form of American male rebelliousness. Do you see the Johnny Knoxville character as being in that lineage more than the lineage of skateboard culture or Tom and Jerry cartoons?
There is an outlaw-esque vibe that I like to those people you mentioned, but mostly what I do comes from my father. He’s my biggest influence. He’s a larger-than-life character. I think of him and his buddy Jackie Gilbert as Kerouacian figures. My dad is something else.

He ran a tire shop, right?
Yeah, in the McAnally Flats in Knoxville [Tennessee]. That’s the area that Cormac McCarthy wrote about in Suttree. Some of the people he mentions in that book, like Red and Holmes, my dad grew up with. And the guys that worked at the tire shop were huge characters, too. There was Woodrow Wilson Boxcar Johnson Jr.: He was the tire groover and always getting arrested for something silly. They once suspected him of robbing a convenience store. They took him to jail and said, “Mr. Wilson, we have your fingerprints at the scene. We know you robbed it.” And he said, “You ain’t got my fingerprints — I was wearing gloves!” And there was Big George, Big Sam — someone took a box cutter to Big Sam’s face. Ass-Kickin’ Robert. Jackie Gilbert would hitchhike across Central America at the drop of a hat. Dad always had this group of guys around.

His own Jackass gang.
Yeah, and they were a captive audience and he’d fuck with them all the time — staging gunfights and stuff. He would send people fake letters from the VD clinic, saying they had to go in and get checked. He was always performing like that.

So it’s his spirit you’ve been working in the whole time?
Absolutely. My mom obviously had a huge impact on me too. My parents are such huge characters. There was no other way for me to turn out, you know?

Something about the way you’re describing your parents and your upbringing seems distinctly southern — the vibrancy of it. But the South is so often thought of as the seat of a lot of the country’s problems. Do its positive aspects get overlooked?
I know what you’re saying, but bad spirit comes from all over, especially right now. Like no time I can ever remember there’s a swirl of very odd spirits in the country. And that comes from the south, north, east, west — we’re all in it. It’s pretty scary out there.

I’ve found it weirdly reassuring lately to read about 1968. That was a way more destabilizing time than now.
Oh, yeah, the assassinations, the war — Charles Manson was on the horizon. Outside of ’39 through ’45 and ’14 through ’18, that was probably the scariest time for Americans.

And reading about it is kind of like — if you’re banging your head against the wall, it can feel nice to step on a nail.
I know.

This is maybe a question that’s too theoretical to have a clear answer, but why do you think Jackass took off the way it did, when it did?
Well it’s nothing like it was for Evel — and I’d never compare myself to him — but for Evel, the whole country was coming out of Vietnam and Watergate and then here comes this guy dressed in an American flag riding a motorcycle and we can all believe in him.

Right, so there were reasons the culture embraced him. Why did the culture embrace Jackass?
Jackass was a wonderful mixture of ignorance, adrenaline, and serendipity. A lot of people have tried to redo what we did but they can’t capture it.

Capture what exactly?
It was a special group of guys. We loved each other. Some people who try to do what we did interpret it as macho or angry. They forget that there was a real sweetness to Jackass. We gave each other hell, but we cared about each other. I think people responded to that. And we came out of skate culture at a time when that was getting into the mainstream in a big way. Beyond those things, I don’t know why we took off.

I also remember people writing about Jackass in the context of whether it was art or performance art or if it was purely nihilistic — asking serious questions about the meaning of the movies. I think Jackass 3D was even screened at MoMA.
Yeah, our films were at MoMA. But I hoped we weren’t making art. I didn’t think that’s what we were doing. Some performance art is great, but a lot of it just drives me up a wall. I never wanted to that. We just wanted to make each other laugh. It’s not for me to say whether it’s art. I don’t know what good that’d do me. It’d probably make me nuts to get caught up in thinking that way.

This is a little random, but I talked to Tom Green once and he suggested in a roundabout way —
Ackass-J?

Basically. He suggested that you guys copied some of his ideas. Were you aware of his stuff when you were working on Jackass pranks?
I think we were in negotiations for a show with MTV when his show came out. What year did he start?

He started on MTV in 1999.
At that point we knew we wanted do a show, but we didn’t know what it would be yet. Then we saw Tom Green and I remember I was like, “Aw, fuck! Someone beat us to it.” I felt like we were about to break and here he was. But guys doing naughty things has been happening since forever. Tom Green did funny things on his show but we already had our point of view firmly set before we ever saw him. I have no ill feelings. Whenever I’ve seen him he’s been very civil. But I can understand if there’s a little hurt in there.

Was the transition out of Jackass difficult? Did you feel like you were getting good acting opportunities?
Well, I’d always wanted to be an actor. Even when I was writing for magazines in the mid-’90s in Los Angeles, I was also acting in commercials. But when Jackass became so big and people wanted me in their films — nothing can prepare you to go from writing for magazines for ten cents a word and being in Bud Light commercials to suddenly being on the cover of Rolling Stone. I don’t know, man. Hindsight’s always 20/20.

What do you mean?
I wish I could’ve made better career choices during that period. I was just living in the moment. I remember talking to my therapist one day and she said this thing that I thought was brilliant.

She told you to think before you do things, right?
Yeah, thought before action. That’s how far gone I was, that some pretty basic fucking advice like that was amazing to me. But it had never occurred to me before.

So you’re saying you didn’t pursue acting roles the way you could’ve?
Yeah, I didn’t do enough of really searching good roles out. Things would come up and I just didn’t make good choices. When there’s so many things going on inside you, it’s tough to be clear on what you want.

When you say “things going on inside you” do you mean chemical things?
I didn’t mean that, but there were those things. Mostly booze. Like I said, there was no thought. It was just do.

If you thought about things too much, you’d probably never let a bull take a run at you.  
No, and I knew things were going to hurt bad. I’d just hope they didn’t end up hurting forever bad. But I’d do magical thinking: It’s gonna hurt like hell, you might break something, but you’ll be all right.

Is there a stunt now that you look back on as being the purest crystallization of what Jackass does?
Within our group, we love the toy car with Ryan [Dunn]; the prank on Ehren [McGhehey] at the end of Jackass Number Two where he pretends to be a terrorist. The giant-hand prank makes me giggle because it’s straight out of Tom and Jerry.

And the flip side to that question: Were there stunts that you felt maybe crossed a line morally or safety-wise? When Steve-O put a fishhook through his cheek and you took him trawling for sharks, or in Jackass 3D when he’s drenched in Port-a-Potty shit — I find those tough to watch for reasons beyond my being squeamish.
Yeah, Steve-O was screaming in that Port-a-Potty with his mouth wide open. And I remember talking to [director] Jeff [Tremaine] when he told me the idea of the fishhook and casting Steve-O out to sea. I wasn’t fond of that idea. I knew it was a great opening to a scene but how do you end it?

You didn’t see how it could pay off comedically?
No, because I knew what the payoff meant. I thought that the only way that footage was usable is if it ended with Steve-O getting bit by a shark. But why would we do that? I didn’t think it was funny. I don’t want him missing a leg. But we still shot it and Steve-O kicked the shark in the nose before it bit him. Now that’s funny. Look, we didn’t know where the line was. It was constantly getting redrawn.

Can you explain the process of coming up with stunts? How meticulously are you diagramming them out?
Sometimes I draw diagrams with stick figures. But for Jackass we could go anywhere and do anything. We were pulling things out of thin air. I hate to go back to cartoons, but seeing them would make me think, I could do that. That’s where getting run over by a yak while I was smoking a cigarette blindfolded came from: Tom and Jerry. So we’d just go off in our minds and get ideas. But for Action Point the process was more focused. The stunts had to take place in theme park. And they had to work with the rides we were using — rides that were available in the time [1978] when the movie takes place. So we’d think about what was the worst thing that could happen on those rides. But I wouldn’t say it was easier or harder writing stunts for Action Point than it was for Jackass because I never find it hard to write stunts.

But when you say  “writing” stunts — that’s what I’m curious about. How much of a plan is there for flinging yourself off of a giant slide?
Okay, I’ll walk you through that alpine-slide stunt [from Action Point]. So you have this incredible slide with many curves. I knew I wanted to achieve great speed and I wanted to fly off the track at the worst spot. That was the goal. Then you start talking about how to do it. We have a stunt coordinator, Charlie Grisham. We never had a stunt coordinator until Jackass 3D. Having one helped because he would test whatever stunt we had in mind. Like when we flew out of the pool [in Jackass 3D] with the Jet Ski. In the old days, we would’ve gotten a Jet Ski that probably wasn’t powerful enough. Or our ramp would’ve been at the wrong angle. So we would’ve gotten there on that day and the stunt wouldn’t have worked. But Charlie knew the right Jet Ski, the right angle of the ramp — all we had to do is show up and pop the throttle.

And he did the same prep work for the alpine-slide stunt?
Yeah. He’d know the plan: I need to come off at a bad spot, fly through the air, and then go boom. But then he also knows that the slide doesn’t naturally have enough angle to give us a lot of height when I fly off, so we might have to put a little kicker ramp on it that’s hidden from the camera that’ll make me go higher up in the air. He’s getting the right cart with the right wheels and stuff like that. And he knows that we want to find a landing area where the slide is on an incline because that’ll help take away a bit of the energy of the impact when I hit the ground.

And then it’s all you?
Yeah, and I’m thinking, I’m gonna try to take all the impact on the shoulder — not worrying for one second about my head. And as I’m walking up the hill to do the stunt, I see that about 20 feet from the landing area is an ambulance with its engine running and the doors wide open. I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Can you hide the ambulance? At least don’t have the engine on.” But thank god they did because I came off that ramp six feet in the air and traveled over 20 feet. I did land on my shoulder but my face absorbed all the energy of the impact.

Jesus.
A good portion of my memory got erased for like an hour. It slowly started coming back. I knew a few people’s names. I knew that I’d just done a stunt on the alpine slide. I knew we were making a film but I didn’t know what film. I couldn’t retrieve any other information. It was a very serious concussion. Then after they checked me out and said I was all right, I go back to my hotel and I have blood in my nose. Gotta get that out. As soon as I blow my nose, my left eye pops out of its socket. That was odd.

Certainly not typical.
Nope. I’d broken the orbital lamina ethmoid bone. So when I blew my nose, I blew air behind my eye and it pushed my eye out of its socket. I pushed it back in and went to the emergency room.

You ever worry about CTE?
I’ve had 16 concussions overall. That’s not a lot compared to, say, Mat Hoffman. And these things affect every person differently. No one’s physiology is the same. But of course I think about it. I have a whole slew of doctors in my phone and a neurologist is one of them. They ran tests, took some photos. Everything seems okay. But like Willie Nelson says [singing], There’s nothing I can do about it now.”

How the hell do you get insured for movies?
Well, they dropped our insurance at the end of the Jackass show. But for the films, we just, you know, we found a guy in Tahiti who’ll write the insurance.

Is that true?
Not the Tahiti part.

This is something I always wondered: Did the random people who’d wind up being the foils in scenes in Bad Grandpa or the Jackass movies have to get paid so you could use their images?
Only in extreme situations would we ever offer money. When we started, we would go in anywhere and start doing pranks. But we learned the hard way that if you go into a store and start doing that, you need a location agreement signed by the owner. Because if they don’t sign, everything you’ve done is wasted. So we started calling the store owners ahead of time. We’d tell them what we’re doing, get them to sign the location agreement, and say they could not, under any circumstances, tell their employees what was going to happen — because if the employees knew, the surprise would be ruined. Then we’d go in and do the prank. And most of the time, the employees, knowing that the owner signed, would also sign the agreement when we were done.

What about for man-on-the-street pranks?
When there’s no owner involved, then you have to go get the people to sign an agreement after the prank is over. There’s a real art to that. We hired people specifically for that job. The trick is to let people talk long enough so that you can figure out what they want to hear. Some people just want to yell at you. Some people just want to be calmed down. But 95 percent of the time you can get them to sign without having to pay.

If the stunts part of your career is winding down, what kinds of projects are going to get you excited?  
Well, we’re in the very early stages of the David Allen Coe documentary, and I love doing those kinds of films. I’m also auditioning for good dramatic roles. And you can see from the titles I wrote on that whiteboard over there that I’ve got a number of films I’m developing.

That’s a lot of titles. What’s Zombie Whorehouse about?
[Laughs.] There’s a great line in the short story it’s based on: “It ain’t cheatin’ if she’s dead.” But as far as the future, we’ll see where I come out.

Come out of what?
Where I come out on the other side of doing stunts. Whether I have a few more left in me or I’ve done all that I needed to do. And did I ever really need to do them? Or did I have to? I wrestled with those questions. And as you can tell, I still am.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

When a glitzy theme park comes to town, Knoxville, the owner of the budget option Action Point, takes the safety rails and speed limits off his rides to drum up business. With no cuts or stunt doubles, it’s a plot designed for trademark Knoxville antics: anarchic rides, nut shots, close encounters with pointy animals. Knoxville was born Philip John Clapp Jr. to Philip Sr., a tire-and-car salesman, and Lemoyne, a Sunday school teacher. He takes his stage name from his Tennessee hometown. Knoxville married Naomi Nelson in 2010; they have an 8-year-old son, Rocko, and a 7-year-old daughter, Arlo. Knoxville has an adult daughter, Madison, from a previous marriage. The 2015, Knoxville-produced Evel Knievel presents the stuntman as a unifying cultural force in the tumultuous ’70s, and as a precursor to the professionalization of extreme sports, without shying away from his personal flaws. Knoxville clearly draws from his outlaw spirit: “I didn’t think of Evel Knievel as a daredevil,” he says in the doc. “I thought of him as a superhero.” Directed by Jeff Tremaine, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa stars Knoxville in geriatric makeup doing bad stuff on hidden cameras: sticking his penis into a vending machine, stealing frequently, and throwing his recently deceased wife’s corpse into a river. Nominated for Best Makeup at the 2013 Academy Awards, it’s the only Jackass feature to receive an Oscar nod. Jackass was a cultural force in 2002, with the wrap of the MTV show and the box-office-topping Jackass: The Movie. As the dazed, charismatic leader, Knoxville was thrust into stardom, and several of the skater-slapstick cast members got their own spinoffs. It was a political force, too: the show was criticized for a string of copycat deaths, and Senator Joe Lieberman pressured MTV into airing reruns only after 10 p.m. Inspired by Thompson’s gonzo work, Knoxville began his career by using self-defense weapons on himself and writing about it. “As far as influence, it’s my father, Hunter S. Thompson and Evel,” he once told Rolling Stone. He got to meet his idol before Thompson killed himself in 2005. “We became friendly,” Knoxville told Vice. “I don’t know if he would consider me a friend.” Born in 1939, the country singer spent much of his early years in prison, before getting it together enough to release Penitentiary Blues in 1970. An outlaw-country legend who inspired Kid Rock and Pantera, he’s also known for his particularly vile 1978 Underground Album, which Neil Strauss called “among the most racist, misogynist, homophobic, and obscene songs recorded by a popular songwriter.” Oh, he also lived in a cave for a while and was, briefly, a magician. The Jackass lineup featured ten ragtag actors, including Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Bam Margera, Jason Acuña (“Wee Man”), and Ryan Dunn. Dunn died in a car crash in 2011 at the age of 34. The week of its premiere in 2010, Jackass 3D screened at the Museum of Modern Art. (All three Jackass films are in the museum’s permanent library.) Weighing its presence at the MoMA, Dennis Lim wrote in the Times that “the antics of Jackass may or may not be art, but they stand at the confluence of some significant social phenomena and artistic traditions.” Lim cited skate culture, silent-era comedy, Dadaism, and the Theater of Cruelty among them. At the MoMA Q&A, Knoxville whapped Ehren McGhehey in the groin with a microphone. Premiering on MTV the year before Jackass, The Tom Green Show featured the Canadian actor’s absurdist prank humor and man-on-the-street skits, gearing the network up for the shape of pranks to come. Green currently tours as a stand-up comedian. BMX rider Mat Hoffman is considered the Tony Hawk of bike motocross, and has appeared in all three Jackass movies. He got on the ensemble via his work with Jackass producer Spike Jonze, who shot Hoffman’s big-air photos in the ’80s.
Johnny Knoxville on His New Movie and Growing Up