Five years ago, you couldn’t walk into a movie theater without seeing Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville — The Ringer, Daltry Calhoun, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Lords of Dogtown all opened in the space of one year. But since then, Knoxville has gone into Hollywood hibernation, shifting his focus from onscreen to offscreen, and this year he’s produced three projects — The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, a fascinating longitudinal look at a hillbilly clan that premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival; The Birth of Big Air, a documentary about BMX maestro Mat Hoffman that airs on ESPN in July; and The Dudesons in America, a Finnish version of Jackass, which premiered on MTV last week (a new episode premieres tonight). Knoxville is coming out of hiding to injure himself and others as he films Jackass 3, and he talked to us about the mental prep that goes into Jackass stunts, his hillbilly roots, and what kind of bodily fluids we should be prepared to see from him in the future.
How are you feeling today?
Oh, my body’s a wreck. But we’re getting great footage. We’ve been shooting since February: two weeks on, two weeks off.
Is that so your body can rest up?
Yeah, it is. We edit as we go, but you can’t do this like a regular movie, six to eight weeks, twelve weeks in a row. You just can’t.
What’s your mindset when you’re prepping for Jackass stunts?
A couple days before the stunts, if I’m doing something particularly dangerous, I will go over every worst-case scenario in my head, like this could happen, this could happen, this could happen, this could happen. I try to think about that to where it’s ingrained in me. But then when the stunt’s on, you just commit and do it. If you half-commit, first of all you’re gonna have to do it again because you didn’t get the shot. [Also], if you half-commit, you usually definitely will get hurt.
So when you run over the worst-case scenarios, is that to make sure it’s safe? Or is it more of a mental exercise?
No, it’s not safe; it’s not safe at all. I just try to think of all the things that could go wrong so in that split second when it happens, maybe your body reacts in a way where it protects you just a little. You’re still gonna get a concussion, or something sprained or broken. But those are all acceptable.
When you decided to do Jackass 3 in 3-D, did you guys have a brainstorming session to come up with stunts that would look awesome in 3-D?
We try not to let it affect what we do. That was a big reason I didn’t want to do 3-D. I was kind of the last convert because I didn’t want it to affect the relationships between the guys or what we do as a group. I would say about 90 to 95 percent of the ideas we don’t write for 3-D. We just write and then after we get the idea we’ll go, “Oh, and if we do this, that’ll probably look good in 3-D,” in addition to whatever we thought of.
Can you give any hints as to what kind of bodily fluids or props we can look forward to seeing?
Oh, God. Well, you can look forward to all the bodily fluids: poo-poo, pee-pee, throwup. [Laughs.] I thought [Jackass Number Two] was better than the first one, and this one is feeling even better than Number Two. Everyone’s energy is so high, and so we’re really excited. Our problem now is a lot of good stuff’s not even gonna make the movie.
You’re also producing The Dudesons in America, which features four Finnish friends who are equally dedicated to nearly killing themselves in the name of being stupid. Do you feel like you’re kind of passing the Jackass torch on to them, in a way?
I don’t think it’s a passing of the torch. We’re doing Jackass right now, but it is like extending our family. We definitely are glad to have the Dudesons in our family.
Do you think you could ever do a Jackass TV show again? Or are you getting too old to put your body through that on a regular basis?
Mmm, no. That’s not the reason. I’m actually in better shape now than I was for [Jackass] one or two, at least before the film started. It’s just once you went from TV to film, there’s no reason to take it back to TV. It seems like a step back.
I was fascinated by The Wild and Wonderful Whites, your documentary about a family of wild, hard-drinking Appalachian outlaws, but some people have said the film is exploitative. Do you understand that reaction?
Yeah, we were aware of that. It’s a very fine line to walk between documenting exactly how these people live and telling their story accurately, and then you mix in, “Well, it’s a documentary and people are gonna see this and there are people that are gonna say it’s exploitative.” But I think it’s a side of life that a lot of Americans don’t know, and we wanted to show how the Whites live and what they’re up to. I don’t feel like we’re exploiting them. We’re telling their story.
You grew up in Tennessee. Were you exposed to hillbilly culture?
Yes, ma’am! Yup, I grew up in south Knoxville, right at the foot of the Smoky Mountains. So yeah, I know that culture very well because I am that culture. Not necessarily the White culture, but I know southern mountain people.
You were in a bunch of movies in the mid-aughts, then it seems like you kind of disappeared. Where does acting rank on your priority list these days?
I just started really getting back into acting again. I did go away for a little bit. I just turned down things and, I don’t know, I guess I was going through a period in my life of a little bit of change. But now I just did this part in this film the Farrelly brothers are producing that’s a series of shorts. Kind of like a Kentucky Fried Movie type of thing, and my thing was with Seann William Scott, and Brett Ratner directed. Yeah, after Jackass I’m gonna do some films.