Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Though he’s known to most as the face of the Jackass franchise, Johnny Knoxville (né P.J. Clapp) has appeared in several movies, and not always as himself. He’s played a guy rigging the Special Olympics, one of The Dukes Of Hazzard, and in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, 86-year-old Irving Zisman, who’s traveling with his grandson across the country. The film comes out October 25, exactly 11 years after the release of the first Jackass movie.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)—“Irving Zisman”
The A.V. Club: You’ve played Irving Zisman in previous Jackass movies, but how did a whole movie centered on him come about?
Johnny Knoxville: Paramount suggested about eight years ago that we do a whole movie with the Bad Grandpa character. I didn’t see it then, but a few years after that we started thinking about if we did do it, how we’d do it. We thought a loose narrative would work, and we thought the Paper Moon-type narrative would work. We’d get a funeral and have to get him across the country with a family member, and they’d begrudgingly bond along the way.
In 2011, we started developing it full time, but it was about a year before we went to the studio with it. In that time, we started writing as many funny pranks and jokes as we could, and we thought a little bit more about the character. Irving Zisman is an old poonhound, and you can’t say naughty stuff in front of the kid. So my cousin Roger Alan Wade and I spent a bunch of time coming up with terms so he didn’t know what we were talking about. We came up with terms like, “Oh, I’d like to knuckle up on her pilaf” or, “I’d like to hog race that ‘spitooli,’” just gibberish stuff.
Spike Jonze, poor guy, was shooting Her at the same time. He’d work Her during the day and come over to us at night. He made great contributions to this.
AVC: What interests you about involving the public in your projects?
JK: I think pranking the public is, by far, the most difficult thing we do. But when you get that perfect reaction from someone or a group of people, I don’t think anything is funnier than that. It’s real and honest and absurd and I find it entertaining and interesting.
Jackass: The Movie (2002)—himself
Jackass Number Two (2006)—himself
Jackass 3D (2010)—himself
AVC: This movie comes out 11 years to the day after the first Jackass movie. Did you ever think that project would have such staying power?
JK: No. We didn’t think it’d even make it on TV. That it became such a thing to the level it did… we’re as surprised as anyone, but as appreciative as anyone. I mean, who knows? It’s just something you started with your friends in a backyard. You’re doing videos, and you never think this happens.
AVC: And you guys are still making a living off it. Not just you, but Bam Margera, Steve-O, and a bunch of other guys involved with the show.
JK: It’s pretty DIY in almost in every way. We’re not planners; far from it. So every day is a surprise.
AVC: This is probably a tough topic, but you guys lost fellow Jackass cast member Ryan Dunn in 2011. How did you two meet, and how has the loss affected you?
JK: I met Dunn doing Jackass the TV show. I’d seen him in the CKY videos before that, and we became very close. He was just the sweetest guy, a good person, and just so hilarious. The most ridiculous things made him laugh, but you could talk to him as well. He wasn’t doing shtick all the time. He was a very caring person, and his passing is one of the worst things that ever happened to me and all the guys he worked with. I miss him. I miss him a lot.
AVC: In A Tribute To Ryan Dunn, you talked a lot about how he was the one guy in the crew who was always willing to do anything. You’ve said in interviews that you’re not that tough. Has that changed over time?
JK: No. I’m not that tough, but I still did things in all the Jackass films. I did them; I just don’t consider myself that tough. I know my limitations, and I exploit them. I know I’m not that tough, and I know I’m not that coordinated, so the best thing I can do is stand in front of a bull or hold onto a rocket.
The professional movie stunt men are awesome and skilled and trained, but for the stuff we do, you want someone to be honest about how they’re feeling. You want to register the fear on their face because if there’s no consequence, then the stakes aren’t that high for anyone watching it. If they don’t care, you don’t care, really. It gets really interesting when the emotions start bubbling up. But I never let whatever hesitancy I had keep me from doing any stunts. I did them all.
The Ben Stiller Show (1992)—“Cure Fan”
AVC: How did you end up appearing on The Ben Stiller Show?
JK: I actually was an extra on The Ben Stiller Show,and they picked me out for this featured extra bit. They made me up as a Cure fan, and Ben Stiller came up and did some shtick to me, which was fun.
You had, on that show, Bob Odenkirk and Janeane Garafalo and Ben Stiller—all these super-talented people, and the thing I remember most about that is how kind they were to everyone. I was 19 or something at the time.
I did another featured extra thing on there where I played a Oscar statue. It was Ben Stiller playing Oliver Stone, and I was a life-sized Oscar statue and my hair was slicked back and I had gold makeup. I remember a weird thing happened that day. I don’t know if I’ve talked about it, but it was funny. They were dressing me up as the Oscar statue, and the Oscar statue has no contour in its crotch. So the wardrobe guy comes in and says, “We have to do something with downstairs.” And I was like, “All right,” and started pushing it in between. Then he was like, “No. I’m going to grab it from behind and pull it underneath. Are you okay with that?” So he stuffs it underneath and I was like, “I felt like I could have done that very easily.” It was just a weird moment, you know? And he was as nice as could be about a really shady thing. But, yeah, that was really uncomfortable.
The Ringer (2005)—“Steve Barker”
AVC: You’ve played a number of characters that obviously aren’t you. But your real name isn’t Johnny Knoxville, either. To what extent is Johnny Knoxville a character?
JK: It’s me, but it’s a heightened version of me. I’m never on that constantly. That would be exhausting for me and everyone around me. I don’t really prank people outside of the guys. I don’t prank civilians, you know? At home I’m just like every other father across America with kids, the low man on the totem pole.
AVC: When you decide to play a role that isn’t you, what draws you to that role? How did you pick The Ringer, for instance?
JK: The Ringer was a scary one to decide to do because I play a character who wants to fix the Special Olympics. That could have gone terribly wrong, tonally. But the Farrellys were producing it, and the Special Olympics were behind it. They were excited about it, so that went a long way in easing my trepidation. But I had to figure out how to play one character, but then play mentally challenged. I worked with my acting coach Cameron Thor, trying to figure out the right way to play that where it won’t be disrespectful. We did a lot of work, preparing for that. When I do a movie, I always go work with Cameron Thor. He’s the best guy in town to help prepare for each role.
A Dirty Shame (2004)—“Ray Ray”
JK: I love that movie! I love that movie, and I love John Waters.
It came out at a time where it was really… Bush was in the White House and it was a really conservative time. They gave it a NC-17, which meant that nobody could really see it. And the ratings slide every year; one year you can get away with something, the next year you can’t. That was a year where they were harder. I wish more people could see that movie because I’m very proud of it, and John Waters is one of my heroes.
AVC: More people have probably seen it on DVD than saw it in the theater.
JK: Oh, absolutely. People come up to me all the time and tell me how much they like it. And I don’t even want people to see it for my sake, but for John’s sake. He wrote and directed a great movie, and not as many eyes got on it as needed to.
The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia (2010)—producer
JK: I watch more documentaries than films.
AVC: Real life is sometimes more interesting than film.
JK: It’s far more bizarre.
There was a documentary I’d seen that was made about 20 years earlier called The Dancing Outlaw,and it was on Jesco White, one of the members of the White family. He was this mountain dancer and had all these different personalities. It was one of the most surreal, outrageous documentaries I’d ever seen and it was a huge, underground hit. I saw it on, like, an eighth-generation videotape.
Years later, a friend of mine was like, “I know the guy who found Jesco White and worked on the original documentary. Would you want to meet him?” So we got together, me and Julien Nitzberg, and he had all this extra footage, so we decided we wanted to do something else up there. We decided we’d have Julien and a bunch of other guys go up there with cameras for three days just to see what Jesco White and his family are up to right now. They’re this crazy outlaw family in Boone County, West Virginia, and the footage was just mind-blowing. They were really going for it. I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary or not, but there’s partying and shootouts and stabbings and snorting painters.
We took it to MTV, and Jeff Yapp and Van Toffler said, “We’ll give you money to make it.” I’m very proud of that documentary, very proud.
We have a couple more we’re planning on doing. Right now we have one on Evel Knievel and one on Nick Piantanida, this New Jersey truck driver who tried to break Colonel Joseph Kittinger’s freefall record in the 1960s. Kittinger set it in ’60. It was 102,800 feet. Felix Baumgartner just recently broke it. Nick Piantanida didn’t have the backing. He had no team, he had no space suit, he didn’t have the Air Force backing him. He did it on his own and he almost broke the record, but he lost his life. It’s a pretty unbelievable story.
AVC: Appalachia, where the Whites live, is a part of the country where it’s still pretty lawless.
JK: Those people work in the coal mines all day long and they don’t know if they’re coming out of those coal mines. Because of that, life is so on the edge that they live on the edge. They party hard, and they work for the coalmining companies that have screwed them over for most of their lives. They’re products of their environment.
SpongeBob SquarePants (2012)—“Johnny Krill”
AVC: You have little kids. Do they care that you were on SpongeBob?
JK: Oh, yeah. My son watches that episode all the time. My older daughter’s 17, so she just thought it was cool, but the 2-year-old and 4-year-old love it. My son Rocco runs around the house saying lines from the episode. “I want to see daddy on the red motorcycle!” It’s probably weird for them, but maybe not. It’s just how it is.
AVC: It’s good that they have something to watch that’s not, like, you getting shot with paintballs.
JK: They don’t see that. They won’t see that for many, many years, especially my son. He’s got a funny look in his eye.