Deciphering Johnny Knoxville

Published Aug. 4, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

This is not a story about drinking with Johnny Knoxville, something that has been written so many times by now, it has practically become its own subgenre within the gonzo journalism canon.

Well, okay, the interview did take place at a bar, and alcohol was involved, including a round of tequila shots that Knoxville ordered and suggested drinking "stuntman"-style, which entails snorting the salt and squirting the lime juice in your eye.

That's about what you'd expect from the guy who created Jackass, the MTV reality series that made self-induced pain not just acceptable but fashionable and made the charismatic Phillip John Clapp from Knoxville, Tenn., an instant star.

Only he's not that guy _ not all the time. He looks like that guy, with the trademark smoked aviator sunglasses, faux-hawk hairstyle and facial scruff, the stylishly distressed denim button-down, cut-off pants and worn-out Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers.

But sitting down for a beer at a midtown Manhattan hotel bar, Knoxville is more Southern gentleman than jackass. The 34-year-old is unerringly polite, addressing a waiter as "sir" and his interviewer as "ma'am" in a low, slow voice with a slight twang that emerges now and again.

He speaks earnestly about the forces that shaped him growing up (the music of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, the writing of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson) and those that influence him now (his wife, Melanie, and their 9-year-old daughter, Madison, whose name is tattooed over his heart).

He's also low-key on this afternoon as he prepares to leave New York _ where he has been bar-hopping nightly _ for Atlanta, where his new movie, The Dukes of Hazzard, was to be shown for troops at a military base.

"It's just such a good town. I always get sad when I leave," Knoxville says. "I play really sad music all the way out to the airport _ tons of outlaw country and western like Willie, Waylon, Johnny."

(His iPod also contains entire sections of Broadway show tunes and Barbra Streisand songs. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

This combination of contradictions _ the rowdy party boy coupled with the sensitive romantic _ has prompted comparisons to a number of Hollywood icons.

Dukes of Hazzard director Jay Chandrasekhar likens Knoxville to Burt Reynolds, or a "funny Steve McQueen." (The movie, by the way, which is a big-screen version of the '80s TV series, essentially requires Knoxville, as Luke Duke, to ride shotgun while Seann William Scott's Bo Duke stunt-drives the General Lee. Both yell "yee-haw" a lot. Reynolds himself shows up as the villainous Boss Hogg.)

"I wanted this movie to feel as much as possible like a cousin of Smokey and the Bandit, and Burt Reynolds had that sort of rakish good looks, he did his own stunts, he considered himself sort of a ladies' man," Chandrasekhar said. "I feel like Knoxville has a number of those qualities. He's done so much really funny stuff, he's Southern, he's got a certain toughness to him."

John Waters, who directed Knoxville last year in the sex comedy A Dirty Shame _ and with whom he shares an appreciation for humor that pushes boundaries _ described Knoxville as both "a movie star and a great actor" and expects that he'll carve out an eclectic career similar to Johnny Depp's.

"He's also someone who men and women are instantly fond of," Waters said by phone from his summer home in Provincetown, Mass. "He's the cutest, funniest boy that you would meet in real life. He can certainly act, but he's a real person, someone that every time you know you're going to have fun when you go out with him."

Knoxville's acting coach in Los Angeles, meanwhile, sees similarities to Jack Nicholson.

"They're both inappropriate men who are honest about themselves, and that's extraordinarily appealing," said Cameron Thor, whose clients include Sharon Stone, Drew Carey and Cameron Diaz.

Knoxville's reactions to such comparisons?

"Wow," he says, taken aback. "That's a really cool thing to say. I mean, God, if I get one-fortieth of the way there, I'll be all right."

The son of a tire company owner and a homemaker, with sisters eight and 10 years older than him, Knoxville jokes that he knew he wanted to be an actor when he was about 13 because it sounded like a job with the least amount of work involved.

"If I'd known about producing then, maybe I would have gone into that, because there's no work involved," he says.

What inspired him to move to Hollywood after graduating from high school _ and leave the town for which he'd ultimately name himself while writing freelance magazine articles _ was a copy of Kerouac's On the Road, which his cousin, country singer-songwriter Roger Alan Wade, gave him at age 14. The location for this momentous event: a bar, which Knoxville had entered with a fake ID.

"I didn't know people lived like that or thought like that, and maybe there was something else to do," he says. "Everyone where I'm from pretty much stayed in their own hometown."

Jackass, which made Knoxville famous in his hometown and far beyond, came about by accident. He'd planned to try out self-defense equipment on himself _ pepper spray, a Taser, etc. _ then write about the experience. His editor, Jeff Tremaine, suggested videotaping the stunt. A phenomenon was born. Skateboarding mishaps, intentional paper cuts, nipple-biting baby alligators _ name it, and Knoxville and his buddies did it, both on the TV series, which ran from 2000-2002, and in Jackass: The Movie, which Tremaine directed.

All that fun was not without consequence. Several kids copied some of the more daring, dangerous pranks and injured themselves, even though MTV issued warnings not to try these stunts at home and aired episodes late at night.

Though it was an ensemble program, Knoxville drew much of the attention, for better or worse _ and he'd been offered a spot as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, which he turned down because it came up just as he was shooting the Jackass pilot.

"It was at the point where I either say yes to my friends, where we had all the control, or yes to Saturday Night Live, where none of my friends were really going to be there and I had no control," he says. "I just thought I made the right decision."

A series of supporting roles in movies followed, including Big Trouble, Men in Black II, in which he played Lara Flynn Boyle's two-headed alien sidekick, and Walking Tall, with the Rock. This year, he played pimped-out skateboarding promoter Topper Burks in Lords of Dogtown.

Whatever Knoxville does, though, some people still assume he's that Jackass dude, 24/7. Guys at bars have come out of nowhere and bashed him in the head (which has led to a few fights). Girls have approached him and burned him with cigarettes and lighters.

"I kind of brought it on myself, so . . ." he trails off. "Worse things could happen."

When asked how he plans to show that he's capable of more than Jackass, he grows slightly defensive _ but remains polite.

"I don't want to distance myself from Jackass at all. I'm proud of Jackass," he says. "It got me here and opened up all kinds of doors. It's something me and my friends did. I'm very, very proud of it."

But his previous attempt at a meatier role was the little-seen dark comedy Grand Theft Parsons from 2003. Knoxville stars as Gram Parsons' road manager, Phil Kaufman, who steals the singer-songwriter's body in order to set it ablaze in Joshua Tree National Park.

"I love Gram Parsons and I love Phil Kaufman and I wish we could have done that story justice, but it was just kind of a miss," Knoxville acknowledges. (Critics trashed the movie but were generally kind to Knoxville. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote that Knoxville "shows some promise as an actor" but added that the movie "really has no place to go.")

"All the intentions were good," Knoxville said. "And after that movie _ I wasn't very proud of my performance _ I got an acting coach. . . . He's just helped me a lot, so much, and the past five or six films I feel like I'm getting better with every film."

Thor calls Knoxville "a natural actor _ he just didn't know it."

But Katrina Holden Bronson, the writer-director of Daltry Calhoun, believes she has already seen what he can do. In the movie, scheduled for fall release, Knoxville stars in the title role as the estranged father of a 14-year-old daughter who's a music prodigy.

"I saw a depth and sensitivity to him that runs so deep, and everything you say about him being a father, all that came to the surface," Bronson says. "He was able to access all of these emotions so easily and so quickly. I just saw this reservoir of talent that I think is really going to blow people away."

A big reason Bronson wanted Knoxville for the film was because he's a father in real life. And talking to Knoxville about his wife and daughter, he's clearly and understandably protective of them, especially when it comes to the recent rampant tabloid rumors about an affair with co-star Jessica Simpson, who plays Daisy Duke.

"I love the tabloids except for when I'm in 'em. Especially with the stuff they wrote about Jessica and I _ it's obviously not true," he volunteers without being asked about specific allegations. "They write these things and, you know, I've got a daughter and a wife and she's got a husband and it affects the families involved. Luckily, my wife and I have a dialogue. We talk about it."

Thor says, "For all the stuff he likes to get printed about himself _ he very carefully nurtures the image of the hard-drinking, (expletive)-all, who-gives-a-(expletive), it's his public persona and it's his private persona to a large degree _ he's extraordinarily considerate."

In December, Knoxville will also star in The Ringer, a comedy in which he poses as a contestant in the Special Olympics. The Farrelly brothers are the executive producers. But Knoxville says it's not what you'd expect.