Johnny Knoxville — 20 years ago nothing like you expect

                            July 2004  By Philip Berk

Johnny Knoxville is nothing like you expect.

Surprisingly handsome, he’s well mannered, and intelligent.

So where did that daredevil-practical joker image come from?

Would you believe, Spike Jonze had something to do with it. He was one of the three producers on the show.

At his press conference for the movie, Walking Tall in which he plays The Rock’s long time buddy (and the town sheriff) he is anxious to please.

A career that began with a dare has progressed from MTV exposure to major studio movies.

As he puts it, “Everything kind of fell into place really. We were doing skateboard videos, and it turned into a TV show, which turned into a  movie, which opened lots of doors for me and has given me opportunities I’m trying to take advantage of. Right now I’m producing a film at Paramount in which I’ll star. It’s an idea I had about two hot dog vendors in a turf war. I hope to continue acting in films. I don’t know if I want to direct at this point because I’m not sure I’m qualified, but I want to continue generating my own material.”

His real name is Philip John Clapp is. He uses Johnny Knoxville because Knoxsville, Tennessee, is where he’s from.

How large or small is it?

“Knoxville itself has only 200,000 people. I’m from South Knoxville, which is a very small section of  the town.”

Has it changed much?

“Like everything else, when you go back home certain memories of your youth are pretty much wiped out. A freeway goes through the corner store, but Knoxville itself hasn’t suffered much.”

His dad had a great influence on his life. Can he talk about that?

“I guess you could say Jackass was me trying to emulate my father because he was always pulling pranks.”

One example: When he was seven or eight, his dad would microwave a hot dog for ten seconds, run it through his lips when he was sleeping, and then when he’d awake, he’d pretend to be zipping his pants. “What’re you doing?” he’d yell, and his dad would explode with laughter.

So much for family values.

He started out studying to be an actor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts,  but quickly dropped out. How come? 

“Mainly because it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I saw it as a bunch of frustrated actors teaching real actors how to act. Plus I was in L.A. for the first time and I was looking  to have a good time. And they didn’t want you to audition while you were attending the school. Wasn’t that the whole point of my being out there, to audition; so there was some philosophical differences.”

For fear of being sued, he adds, “I’m sure it’s a great establishment, but I didn’t have the greatest time.”

He made his reputation with Jackass which quickly became the MTV’s top rated show, loved by audiences but scorned by senators and sociologists. Was he surprised?

“It was always fun for us to read those articles and discovering how people were deconstructing what we were doing. We were just trying to make you laugh. There was no other motive. we weren’t trying to shock or offend. It was just ten guys trying to have fun, making each other laugh. That’s how we approached the TV show, and that’s how we approached the movie. We didn’t want to change people’s perception of what we did. Our response was, If you get it , you do, if you don’t,  you do.”

Did his folks back home get it?

“Oh, man, I just went back home to see my parents, my sisters and everyone. It was like carloads of people came by. I’m sitting in my living room taking pictures, shaking hands, It was like I was running for office. I’m still friendly with the people I grew up with.”

Were they surprised by his success?

“They’re just glad I’m out of the house,” he jokes, then quickly adds, “Are you kidding? They’re very thrilled. And it’s good to be able to help them out. I just bought my parents a winter home in Florida. Being able to do that for them made me happier than it made them, and they were ecstatic.”

Surprisingly he’s been married to the same woman for nine years.

So deep down you could say he’s old fashioned?

“I have a daughter, she’s eight years old and she’s the centre of my whole world. She’s everything, so as far as as being old fashioned in some ways I am. All I know is in about six years when boys start coming over to the house there’s going to be some helluva  fights.”

How did he meet his wife?

“She was living next door to me, and we were hanging out. She’s a good girl from Texas.”

Does she work with him?

“No she’s a clothing designer. She designs jewelry as well, private label stuff.”

Is his wife happy that Jackass is over?

“I’m happy it’s over. We had a ball doing it, but it’s done now. There’s no need to repeat myself. I’ve made three movies, I have an acting coach, so I’m really trying to work my ass off.”

What are the movies he’s made?

“Besides Walking Tall, I did a John Waters picture called A Dirty Shame,  and I just finished a Farrelly brothers picture called The Ringer. I’m just trying to get better each time I go out.”

Were they the leads?

“Yes, I was lucky.”

How did he feel about playing the Rock’s sidekick?

“I am lucky to be in either position, and I had a ball on this film. I mean The Rock would work like five days a week  busting his ass and I’d work like three, then head to the bars. So the sidekick role is great but playing the lead that’s an honor too, but it’s a lot of work.”

What was working with the Rock like?

“He’s a super guy. I had never met him before, but I heard he was really nice, and when I did meet him, I was wasn’t disappointed. There’s no pretense about him. He has a good sense of humor, and if there’s kids around, he signs every autograph. You wish somebody in his position would act the way he does, I mean he’s really a good guy.”

Does he enjoy being a father? 

“I try to spend every chance I have with her. I still travel a lot, but whenever she’s not in school, she and her mom visit the set. She’s awesome. I got her a cute little Easter dress. She put it on right away. I knew she liked it otherwise she’d just put it down, and I’d feel bad.”

Does she have a sense of humor?

“She has a good sense of humor, but she’s really girlish. I guess if you watch Jackass, we look pretty girlish sometimes too.”

Talk about his tattoos.

“They’re just one bad idea after another.”

Then pointing them out, he explains, “This one’s the state flag of Tennessee. This is a punk band called The Germs, and I got a new one, my worst idea yet, it’s Leon Spinks, the boxer who beat Ali in 78. He’s missing his front teeth. He was one bad idea I had in Austin.”

Why Spinks?

” I can’t explain it. I’m a vessel for bad ideas.

What did his wife think of it?

“She’s not happy.”

Is it true he called the Rock ‘Baby’?

How come?

“I think that started in our love scene that got cut out.”

What does he call you?

“Puddin’ or Boo Boo, you know.”

Jackass could be called television Theatre of Cruelty. What is his response?

“I hope it wasn’t cruel.”

Was the nudity an integral part of its success?

“Male nudity. There was no female nudity. We didn’t objectify women.”

It had never been seen on television before, at least not in the U.S.

“It’s amazing. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing, and we still don’t. We never tried to intellectualize what we did. Whatever hit us as funny we went out and shot. If you sit around and talk to the guys you’d know we’re not that calculating.”

He didn’t seem to have as much fun as the rest of the guys, seemed more inhibited. Was he?

“I had a a ball. I had the time of my life. Still am.”

The Jackass movie was a blockbuster in the States. Are they making the sequel?

“I don’t know. We wanted to quit while we were behind or ahead. We didn’t want to run it into the ground and start repeating ourselves. People become inured to that type of thing after a while. It’s tough to shock.”

For the record his wife’s name is Melanie and his daughter’s named Madison.

Clapp, not Knoxville.