Kickin' it with Johnny Knoxville

He brought sexual anarchy into America's living rooms with Jackass. Now he’s a sex saint with three gay bear apostles in John Waters's A Dirty Shame. Meet a Southern man without inhibitions

BY Alonso Duralde

September 27 2004 11:00 PM ET

I cruised Johnny
Knoxville for years,” confesses John Waters.
“Career-wise,” he adds. All that cruising by
the director and gay icon pays off in his latest film,
A Dirty Shame, in which Knoxville plays
auto mechanic and inspired “sex saint”
Ray-Ray Perkins. Waters’s professional stalking of
his star began with Knoxville’s rabble-rousing
stupid-stunt show on MTV, Jackass. “I
was a very big fan, because it was causing perfect
trouble—it’s when all young people love it and
all their parents hate it. You can’t ask for a
better thing.”
It’s a tenet the creator of such
scandalous masterpieces as Pink Flamingos and
Female Trouble knows well. Indeed, A Dirty
Shame
is a return to Waters’s
perfect-trouble-making best. Slapped with an NC-17
rating by the Motion Picture Association of America,
this outrageous comedy will never be spun into a
family-friendly Broadway musical à la
Hairspray. Its whacked-out plot concerns the
epic struggle between Baltimore’s antisex
“neuters” and a rowdy gang of blue-collar sex
addicts and fetishists, led by Ray-Ray, a
mammoth-mammaried stripper (Selma Blair), a trio of
gay bears, and formerly prudish housewife Sylvia Stickles
(Tracy Ullman), who becomes Ray-Ray’s
designated sexual messiah after suffering a concussion.
It’s been a long road to John
Waters’s Baltimore for Knoxville, who’d
been making a living as a skateboarding-magazine
writer before learning about concussions firsthand on MTV.
In fact, working in movies is the fulfillment of the
ambition that led him to the American Academy of
Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, Calif., after graduating
from high school in his native Knoxville, Tenn. (Yes,
it’s a stage name, and much more
marquee-friendly than P.J. Clapp.)
Along the way from Tennessee to Hollywood, as
the 33-year-old shares over a boisterous Los Angeles
lunch, he also married a woman named Melanie, had a
daughter named Madison, and got tangled up in some
unpublishable stories he’s happy to share
involving Japanese hotel managers and Wildboyz
star Chris Pontius. He also bought himself a spiffy
sailor suit.

Tell me about the sailor suit.
Ha, ha! The sailor suit—man! First of all, did
you like my sailor suit?

Superhot; we all loved it.
And I felt hot in it. I wore it to the shoot for The
Advocate,
and I felt so damn handsome in it that I
couldn’t afford not to wear it to the bars. And
I got obviously, well, not obviously, but yeah, very
well-received by men and women alike. Two thumbs up, if you
know what I’m saying.

And what inspired you?
Well, uh, seamen inspire me. [Laughs] And the
band Turbonegro, they’re not afraid to wear
sailor caps onstage. The caption under the picture
should maybe say, “Sailors, board me now.” [Laughs]

Based on what the film’s about, do you
consider yourself to be sexually adventurous?
I’m definitely not a prude. I’m definitely
not a neuter. So yes, the answer would be a resounding yes!

I know a lot of gay guys who were huge Jackass fans
because it had the most male nudity on TV. Did you ever
hear from those fans?
When we were out in public, people would come up and say
nice things. There’s times when they’ve
been a little physical.

A little or a lot?
A lot. I’m trying to think of one
guy’s line: I was in a bar in the East Village
and this guy comes up and grabs my package, and I
forget the exact verbiage, but the idea was that he really
wanted to fuck me. He had one hand on my package and the
other hand around my shoulder. And I was surprised and
like, “That’s very sweet of you. Thank
you very much.”

I’m guessing that before meeting John Waters
you probably were already a fan of his movies?
Huge fan of John Waters. And to sit next to him and for
him to write this part for me—I don’t
know, it’s a little surreal, actually.
I’ve looked up to that guy forever. He
couldn’t have been any sweeter as well. Super,
super intelligent guy—you go to his house and
there’s books stacked eight high in every seat.
There’s no room to sit down, because he’s
constantly reading. Yeah, it was an honor.

Do you think his stuff colored your sense of humor?
The style that you brought to your work?
Oh, I’m sure. Man, if I could just get one little
drop of his inspired mania in my work, if it’s
shown through at all, that would be a good thing. But
I don’t want to put myself with him. I put him
on a pedestal.

But you’re allowed to be “inspired
by.” I think one of the cool things about
Jackass was that it was like,
“Let’s take what people are afraid of and
make it ridiculous,” which is kind of what
he always does. The notion of “This is
taboo, and it’s hilarious.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. “Me and all my friends,”
essentially, that was Jackass. Yeah, there were
no real boundaries—all of us were just having a ball.

One of the things that I think was kind of cool
about the movie: Over the course of his films,
John’s Catholic upbringing tends to surface
at the strangest times, and in this movie
you’re sort of playing John the Baptist to 12
sexual-addict apostles. Wha! was your religious upbringing?
I was raised Southern Baptist.

Yow.
Yeah. So, kind of like Catholic. [Laughs] Very
strict. My family’s Southern Baptist
and— Yeah, I’ll probably quit there. My
mother’s very religious.

When did you start rebelling against that?
I don’t know. I used to get in fights in
children’s church. [Both laugh] Not like
verbal—like, physical fights. I guess it
didn’t work out so well.

Did you get a lot of antigay propaganda growing up?
Yeah, you hear the gays slandered growing up, and then
you come of age and you’re like,
Wait—why’s it so important to
hate on people?

When were you first aware that you had gay people
in your life? Were there friends of yours, friends of
the family?
Probably when I first moved out to L.A. I don’t
know, ’cause I came straight from high school.

In Tennessee?
Yeah, I went from high school in Tennessee straight to
here. And in high school, none of my friends were out.
And I don’t know if anyone in my school ever
came out. But yeah, you move out here and
everyone’s doing their own thing. It’s very nice.

I think that one of the reasons—apart from
the nudity, of course—that gay audiences always
loved Jackass was that you guys were very
alpha-male and doing crazy shit, really athletic
and traditionally masculine, and at the same time,
not giving a crap about being all naked in a room. There
was never that sense that you guys had to defend
yourselves, like, “Oh, we’re not queer!”
To us, there’s no negative stigma attached, as
there shouldn’t be. We didn’t care. I
had rainbow flags on my helmet in the movie. Everyone,
lighten up.

But that’s revolutionary. That’s a big
deal. And I don’t know if you guys were cognitive
of that at the time, or if that was just what you
were going to do.
It’s just our attitude. It wasn’t like we
were trying to make some political statement—we
just didn’t see any negative stigma. We were
just having fun. We didn’t get caught up in it.

I think for a lot of gay people, there’s a
perception that straight guys have to remind you that
they’re straight. You see guys walking
through West Hollywood with their girlfriends,
clutching for dear life, like God forbid that anybody
for a second thinks that I’m gay.

Yeah, and those are the guys that you’ve got to
wonder about.

True! As if they’ve got something to prove.
Like, what’s the big deal, you know?

The attitude that you guys had about it, would you
say that was typical of the skateboarding world? Or was
it more specifically you guys?
I think it was more specifically about us. I wrote for
skateboarding magazines but I wasn’t a
skateboarder, so I can’t speak for the
skateboard community. But I know for me and all my friends
on Jackass and all my friends entirely, I just
feel it’s not a big deal and shouldn’t
be. If someone thought I was gay, I’d consider
that a compliment. It shouldn’t be a negative
attached to it.

When you were doing the show, did you feel like
fans got it, like they understood what you were trying
to do? That they weren’t just looking at it
as a freak show?
Yeah, I think there was a certain spirit about the show
where it was just me and my friends having fun, and it
translated. The only people I don’t feel who
got it were the people who really tried to deconstruct
it and make something out of it that it wasn’t. You
know, basically it was just us doing stupid stuff and having
a ball. We weren’t trying to make any political
statements. “What did you mean with this
thing?” We just thought it was funny! We thought
it was funny, so we shot it. “And so what about the
G-strings?” Deal with it! So what if there’s
touching—deal with it!

Yeah, you definitely demystified the thong on that
show, I think. [Knoxville laughs] OK, when you
asked Rip Taylor to do the movie, did he know the show?
Ah, you know what? I don’t know, but they asked
me what celebrities did we want to get to do the
movie, and first thing out of my mouth, “Rip
Taylor!” He was way into it. That was a big deal
for me to have Rip Taylor in the movie. He’s just
hilarious. He’s always on, always
telling just joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke,
joke. We’re all sitting around the set one day, the
one day he came down, and it was me, my cousin Knate,
and Rip Taylor. Rip was telling me stories and we were
laughing, and my cousin, who’s a
filmer—had a camera across his knee but wasn’t
filming—was giving Rip a break. And finally,
Rip’s telling this story and dropping all these
names like Liza Minnelli, and finally he looks at me
and goes, “Hello! Louise! I’m giving
you gold here and you’re not filming!”
“Well, jeez—Knate, film, film!”
[Laughs] So “Hello, Louise” has
really worked itself into all my phrasing and speeches.

Given the current political climate—not just
about freedom-of-speech issues but the ongoing FCC
“What is obscene? What is indecent?”
stuff—how do you think what A Dirty
Shame
is portraying translates to the notion of
people being entitled to live how they want to live?
I think John’s whole thing is, as long as
you’re not hurting someone else, it’s
fine. I kind of feel that way too. Just let people
live their lives—stay out of their business and let
them live their lives. And the FCC, Jesus Christ!
Hopefully this is an administration thing and
it’ll go away when this administration goes away.

You already went through that when Jackass
was so controversial.
Yeah. I’m just hoping that it’s an
administration thing. I think it is. It seems to
change. I was talking to John and I was telling him,
“I don’t think Jackass could be on TV
now, because we couldn’t get away with
anything.” And his movie getting an NC-17
rating, it wouldn’t have gotten that a few
years ago. This movie should be acceptable for all
audiences. In America sex is bad and violence is good.
And in Europe, Jackass got what’s
equivalent to an NC-17 in Germany because of the violence.
They don’t care about the sex scenes. We like our
violence, not our sex, in America. Which is completely ridiculous.

So now that you’re a parent, do you think
more about the suitability of things for you and your family?
Oh, yeah. With my daughter, we always watch
whatever’s on TV with her, whatever shows
she’s watching, just to make sure
they’re suitable for her. She hasn’t seen
Jackass: The Movie. She’s seen
certain parts where nothing is naughty or somebody
gets hurt. But when she’s old enough, she can watch
it if she wants. I’m not really going to
encourage it. But yeah, you have to when
they’re children. She’s a good girl.

Has it changed you? Your behavior in general or anything?
Yeah, when you have a child, it changes you. All your
focus in the whole world is that little kid. I
can’t say it really calmed me down. My behavior
actually got much worse after the kid was born.
[Laughs] But not in front of her!

Gotcha.
I’m actually the disciplinarian, which is funny.
And she listens. Actually, she just came out
good—we just try not to fuck her up. Let her do
her thing and not try to fuck her up.

How old is she now?
She’s 8 1/2.

Wow. So you’re past the rough stuff.
She was always a good kid. Driving with her, taking her
out to restaurants—we got really lucky.

She’s a time bomb waiting to go off.
She’s really just easygoing. I’m sure when
the teenage years come, I’ll be going, “Oh…”

Getting back to politics, one of the things that
seems to keep popping up lately with the government is
this attempt to equate the notion of dissent with
a lack of patriotism. Any thoughts on that subject?
We’re going back to freedom of speech. Why
can’t you speak out against something you think
is wrong? Suddenly you’re un-American? That
notion seems un-American to me, that you can’t
speak out against something. And it is. I hope it’s
an administration thing, that it all goes away! Tell
me it’s going to.

Were you fondled by Patty Hearst during the filming
of A Dirty Shame?
Did she fondle me?

I think so. After Ray-Ray’s been slipped the Prozac.
Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, her whole thing in the movie was
that she was into frottage—you know, the
rubbing up against another person. I think she
probably snuck a little in on me. That was a really cool
thing, meeting Patty Hearst.

I saw John Waters in Dallas about 10 years ago
doing his Evening With, his stand-up thing, and
he passed around sploshing magazines, with people
dumping food all over themselves and getting
sexually excited. It’s the funniest thing
you’ve ever seen, so I somehow knew in this
movie it was going to get in there. And of course,
he did not disappoint.
Yeah, when I first met him, he said he had an idea and
was going to write this movie and wanted to meet me
because he wanted to write a character for me. And it
was like, Aw, jeez, this is one of the best days of
my life.
So I go to meet him and he pulls out all
these fetish magazines—sploshing and frottage,
I think maybe he had [the gay bear magazine]
American Grizzly. Oh! I almost, almost—I
thought I had the cover of American Grizzly, because
there are bears in the movie—I got my pictures
with [the actors who play] Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and
Baby Bear. I called and bragged to my friends,
“I got The Advocate and American
Grizzly,
all in the same month! Eat your heart
out!” [Laughs] [Jackass costars]
Steve-O and Chris Pontius, they were envious, definitely.
[But] much to my chagrin, American Grizzly
didn’t want a quote-unquote celebrity tie-in.

[Laughs] Let’s talk about Tennessee.
I discovered that Tom Wolfe in the ’60s actually
coined the phrase “good ol’
boy” in an article about how a large
proportion of Congressional Medal of Honor winners come
from east Tennessee. The premise, basically, was
that people there are crazy. That’s where
all the death-defying stuntpeople come from, and the
NASCAR racers. There’s just something about that
part of the country that just breeds crazy daredevils.
Interbreeds! [Laughs]

Since you’re a daredevil yourself, I just
wonder if you have any idea where all that comes from.
I don’t know, man! The fellows back home are
definitely spirited, I can tell you that.

Were you jumping off the garage when you were 9?
No, when I was young, when I was little, I had asthma so
bad that I was pretty much in the house a lot. I did
get into my fair share of naughtiness, but I was sick
a lot. Then I got a little better and really wanted to
let my hair down.

Do you still feel like you’re making up for
lost time?
Yeah, you always try and think that way, just to get the
most out of the day.

Martin Scorsese grew up that way too—he sat
at the window a lot as a kid and watched the cabstands
where all the mobsters were.
Yeah, and I’ve played
basketball—we’d take a trip to Kentucky
and go to an indoor swimming pool, and all my friends would
be in there swimming, and I couldn’t go swim with
them, so I’d just sit in my room and watch TV
and movies. I’m not complaining—I never
looked at myself as a victim. I just thought, This
is what I’ve got to do—order room service,
what the hell.

In making A Dirty Shame, were there parts
where you had a hard time keeping a straight face.
Oh, I mean, yeah, it was brilliant—you say these
lines out loud, and you’re just going.
Especially watching Tracey Ullman—you
can’t keep a straight face. She’s brilliant.
The coolest lady. The coolest lady. I mean, she’s
yelling lines like, “Somebody, somewhere,
finish me off,” you’re going to laugh.
And then watching John behind the monitor kind of smirk
and giggle—what a ball.

How is John Waters as an actor’s director?
Well, we had a lot of rehearsals, and John knows exactly
what he wants. He’ll talk about it and give you
specific directions, like “Go bigger” or
“Tone it down a little.” He’s
definitely in direct contact with you the whole time. I
mean, these films are so his stamp, and it was just
great to be able to work with him.

Do you think that directors are seeing you as a
performer and not just a personality?
Yeah, I think people are getting different things.
I’m getting offered a lot of good scripts.
I’m the luckiest guy on the earth.

What I thought was interesting was that you trained
as an actor, then you were doing magazine stuff and kind
of got into the skater world, which led to
Jackass and then back into acting sort of
the reverse way.
Yeah, I backed in. Fell in. Yeah, it’s been a
really odd ride, but I appreciate where I’m at
more than anybody.

Did you complete whatever acting program you were
doing at American Academy after high school?
No. While you’re there, they don’t want
you to audition, so some of the teachers seem really
frustrated, and I just dropped out. Plus I was 18 and
had just gotten to L.A.

Par-tay!
Yeah, and that’s what it was. I didn’t
know how focused I was. Maybe I was just looking for
an excuse to drop out of the academy so I could go to Hollywood.

Since you do come from the magazine world,
what’s the headline of this story?
[Laughs] Oh, man! What are some good titles?
Well, I think an obvious title would be that Josie
Cotton song, “Johnny, Are You Queer?”
[Both laugh]

What have you got coming up?
I did a Farrelly Brothers picture called The Ringer.

Oh, right, yes—the one where you fake your
way into the Special Olympics. Is that opening this year?
November.

I hear it’s really funny.
Yeah, they’ve tested it a couple of times and
it’s tested higher than any other movie the
Farrelly Brothers ever did. And it’s good,
because on the surface people might think it’s a
mean-spirited movie, but it’s not. And actually, all
the mean stuff happens to me. The athletes, which we
cast a lot of in the movie, are brilliant. It’s
just, I did the John Waters thing, and then I did The
Ringer—two movies back-to-back that I was really
proud of, proud to be a part of.

Do you think the new head-banging sex act in A
Dirty Shame
is going to catch on?
I don’t know—I’ve had a bunch of
concussions myself, and they never made me that horny.
[Alonso laughs] I mean, I’m pretty
much generally horny, and the one time I wasn’t
was when I had a concussion. But maybe, you know.

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