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Kickin' it with
Johnny Knoxville

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

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 a 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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