Interview: Icon Johnny Knoxville

The star of Jackass’ Bad Grandpa talks pranks, penises, and smoking weed with Willie Nelson.

You’re a youngish dude from the South, but in Bad Grandpa you play an old Jewish man. Where the hell did your character, Irving Zisman, come from?

The name comes from two guys who used to come to a restaurant I worked at. But the character is like a mixture of Mel Brooks, Walter Matthau, a more perverted version of myself, and my father. There were a lot of lines in the movie that come straight from him. He’s probably my biggest influence.

He was a big prankster, right?

Oh, yeah. When I was 17 or 18, I’d be passed out, and he’d take a hot dog and put it in the microwave for 20 seconds to get it lukewarm, then run it through my mouth. When I woke up, he would act like he was zipping up his pants.

This new movie is all pranks. How was filming Bad Grandpa compared with the other Jackass movies?

Well, the makeup took three hours every morning, so that sucked. And if I did a scene with my shirt off, it took another two hours, so after we did that once or twice, I wrote those scenes out. I don’t want to be a whiny actor, but after 12 hours you want to rip your face off.

Was it hard to stay in character?

To do a whole movie where you’re pranking the public, at first it was terrifying, but once we started getting good stuff, the fear washed away. And Jackson Nicoll, who plays my grandson, he was just heaven-sent. He’s got no fear, he’s cute, he has charisma, he’s smart, and he loves fucking with people.

Sounds like a Jackass-in-training.

He’s a lot smarter than I was as a kid. On our set, though, around me and the crew, well, let’s just say you’d better cover up because Jackson is gonna hit you in the zipper at any time.

What’s the worst injury you’ve had?

Hmm. A rocket blew up on me at the end of Jackass Number Two, and a long metal rod flew past my ribs and nearly decapitated two of our art department guys. So that was pretty hairy. I almost broke my neck in the first one. There have been a number of times I could have died, I guess.

And you broke your penis. How’s that going for you?

Right now it’s harder than a turnbuckle. Tiny but mean. I had to use a catheter for three and a half years, twice a day. An 18-inch tube about the size of a number two pencil. But not anymore. Everything’s in working order.

Do you regret any of the stuff you’ve done? We know you recently had your Leon Spinks tattoo removed.

I don’t really sit around going, “Aw, why did I do that?” What happened with the tattoo was, I was in Austin and I woke up hung over one morning, and on my left forearm was a note that said, “Get a tattoo of Leon Spinks on your left biceps,” in my handwriting, so I knew it was a message my drunk self wrote to my sober self. I woke up, and I’m like, “That guy’s a genius! I’m gonna go do that right now!” And I went and did it and had it for many years.

You bought Johnny Cash’s cabin, partied with Hunter S. Thompson, and starred in a movie with Willie Nelson. What’s all that been like?

I never met Johnny Cash, but I did have a couple of evenings with Hunter that are pretty foggy. When I started writing for magazines, I was just doing cheap Hunter-esque knockoffs, so he was a big influence on me. And to be able to call Willie a friend is pretty mind-blowing. Smoking with him was tough, though, because I’m not a weed guy. I love the idea of weed, I love the smell, but I think I’m allergic to it. It makes me super dizzy, and I lose my hearing for five or six hours. And with Willie’s weed, forget five or six hours. I’m done for eight or nine.

You seem to have a pretty high threshold for pain.

I don’t know that that’s true. I just think my give-a-shit threshold is really low. But people have been doing dumb stunts since the beginning of time. With Jackass we were fortunate in our timing. I didn’t think it was gonna get on TV, and when it did, I didn’t think it was gonna stay on TV. And when they brought up the idea of a movie, I was like, “Well, I don’t see a movie.” But I love when people film themselves doing stupid shit, and I’m glad they’re doing it. I just don’t think we invented dumb shit.

Photos by AF Archive / Alamy | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013