Johnny Knoxville for “Walking Tall”

Johnny Knoxville has a genuine sense of humour but takes his craft seriously. Better known as the centrepiece of the infamous Jackass television series and subsequent movie, Knoxville is happy playing a genuine character opposite The Rock in the action thriller Walking Tall, playing the former’s best friend who helps him in his fight against a corrupt casino owner in the small town in which the duo grew up.

“I’ve played a couple of characters as such, but this is one of the bigger roles in a bigger movie that I’ve played,” a relaxed Knoxville says. He says being part of an action film was a genuine blast. “I had a ball making this with a lot of fight sequences and getting to destroy the car.  It’s a good gig, you get to play cops and robbers and get paid.” He adds that he learned a fundamental lesson working with The Rock. “He gave me some really good tips on the proper foundation I should wear,” quips the actor.

All joking aside, Knoxville was determined to develop his acting skills on Walking Tall, so he hired an acting coach “and we worked our asses off for quite awhile. I got famous and then became an actor as opposed to the opposite way, so I’ve learned in front of everyone and I’m just now feeling comfortable,” Knoxville says. The actor adds that the most important dramatic lesson he has learned over the last few years is “it’s just all about feeling more comfortable in front of the camera, trying to really work out who you’re playing and where you want that to go.”

While Knoxville is surprised how he has been able to develop as an actor despite Jackass, he says “I’ve been lucky because it would’ve been easy to get pigeonholed as that guy, but I get all kinds of scripts.  I’ve gotten lucky enough to do a couple of different things, so it’s a blessing as weird as that is to say that ‘Jackass has been a blessing.’ “Jackass fans may hunger for more, but Knoxville is adamant that’s it for the show that launched his career, “because it’s a hot potato and I think we got out of it pretty Scott free.” Knoxville adds that there is no way Jackass could really exist today, given the more conservative times in which we live, “not with the F-U- C-C coming down on everyone and the climate we’re in. Hammers are coming down all over town.”

But Knoxville can easily afford to turn his back on Jackass, given his current slate of work. First, there is his starring role in the new Farrelly Brothers movie The Ringer, which he describes as “one of the coolest experiences of my life.” In the film, due out later this year, “I fake like I’m mentally challenged and enter the Special Olympics because I have to pay off this guy’s surgery.  My uncle has to pay off his bookies, so he convinces me to do it, which on the surface sounds like it could be mean-spirited, but it’s not because all the mean stuff happens to me.  It’s a Farrelly Brothers film, so it’s really sweet and we cast real mentally challenged actors in the roles and they’re brilliant.” Knoxville says it was a challenge playing a mentally challenged character who is not. “It was tough because we had to find a balance where it wasn’t hard to watch.  You don’t want to watch someone – over-the-top – for an hour and a half, so we had to make it subtle and I think we did.”

Talking about subtle, Knoxville also wrapped work on the new John Waters film a Dirty Shame, which also stars Selma Blair. “That’s like working with one of your heroes.  He invited me to lunch about two and a half years ago and said he’s writing this film and this character for me and would I be interested?  Then he pulled out all these fetish mags and goes, ‘By the way – this is what it’s about.’ “Knoxville adds that A Dirty Shame is “about a town full of sexual deviants who battle the neuters for control of the town and I play the head sexual deviant. It’s one of the naughtiest and funniest things in years and he’s so sweet and brilliant.  You go to his house and there are books stacked eight to ten in each chair – there’s no place to sit down – just because he constantly reads.” Knoxville’s character has his own particular fetish, he adds laughingly. “My thing is I go down on every girl in town.”

The actor has little time to rest on his laurels between those two films. His next project, he says, is to film a small role in Lords of Dogtown, based on the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, of Thirteen fame. “I play Bunker Spreckels, a surfer and heir to the Spreckels sugar fortune, who inherited $50 million when he turned 21.  He was a real gnarly surfer who poached Tony Alva from the team and really no one could do anything about it because he was this tough guy.” Knoxville says that he was somewhat aware of that whole Dogtown subculture. “I wasn’t a skater, but I came from skateboard videos, so I did know the history of it.”

Knoxville is also developing other projects while reading other people’s scripts. “I want to do a movie about a turf war between two hot dog vendors.  It’s a comedy and just an excuse.  I’ll be starring in it, too, just going back and forth with somebody for an hour and half, so I’ve been busy.” If that’s not enough, Knoxville is busy also developing a kind of music career. “I did start a record label! With this guy Roger Alan Wade as my first artist.  He’s an old hillbilly singer from Tennessee who’s my first cousin.  He’s written for Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings], Johnny Cash and got a couple of gold records for song-writing.  He’s just singing honkytonks in Chattanooga and he’d come out to L.A. and get loaded and I’d put him in front of a 4-track and he’d start singing all his songs, just him and his guitar like, ‘Gone Back to Whorin’,  ‘Butt-Ugly Slut’ and ‘Fryin’ Bacon Nekkid.’  He’s got a lot of cool songs, too, with the funny ones, but he kind of mixes them in like at “Live at Folsom Prison,” Johnny Cash would sing ‘Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog’ and then ‘I Still Miss Someone.’  That’s his thing.” Knoxville says that he sees himself as a musical entrepreneur. “Yeah, when I believe in something, I’ll stand behind it and Rog has been my hero forever.”

All of which proves, that within every Jackass is an artist waiting to emerge.