Johnny Knoxville on 'Jackass Forever,' 'miles' of male nudity and 'not so tough' WWE wrestlers

·12 min read
A man in a purple velvet jacket and thick-rimmed glasses adjusts his tie
Johnny Knoxville's latest installment in his prank film franchise is called "Jackass Forever." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Johnny Knoxville is 50 years old. On its own this may seem unremarkable, but coupled with the fact that for more than 20 years Knoxville has been the ringleader/master of ceremonies of the crew responsible for the “Jackass” franchise, it's worth noting.

Beginning with the short-lived MTV series that launched them all to fame, the franchise has built a devoted fanbase with 2002’s “Jackass: The Movie,” 2006’s “Jackass Number Two” and 2010’s “Jackass 3D” alongside assorted other spinoffs and affiliated movies and shows, including 2013’s “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for makeup and hairstyling.

Aging and mortality is a surprisingly tender and poignant through line to the new “Jackass Forever,” as Knoxville and crew again assemble for a series of outrageous stunts and pranks that make a mockery of the fragility of the human body and become a triumph of friendship and laughter. (The film, opening today in wide release, is directed by Jeff Tremaine and counts Spike Jonze among its producers.) In performing a stunt in which he attempted a magic trick in front of a charging bull, Knoxville suffered a broken wrist, a broken rib, a concussion and a brain hemorrhage that required months of treatment and rehabilitation.

Yet the film still has a sense of anarchic absurdism, an I-can’t-believe-I-just-saw-that feeling of shock and delight. (Along with outlandish amounts of closeup male nudity.) The new film includes returning cast members Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Dave England, Ehren McGhehey, Preston Lacy and Jason “Wee Man” Acuña, along with new cast members Sean McInerney, Zach Holmes, Eric Manaka, Davon “Jasper” Wilson and Rachel Wolfson. There are cameo appearances by Machine Gun Kelly, Eric André, Tyler the Creator and Alia Shawkat.

Knoxville appeared in the ring at the recent WWE wrestling Royal Rumble event, where he was eliminated by Sami Zayn. Then at the subsequent premiere of “Jackass Forever,” Zayn confronted Knoxville on the red carpet, where he was chased off by Knoxville with a cattle prod. In between those events, Knoxville sat for a conversation with The Times.

A man strapped into a chair, left, and a man in a suit next to a desk with a machine on it
Danger Ehren, left, and Johnny Knoxville in a scene from "Jackass Forever." (Sean Cliver / Paramount Pictures via Associated Press)

Do you plan to keep wrestling after you're done promoting the movie?

Well, it seems like I have no choice because of that coward Sami Zayn. I'm going to have to get even. If you saw me in the ring, you're going to see Sami Zayn flying out of the ring.

You've been talking a lot as you've been promoting the movie about how you've had some head injuries and you're trying to take it easy. Professional wrestling does not seem like the way to go about that.

Those guys don't impress me. That's nothing compared to my day job. The WWE has some really tough female wrestlers, but the male wrestlers, not so tough.

Let's talk about “Jackass Forever” — I don't know that there's ever been a movie released by a major Hollywood studio with so many closeups of penises, scrotums and male buttholes.

Chris Pontius has shown more male full frontal nudity than any person in movie history. I think that's without a doubt. And he deserves some type of an award. I mean, blue movies, they show more of that, but in legitimate films — which, I don't know if you can call this a legitimate film, but it is coming out in a theater.

It’s being released by Paramount Pictures and is part of an Oscar-nominated franchise. I think it's pretty legitimate, Johnny.

Yeah, I guess. But there is miles of c— in this movie and I hope everyone enjoys it.

This film in particular, right from the opening credits, you guys really go for it with the male nudity. Was that a conversation, was that intentional? Why in this movie did you all decide to really focus on that?

I don't know. Jeff and I had conversations. We filmed a lot of c— and ball stuff and decided we should take a break for a few weeks and not film anymore. And that would last about three days. And we're like, “it's kind of funnier if his c—'s out.”

A man in a purple suit jacket laughs for a portrait.
Johnny Knoxville's 2013 "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa," was nominated for an Academy Award for makeup and hairstyling. (Jay L. Clendenin /Los Angeles Times)

Is it important to you that the movies include stuff you couldn't do on the TV show, that the movies need to be more explicit?

No. It's not something that we intellectualize. It's just we make calls on the day. "Uh, well, it'd be kind of funnier if he was naked." I don't know. Sometimes it's just funnier if you're naked, and with that, there's so many naked bits that didn't make the film. So “4.5” [an upcoming collection of outtakes] has a lot of nakedness in it as well. And it's great. There are so many bits, great bits, that didn't make this movie. That's how you know if the movie's strong, if “4.5” is strong. There were some things we didn't want to cut out of it, but we just had to.

I didn't realize that you only made 24 or 25 episodes of the MTV show. It wasn’t even in production for two years. I always assumed you all were making that show for a really long time.

We were only on the air for like nine or 10 months. We lasted about as long as the Sex Pistols. And then I quit. But that's what spawned the movies because I quit when we were still under contract to MTV and they weren't happy and we went back and forth and someone suggested we do a movie version. Jeff and Spike thought it could be done.

In my head I was like, “Well, we're going to have a scripted version? What does that even mean?” And they're like, "No, we just do a naughtier version that we can't show on TV." And that — I was like, "Oh, that's a good idea. Let's do that."

Have you been surprised that “Jackass” has stayed in the culture for more than 20 years now?

Sure. We didn't even think it was going to be on television. Our pilot got shut down, so we didn't even think it was going to make it to the television screen. And then we thought no one's going to watch it. And then we had a movie we're like, “Well, no one's going to come.” So we're constantly surprised but very appreciative of what we've been able to do. And that's because of the fans.

Why do you think that is? To what do you attribute the longevity of the appeal of “Jackass”?

Well, I think it reminds people a lot of silly things they did growing up. So there's that. But at the end of the day, I feel like it's a special group of guys, and now girls, and you can tell we all love each other and people enjoy hanging out with us. The camaraderie and the spirit is what brings everyone back.

Watching “Jackass Forever,” it really struck me how often you're watching a group of people laughing at someone else, and it should seem mean or even sort of cruel and yet it never does. There's always this spirit of friendship and camaraderie to it. That is really remarkable.

Well, thank you. We're very conscious of tone and also we're all going through it together. Everyone has their moments of getting tortured or having to go through hell, everyone. It all comes around to everybody. So it's not like we're singling anyone out.

With this one, the idea of maturity and aging are really a part of the movie. Does it change the meaning of the show or the nature of the jokes to have it still be you guys now that you're older?

We talked about the age thing in the film because you need to address that. We can't pretend. And that's why we wanted to bring on some new cast members, younger cast members. Because it might have been sweaty if it was just us. And we had a test, Spike Jonze was adamant that we have a two-day test in December of 2019 to see not only how the new cast members are, but is it sweaty with the old cast members? How does it all look with everyone together and doing what we do at this age? And within an hour of shooting, it looked great. It felt great. It's like we hadn't even stopped. So all our concerns were set free.

Do you think "Jackass" plays differently now than it used to? How is it different in 2022 than it was in 2000?

I think the world has changed. “Jackass” feels like it's still the same, but the world has changed. All the meanness is aimed at each other. We're not trying to make anyone else look like jerks. We're just aiming all the naughtiness at ourselves. So I think it'll play as good in 2022 as it did in 2002.

Does it feel more emotional, given all that you all have been through with the ups and downs with Steve-O and Bam Margera and the death of cast member Ryan Dunn?

Yeah. Not only have the friendships endured, but they've gotten stronger. We've been through, like you said, so many things on and off screen and it's a really, really tight group. We give each other hell, but we love each other. It's a family.

And what has that meant for you as a performer? You seem to do fewer stunts yourself in the new movie, although you step in for the biggest ones. How are you processing your own maturity as a performer?

Well, I do always try to keep the bigger things for myself and I had a few big stunts to do after the bull hit because we saved my most dangerous things to the end of the film. Some of the things I wanted to do, I wasn't able to do because my brain was scrambled for a few months. So I didn't have as many big stunts because they just got put off, they fell off the radar because I'm the only one that was going to do those.

Is it important to you that you wouldn't ask anybody else to do something that you wouldn't do yourself?

I prefer to do the bigger stunts because I don't like to see my friends get really hurt.

A man in a purple velvet suit holds out a shocker
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

To ask about the bull stunt on which you were seriously injured, what is it with you and bulls? What keeps drawing you back to those stunts with those animals considering how dangerous it is?

God, bulls just absolutely hate you and they are dying to perform. You know exactly what you're going to get with a bull. You're going to get gold. You just gotta stand in one spot and move around. They go after movement, not color or anything else. God help me, I love bulls. They've never disappointed.

You've talked about how difficult the recovery was from that stunt. What was that time like? Did it become a period of reflection, did it make you question why you do this?

No, because when I was going through it, I was so foggy. There was no looking back or intellectualizing what I do in those moments. I was just trying to recover. I think my neurologist kind of let me know that I can't take more hits to the head and I get it. I don't have anything left to prove. I felt like I've done enough. As far as the big stunts, I could do little stunts, a broken wrist is very minor, but as far as taking any more hits to the head those days are over.

And what was it like trying to make a ”Jackass” movie with COVID protocols? There's something so contradictory about trying to be extra safe while you're making a movie like this.

You're literally making the most dangerous movie you can in the safest way possible. Keep your mask on until you get to the bull ring. You get to the bull ring, take your mask off, jump in, get smoked by the bull, get taken away in an ambulance. But before you get in the ambulance, put the mask on.

We took the COVID protocols very seriously because we didn't want our movie shut down again. And we luckily didn't have any major outbreaks. So it was odd, but the whole world's going through it and it just felt good to get back to doing something normal. Even though what we do is abnormal, but it felt good just to be doing that again after being cooped up in our house for so long.

It's funny, there's a way in which the phrase “Jackass Forever” sounds jubilant and celebratory and another way in which it almost sounds like a threat.

Well, I don't think it's a threat. I hope people can enjoy it for a good long time. People are still enjoying “Tom and Jerry” and the Three Stooges and Buster Keaton. Hopefully that's the goal, people will be able to enjoy us for years, whether we do another one or not.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.