The Okinawa International Movie Festival caters mainly to local fans, bringing some of the biggest names in Japanese comedy and filmmaking way down south for annual celebrations. But the festival has always done a good job of attracting some impressive foreign stars as well. The standout international guest for this year’s event was Jackass chief prankster Johnny Knoxville, here to promote his latest collection of hidden camera stunts, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.
A heavily made-up Knoxville plays the titular “grandpa,” an intentionally inappropriate 86-year-old who’s suddenly saddled with an 8-year-old grandson named Billy (Jackson Nicoll). The resulting cross-country trek to reunite Billy with his deadbeat dad allows Knoxville and crew to film real-life reactions as grandpa attempts to dress Billy up as a girl to enter him in a beauty pageant—or simply drives his car through a large plastic penguin and bluntly refuses to repair it.
Knoxville’s grandpa turn complements a spate of more typical feature film work, including parts in Men in Black II, Walking Tall and The Dukes of Hazzard. He was last seen backing up Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action vehicle The Last Stand. Amid his incredibly tight schedule of red carpet and stage appearances—along with a round of interviews with local media—Johnny managed to sit down for a chat with Metropolis.
A lot of the humor in the film comes from the reactions of the public, but some of the responses are quite surprising. At one point you put Billy in a box and tried to mail him across the country—and the shop staff were genuinely trying to help you do that…
Yeah, that was crazy, because when we went to shoot that we thought, “This is crazy. No one’s going to go fall for it.” But we know enough to go through with the prank anyway. That was a really unbelievable reaction. People would come in the store and she would actually close the box [and hide the kid], you know? But in their defense, in the end they were actually going to drive him to Raleigh, North Carolina. But in the moment, they were so into it.
See, what happens is, when you’re pranking people they get so emotional and then they become irrational, and then everything is real no matter what. The penguin guy—I yelled at him early on in the prank and he got emotional, completely irrational, and I could do whatever I wanted.
Was that situation frightening? You could see that guy was really on the edge of blowing up….
Well, the worst-case scenario is he punches me, and I don’t really care, you know? I mean, I don’t want him to get hurt if he punches wrong or something, but I don’t care. The worst-case scenario, I don’t give a shit! And in that case, anyone who says they’re going to punch you—he just kept saying it, and I pranked him for over thirty minutes and he kept saying he was going to hit me. I knew he wasn’t going to hit me, because no one is going to say that—they’re just going to do it. So I was having a ball with that guy!
Are there any situations where you get nervous?
Well, I knew going into the strip club that I was either going to get shot or we were going to get great footage—that bar, they’ve had a lot of violence with shootings and whatnot, and so it wasn’t like I wasn’t scared, but just excited, like something bad is going to happen or we’re going get great footage, and it was so much fun. The whole crew was excited that night.
I don’t really get scared. The only time I get a little nervous is when we’re shooting something and I’ve got Jackson with me—he’s 8 years old. We make people very angry, and so I have to gauge how angry they are in front of the kid.
Were there any situations where he felt uncomfortable or didn’t feel like doing a prank?
No, he’s fearless—absolutely fearless! But there was one situation that came up: the guy in front of the strip club. When he was pranking that guy, Jackson kept trying to go into the strip club, and the guy was like, “No, no, no,” and finally he just screams “NO!” And as soon as he did that, like, six car doors opened and I get out of the car real quick—everyone gets out and we’re just like, “No, we’re just filming,” and the guy says, “What?” The guy thought that Jackson was a decoy for the police. He thought they were trying to get in the club.
That was the only incident. Otherwise, he never got flustered. Sometimes we would have to back him off. If we didn’t get a desired reaction from people, then as they walked away he would yell at them. I’m like, “Jackson! You can’t do that!”
Was the beauty pageant situation as surreal as it looks in the film?
Yeah, that was crazy, man—because a lot goes into a set like that. When we are doing man-on-the-street stuff with people walking by, there’s not a lot at stake, because someone else is going to walk by in two minutes. But for that, we had to set up a whole beauty pageant. Jackson had to train for two months to learn all the moves, and so much time and money went into it. So much money was riding on it, but he’s just unflappable, you know? If he was nervous you couldn’t tell, and it’s one of the best things we ever shot. The whole bit was riding on him, and he couldn’t have performed any better on that. He’s brilliant—crazy as hell, but brilliant. He’s fearless. I met him on a movie when he was seven, and all he did was insult me the whole time and hit me in the chinpo—is that word right?—the balls. And on this set all the crew members just stood around covering their balls!
Did he do that because he knew you as “the Jackass guy”?
Yeah, but he would do that anyway. We didn’t create Jackson; Jackson came to the set like he is! His mom told us his nickname when he was two years old was “Little Bastard.” That’s him. So we found the perfect kid for us.
Is he going to be the new Jackass member?
I would love him to be. But no stunts for him—I don’t want him to get hurt.
Are you going to do another Jackass film?
You know, we could. Nothing is planned, but then we never plan anything! So it’s possible. I still write a lot for Jackass. You know, since Jackass 3 I’ve probably written another sixty-odd ideas. We had so many we didn’t even get to do before, so we’ve got more than enough material. I know the guys want to do it—so that’s happening, and I’m working on some other films right now.
What are your ambitions as an actor? What more do you want to do?
Well, it seems I’ve had the most success when we’ve been involved in producing and writing projects, so I want to keep more with that. But I also do other people’s projects, and you know we’ve done a few documentaries. So I don’t know, whatever is interesting—just keep hucking away. We don’t know what we’re doing. Having a ball!
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (Japanese title: Kuso Jiji no America Oudanchin Douchu) is now playing in theaters nationally.