Exclusive Interview: Johnny Knoxville on Bad Grandpa

I love talking to Johnny Knoxville about his Jackass projects because it’s just two pros talking shop. I am a professional film writer, and he is a professional stunt doer. I see these stunts as high performance art. Some people don’t, but they don’t get to interview Johnny Knoxville so nyeh. The latest Jackass project is Bad Grandpa, based on a prank from Jackass Number Two.

Knoxville plays Irving Zisman in full old age makeup, taking his grandson Billy (Jackson Niccoll) to live with his dad. Along the way, Irving and Billy pull pranks on real people including a biker gang that’s suspicious of Billy’s dad, passersby to a vending machine in which Irving is stuck, and a mailing store where Irving tries to ship Billy in a box. Knoxville took me through some of the standout pranks of Bad Grandpa, and also surprised me with an update on 4 1/2 minutes, to which he says he’s no longer attached.


CraveOnline: Were the stunts in Bad Grandpa constructed differently than a Jackass movie because there was a story to move along too?

Johnny Knoxville: You mean the pranks? We would try to work story points into the pranks, which there’s no story obviously in Jackass. It’s just vignettes. We didn’t construct them differently. We just had different concerns when we were shooting them.


Did that ever add to the comedy?

When we shot the shipping Billy thing, first of all I didn’t think that was one that was going to work. We ended up just getting magnificent marks. No one had faith in it and we ended up getting something great. That was filmed way late in the movie, during the last month or so. By that time we knew we were on a road trip, we filmed all this stuff after the road and that was the beginning of the road trip. We knew that whatever happened inside that shipping place, I had to come out of there with Billy. So we had those concerns.


When you did the vending machine prank, did you test how far you could pull away?

No, they tested it. The guys who constructed it for us, they tested it. With me, they said I could put all my weight on it, so here we go.


You have a way of keeping the stunts going. Some people try to help you but you just won’t let them, will you?

We just try to keep them on the hook for as long as possible. Like the guy with the penguin, I thought that was going to be a bit where we pull in, hit the penguin, and maybe an employee would come out and yell at me. And they did, an employee came out and yelled, but that guy inside was such an unexpected reaction with how he took such personal interest in the welfare of that penguin. I pranked him for 30 minutes, so long that they had to step in and stop me because I would still be pranking him.


Are there ever people who are so concerned for Irving and Billy that the prank doesn’t work? They just put a stop to it?

Oh, yes, sometimes people just don’t fall for it. You just have to keep fishing for that one good mark, or marks. At the beginning of the movie it’s a pretty daunting thing to decide to do. The toughest thing we do in Jackass is pranks on the public because you’ve just got to keep doing it and doing it until you get it. So the failure is part of it.


Was the department store rocket through the window one of the most dangerous things you’ve done?

No, it wasn’t one of the most dangerous things I’ve done. There’s been a lot more dangerous things I’ve done, but that one was dangerous not because of going through the window and landing. There was a big steel beam at the top of the window. The ride, when it takes off, it kicks you up in the air. I had to try my best to hold on because if my head hits that, then we probably wouldn’t be doing this interview right now.


That’s what I was worried about.

Me too!


How heavy is the nut sack of the Irving costume?

Well, you know, I had two. I had a 17” pair I could tuck in my sock and a more subtle 12” pair which I used in the movie. We tried one with the 17” pair but it was just one of those pranks we tried and just didn’t get that day, and we had too much to do so we never went back to it.


Would that not have been for the strip club scene?

No, because the strip club scene, if I come out with a 17” pair they look ridiculous. Then you’ve got 80 eyes on them and a lot of people are going to see through that. If you’re going to try something like the 17” pair, the really unbelievable ones, you’ve got to do that one just one or two people at a time because there’s less at stake.


Isn’t it great to talk about these stunts as a totally professional endeavor?

Well, it is really. We’re doing outrageous ridiculous things but there is a way to do them. You can either try to maximize your success or minimize it. If you do something really over the top in front of a bunch of people when there’s a lot riding on it, when you could’ve done something a little more believable, even still ridiculous, it’s best to opt for trying to get some footage.


I think that’s why it works. If you weren’t taking it seriously, you wouldn’t pull it off.

We take our stupidity very seriously.


Yes! Good. Was there a particular moment where you felt you were hitting the emotion with Billy too?

When we were doing the prank on the Guardians of Children, where I hand my grandson back to his father, that wasn’t a laugh out loud, ha ha scene. That was more dramatic and intense. To do an emotional scene where I’m saying goodbye to my grandson and I work myself into tears, and we’re also pranking them, there’s a lot of things happening in that scene.


Except for the shipping scene, did you shoot most of Bad Grandpa in order?

No, no, we didn’t shoot any of it in order. It was all out of order.


Do you miss the kid who played Billy in Jackass Number Two?

Oh, he’s great. I don’t know if his name was Billy but he played my grandson in Jackass Two. I still see him around. He’s a friend of my daughter’s. His name’s Slater and he’s a great kid.


Did Jackson ever make you break with the funny stuff he did?

No, I don’t break. If you break, you lose footage so I don’t break. It’s too difficult to lose footage.


Did you ever think if there might be roles in Bad Grandpa for Bam, Steve-O, Wee Man or the other guys?

We talked about it and we never ended up at it, but we talked about it. Hopefully we can do something with those guys soon.


What can we expect from you in Renee Zellweger’s directorial debut, 4 1/2 Minutes?

I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on with that. I hope Renee is still planning on directing it. I think she’ll do a great job. I’m not part of that project [anymore]. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.