Johnny Knoxville looks like he’s positioning himself for a round of therapy. He’s stretched out on a couch in his office, hands folded over his chest as he speaks to the ceiling. He’s comfortable and reflective. At this very moment, he evokes the image of a man in a session. And, in some ways, he is.
"I’m so clear," he says of his present state of mind, "and I’m not battling myself like I was. I’m in a totally different place in my life. All my energy is not spent spinning out."
At age 37, Knoxville is gaining perspective, the kind that comes with mid-life. He was 30 when MTV picked up "Jackass," in which he performed ridiculous stunts not for bravery but for laughs. No one who knew him back in Knoxville was surprised. He has always been outlandish. The only difference now is he was getting paid for it. On "Jackass," Knoxville let himself be turned upside down in a portable toilet filled with poo. He stood against a wall while school children kicked him between the legs. He was blindfolded as a raging bull came toward him, horns ready to do their business.
America laughed. MTV saw some of its biggest ratings ever, and Knoxville prodded and poked his way to fame. Teenage guys imitated his pranks. Many were injured. A few even died.
With his wild-man rep and an audience behind him, Knoxville soon found a movie career. He takes film roles based on who he’ll work with, not how much money potential is there. It’s not like he needs the money desperately.
"Jackass" the TV series has done boffo business on DVD around the world. It spawned two movies, both of which made more than $70 million each domestically at the box office. That’s before the movies went abroad.
As a result, Knoxville went from Hollywood unknown to pop culture hipster. In the years between now and then, the artist formerly known as PJ Clapp from South Knoxville has been on an adventure that most folks dream about but few get to actually experience.
He’s been the buzz of Hollywood, the favorite subject of supermarket tabloids, a much sought-after actor, a stuntman, a party boy and producer. Almost daily, his cell phone is so full of messages that it’s just easier to text him. Everybody wants a piece of him, and, for many years, he let them have as much as they wanted.
Tabloids have reported affairs all over town — from Jessica Simpson to Drew Barrymore. If even half of them are true, Knoxville would have been a busy man when he was married. He’s never admitted to any of them. In 2008, after more than a dozen years together, he and his wife, Melanie, divorced. They sold their home in the Hollywood Hills for nearly $2 million.
Knoxville is now in a new relationship. Her name is Naomi Nelson, but she’s stayed out of the press. All Knoxville wants to say about her is that she makes him happy. He blushes when he’s asked if he’s in love. He credits this new love for his new and more positive view of life. "I’m lucky enough to be with someone, and I am happy," he says. "I feel very lucky. I’m not out running around all the time."
He doesn’t party as much as he used to?
Knoxville pauses, searching for the words. He wants to carefully phrase what he wants to say on the record.
"I don’t party as much as I used to. I’m not partying constantly and constantly battling myself. I’m with someone, and we are very, very happy. And all the energy I spent spinning out constantly, man, it took a lot of time. My energy can now go into work and my daughter."
Madison Clapp is Knoxville’s 13-year-old daughter. Her life is vastly different than the one her father had. She was born and raised in Hollywood. All she has ever known is a father who works in show business. She has been surrounded by wealthy people and privilege, the kind that Knoxville never knew while growing up in a middle-income family on the modest side of South Knoxville.
She and her father are close. If you ever want to find his soft spot, you can bring up the subject of his daughter. She became a teenager in January. "I’m not going to say I didn’t cry," he says. "Man, it’s crazy." He pauses again. He searches for the right words, but his voice breaks. When he gains composure, he says, "Yeah, my little girl is growing up. She’s great. She’s so funny and smart."
Professionally, Knoxville sees himself in a very good place these days. He’s devoting himself more to producing. Almost daily, he’s at his office on Sunset Boulevard, where dozens of people work for him at jackassworld.com, a new web site hosting all things "Jackass." The site contains fresh "Jackass" videos, pictures, comedy bits and even some serious features, such as profiles of niche artists or kinky places around Los Angeles.
He’s co-hosting a radio show Saturday nights on Sirius Satellite Radio’s Outlaw Country channel with his cousin, singer Roger Alan Wade of Chattanooga. On TV, he is producing "Nitro Circus," a "Jackass"-type show for a new generation and starring world-class motocross champion Travis Pastrana and his daredevil buddies. Like the "Jackass" crew, Pastrana and his pals perform dangerous stunts for their own amusement. Unlike "Jackass," though, these guys know what they’re doing — and it’s more awe-inspiring than humorous.
Knoxville isn’t through with films. His next project is a comedy called "The Drop-Out" with Cher. He plays a thirtysomething college student who gets kicked out of his parents’ house. As a result, he moves in with the lady neighbor next door. He’s also on tap to star in "Run for the Border," from the comedy group Broken Lizard, about an immigration officer. Iconic director John Waters is eager to have Knoxville act in another of his films, this one set at Christmas time.
Another project he’s producing is a "reality"-based feature film, which he would not describe as a documentary or give away any details.
"If I think about what I want to do, it’s always developing films or (acting in a) movie or producing a TV show," he says. Starring in another TV series is not on his agenda.
"It is not where my interest lies," he says.
PJ Clapp took the stage name "Johnny Knoxville" as a tribute to his favorite singer (Johnny Cash) and his home town. He grew up as a jokester, jumping off motel roofs and playing pranks on classmates. One time, he and his father sent fake letters from the health department to the high school baseball team. Most of the time, he’s remembered fondly by his friends back home, all of whom have been zinged by him at one time or another.
"I guess I was always a little excitable," he says of his childhood. "But now I am more focused and clear. There is thought before action now."
These days, thoughts of home make him uncharacteristically reflective.
"When I think of Knoxville now, what do I think about? I think of my family," he says. "Home changes every time I go back, the physical makeup of it changes. There’s, like, a new freeway or a new bridge going up every time I go back.
"There’s always a replacing the old with the new. I know that happens everywhere, but it makes me very sentimental flying back (to Los Angeles).
"It sends you back in time almost. I am lucky enough to have all my family still with me, and I am very thankful for that."