In an exclusive interview, Johnny Knoxville (nee Philip John Clapp) opened up about his character in the hilarious, five-star film, “Elvis & Nixon.” The actor, who is from Knoxville, Tennessee, plays Sonny West, a friend to Elvis Presley, and member of what the 1960s press dubbed the “Memphis Mafia”—a nickname for Presley and his entourage.
The “Mafia” was made up of a group of friends and employees who worked as bodyguards and mastered tasks like scheduling, and “managing” Presley by ushering him around. They pay was good but the perks were better: brand new cars, beautiful houses, and the sparkle of being in Presley’s inner circle. They wore mohair suits, dark glasses, rode around in limos and carried concealed guns (legally via permits). Presley and his gang enjoyed the nickname, viewing it as an affectionate term.
Knoxville, best known for his gross-out gags in the “Jackass” movies, once told Conan O’Brien he hired a “really good genealogist.” Knoxville was told “In these rural mountain regions you come from, no one ever goes into the community and no one every leaves the community [and] it’s not uncommon that there’s inbreeding in those communities.” There was “a significant amount” of inbreeding in Knoxville’s family.
The 45-year-old actor is striking. He’s a lean 6’1” with a full head of almost-black hair. And has the chiseled face of a GQ cover. He walked in smiling and sure got a kick out of sharing behind-the-scenes pranks. On the off hours during the making of “Elvis & Nixon,” Alex Pettyfer—cast as fellow Memphis Mafia member, Jerry Schilling—apparently played along with Knoxville’s tomfoolery. But, Michael Shannon? Not so much.
Dorri Olds: Did you really set Alex Pettyfer’s foot on fire one night in a bar?
Johnny Knoxville: Accidentally, yeah, a few times.
A few times?
How does that happen?
I don’t know. We were drinking and I accidentally dropped 151 on his foot and then I accidentally bent down and lit it. He got me back good, though. Like, he doesn’t understand that you just pour a tiny bit, I mean I don’t want anyone to do this. Please don’t do this. But I just poured a tiny bit. He dumped a whole glass on me and [the fire] would not go out for a long time. I had to take my shoe off and throw it out the window and explain to him the nuances of doing something like that.
Was this at like three o’clock in the morning?[Grins] Nah, nah. It wasn’t. You know, we got started pretty early. I mean we had to, we were in New Orleans.
What can you tell me about the character you played?
I play Sonny West. Sonny was working in an appliance store before Elvis asked him to work for him. To go from that, then move to Hollywood and be on set with Ann Margaret and be around all those movies Elvis was making and Sonny had roles in some of those movies. That really changed his life. I think Sonny was very committed to Elvis. The story is pretty crazy. Elvis just showing up at the White House one morning, with a gun, wanting to meet the President, and he wanted a badge to become a Federal agent at large. That’s so nuts.
How did you learn about Sonny? Did you speak with Jerry Schilling who worked as a consultant and executive producer on the film?
Yes. I got to sit down with Jerry Schilling in New Orleans. He was right there with Elvis all those years. I really cherish our meeting, and those drinks we drank, and just hearing all the stories.
Speaking about drinking, do you find it ironic that Elvis was so concerned about the youth of America on drugs when Elvis died from his addictions?
Yeah, I mean the story is just bananas. He brought guns to the White House. I guess his reasoning was, ‘If I get this badge, I can carry guns and pills,’ where ever he wanted.
Maybe Elvis felt like he wasn’t taking drugs because doctors had prescribed them.
Yeah, you know, the train of thought is a little skewed. I see the holes in the thinking.
What did you learn about Elvis that you hadn’t known?
I knew a little about the story of him visiting the White House before this film but I didn’t know the complete story and how crazy the truth of the story was. We didn’t have to do anything different to the story. We didn’t have to add anything because the reality of it was so completely nuts.
Yes, so ripe for humor.
It’s perfect for a movie. You just play it straight. We were true to the story and there’s the comedy. He’s doing karate in front of the President. One of the most stiff [sic] Presidents. Elvis goes in there dressed the way he was. It’s just too good watching Michael Shannon recreate those karate moves for Kevin Spacey as Nixon. I feel very fortunate to be in this movie just to watch those guys act. I mean they’re amazing.
What’s it like working with Michael Shannon? Many have said he keeps to himself. Is that true?
Well, he’s very focused and very intense. And that intensity, that energy, pervades the whole set. It gets everyone as focused as he is. He makes everyone better. I love the guy. I’ve done another movie with him and I absolutely love him, he’s such a character.
It was years ago. It’s called, “Grand Theft Parsons.” Michael is a good soul.
Did he take part in the setting-feet-on-fire thing?
No, we would do dinners. I have a different relationship with Michael than I do with Alex. Alex’s personality lends itself to me doing that to him but Michael and I, well, it’s situational how I go at people. I don’t go at Michael like that. I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings. And, because he’s a really big guy. [Laughs]
What’s can you say about the Memphis Mafia?
I’m not sure that the people that were in the so-called Memphis Mafia like that term but that was something the press came up with for all of people in the inner circle of Elvis Presley—his bodyguards and people who worked for him but there was no mafia.
In the film, Colin Hanks, Tom Hank’s son, played “Bud” Krogh. Did you spend any time with Krogh who had worked in the White House under Nixon?
Yeah, he was on the set one day when we were all there. I was very glad I got to meet him.
Did he ever interrupt to say, “That’s not how it was.?
No he wouldn’t do that. There were a lot of questions asked of him and he was happy to tell you exactly what happened but he was not that type of person who would interrupt and say, “No, no, no.” Anyway, you just don’t interrupt Michael Shannon. But, yeah, Bud was very helpful and we were all a bit ecstatic to have him there.
And the director?
Liza Johnson’s a great director. I hope to work with her again. I like to shoot what’s on the page and then maybe have a take or two to play around and she would let me do that. It was a loose set.
Were you sorry to see any scenes get cut from the movie?
Some scenes got cut down but I don’t remember any scenes getting cut. I wish people could just see the dailies from Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon acting in the White House. They’re unbelievable. Maybe that’ll be a DVD extra. Spacey’s improvs are just so… it’s tough to keep a straight face.
Did you study Sonny to nail down the accent?
Well, I’m from Tennessee. I figured I knew how he talked. [Laughs] For a lot of his body language, though I sat down with Jerry Schilling and then I also looked at that photo in the White House and just how he was composed, how he held himself in the pictures. That helped a lot. It’s great when you have source material. Unfortunately, there’s no video of that day but there is video on him. You go on the world wide internet. It is a good tool. [Grins]
“Elvis & Nixon” is rated R. 86 min. Comedy, history.