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The Interview: Don Johnson

The reformed hell-raiser and Eighties poster boy on Quentin Tarantino’s dildo, Hunter S Thompson’s Tourette’s and being Kenny Powers’ dad

The Interview: Don Johnson

Don Johnson's entrance, midway through Cold In July, a tense, icy cool noir thriller set in 1989, is anything but subtle. Accompanied by a soundtrack that practically fellates him, he emerges, top to tail in cowboy threads, from a red Cadillac with a licence plate that reads ‘RED BITCH’.

And then there's the face. A 64-year-old face, but as striking as it ever was, exactly 30 years after Miami Vice introduced it as the personification of post-modern testosterone. And age suits Johnson.

The first thing he does is in the film is make a young girl blush. It's an iconic entrance, befitting a man who's been a genuine icon, who's fallen in and out of favour, been on and off the wagon, and is now enjoying an extraordinary resurgence.

It's been a colourful journey. He was born in Flat Creek, Missouri, to teenage parents. At 12, he lost his virginity to a babysitter and was sent to a reform school for joyriding. At 16, he left home for fame and fortune, arriving in San Francisco at the tail end of 1968's summer of love. He discovered weed and the rest followed.

After a decade of run of the mill television work, at the age of 34 he finally found what he was looking for with Miami Vice – or, more to the point, Miami Vice found him. The white Versace-suited, Ferrari-driving undercover cop Sonny Crockett fitted him like a glove, and Johnson at once became a sex-symbol and trend-setter, providing a quintessential Eighties look the Grand Theft Auto games still riff on to this day.

“I'm aware that a large part of our audience is sex-starved females,” Johnson told Playboy in 1985, admitting that he played to his oestrogen-skewed fans. “To hear females tell it, they're all sex-starved, anyway. I, for one, am trying to solve the problem.”

No stranger to the Betty Ford clinic, he went on to redefine hedonism. At the height of it, he'd invite three or four friends over and have modelling agencies send them 25 girls. He owned 20 cars.

His allies were poster boys for narcotics: he moved next door to Hunter S Thompson, who became one of his closest cohorts. Then, after Miami Vice, Johnson co-starred with Cheech and Chong's Cheech Marin in Nash Bridges, a San Francisco-set cop drama which ran until 2001.

He then suffered a fallow period, lost money and got fat, until he made the decision to turn it around, and get sober. It worked. Don Johnson always lit up a screen, but since 2010 he's been enjoying phase two, inverting his image by playing scraggy shitheads in Eastbound & Down, Robert Rodriguez's Machete and Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained.

In Cold In July, he's Jim Bob, a private detective vigilante who, once again, seems to have been tailor-made for Johnson. “We knew we'd need someone larger than life, bursting with charisma but not drowning in their own charm,” says director Jim Mickle. “Turns out Don Johnson is Jim Bob.”

In the flesh, Johnson is just as commanding. As I enter an opulent drawing room, he's standing up straight at the far end by an armchair, smiling at me as if he's awaiting The Queen. “Tell me your name!” he says, schooling me in southern hospitality. Wearing a suit jacket, a pristine white shirt and jeans, he relaxes into an armchair, orders a meat and cheese platter and gets going on an E-cig. We begin.

The relationships in Cold In July are unconventional and unpredictable, and the film feels like a product of the Eighties, but not in an ironic sense….

“I'm so glad you picked up on the substance and the texture of the movie. It was what we had discussed prior to making it. Sometimes you discuss the kind of movie you're gonna make, and then you see it, you go, 'Hmm. We didn't get there. We didn't make the movie that we talked about making.' Movies have a funny way of morphing, and it's pleasing when you talk about a direction and a tone and style and it actually turns out to be better than you even talked about.”

Your first scene in this film really heralds your arrival. I've been thinking about your casting in relation to the things you've been doing recently. In Eastbound & Down, it wasn't just that Kenny Powers had a father, it was that it was you. That was the kicker…

“Yeah! [laughs]. Well, they loved that. They're big fans of mine, [Eastbound star/co-creator] Danny McBride, [creator/writer] Jody Hill and [director] David Gordon Green, who I'm collaborating with on a project I wrote called Score. It's about the rise of big-time college football in the Eighties, an outrageous coach that breaks all the recruiting rules, it's funny, and it should be very good. But yeah, they were fans. And they work in a way that is very simpatico with me.”

That comes across in the show. Eastbound is hilarious – it works because of the depth and the drama. That's why Kenny Powers is relatable, even though he's such a dick…

“Yeah. You said it all right there. The great thing about that, and this is a primer for people that are looking to do comedy — if you don't root comedy in reality, then you have farce. And it's a very fine line between farce and comedy, but it's one that's crossed a great deal these days.”

So, do you think there was an element of that in your casting in Cold In July as well, in terms of it being a film that harks back to the Eighties, playing on who you are and where you've come from?

“You know... that's a question for [director] Jim Mickle. I think Jim was and is a fan. I responded to the script and I told him that if he were able to get certain other elements, that I'd do it. And he did. I just had a feeling that the three of us, Michael C Hall, who I didn't know that well, but Sam Shepard I've known for 25 years, I sensed that our chemistry would play very, very well in this environment, and that it would bust out as something fresh even though it's a melange of genres.”

It is. From Dusk Till Dawn, the television series in which you star as a sheriff, is an interesting spin too...

“Haha! That's my friend Robert Rodriguez. We're gonna be making another film together in the fall.”

Did you meet him through Cheech on Nash Bridges? Obviously they go way back.

“Yeah! And I actually gave Robert his first acting job, I put him in Nash Bridges as a commercials director. Then when he was beginning work on Machete I ran into him in a hotel in LA and he said, “I want you to come and do this, you put me in your show so I want you to do this thing!” And he cast me as Von opposite Robert de Niro in Machete, and it kind of worked out. Quentin Tarantino saw Machete and that's when the conversations for Django started. I'd met Quentin years earlier, we were mutual fans and looking for an opportunity to get together.”

Django was great but so massive too…

“Oh my god. He killed it with that one. And it almost killed all of us!”

In what sense?

“Well, it took forever to shoot. It's a western. Quentin was irrepressible. He hung in there the whole time and stayed focused on his vision. That's hard to do over a seven-month period. He's amazing.”

Did you film much that didn't make the cut?

“Oh my god yeah, yeah. There were three or four scenes that didn't make it and they were really good. One of them is on the soundtrack. I loved that scene, it was truly funny. It was a scene between Christoph Waltz and I, and I had one of the classic lines of all time. When I saw the film I went to Quentin and said, ‘Dude! What happened with that?’ And he literally got choked up, he got tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘It was the last thing to go.’ It was the point where Django sees the Brittle Brothers and the music starts to swell, and Quentin said, ‘I just couldn't cut back to your scene, ‘cos the momentum was going. It stayed until the very end. It stayed and stayed and stayed, and at the last preview I said,' Shit.'” And I said to him, ‘I get it, dude’.”

Daniel Brühl from Inglourious Basterds told me that if anybody nodded off on that set Tarantino would put a dildo by their face and take photos.

“That's on every Tarantino film. That dildo has a name. It's called Big Gerry. And it's quite massive and quite vulgar. And if you're nodding off and you get a Polaroid taken with Big Gerry, it gets put up on a bulletin board. Every day on the set. Fortunately I stayed very alert.”

We mentioned Nash Bridges before. You conceived that show with Hunter S Thompson....

“Yeah.”

I read that he wrote a treatment for the first episode then you made it more TV friendly…

“Well, I homogenised it, because it was...”

Too Hunter?

[Laughs] “It was too Hunter! We conceived the idea about three in the morning at his place; he was my neighbour in Aspen. I had a commitment at CBS for a 22 episode series, anything I wanted to do. I could have done the phone book if I wanted. And Hunter was broke, needed money. I didn't really need to do the series, but I thought it would be a good way to look after my buddy. So I conceived it with him. It was originally called Off-Duty. It was about two off-duty cops. In the show, a lot of the storylines had to do with us doing off-duty business to help Cheech pay for expenses. We had a security service, a private detective agency, stuff like that, which fed stories into the other stuff. Anyway, that's how it was conceived.”

What did Hunter write that you had to tone down?

“Everything! Well, I'll tell you, the first episode was about a woman with Tourette's syndrome. Now can you imagine? On an hour-long television programme in America?”

You came into the business in the late Sixties, you worked through the Seventies, exploded in the Eighties and had a big show in the Nineties. It seems some of the roles you're doing now are an amalgamation of all of those periods and everything you've done, if that makes sense...

“Yeah. A little bit. In the way that my work seems fuller now?”

That and also because it's a product of what's come before, and what you've been through…

“That certainly has something to do with it. From before, there were a lot of things that I had to manage that I managed... sometimes well, and sometimes poorly; the fame part of the business. And through that process I actually got to a place where it became the joy of actually doing the work, where I wasn't a servant to my ambition or ego, and I could actually really find joy and enthusiasm in doing what I was doing.”

Do you think your life experience comes through in your work?

“Oh, it comes through, yeah. I also think that the thing that's so surprising is that people come in maybe expecting one thing and they go, 'Oh, wow. What's that about?' It's more fun for me doing the work and seeing the result of it.”


Do you learn about yourself through it?

“I came to realise that what's going on inside of you is... healing. And when that takes place the people who are watching your work, or looking at your painting or reading your book or whatever it is – they're getting the same thing. They're getting a dose of it, too. And I never put those things together until the last few years. It's not that you go out there with the idea of being some sort of evangelist – quite the opposite actually. It's gonna take place no matter what. I think it's more about getting all the other shit out of the way – the ego, the ambition, the distractions.”

What do you mean by distractions?

“Everything; distractions in our own lives about what's important and what isn't. When you eliminate things that don't serve you, you have all of this space and all of this capacity for delivering what you do.”

I found an interview with you from when you were 20…

“Oh my god.”

You said, ‘I know there will come a time when I become sick of all this, and I'll decide that I am not mentally or emotionally or spiritually capable of dealing with it anymore, and I'll just split. I'll just go away and get into a whole different lifestyle. You know, I've always thought that I'd like to go back and be on a farm, and raise my own food, and just shut out everything else in the world’...

“I said that when I was 20? Wow! Where'd that guy go? Hahahahahaha! Wow! I was prescient!”

How do you feel about those words now?

“Well it's still possible! Hahaha! I'm still on the right side of the grass and I've got free choice!”

Cold is July is released on Friday 27 June

Article taken from Issue 41 of Esquire Weekly, out now. Click here to subscribe.