Q&A: Don Johnson on New Film ‘Cold in July,’ Getting Stupid With Richard Pryor, and Surviving Fame in Miami
Easing into a corner booth at Bemelmans Bar, a mainstay of throwback uptown New York charm, Don Johnson calls the waitress over and announces his intent: “We might just get fucked up!” At 64, Johnson has long weathered the infamous debauchery of his Miami Vice days to settle into his current latter-day groove. In the past few years he’s embraced his inner madman and turned in wonderfully scummy roles for Robert Rodriguez in Machete, Danny McBride in Eastbound & Down, and Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained. Freshly in town from Cannes, where he screened his latest, Cold in July — a noir, costarring Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard, that goes nicely, psychotically haywire — Johnson looks great: trim, cleanly shaven, his hair still falling back on his head just right. And while the grooves in his face might be a bit deeper than you realize from onscreen, if he’s even the slightest bit travel-fatigued, it doesn’t show. At one point, spotting the lanky political commentator David Gergen, he hops out of the booth to introduce himself: “Hey, David. Don Johnson. Just wanted to say I’m a fan.” Gergen, a bit perplexed, and perhaps not a Vice fan, answers with a “good to see you?” Johnson, smiling, sits back down, pulls out an e-cig, then skips the booze, ordering berries and fresh whipped cream instead, and makes sure I get a fork, too.
How was Cannes?
Oh, I love France. Except for the French [laughs]. No I do, I love it there, and I speak a little bit of French, poorly. But they’re very generous with me: They usually smack Americans around pretty good when they start speaking: Fuck you! Just speak English! But they’re generous with me. And the film was so well received.
I enjoyed it. It didn’t go where I expected it to go.
That was one of the reasons I did the movie. I got sent the script and, like all these things, if I don’t know where this is going by page 10, then I stay with it. And I was pleasantly surprised by the structure and the rhythm of the script. And then when I got to [Johnson’s swaggering character] Jim Bob making his entrance in the movie, I said, ‘Oh, this is my wheelhouse.’”
So that’s your rule? Your read until page 10 and then …
Well, what’s unfortunate is that there’s a lot of projects that are so formulaic. There’s a kind of wrestling match between capital and creative, and in recent years capital has had the fuckin’ creative people pinned. Capital doesn’t like risk, and so it narrows the opportunities for pushing the envelope, for doing different rhythms, different tempos. And right now the pathway is about the size of a goddamn hallway in, uh, uh, a low-rent building. Capital wants sameness. They just wanna redo all of the Marvel characters about 400 times. The only difference from one to the other is in special effect, because all of the actors and characters are interchangeable. And it’s depressing, really.
You’ve gotten to do some great stuff on TV recently. Eastbound & Down is one of my favorite shows.
Well, that’s funny. I hadn’t even seen the show, and they sent me the script, and my agent said, “Oh no, you gotta see this!” And I watched it and I was like, “Wow! These guys are doing some edgy cool shit!” And I thought, I can make this even more outrageous than what they’ve written. I went down there and it was like putting on a comfortable pair of blue jeans. I’ve actually written something that [Eastbound codirector] David Gordon Green is attached to direct. I’m gonna do it for streaming.
Oh, cool. What’s that?
It’s called Score and it’s set in the ’80s, and it’s about the rise of big-time college football. I play this outrageous fucking coach who breaks all the rules and recruits basically criminals and everybody else and shoots the finger [extends middle finger in my direction] to the NCAA. I wrote it in October and I wanna get it financed completely so I can go to the marketplace without layers and layers of executives and bureaucrats. In my mind if you’re not bringing something to the dance, but you’re taking a big chunk of the cash, I got no room for you.
Have you been writing a lot?
I got into a thing four or five months ago when it was just pouring out of me. I’m doing a thing with Robert Rodriguez that I wrote. It’s about a guy who essentially becomes the Terminator in the 21st century. He’s an NSA experiment that’s gone terribly wrong. They’ve injected him with nanorobots to give him the computing power and destructive abilities of Deep Blue. And with all that power, he goes off the fuckin’ grid. And I’m an ex-NSA operative who went crazy in the Balkans, and they come get me out of the loony bin to get this guy.
I’m curious, when you’re working with Robert Rodriguez or the Eastbound guys, do they happen to mention what they’re fans of you from?
Pretty much everything. They’re all Vice and Nash Bridges geeks. They all grew up on me doing all that shit. I’ve unwittingly, or unknowingly, taken on this sort of cult hero status. And I’m like, “OK, boys. Whatever. Let’s get it on!”
I read a quote from Tarantino saying he was a fan of yours way before Miami Vice, and that when that hit big he felt like, finally everyone is on the same page as me.
I ran into Tarantino at the premier for Machete, and he was standing there rattling off my credits. He’s a fucking genius. He’s a film historian — a walking Smithsonian Institute for film. And he said, “Oh, and I loved you in this thing, such and such …” and I said, “I didn’t make that film.” And he said, “Yes you did.” I said, “I didn’t make that.” And he said “No, no, you did!” And he started to name my director and my costars and what the story was about. And it was a film that I’d made that I’d never seen!
That’s nuts. What was it?
It was called, of all things, Melanie. I’m standing there like it was a dream sequence. Like I was waking up from amnesia. “Oh yeah! I did make that movie! How was it?”
Tarantino did a public script reading recently, and it was interesting to get confirmation of how obsessive he is over every little last word. What’s that feel like on set?
He was obsessed with the actual filling of the frame, but he was pretty generous with me. I think he loved what I was doing with the character and so he kind of let me go. But I’m pretty disciplined about the text. I can improv with anybody, but I come from a classically trained background, and text was god. If you had a line or a sentence or a word that you couldn’t figure out how to deliver, that was your fucking problem. “Oh, could we just change this Shakespeare line a little bit to fit into my mouth because it’s not really working for me” — they’d just smack you upside the head and say, “Figure out how to make it work, asshole!”
I was watching this great Barbara Walters interview you did in like ’88 or ’89. Do you remember that?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I remember. The master at making people cry. She’s like a therapist. She kind of sets you up with these fluffball things, and she’s planting the seeds — all the emotional buttons. And of course at the time I was too stupid to know what was actually being done to me. She set me up and the next thing I know [makes crying noises] I’m bawling like a baby. But she did it to everybody.
She also grills you about losing your virginity at 12 to your babysitter, then you turn around and ask her about when she lost her virginity. It’s pretty great.
I forgot that! I forgot that! [Laughs.] That sounds like me. Cheeky fucker.
You’ve been pretty open over the years with your substance abuse past and all of that …
It’d be pretty ridiculous at this point to be precious about it.
Do people always still wanna hear the old stories?
Umm. It’s mostly the guys that I work with. The young guys wanna hear about all the shit that went down in Miami and all that stuff. Every now and then I’ll whip out a story and they’ll be jacking their jaws up off the table — “Whoa! You got away with that?” The business has changed. These things [picks up iPhone], they pretty much put an end to partying as we knew it. The ’80s, it was pre–cell phones, pre-PC, pre-AIDS. Well, not really pre-AIDS, but we were just sort of learning about AIDS. But Sodom and Gomorrah was still going pretty strong.
[Note: If you’re interested in some great Don Johnson tales, make sure to check out Erik Hedegaard’s Rolling Stoneprofile from last year, which contains such gems as “when I was living down in Miami, I’d have three or four of my buddies over and have my assistant call the modeling agencies and order five girls from each agency. So, like, 25 girls. Blondes, brunettes, redheads, just a mixture. One time I had U2 over. Bono walks in, he goes, ‘What the fuck. You do this every night?’ ‘Every Saturday night.’ He said, ‘I’ll be back!’ It was a blast. And the only rule was, I get to pick first.”]
You were in your thirties when Miami Vice made you super famous. Did it help, being a little bit older?
I don’t think it helps. You can’t really prepare anyone for that kind of fame. I just saw poor Justin Bieber, in Cannes. In fact, I took a picture with him. He wanted to take a picture of he and I together on his phone, and so I went, OK, I want one on my phone. Here, I’ll show you [takes out phone, shows me nice photo of himself with a very psyched Justin Bieber] –
Isn’t that something? Isn’t that great? He’s a sweet boy. He’s a really sweet boy. I was looking at him and I’m thinking to myself, “I may be the only son of a bitch on the planet that knows what this poor bastard is going through.” Or one of the few.
Definitely. You have any pointers for him?
Well, he wants to hang a little bit. I might enlighten him.
Please do! He needs a bit of help, it seems.
I don’t think that there’s a shot in hell that anyone can keep their compass bearings when you’re 19, 20 years old, and you have way too much money and way too much fame, and no freedom. Basically, when you have that kind of fame, you’re a prisoner. You have all these perks, but that wears off pretty quick. Everybody that comes into your field of focus, you become hyper-sensitive to — “OK, what the fuck does this guy want?” ’Cause everybody’s moving on you. Everybody! There’s a lot of change falling off the table. And they wanna catch it. And when you survive it — when the hordes have moved on to someone else — you kind of have a tip of the chapeau. You have a nostalgia for that. But you wouldn’t do it again.
I’ve read about you hanging out in the Celtics’ locker room in the ’80s …
That was fuckin’ hilarious. I happened to be in Boston, and somebody said, “Hey, you wanna go to a playoff game?” I went, “Fuck yeah!” After the game somebody came and got me from the Celtics — “Hey, Larry Bird wants to meet you.” I went, “Pfff, I’d love to meet him!” So I went back to the locker room and Kevin McHale’s also in there, and there’s somebody in the shower, and it happens to be Dennis Johnson. And Dennis Johnson comes out of the shower and, brother, I’m telling you [does the hands-way-far-apart move, as to indicate extreme length and size], I mean, I did a double take. I was like, what the fuck? And I turned around, I looked at Larry Bird, and he goes, “I know, right?”
You also got to spend some time with folks like Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Morrison …
Hunter was a close, close friend of mine. We were neighbors in Aspen and he was a dear, dear, dear brother to me. I’ve told this before but if I was out of town and I had a sick animal on my ranch, Hunter would go sleep in the stall with the animal to nurse it and make it better. I was very close to him. I loved him. And he co-conceived the idea of Nash Bridges with me. Jim Morrison I knew a little bit, when he was about 25 or 26. He was a charismatic guy, really amazing guy. And then of course he died a year later.
I met Richard Pryor right around that time. That was a thrill. He used to come over to my dressing room. I was doing a play in L.A. and I had two shows back-to-back on Friday and Saturday nights. And he’d come in my dressing room and he would get me ripped. I would have to go out and do the second show just fucking stupid. [Pause.] Good times.