Interview: Don Johnson talks Cold in July

From top, Johnson as private investigator Jim Bob Luke in Cold in July
From top, Johnson as private investigator Jim Bob Luke in Cold in July
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Miami Vice made Don Johnson a megastar and he can still make one hell of an entrance, as demonstrated by his latest role, writes Alistair Harkness

Don Johnson is reliving the moment he became friends with Jimi Hendrix. “I was in a night club in New York called Hippopotamus and a friend of mine had given me a little bit of cocaine. I didn’t have anything to do it with so I just took it and I dumped it on my hand and snorted it up. And then I walked out of the bathroom stall and straight into Hendrix who just looked at me and goes, ‘Oh man, you can’t be walking around like that.’

And he took his thumb…” – Johnson reaches across the restaurant table where we’re sitting and sticks his own thumb in front of my face – “…and he cleaned all the cocaine off my nose. And we became friends as a result.” Johnson roars with laughter. “Isn’t that a good story?”

Goddamn right it is. Here’s another: back in the 1990s, when Johnson was still flush from the success his role as Detective James “Sonny” Crockett on Miami Vice, he found himself one night in the wee small hours cooking up the premise for his subsequent long- running TV show Nash Bridges with none other than Hunter S Thompson.

“He was a neighbour of mine in Aspen,” grins Johnson. “Hunter was broke and I had a commitment with CBS so I said, ‘Let’s create a show and I’ll go do it and you’ll get paid a royalty.’ And he did. For seven years.”

Did he write any of the show?

“Yeah, he wrote an episode or two. We had to massage it for network television though.”

I’ll bet. Does he still have the original Thompson-penned scripts? “Oh sure.”

Would he ever publish them? “You never know.”

Johnson is full of stories like these. Miami Vice might have made him a megastar in the 1980s, but he lived a full life as a classically trained actor before it brought him success in his mid-thirties, and he’s lived a full life since the show came to an end in 1990.

Now 64 – and looking pretty much as he did in his heyday: smart suit, dark sunglasses, grey-flecked blond hair swept back in the style of his most famous role – Johnson is in town for the Edinburgh International Film Festival premiere of Cold in July, a Texan thriller in which he steals the show as a flamboyant private investigator who becomes embroiled in a complex feud between a mulleted Michael C Hall and a bad-ass Sam Shepard.

Johnson’s character, Jim Bob Luke, doesn’t appear until a third of the way through, but when he arrives sporting cowboy hat, shirt and boots, driving a crimson Cadillac convertible with “Red Bitch” on the licence plate, there’s no denying his megawatt charisma.

It’s a hell of an entrance, in other words, and in the wake of the mini- renaissance he’s enjoyed of late with roles in Django Unchained, Machete and HBO’s Eastbound and Down, it seems like he’s re-announcing himself to the world. “Yeah, it’s seems that way, but it doesn’t feel that way to me,” drawls Johnson. “Let me just put it this way: I’m happy to still be in the conversation.”

Johnson, who was born in Missouri and grew up in Kansas, relished the opportunity Jim Bob gave him to let his “beast come out to play”.

“I spoke to [director] Jim Mickle about it before we started the film. He was not unfamiliar to me. I’ve known a lot of Jim Bob-like characters, a lot of sh*t-kickers from Texas.”

Johnson tells me the character’s outfit came to him in a dream, and he sourced the clothes himself, so I’m curious if his iconic look in Miami Vice – sockless espadrilles, luminous t-shirts, linen suits with the sleeves rolled up – evolved in a similar way. “That look evolved organically out of the fact that Miami is hotter than hell,” he says. “And the very first jackets that I wore – they were off the backs of the models in Milan and the sleeves were about that far too long [he holds his thumb and index finger a few inches apart] so I just rolled them up.”

The near instantaneous success of Miami Vice had a seismic impact on pop culture and continues to define how the 1980s are remembered. But its pop culture currency has also caused people to forget how hard-edged and nihilistic the show really was.

“We were dealing with the reality of what was happening in Miami,” nods Johnson. “It wasn’t conjured up. The inadequacy with which they were trying to stem the flow of the drugs coming in from South America, and how cheap life was, was phenomenal. And we were just documenting it in a scripted form.”

How much of that was down to Michael Mann coming on board as executive producer?

“You know Michael never wrote any of them, he never directed any of them…”

And Anthony Yerkovich created it, I add, so how did Mann become so identified with the show? Johnson smiles. “Michael is a timely opportunist.”

Uh-oh. So they aren’t friends?

“No, no, we’re friends. And I’d say that to his face. And he’d laugh. He’s also a brilliant director and a brilliant visualist.”

How did he feel about Mann’s subsequent movie version starring Colin Farrell then?

“Well, I didn’t see all of it, so it would be unfair to comment. But it wasn’t Miami Vice.”

Johnson reckons his decision to honour his contract on the show for a full five seasons may have cost him his own comparably sized movie career. But he didn’t regret it then and he doesn’t regret it now. “Movies are tricky. Maybe it was meant to be for a time when I was more mature, like I am now. I probably have a more devoted and bigger following now than I did then.

“It’s odd,” he surmises as he outlines the way his career has always taken its time to fall into place. “It’s as if my journey was set in stone early on.”

• Cold in July has its final screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival today and goes on general release on Friday, see