Note: Major plot points are revealed below.
Leading up to last week’s release of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Paul Reubens had pushed to keep a few things about the movie under wraps: that his character, Pee-wee Herman, would be hitting the road again, this time to New York; that he’s traveling to attend the birthday party for his new friend, Joe Manganiello, who plays himself; and that the film opens with an alien. Although Manganiello wasn’t announced as a cast member until last spring, he was a part of the project from its early stages, thanks to a friendship he formed with Reubens in 2011. That informed the version of himself he plays in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, a hulking cool guy who’s also Pee-wee’s soulmate. Right after the film premiered at SXSW, The A.V. Club briefly talked to Manganiello about getting into the mindset of a 10-year-old and the inevitable slash-fiction that will succeed Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
The A.V. Club: Why do you think this character, this world, still works?
Joe Manganiello: Well, I think that when I was a kid and my dad brought me to see Pee-wee[’s Big Adventure] in 1985, the combination of Paul and then the emergence of Tim Burton—that was my childhood right there. I was a weird kid. I always was into weird things, and I think Pee-wee was this very digestible, mainstream, weird character. I immediately identified with that. There’s also something, I think, about the man-boy type of thing that’s really funny. It’s not a man trapped in well [in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday]—it’s boy trapped in well. I think there’s something brilliant about the character that works on all these different levels, that you can have an adult who’s laughing for different reasons at the same time that a little kid, like I was in the theater, is laughing at something else. That type of humor is timeless.
I’m going to be curious to see how it plays with young kids of this next generation, who are going to watch it with their parents who are my age. I’m curious to see how that plays out, but I can’t see how a kid wouldn’t be enthralled by the opening sequence.
AVC: This part was written for you, right?
JM: Yeah, but originally I was playing a character named “Joe Mancuso,” a famous actor named Joe Mancuso who had a whole list of movies that he had starred in that he’s throwing at Pee-wee and kind of crashing against the rocks with those. On the day [of filming], John [Lee, director] and Paul and I, we all huddled up, and I guess John and Paul had the idea prior to it, like, ”Hey, what if we did a take where you said your real name?” So we tried a take that way and that’s what wound up in the movie.
AVC: Do you remember any of the movies that Joe Mancuso did?
JM: One was called Monster Snake, and they actually made a poster for Monster Snake, using like True Blood key art. It was super funny. I actually have the poster of Monster Snake. It might be in my penthouse in the movie. I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in there, hidden.
AVC: At what point did you come into pre-production? Were you part of it from early on because it was such a long process?
JM: Paul called me at one point and said, “I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m letting you know that hopefully in a year or two or whenever, I’m going to get Pee-wee’s comeback off the ground, and I want you to play this part. And I shouldn’t be calling you and telling you this because it’s not happening right now, but I just want you to be aware. Please do it.” So about a year later I got the call: “It’s happening, Judd Apatow and Netflix are on board, and everybody wants you to do it. Read this script.” That’s when I came on. But it was already written.
AVC: Did you see the script when he first told you about it?
JM: No. He just said, “When this thing is off the ground, I’m going to call you.” Then I got to read it that day, which was like a year later.
AVC: In the press materials, you mentioned you used your 10-year-old self’s conception of a cool guy for the part. How do you get into that mindset? Was it easy to tap into?
JM: Well, to enter in as a character in Pee-wee’s universe, who is going to be his best friend, that required some thought. Because in a way I needed to be a man-boy as well. Even though I’m riding a motorcycle and I’m hanging out in this tuxedo, the friendship needs to work. We need to meet at the 10-year-old level. So I can be this like cool, motorcycle-riding, Wild One-esque character who rolls into town, but deep down, we have to connect. It has to be run through the filter in my mind—at least I thought the humor is going to work if it’s run through the filter of a 10-year-old. Like it’s a 10-year-old’s version of being an action, James Bond hero. It’s a 10-year-old’s version of being a biker, and it’s a 10-year-old’s version of friendship, of being friends, and a 10-year-old’s reaction to his friend not showing up to his party, which is kind of at the crux of all of it. I don’t want to come down [to my party], so what would a 10-year-old look like? His friend isn’t here. Hopefully that worked.
AVC: Were there any sort of rules for the reality of the thing, like, “This is something Pee-wee would do; this isn’t something Pee-wee would do”? Or with your character?
JM: That’s a good question. I mean, yeah, but I think that went along the lines of “How do I make my character work in that 10-year-old filter?” But as far as, like, are there rules to the Pee-wee universe? No. Everybody’s really curious. Everybody’s having a good time. The themes are about friendship and meeting new people and having fun, so I think it’s more about, I think, the tone than necessarily rules. Because obviously, the opening scene is Pee-wee talking to this little alien. I think once I say that I’m me, there’s a weird wrinkle in this movie. Now Fairville actually exists. I live in this penthouse in New York. I think the answer to your question, in a roundabout way, is probably with those little nuances or moments, there are no rules. It’ll make sense in a weird way.
AVC: Aside from the movie posters and stuff, was there anything you shot that didn’t make it in?
JM: Not that I can think of. I think pretty much everything we shot is in there, other than that Joe Mancuso.
AVC: Where was Fairview?
JM: There are these little towns outside of L.A. Once you get an hour and a half, two hours out, you get into these little, tiny towns that are almost like stuck in time.
AVC: It seems like the dream sequences would’ve been the most fun to shoot.
JM: The dream sequences are the things I talked about the most when I came home from work. You know, “Hey honey, how was your day at work?” “Well, I dressed up in a Pee-wee suit, got on top of a giant, life-size piñata, and jousted with Pee-wee Herman with giant pinwheels of fire while speaking Spanish.” I mean, what the fuck? [Laughs.] That’s like, whatever happens in my career from here on out, I’m good. I’ve hit some sort of high-water mark that didn’t exist before.
AVC: Are you prepared for all the slash fic that’s going to come out from this?
JM: For the what? [Laughs.]
AVC: The slash fic that imagines you and Pee-wee as a couple, which is undoubtedly going to be on the internet within a week.
JM: I mean, I was on True Blood for years. There’s some really, really weird shit written about that show. So listen, man, “weird” is my middle name. I’m ready for anything. The weirder, the better.