NOTE: This interview contains spoilers, in case you haven’t seen the film yet. And if you haven’t, what’s keeping you?
With the Netflix release of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday this past March, fans of Paul Reubens’ ageless character have reason to rejoice. The film, directed by John Lee and co-written by Reubens and Paul Rust, puts Pee-wee back on the road, this time taking a cross-country trip to the Big Apple.
Along the way, he meets the anticipated collection of oddball characters, including a gang of female crooks (modeled after the buxom group in Russ Meyers’ Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill), some helpful Amish folk, and a friendly RV full of hairstylists. Best of all, erstwhile werewolf Joe Manganiello shows off his comic chops in the film as Pee-wee’s new BFF — and it’s hilarious.
On the day after its SXSW premiere, Reubens, Manganiello, Lee, and Rust, along with two of the gang girls, Alia Shawkat and Jessica Pohly, answered some pressing questions about the film and the welcome return of Pee-wee Herman.
Co-scripter Rust, who co-created and stars in the Netflix series Love, says he had a blast working with Reubens on the screenplay. Of the many off-kilter characters Pee-wee encounters on the road, among the most delightfully bizarre is a group of extremely happy hairstylists (played by Darryl Stephens, Dionne Gipson, Anthony Alabi and Sonya Eddy) who give him a lift in their RV — and a makeover.
I asked where the idea for this flamboyantly friendly crew came from, and Rust told me they were inspired by the drag documentary Paris is Burning as well as John Waters’ ouevre, Hairspray in particular. As Pee-wee himself remarks, “Who doesn’t like giant hair?”
Rust explained that since there’s a rather long segment involving a farmer and his marriage-hungry daughters preceding this sequence, they felt like they needed to quickly add some more unusual characters. It’s a brief but memorable side-trip.
Lee, who co-created the cult MTV series Wonder Showzen, made his feature directorial debut with Big Holiday. He admitted to being a longtime Pee-wee fan, having first seen him in the 1981 HBO recording of Reubens’ original stage production of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Working with cinematographer Tim Orr, Lee provides the look and feel required of a Pee-wee Herman film: bright colors, bizarre characters, and an overall childlike innocence.
There’s an ambitious, Gershwin-flavored musical number that spontaneously occurs when Pee-wee finally makes it to Manhattan, and I asked Lee about the logistics of managing all of those moving parts. He said it was done in two days, with himself and Orr pulling out all the stops to make it happen. Even though New York is a very permit-friendly town, that’s still an impressive achievement, and it gives Big Holiday a “big movie” moment.
Alia Shawkat and Jessica Pohly
As Bella, one of the gang girls who hijacks Pee-wee’s Fiat 600 and takes him hostage, Shawkat is irresistibly drawn to the manchild. It doesn’t hurt that her character’s nickname also happens to be Pee-wee, and she becomes his protector. Shawkat said that Bella, like so many others who come into his orbit, sees an innocent beauty in his character and wants to preserve it.
Pohly, who plays the tough-as-nails Pepper, provided this insight: in the world Pee-wee inhabits, the viewer gets the opportunity to bring whatever interpretation he or she wants to it. That’s quite true, and it’s the reason Reubens’ creation has such universal appeal.
Manganiello, who has been friends with Reubens for several years, jumped at the chance to participate in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. He was a fan even before they met, confessing that he grew up as “a weird kid in a not-weird neighborhood,” and Big Adventure was his entrée into the concept of weirdness in the mainstream.
I asked him how the film’s Joe aligns with the real Joe, and he revealed that his character was originally intended to be a fictional action star named Joe Mancuso, but they decided at the last minute to have him play a version of himself. It was a good call.
Since we’re working in Pee-wee’s alternate universe, our star is blithely ignorant of who Joe Manganiello even is and is utterly incapable of pronouncing his last name: “Mangalalala?”
Nevertheless, the two quickly realize how much they have in common (root beer barrels top the list). Pee-wee views Joe as the very definition of cool, while Pee-wee brings out the 10-year-old kid in Joe, so he invites his new pal to come to New York to attend his birthday party — and that’s how the new adventure begins.
As Pee-wee encounters various setbacks en route to Manhattan, what keeps him motivated are happy dreams about the fun that he and Joe are going to have once he gets to the party. For some unspecified reason, these dreams are all in slow-motion – and in Spanish. Manganiello confessed to not knowing why they’re in that language, but they were a source of great amusement to both him and his wife, Sofia Vergara, when they previewed the film.
Reubens was delighted by the response the premiere received at the Paramount Theatre on March 18. The audience was laughing so heartily that many of the jokes were drowned out. He was also gratified that viewers found the plot, such as it is, absurdly funny. He said, “I love that you get that far into the movie, and [Joe] goes, ‘I want you to come to my birthday party,’ and you say, ‘That’s the plot?'”
Hey, where else are you going to get to see Joe Manganiello dressed in a Pee-wee Herman suit, jumping up and down in slow motion and shouting “Es perfecto!”?
Certainly what makes the film work is this: instead of trying to bring Pee-wee into today’s grimly social-media-driven, 24-hour news cycle world, the filmmakers decided to ignore it all entirely. Rather, we’re transported back into the character’s nostalgically optimistic, candy-colored ouevre, and everyone gets the opportunity to be a kid again – if only for 90 minutes.
But Reubens says he has more scripts and series ideas making their way through the production process, so we can look forward to hopefully spending more quality time with Pee-wee in the near future.
In the meantime, check out Pee-wee’s Big Holiday on Netflix now.
(Production photo courtesy Netflix. Photos of Manganiello and Reubens by the author.)