As any fan of Joe Manganiello is already well aware, the man knows how to make an entrance, but even so, he still managed to take the breath away of his cast and crew on “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” with a simple ad-lib when introducing his character.
“On the day, we just switched the name [of the character] for a take and that’s the take we used,” Manganiello says, still beaming incredulously a day after the film’s raucous premiere at SXSW.
To find out what he changed it to, you’ll just have to go on to Netflix where the film was made available for streaming just hours after its debut in Austin, but the improvisation changed the entire course of the triumphant return of Paul Reubens’ beloved bow-tied hero, whose latest adventure takes him from California to New York, egged on by a new best friend in Manganiello. Surprisingly tender, even as it features such Pee-Wee particular obstacles such as a girl gang straight out of “Faster Pussycat Kill Kill” and an ill-fated visit to a snake farm, “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” boasts a secret weapon in Manganiello whose evident enthusiasm in sharing the screen with Reubens is infectious enough, but in displaying a childlike innocence and vulnerability, he also becomes the linchpin for how emotionally satisfying the film becomes.
“Joe is amazing because you meet someone like him and he’s 6’4, he’s handsome, he’s in great shape and he’s nice, which is the worst thing possible,” said director John Lee, the “Wonder Showzen” wunderkind making his feature debut on “Pee-Wee.” “A lot of people would have played this part wrong. They would have tried to play it for comedy, but Joe has an ability to just let his nine-year-old self come out, which was what the movie needed. I think a lot of people would have had too much ego to take the risk.”
Lee recalls how for a scene late in the film when Manganiello’s character is at home waiting for Pee-Wee to show up and in a subtle gesture, the actor conveyed disappointment in a way that spoke more than words ever could.
“When he shrugs his shoulders, that’s just like how I know I did that as a little boy,” said Lee. “He is able to get [into the mindset] of a little kid in the sensitivity and the emotions and his willingness to do that is great. You just want to make that kid feel better.”
Manganiello’s range shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have paid attention over the years – whether in the unexpected “is this all there is?” poignancy he brought to “Big” Dick Richie in his scene-stealing turn in “Magic Mike” or a devastating recent episode of “Mom” in which he played a recovering addict who makes his sponsor (Anna Faris) feel uncomfortable with his good looks. But there seems to be an extra glint in his eyes when it comes to comedy, with an impeccable sense of timing to go along with a big, disarming grin. He was flashing it quite often a day after “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” played to a standing ovation at SXSW, perhaps even happier than he appeared to be in the film where he got to don Pee-Wee’s grey suit and eat out of a trough full of ice cream and spoke about what an honor it was to star alongside a childhood idol and even serving as a fact-checker on set.
How did you meet Paul Reubens? I heard it was at an HBO Emmys party.
I was on “True Blood,” and Paul was nominated for the “Pee-Wee Broadway Special.” Those parties are usually really difficult because it’s just a room full of people who want to take selfies. If you want to go to the bathroom, it’s going to take you an hour-and-a-half to two hours to get there. You usually go in, sit, and hide. But my publicist nudged me and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Pee-Wee Herman. I thought, “This is my only chance, I’ve gotta go say hi.” So I got up and worked my way through the room and grabbed him and told him what a huge fan I was and how much I loved him. We made plans to go to Tim Burton’s art exhibit at the LACMA museum. That was our first hang out, and we just became friends after that.
How did you become a fan?
My father brought me to the theater to see “Big Adventure” and I was just obsessed. Of course, Paul gave Tim Burton his start and Tim Burton’s movies were what I was all about as a kid. Just everything in Paul’s universe was just dead-on for me, then came “Playhouse” and “Big Top.” I was a really weird kid and for some reason, I just loved Pee-Wee.
In general, are you a pretty big comedy nerd? I got the sense when watching your appearances on “The Soup” that you really light up when you get the opportunity.
I always have been, which is funny because I think most people want to associate the entirety of my career with “True Blood” and “Magic Mike,” and I like to choose things that excite me at the moment. Working with Soderbergh and Greg Jacobs on the “Magic Mike” movies was a great opportunity. That’s super fun. I read a script called “Tumbledown” a couple years ago, loved the role and thought it was super fun, so I thought “Okay, I’ll do that,” but whether it was “How I Met Your Mother” or “Til Death” or pilot after pilot for CBS, comedy has always been something I’ve done.
This last year, I spent almost the entire year saying “no” to just about every single thing that got offered to me because nothing was really inspiring me. Then of course, I get this call from Paul to come be Pee-Wee’s best friend in a Pee-Wee Herman movie and I thought, Oh my God.” I don’t know if it was like this for him, but it was like my “Cry Baby,” coming off of these projects where people think of you in a certain way, but they really don’t have any clue what you’re all about. I want to be a part of things I want to see and this is something that I wanted to see.
Was it easy to get the tone?
I had to think about it a lot because I wasn’t just playing a character who floats in and out and meets Pee-Wee. I’m playing someone who will wind up as Pee-Wee’s best friend. There were like subtle, nuanced things that had to happen with the way that I moved and talked — the way that my hands moved, or speaking in a cadence that was similar to Pee-Wee. It’s like I’m a version of Pee-wee, but I’m in a different body. Also, for example, [when] Pee-Wee falls in a well, it doesn’t say “Man in Well,” it says “Boy in Well.” He’s a boy, which means that I have to kind of be a boy too or our friendship isn’t going to work, so I thought in order to make the scenes work where I’m sad that [I haven’t seen] Pee-wee yet, I have to react the way a boy would to his friend not being [there at a big event]. Really, that was the Rosetta Stone of figuring out the character was that I needed to filter the character through the eyes of a ten-year-old.
Did you have any ideas about the character?
Once I say [what] my name [is], [I feel] like anything can happen because you’re watching it through this lens of, “Oh they’re characters that Pee-Wee and Joe are playing,” and then it puts this weird alternate dimension wrinkle into the movie that I think is just perfectly odd.
There was also a time where Pee-Wee goes to get on my motorcycle and the line was “You know, I’ve never been on a motorcycle before.” I said, “Wait a second, ‘Big Adventure,’ he was on a motorcycle.” So I caught that in the script and we changed the line to “I have limited motorcycle experience.” We did a bit of a Pee-Wee dramaturgy on set.
Was it surreal standing across from Pee-Wee in the bowtie and the suit?
It’s crazy, I can’t even explain it to you, especially when I got to wear my own Pee-Wee suit. It still doesn’t compute that I’m in a movie where I play Pee-Wee’s best friend. The kid that I was in that theater or sitting on the floor in the living room growing up watching “Playhouse” every week. [I just thought] How did I get here? How did this happen? It doesn’t make sense.
Was there a particularly crazy or surreal day for you on set?
Putting on Pee-wee Herman’s suit, getting on top of a life-size pinata and jousting against Pee-wee with giant pinwheels of fire while speaking Spanish. I mean … where do I go from here with my career? How do you top that?
What was it like for you to see the film for the first time?
Paul brought it over to my house in LA and we had a screening there for some friends and family. I hadn’t seen it with a crowd that big [until the premiere at the 1200-seat Paramount at SXSW] and oh my God, just hearing people screaming and yelling. There were a lot of the jokes that got covered up. Some of my favorite lines were completely buried because they were just laughing the whole way through. There is some really great stuff that the crowd last night is going to have to go watch again because people were laughing so hard. My only wish was that I could help one of the most influential comedians of my lifetime make the comeback and have it be something where I can with all good faith know we did a great job and send that off into the world and help revive that character. I’ll never forget last night because it worked. To hear that reaction, I knew in that moment that we did it.