Pee-wee Herman never did things small, so is it any wonder that his new best friend came in Size Joe Manganiello?
In "True Blood" and "Magic Mike" star plays a version of himself via the skewed funhouse-mirror world Pee-wee inhabits. After a chance encounter where he finds himself bonding with his new friend, Manganiello invites the otherwise sheltered Pee-Wee to his birthday party on the opposite coast, launching the epic cross-country journey that fills up the Netflix original film.
Manganiello joined Moviefone to reveal the secret behind his involvement with the movie, which wasn't just a clever Hollywood cameo. Not only has the actor been a super-fan of Pee-wee since his youth, the character's creator/alter ego Paul Reubens was also a personal friend -- close enough to have attended the star's recent wedding to Sofia Vergara.
Moviefone: You're exactly the right age for Pee-wee Herman to be a pretty influential part of your youth. Tell me about your memories of Pee-wee when you were a kid.
Joe Manganiello: I mean, the first memory is probably seeing "Playhouse" and imitating the characters and knowing every single line of "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" backwards and forwards -- and "Big Top Pee-wee." I mean, it just goes on and on. I loved Pee-wee. Then of course, that was my introduction to Tim Burton as well, who was probably my favorite director growing up.
So when this project came about, how did you get involved being the fan that you were?
Paul and I were friends. I walked up to Paul at an HBO Emmy party and introduced myself and told him what a huge fan I was. We had this great talk, and the Tim Burton art exhibit was up at the LACMA, the L.A. museum. So I called Paul and we went out to the art exhibit, and we hung out afterwards and just became friends.
Maybe two years later, Paul called me up and said, "Hey, I've been writing Pee-wee's comeback for years, and I'm going to call you at some point. Maybe next year, maybe a couple years later, and we're going to get this thing going, and I'm going to send you the script and I want you to do it." He said, "Now forget that I called because there's nothing going on right now." About a year later, he called me up and said, "Hey, we've got it. We're going to do it at Netflix with Judd Apatow. Will you do it?" I said, "Of course."
Getting to know Paul outside of the Pee-wee context -- that has to be a pretty cool and slightly surreal thing, to get to be buddies with an icon from your youth.
It is surreal. Paul was at my wedding, and he was like the biggest hit of my wedding. Because I'd introduce people and say, "Hey, such-and-such, this is Paul." And they go, "Oh, hi Paul..." And as soon as the hands touched to shake hands, they'd realize Paul means Pee-wee Herman. I would just watch friend and family member after friend and family member lose their mind meeting Pee-wee Herman.
He's one of the nicest, most genuine, most generous, kind-hearted people I've ever met. He's just a really, really great, great person. I don't know how I could ever possibly repay him for asking me to be a part of this once in a lifetime project. I got to come along for the ride and bring Pee-wee back to prominence. It's nuts. It won't compute.
What was the fun of making this for you as an actor?
Well, I think the real fun of it, or the interesting challenge of it for me, was that I had to enter into Pee-wee's world. I wasn't just a character drifting through. I wind up as Pee-wee's best friend. So the example I give is when Pee-wee falls in the well, it doesn't say "man trapped in well." It says "boy trapped in well." So if you reverse-engineer that, it means that our friendship is on a boy level.
So I think that that was the key really to the performance, or understanding my character. That when I get upset that he's not at my party, it's the way a ten-year-old would be upset. I think that's kind of the fountainhead from which everything flows -- that my character has to be seen through the filter of a ten-year-old.
What did you learn about the behind-the-scenes philosophy of Pee-wee that Paul has?
The thing that I love so much is the physicality of Pee-wee. Even just simple things like the way his hands move, the way he walks, the way he tries to sneak around, the way he runs, hilarious. For me, it's so synonymous with that character. For me, getting to hang out and watch that every day and just watch the ease and simplicity that Paul flips in and out of character, it was really fun.
When you get to the set, you just don't know. "Is he going to be Pee-wee all day? Do I call him Pee-wee? Do I call him Paul?" No, it's just Paul. It's amazing. It's just this loose jacket he puts on and becomes Pee-wee in the snap of a finger.
Given how Pee-Wee translates for both adults and little kids, are you excited to encounter kids who don't know your more adult-oriented work, but now know you from this project?
Yeah, because I do charity work at Pittsburg Children's Hospital, and the kids have no idea who I am. Which is fine -- that's not why I'm doing it, you know what I mean? But it'd be really nice if the kids were excited that I was there. But they're too young to have seen anything that I've done, really. So I'm excited to now be known as Pee-wee's best friend.
Putting on the Pee-wee-style suit yourself had to be kind of a great day.
Yeah, that was a trip, man. I was freaking out. I couldn't believe it.
Was there a whole process to working out a version of the suit that fit your frame?
It's bespoke. It's tailored. It's made for me.
Was Pee-wee a part of your wife Sofia [Vergara's] experience growing up or was that not available to her?
No, Pee-Wee Herman was popular in Colombia.
That's cool -- so she got to enjoy the ride with you.
Yeah. She knew what was going on!
Tell me where you are now in the things that you want to do in the business.
There had been a phase of my career that, through no fault of anyone, I wound up in a very odd place in my career. A place that was very unfamiliar to me and somewhat -- I wound up on the end of this branch that I didn't know existed, and I never thought that I would be "that guy." Better or worse. Whatever. When Paul sent me this script, and I had said no to a lot of big studio stuff and took this movie with him on Netflix, I said, "This is my 'Cry-Baby' [the 1990 John Waters film that helped launch Johnnny Depp's film career], in many ways."
I think that for the past few years of my career, people think I'm someone I'm not. And that's fine, because that's kind of the magic of this business, if you're doing it right. But the fact is, this was like the big palate cleanser for me. I was going to go off and do a really weird, oddball movie with one of my biggest influences as a comic actor, and that's probably something that people might find surprising.
Paul and Pee-wee Herman were humongous influences on me. So to be able to go off and do that with somebody who means so much to me, that just felt right to me. I guess it's like there's no substitute for genuine passion. I was just so damned passionate about helping him make his comeback.
I know you and I have talked before that it seems natural for you in this day and age in Hollywood to find a superhero project. Are you any closer to landing on the one that will be right for you?
I mean, it's nothing that I would want to talk about at this present time. I mean, there's one...I had a conversation about one recently that I actually brought up to a studio. We're talking about that. But for me, once again, it's like, I don't want to do the average run-of-the-mill deal. I want to make something lasting. I want to make something epic. I want to make something inventive, preferably. I think I know the one that I want to do, and I told the studio I want to do that. I know they're working on it. So we'll see.
You've had so much fun creatively -- and launched your own side projects -- with the "Magic Mike" franchise. Do you want to stay involved on an even more creative level, depending on who Channing [Tatum] wants to turn to to keep his vision going?
Are you talking about in terms of another "Magic Mike" movie?
Would you want to do another one?
I don't know, man! I mean, I don't know. I'm going to be 40 this year, so if that's going to happen, it needs to f--king hurry up!
I hear you. Save the workout for the superhero project if it comes to pass.
Yeah, we'll see!