Standing at a striking 6'5" tall, with broad shoulders and serious brawn, Joe Manganiello is a mountain of man. He's the kind of macho man that gets cast to play a passionate werewolf on "True Blood" or a charismatic stripper known as Big Dick Richie in "Magic Mike XXL." Or Pee-wee Herman's new best friend.
In the brand-new Netflix release "Pee-wee's Big Holiday," Joe Manganiello channels his natural enthusiasm and charming comedy chops into a playful version of himself, proving to be Pee-wee's perfect playmate.
Following the film's SXSW premiere, Indiewire spoke with Manganiello over the phone about his path to Pee-wee, the surreal shooting experience, decoding the trick of playing a very special new character in the Herman universe and the one bit of costuming he had to fight for. Spoilers ahead.
What was your first memory of Pee-wee Herman?
1985 in the theater, my
dad brought me to see ("Pee-wee's Big Adventure."). And I was just enthralled. You know, like some
rift in the universe had been opened. It was like my brain expanded. That was
first introduction to Paul (Reubens) and Pee-wee. It was also my first
introduction to Tim Burton, who I was hugely
influenced by and loved. Those were very influential movies on me. "Big
Adventure," "Beetlejuice," his Batman movies, "Edward
Scissorhands," those were like my
movies. Like that's the kind of kid that I was. That was my temperament. I was
this Smiths-loving weirdo. And I think that seeing that first Pee-wee movie, it
was so weird and so mainstream at the
same time. It made it okay to fly your freak flag.
Speaking of, Paul Reubens described the first time you two met as you basically racing across an Emmys party to introduce yourself. What was that experience like from your perspective?
Those parties are really tricky – those big Emmy parties – because you just want to hide. Because they're just full of people who want to take selfies for like two hours. So you just get in there, you get a chair and you sit back and hide. And my publicist bumped me and was like, "Oh my God, it's Pee-wee Herman." Paul was nominated for the Emmy for HBO (for "The Pee-wee Herman Show On Broadway"), and I was working for HBO. So, I'm like "Ohmigod, I got to go say hi." So I got up and braved the crowd, just worked my way through that crowd over to him with as much passion and genuineness as I could possibly muster.
I'm his biggest fan and I love him. And we made plans then to check out this Tim Burton LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) exhibit that was at the art museum in L.A. And we just became friends.
That's surreal. And then "Pee-wee's Big Holiday" you play yourself becoming friends with Pee-wee Herman.
Which is kind of how it happened!
So when did they come to you with this idea? How did that work?
Well, Paul had called me. And he prefaced with saying like, "I shouldn't be calling you. I shouldn't be doing this. But I want to give you a heads up. I've been planning Pee-wee's comeback for years. And hopefully in the next year or couple of years, I'm going to be able to get this thing off of the ground and I when I do, I'm going to call you back and I want you to play this role." And I said okay. And he said, "Now forget about it. I'm sorry I called you because you have to forget about it now."
So you know nothing about the part?
You could be a cowboy or a pirate, because it's Pee-wee! We don't know.
No idea. And it wasn't written as me. The character wasn't me, when I finally got the script a year later. Paul called me back and was like, "Okay. We're doing this movie. It's going to happen and Judd (Apatow) and Netflix are all down with you doing it, you being in the movie." I was playing a famous actor named Joe Mancuso.
Paul and John (Lee, the director) and I were talking as we were beginning to shoot about like, "What if you said you were you? What if we did that?" So sure enough when we got to the set that day--we were at the little miniature set--we did a take that wasn't scripted where I said, "I'm Joe Manganiello from "True Blood" and "Magic Mike" and all that stuff."
So when you started working on "Pee-wee's Big Holiday," you weren't playing you as you?
No. And they actually had to go clear the name "Joe Mancuso," which belonged to this guy whose name was Joe Mancuso. And in order to okay using his name, he said, "Fine, you can use my name. But you have to give me a part in the movie." So he is actually in the movie. There's a guy named Joe Mancuso who plays like the pizza guy when Pee-wee's in New York and gets pizza.
So his name isn't said in the movie, but he still gets to be in the movie. That's pretty cool.
Correct, yeah. So they actually went through all the trouble to clear the name and then we didn't want to use it.
I was going to ask what it was like playing yourself in a movie, but now I know it's like this hybrid–
Well, it's not really me. It's funny. It's like a 10-year-old's version of the tabloids' idea of me sort of.
Sure, "Triple Cool" Joe Manganiello.
Well, one thing I really enjoyed about the friendship that you and Pee-wee have within the movie is that it bucks the traditional bromance. You are a very macho character, but there's an earnest childlike enthusiasm and then elements like "Glitter Mountain"–
Yeah, it's full of pixies!
Exactly! Was that kind of subversion of that trope part of the character's appeal for you?
In looking at the character I had to think about it a lot because I'm not just playing a guy who meets Pee-wee. I'm playing a guy who winds up Pee-wee's best friend. So, you have to kind of have an understanding of why Pee-wee is funny, why Pee-wee is a cultural phenomena. There's the mechanics of Pee-wee that have to be understood. I thought that with my character with the size differential – correct me if I'm wrong – what was going to be funny was watching my character interact as a boy.
When Pee-wee falls in a well, it doesn't say "Man in Well;" it says "Boy in Well" (on the television newscast). He's a boy, and I'm his friend. Which means I have to be a boy too. Even though I'm wearing a tuxedo and riding a motorcycle around and all this stuff, my tone, my temperament has to be that of a 10-year-old. And so I thought, "How would a kid react if his best friend didn't show up to his party?" And there you go. That's the key to the character. That scene has to work that way. To me, that's the way I decoded that – I don't want to call it a problem – but decoded that proof.
Did you keep any mementos from the set?
Well, there's a Pee-wee suit somewhere.
What was it like putting that on for the first time?
I can't get over it! I still can't. It doesn't make sense. It was crazy. I could hardly get through those takes because it was insane! It was insane. And they were actually going to cut it out. They wrote it out. They wrote out the Pee-wee suit. And I heard about that and was like, "No! NO!" I lobbied so hard. Like I didn't threaten to not do the movie or anything, but I was like, "Come on, guys, please. We have to do this."
Now were you throwing your weight around on this because you were like "This is what the character needs" or because "I need to be in that suit"?
I need the goddamn Pee-wee suit. This is probably my only chance. Like, please. We have to. We can't not do this. Please! And they came around.
That's amazing. What was it like shooting the slow motion sequences?
Well, it's one thing when you come home and your wife asks you how work was and your answer is, "Well, I put on a Pee-wee Herman suit. I climbed on top of a life-sized piñata and jousted with Pee-wee with giant pinwheels of fire while speaking Spanish." Like drop mic.
Whatever your day was, I won.
I mean, yeah! There' s no competition. I couldn't believe I had somehow entered into this wormhole of this alternate universe where I got do that. Like that's a moment in my career! It's crazy. It doesn’t make sense.
"Pee-wee's Big Holiday" is now streaming on Netflix.
Check out a classic Pee-wee clip below.