SXSW Interview: Joe Manganiello talks about exhuming his favorite childhood character in Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

Joe Manganiello recently sat down with The Iris’s Larry Heath to talk about the reprisal of his childhood icon in Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.

When you got offered this role and you knew that essentially, it was kind of for you how was it feeling you were going to be playing a version of yourself?

Well, when I was offered the movie I was playing a character, a famous actor named Joe Manquiso, who’d had a bunch of movies that he’d starred in, one of which was a movie called Monster Snake, like you don’t know who I am? I’m Joe Manquiso, you remember Monster Snake? No. And then there were all these other movies that I have been in and I actually have a poster, they went and made a poster of Monster Snake, that I think is in my penthouse in the movie somewhere. So that’s what the character was, but Paul and John and I were having a conversation (and) Paul and John concocted this idea like what if we say your name, like you’re you. So on that day I did a take that way, that wasn’t scripted and we rolled with it, that’s what wound up in the movie.

So was his response ad lib? Because my favorite line in the movie is him responding going ah, you think I’d know Magic Mike but no.

Which I didn’t catch, I’ve seen it a couple of times and I didn’t catch it until last night, and it was like oh my god just lost my mind, I completely ad libbed. That wasn’t written.

For the moment where you actually got to wear a Pee-Wee Herman grey suit, did they have to specifically tailor that for you and did you get to keep it?

Yes and yes. So that was completely surreal – it’s a bespoke Pee-Wee suit. They even went and found me these giant white loafers, but I think the bow ties are the same size. Actually, that was written out of the script, I knew they were talking about having me in a Pee-Wee suit but then a draft came in and it wasn’t in there and I, stormed over, and I didn’t threaten to not do the movie, but I was like, “look how close can I get to that line, I need to wear the Pee-Wee suit! Please don’t do this to me, this is my only chance, I have to wear the Pee-Wee suit!”

Which led then of course to – you know sometimes when you sum things up you realize how insane your life is – “Hey honey how was work today? Well, I put on a Pee-Wee suit I climbed on top of a life size piñata and I jousted against Pee-Wee while giant pinwheels of fire were blowing in the background and we were speaking Spanish’. I realized there that my entire career had lead to that moment.

You playing a grand character of yourself, was there ever a moment when you were like, no that’s too ridiculous, I’m not doing that, or portraying myself that way

No, well what’s interesting to me was that because I wasn’t just playing a character who meets Pee-Wee on a whim, the fact that my character was going to wind up as his best friend, that took some thinking and figuring out because when Pee-Wee falls in the well it says, ‘boy trapped in well’ which gets a laugh in the movie, not man trapped in well.

So when you think of it that way, when you reverse engineer, you think well if I’m his best friend, I have to be a boy also. In ways I’m riding this cool motorcycle around and being this cool tuxedo wearing guy, but when he doesn’t show to my party I have to be upset in a way that a ten year old would be upset that a friend didn’t come to his party.

So to me that was really the Rosetta Stone to understanding the character which isn’t me, but that’s how it has to work in this odd universe.

I’m blown away by your performance in this film, I actually think at certain points you upstage Pee-Wee. So what was your reaction when you initially got this script, and everyone was saying you were a big Pee-Wee fan, what was that experience being a part of that?

Well, there’s a lot of pressure because I loved Pee-Wee growing up. For me, I was a weird kid who grew up in a not weird neighbourhood, with not weird people. So when at 8 years old, my dad brought me to see Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, it struck some kind of chord in me and that was also my introduction to Tim Burton, and Time Burton for me was – as a kid all I dreamed of – the Batman movies, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands.

I was such a huge fan of his and all things weird and odd and it really gave me permission to just fly the freak flag, which is funny when people are surprised that Paul and I are friends it’s like I love weird shit. So to get a call from Paul and the fact that all the permutations of life and all the years that went by between the movies, to think that I genuinely wound up good friends with this guy as he was mounting the Pee-Wee comeback and thinking of me for the role, and then called me to include me and help him revive one of the most important characters of my childhood, was daunting, but I was like, I don’t need to read this script, I’ll do whatever you want.

I felt I had a good connection with your character

Well the formula works with John Lee, because John’s super weird. John and I love weird movies, we went and saw the new Henry Rollin’s movie, He Never Died, I don’t know if you’ve seen it but, if you like weird, he plays like a 300 year old vampire and it’s crazy.

Did you see Greasy Spoon here? That’s the new John Waters film and THAT’S weird

Well it’s interesting you mention that because I told Paul that coming off of the phase of my career that was True Blood, Magic Mike, I got really far out on this branch and it was a branch I never knew existed, never thought I would wind up being out on. Or at least that far out on, so for me when Paul called me and I read the script, I told him, in a way this is my Cry Baby, because this is really me.

So as I know you best from the Magic Mike movies, you always play this kind of awesome cool dude, loveable guy, would you ever like to just portray a full out villain or really nasty person

I’ve done it before. I’ve been doing this 23 years, I’ve played Richard the III in college,

You beat up Spiderman

There’s that. So I think what would really interest me, and I’m getting to do that right now in this project that I’m actually shooting in North Carolina called Six, which is about the naval special warfare development group who unfortunately became famous for killing Bin Laden. So there’s the group who are basically the best trained warriors in the world, and what’s interesting about that character to me is that he’s a Ronin, a fallen good guy and I think the good bad guys and the bad good guys are really interesting if you’re not just getting together with your friends and trying to make each other laugh.

I want to see you do more comedy

I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s like all the How I Met Your Mother and all these sitcom pilots for CBS that never went [anywhere], all this comedy that I did, its funny that it got overwhelmed I think by my gym work or something.

But because of that gym work and shows you’ve done in recent years, there’s a potential that your involvement in this film could open Pee-Wee up to new audiences, what does that mean to you?

Well I’m so curious to see what it’s going to be like for the parents of my generation to sit down with their kid and watch a Pee-Wee movie because it does work on both of those levels, you know.

In a genius way, the adults are laughing and getting jokes, and the kids are enthralled by this completely different thing that’s going on having this completely different experience, I really hope the kids love it. I’m curious to see what the in generation thinks, but I think it’s a timeless sense of humor.

Looking into the future of Pee-Wee, do you hope there’s more to come?

Totally, and I hope that I can come along for the next adventure.

I’m going to ask you the question that I asked Paul, you know Pee-Wees Big Adventure, tequila, getting up on the toes, is that a move you’ve tried to do before? If you were to have a dance off (with Paul) who’s coming out on top?

There is a video somewhere that exists of Paul teaching me – of Pee-Wee teaching me, how to do the tequila dance it’s somewhere, we shot it on set.

Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is now streaming on Netflix.

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