Pee-wee Herman grows up for a role opposite Johnny Depp in ''Blow'' and a guest spot on ''Ally McBeal''

By Liane Bonin
Updated April 16, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Paul Reubens: Armando Gallo/Retna

In the ’80s, Pee-wee Herman, the geeky, bowtie wearing alter ego of actor Paul Reubens, was the coolest pseudo kid around. But after Reubens’ ’91 arrest for indecent exposure, the Herman character was shelved, and he turned to supporting parts in ”Batman Returns” (1992), the CBS series ”Murphy Brown,” and ”Mystery Men” (1999). This year the comic actor, 48, is not only climbing back into his Pee-wee suit for two new movies, he’s tackling a dramatic role as a drug dealing hairdresser in the Johnny Depp narco- saga ”Blow,” stopping by ”Ally McBeal” on April 30, and hosting an edgy ABC game show this summer called ”You Don’t Know Jack,” based on the CD-ROM game. sat down with Reubens to talk about what’s next, why Pee-wee’s going over to the dark side, and why he needed a break from the character that made him famous.

How tough was it to play such a bastard in ”Blow”?
He’s a pussy cat, isn’t he? But none of the characters in the movie seem evil to me. It was about having a good time and pursuing the American dream in whatever warped fashion. We didn’t know how dark the drug scene was going to get or how many people would be locked up in the so called drug wars, which in my opinion have been a failure. So I honestly don’t view him as a villain.

Your character is based on a real person. Did you get to meet him?
I met several people who knew him really well. His name was changed to avoid a lawsuit, but I’d say 90 percent of what you’re seeing is based on fact. I had the guy’s FBI dossier, and that was most illuminating. If I told you what was changed, I’d have to kill you.

You’ve kept a mighty low profile for the past few years. What, are too many creepily obsessive Pee-wee fans bugging you?
I’m not being coy, but I’m kind of a private person, and I’m always amazed to find that anyone wants to hear anything I say at all. I feel sort of uninteresting. But I’ve been very lucky that when people recognize me, they’re always nice about it. A lot of times I’ll think, maybe being recognized is going to be a concern if I go out to dinner, but then it doesn’t happen and I think, gee, no one recognized me.

You have two Pee-wee movies in the works, one for kids and one for grown-ups. Why return to Pee-wee after a decade?
I’ve been away from him for a long time now. I’m doing two back to back, and I’m not supposed to call one of them the adult Pee-wee or the dark Pee-wee movie anymore, since that’s sort of backfired and people are afraid of it. But the so called dark movie has a lot of ”Valley of the Dolls” to it, and the one for kids is completely crazy. It starts and ends in the Playhouse, and in between it’s all make believe land, a big adventure story. I’m about a quarter of the way through that script.

Why make two Pee-wee movies for two different audiences?
When I started writing the ”adult” one, everyone said to me, ”You’re writing a Pee-wee movie and kids aren’t going to be able to come to it?” I decided they were right and started writing a kids’ movie also. I don’t know which one will be made first, though. I’ve been in discussions with all the major studios, so we’ll see who’s most interested.

Any returning characters? Say, Cowboy Curtis?
I’ve written more than a little part for Laurence Fishburne, but I haven’t had a conversation about it with him because I want to give him the completed script. I want him to see what a great part it is, then talk to his kids and let them guilt trip him into it.

Do you think audiences are ready for Pee-wee, dark or otherwise?
I hope so, because ready or not, here I come.

In ”Blow,” you’re almost unrecognizable. How difficult is it otherwise for people to get past the Pee-wee persona?
I think the jury’s still out. I’ll have to see whether it works or not. In my case, I had something that was strongly identifiable and stuck in peoples’ minds, so that necessitated making a change unless that was the only thing I wanted to do. I do want to branch out, but I never thought, well, I’d better reinvent myself. It just sort of happened.

The arrest and the backlash that followed must have been tough to weather. How do you feel now about what happened?
It feels like people want to hear it’s been a really tough road, but it hasn’t been. I kind of chose to plug out during that period, so I don’t have a great perspective on it, and I don’t want to. But I have no regrets. I wouldn’t change a thing or do anything differently. I think everything is an opportunity for growth and development and clarity. I feel so blessed to have been successful to begin with. And now I’m getting the opportunity to do all these other things.

Such as?
On ”Ally McBeal,” I’m playing a man who’s married to Cheri Oteri [of ”Saturday Night Live”] and we’re in court with Sting, which is all I’m allowed to say. And I’m hosting ”You Don’t Know Jack” for ABC, which is a comedy game show where I get to make fun of the contestants. I’m this swinging kind of ’70s sort of British invasion, Gucci clad guy. I laugh when the contestants miss questions. I mean, you never see Regis laughing when a guy gets it wrong. But I have to be careful it doesn’t get nasty. We’ve only shot six episodes, but we’ve had a couple of people start to cry when they lose. The guy on the CD-ROM is mean, but I don’t want to be THAT mean.