Paul Reubens comes with a warning. ”I talk really quietly,” he whispers. Of course, since this is the infamously press-shy — and, indeed, extremely soft-spoken — former star of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, it’s almost a surprise to hear the moptopped Reubens talking at all.
Ever since his 1991 bust for indecent exposure in a Florida porn theater, the actor has kept a low profile, taking small roles in such films as Batman Returns and Mystery Men and even nabbing an Emmy nod in 1995 for an appearance on Murphy Brown. But with director Ted Demme’s Blow, in which he plays flamboyant hairdresser-turned-coke dealer Derek Foreal, the 48-year-old actor has found his most dramatic and — sartorially speaking — loudest role to date. Add two upcoming big-deal TV turns (he’ll play a litigious husband on Ally McBeal and host ABC’s adaptation of the CD-ROM game You Don’t Know Jack), as well as plans to resurrect his trademark red bow tie, and soon it will be impossible to get this guy to shut up. Here, though, he’s almost drowned out by the clatter of a false fire alarm in a Manhattan hotel lobby.
Blow is your first real departure from comedy. Why branch out now?
I don’t get roles very often based on an audition because I’m really bad at it. It’s always great when somebody just calls and says, ”Will you play this part in my movie?” It was a great situation for me — a chance to be serious in a movie, and also have some funny moments in a dramatic film.
Did you get a chance to meet the real-life Derek Foreal?
No. He’s one of the few people [from the film] who’s not dead or in jail, but I couldn’t find him. And he was changed a bit — his name [among other things] was changed.
Can you take credit for any of his extravagant fashion choices?
I wish. I didn’t have any stuff like that. I do now — I stole a couple of the shirts.
During the ’80s, you were so image-conscious, you even hid your smoking habit. Were you worried that playing a coke dealer might taint your more innocent on-screen persona?
I don’t think so. I mean, my earliest films were Cheech and Chong movies.
What’s the status of the new Pee-wee projects you’re working on?
The one that’s written already is kind of a grown-up movie — I’m seeing it as a PG-13. It’s about Pee-wee becoming a famous pop singer and being brought out to Hollywood to make movies. Fame doesn’t agree with him: It goes to his head, and he turns into kind of a monster. The other one is a Playhouse movie. It starts and ends in the Playhouse, and in the middle is a Wizard of Oz-like made-up land.
Aside from revamping Pee-wee, you have quite a few other projects, such as Meet the Muckles, that you’ve been working on for years.
[That] was inspired by You Can’t Take It With You. It’s about a group of eccentric people who live in a Victorian house and put on a variety show every week. But everyone seems scared of it, ’cause it seems expensive. So if I can’t get it done as a TV series, I’m going to expand the pilot script a little and try to do it as a small feature.
After doing Pee-wee for years, is it strange to be conducting interviews out of character?
Well, yeah, because I had this pretty high-profile public persona for a long time–an artificial persona. I haven’t done a lot of talk-show appearances as myself, so it’s sort of a brand- new experience. [Talk-show producers] used to always try to come up with physical stuff to do when I would be Pee-wee Herman. But this is more like sitting and talking. I’m trying to be way more relaxed about it. I’m trying to be like every other guest.