SXSW Interview: Jessica Pohly and Alia Shawkat talk Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

Pee-Wee Herman returned to the big (and small) screen last week with the Netflix debut of Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.

At SXSW, we caught up with stars Jessica Pohly and Alia Shawkat to talk butt pads, bank robberies and their role in the Pee-Wee revival.

Well, congratulations on the film. I’m curious as to when you first received the script, how did they describe the characters? What was the pitch that hooked you in to play these eccentric, over-the-top bank robbers?

Jessica: Well, nobody pitched anything to me to, like, get me interested [laughs]. This was not a hard sell for me. But, yeah, Paul [Rust] told us from the get-go that they were drawn from Russ Meyer’s film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Alia: Yeah, so visually we had a very specific idea and, in the wardrobe fitting, they had hip pads, butt pads and boob pads. Which, I remember when we walked in; it was just, like part of it. She’s like, ‘so, we need these pads to fit inside of these tiny jeans’ and I was like, ‘you really think I need more?’ [laughs]. But it really added to the whole idea, the shape, and it actually helped us get in character.

Jessica: I dunno if this is your experience with costume but I had so many fittings and at the beginning our fittings we were trying on really high heels that were more clearly placed in 2015/2016, really tight pants, and crop tops, and stuff, and it was sort of this evolution, where I felt like, we knew the characters were drawn from past representations in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! but there was this moment where, like, are we just giving it a nod or are we really going for it? And then, where we ended up, they were like ‘no, we’re just going for it’.

So did you watch the movie beforehand, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, or had you already seen it?

Jessica: I had not seen it, I watched it after Paul [Rust] talked about it.

What did you think of that film?

Alia: It’s something [laughs]. All of Russ Meyer’s movies, though…He has a different genre.

So, talk about your personal experiences with Pee-Wee. Were you big fans growing up, watching his work?

Jessica: Definitely, yeah. I watched Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, with my dad, on the couch, every Saturday morning and watched Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure until the VHS was pretty worn out.

Alia: Yeah, I loved Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Big fan of it, he’s just been a presence. I feel like, in pop-culture for a very long time. I saw his live stage performance too when he came to LA, and it was wonderful. Now it seems like, after that show, there was, like, the biggest pause and then he came back and did that tour of New York and LA, and, kind of, got excitement going again, and that’s when Judd [Apatow] actually met with him and set him up with Paul Rust and, you know, the snowball effect, that should have been growing, always, was back again. I think, a lot more work is gonna be coming out of Pee-Wee again, which is exciting.

Working with him now, what do you think about the character and how he’s so timeless? Why do you think it’s that way?

Jessica: Pee-Wee has sort of a, in a sense, a child-like outlook on life and I think that he stays true to this really specific world that he’s created so many years ago at Groundlings, and that is what the training at Groundlings is, because I spent a lot of time there too and it’s about what is this character’s point of view, what is the world of this character. So, Paul, I mean, it was just really a moment of genius when he created Pee-Wee and, I think that, when you make your own space like that, it’s not necessarily attached to any time. It’s just something that exists and he’s done that, and it’s not easy to do.

Your characters seem to pop up at the most fun and crucial moments in the film. Do you have a scene that you enjoyed filming or that your most excited for audiences to see?

Jessica: Just fast-forward to the end [laughs]. But, yeah, Alia mentioned the New York scene before and for me, I’m from New York, I grew up there and so, I’ve spent many years doing theatre in New York and making no money at all and doing stuff for free, and stuff like that. So, to actually be on a paid job in the city that I grew up in was really rewarding. Fantastic.

The getaway car that you guys get to get into is an old-school Fiat. So, was it difficult to, sort of, get all of you squeezing into this car?

Alia: Yes, and the camera. That was kind of attached to the side and sometimes they were in the back seat. It was very small.

Jessica: It was very small. It was very sweaty. It was also in the middle of the desert and it was probably close to, like, 95°, it felt like that day, at least, under all the padding that we were in. It was tight quarters. That was our first day of shooting. That was my first day on a set of that size and caliber, and the first moment that we shot was me, moving over from the passenger side, on to, literally on to, Paul Reubens.

And when the car is swinging like that, are you guys happy with your slow motion faces?

Jessica: When we were doing ADR, I made sort of, like, a grimacing face and John Lee, our director, was like, ‘so, whatever sound goes with that face…’ and I just had this moment where I was like, if I think about this for a split second I’m never gonna do it. So, I just, like, made a sound and he was like, ‘that’s the sound that goes with the face’.

Alia: That was a really cool stylized shot because they set it up on a rig so, the whole car is moving with the camera and then we’re reenacting slow-mo. But then, when you watch it, if you didn’t know that, you’re just, like, it looks different than just a slow-mo.

Jessica: Because we blink at the regular speed – you can see our eyes blinking.

Alia: Yeah, I tried to do a slow blink but it’s still hard! Yeah, that was pretty neat.

So, you three ladies, along with Stephanie [Beatriz], you guys have this whole dynamic together. Did you guys do anything during the rehearsal or actual filming process to, kind of, make you guys that unit that you felt onscreen?

Jessica: I think that a lot of the dynamic that you see on screen comes from great writing. It was written that way and I feel like when I sat down with the script the first time I could, kind of, see that dynamic.

Alia: Yeah, we had no connection what so ever [laughs]. But we all got along really well, like, hung out. We’re also, like, the three girls so it felt kind of like we were in, like, a band.

Jessica: I was so psyched. I just remember saying this to every friend who was like ‘who’s it going?’, I was, like, I could have been the weird outsider because I was the newcomer of the bunch and I was just like, these girls are the coolest and I’m so grateful. They’re just down to earth, rad chicks so.

It was hilarious watching, I went to, actually, the fan showing last night and it was even more, I feel, raucous than anything else. What was it like, sitting in the auditorium last night with the South By Southwest fans? Do you fee that brought a different dynamic to it?

Alia: People were getting kicks out of every beat, which was really satisfying. Especially because I was talking to Paul Rust about it, when we found out in was on Netflix, that’s so exciting, obviously, but there was a little like oh, you’re not going get to see it in a theatre with an audience a lot. You know, it’s gonna be kind of home and stuff. But, you know, we have to have the premiere and no less at this festival, which I think is so appropriate for it, and it was so thrilling. I mean people were going insane and at the Q&A people were, like, really affected by it and it was really special.

Jessica: Yeah, I hope everyone who saw it in one of those theaters last night sees it again because there was so much laughter that there were actually some really amazing parts that were laughed over and I was like, ‘no, wait, you just missed it!’ But I think it’s the kind of movie that people are gonna watch over and over.

I enjoyed the idea of Pee-Wee meeting another Pee-Wee, from both angles, and what that says about his character and your character. What did you think about that, and the Pee-Wees, and that connection between the two characters?

Alia: I was thrilled by it. I mean, in the audition we – because Pepper had a lot of the dialogue – all the girls just came in and read lines for Pepper, and then we got, like, called back or whatever and they were like ‘we want you to read for Bella, just kind of, like, more of a love interest’ and I was like ‘me?’ [laughs]. I couldn’t believe it.

So, yeah, I mean I think John Lee, director extraordinaire, he kind of directed us like we were all three different movies and yet all in the same one. Kind of, like, Film Noir to over-the-top silly, Three Stooges to sappy, kind of, melodramatic. I mean, it was the sweetest: I’ve had a crush on Pee-Wee as a person, as a character, as an essence and it was really fun. That New York scene, that kiss was kind of a surprise, I suppose, that was, like a real genuine surprise look on my face.

That wasn’t scripted?

Alia: No, we had it where I kissed him on both cheeks but kind of just, like, in the world that his character lives in he doesn’t really kiss a lot of girls and I don’t think it was clear. So, when he did it, there was something about it that made it feel really modern in the Pee-Wee world, you know what I mean? He kind of came into reality there for a second. And, yeah, I’ve been bragging about it all over town [laughs].

 So would you both consider reprising your roles for another Pee-Wee adventure?

Jessica: Yeah.

Alia: I mean… We’ll have to talk [laughs].

Jessica: YES!

It seems like everyone on the set is hilarious. What was a scene where you guys just could not get it out without laughing?

Jessica: I don’t think our scene were like the ‘ha ha’ belly laugh scene necessarily.

Alia: It’s also a big-budget kind of movie so, time-wise, you can’t really waste people’s time. Not that it wasn’t fun like, we were joking, but it never got that silly for us, and we were, you know, physically uncomfortable in those costumes. Kind of held in some of the laughter. I was like, how am I gonna take a shit in this thing? [laughs]. Thinking about it every second.

Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is available to stream on Netflix now. The film also screened at SXSW. You can find more information here.