Thirty-one years ago this week, people of all ages realized how boring their breakfasts and bicycles were. Paul Reubens and a then-unknown director named Tim Burton brought the unique and eternally childish stage character Pee-wee Herman to the big screen in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and not only was it a box office success, but it also became one of the most memorable films of the 1980s, both for the unique style and Pee-wee’s incredible bicycle that people will still pay a pretty penny to own all these years later.
However, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was more than just the story of a boy and his bike, and it was even more than Burton’s opportunity to showcase the artistic vision that has since made him a notable director. It was also a love story thanks to Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily, who played Pee-wee’s girlfriend, Dottie, a character whose name we still say thanks to one of the film’s most famous lines (no, not “I know you are, but what am I?”). Today, she’s continuing her work as a voice artist (she’s had major roles on Rugrats and The Powerpuff Girls), starring in the upcoming Rob Zombie horror picture 31, and still pursuing her music career, but Daily is always happy to revisit one of her most memorable roles.
When you first read the script what were your initial thoughts?
I don’t think I got the script originally. Sometimes you don’t get the script. They were looking for somebody real quirky that was quirky and could be a leading lady, potentially. Somebody that could really be his leading lady and Dottie was really quirky. She’s not like Hollywood or super sexy. She’s just a little bit different. I felt like I had those elements about me. I’m all of the above. I can also be sexy, but I feel like I have quirky and I have tomboy and I ride bikes. I like bikes!
What was the audition process like?
It was a regular audition, which is pretty rare for me. It was a big project and they were talking about the director who they had big expectations about and that turned out to be Tim Burton. I remember seeing the girls that were going in as well were a little bit quirky. There was Julie Brown, a comedian at that time. Not “Downtown” Julie Brown, but another actress, a very funny actress. They were looking at people who were a little off the beaten path, which I tend to be in a lot of movies. Then it was down to the final call back and I just remember booking it. I was happy. I didn’t have any idea that it would be as gigantic a success as it was, which is kind of the case for most of the projects I do. I never really go in thinking, “This is going to be huge or this is going to be the one.” I just did it and it was just another project. It wasn’t till after it had been completed that we were all like, “Oh, that’s really special.”
How much did you identify with that character?
I identify a lot with not just the physical tomboy, I identify with an interest in strange things. Pee-wee is kind of different and I’m attracted to different. My character was all of those things about me — I just think that Dottie is a little bit quirky and I myself am definitely quirky and I’m definitely attracted to things that are not typical. My interests and how I live my life and the men that I’ve dated [Laughs.], it’s always been a little bit off the beaten path.
What was it like working with Tim Burton on his first feature-length film?
I noticed that he was very meticulous about everything. He had a really keen eye, he was very detailed. And with wardrobe, everything was very perfect and he was very clear about his picture, which is amazing because the picture was so animated. Everything he does is very animated in a weird way. It’s very artistic, like a piece of art. The fact that he’s so detail-oriented makes his projects like art pieces. That’s what Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was. He has this kind of eye for visuals and that’s so great for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure because they had to re-create some of the childlike surroundings in an adult world and it worked. That’s kind of the way Rob Zombie is because I just did a Rob Zombie movie. This is my second and it’s called 31 and he’s another director that I feel is an artist, like a painter. Like Tim Burton, I feel like they’re painters, visual painters, mood painters.
How was he in directing you?
Very detailed. It’s funny because it’s been 30 years and I remember it like it was yesterday. Just that he was very specific with how I represented Dottie. That she just had a down-to-earth quality about her, real, but also she had that little quirky element. Not very Hollywood, and not very glamorous.
What was your initial impression of the overall style and vision of the film? Did you ever feel like they were aiming too high or did it all make sense?
I had no idea and then when I saw it I think I got why the whispers around it were so big. The whispers like, “This is big, this is going to be really big.” I didn’t take it in as much because I had been on so many projects where people say that and then it’s usually not the ones people whisper about that become the big ones. It’s the ones where you don’t have any expectation for, so it was a big surprise how big it became, how iconic it became.
Were you familiar with Pee-wee Herman before doing the movie?
I was because he had done it at the Roxy Theater near where I grew up. I remember seeing The Pee-wee Herman Show at the Roxy, which is one of my favorite L.A. local theaters. I’ve played there a million times and it’s just iconic. I hadn’t actually seen the show but I remember it very specifically on the marquee.
What did you think of Paul Reubens when you first met him?
He was really interesting and I loved his style. His concept of character. He kind of really embodied Pee-wee and the child thing. I really identified with the child thing, obviously, because I’ve made a big career with doing child things, child voices, Rugrats, and my life had been all around kids. With kids voices and kids shows and cartoons, so he really appealed to me, that whole child thing that he does, like wow, this is amazing. But it’s live action.
What was the chemistry like between you and Paul on set? What did you make of the energy level of Pee-wee?
We had a ball. We immediately had this relationship that we’ve always had and even to this day it’s very sweet and he’s so thoughtful. He doesn’t forget anything. He’ll remember your birthday every year, you’ll get this amazing little card or thoughtful thing. He’s just a really good guy, Paul Reubens. Super good guy. Every year he sends a beautiful Christmas card. I could be not talking to him at all for five months and then he’ll remember my birthday. When I was on The Voice he was just so respectful and sweet, and we were tweeting back and forth and fans were getting involved and it was, “Dottie, my girl’s on The Voice.” He’s an amazing human being, which is why I’m super happy that he’s had the success that he’s had.
Did you play with the bicycle?
Yeah, it was supposed to be my bike and so I did become real familiar with the bike as a little bit of my work. It was a cool bike and they had a bunch of them. They had lots and lots and I think I even got one of them at the end of shooting.
Several have shown up on auctions and the bikes are sold for so much now.
Exactly. I could tell you how many there were but then I’d have to kill ya’. [Laughs.] There are 25,000 of them and they’re making good money! Just kidding.
Did you have a favorite scene to film?
The basement was fun because we were all together in this room. We had to keep cutting, re-filming as if we were in the basement doing that scene for hours and hours and hours. The bike store was fun, all the BMX bike racer kids were there, and that was really sweet. The boys were all real fun and that was when you started to see the beginnings of this funny child-like thing happening.
When you watch the movie now is there a scene you enjoy watching most, just from a viewer perspective?
There’s so much of that movie I love. It’s when he calls me from Texas and I’m in the phone and I’ve got the little dogs on the desk. The whole thing is so crazy. There are scenes I wasn’t in that I loved. I loved when he was in the bar doing the famous dance. I loved all the scenes with all the different characters, like the French woman. It was endless fun stuff. The whole adventure, there were so many moments that I thought were so fun.
You mentioned that there had been whispers that it was going to be big and critics were very fond of the movie, but you did not anticipate that kind of response?
I never do with anything. I never do. I’m sort of known as someone who goes in, I do my work, and I leave and start another project. Like when I started Rugrats, the next thing I know I hear we’re winning Emmys and now we’re doing huge feature films and now we’re winning more Emmys. And I’m like, wow, that’s cool. I really just make it a practice in my life to be in the moment and not to think too far, because there’s that element of expectations are planned disappointments sometimes. You’re setting yourself up and for me doing the movie was enough. It was enough.
That’s the best approach for everything.
I did a seminar recently and basically I talk about a lot of my journey and my perspective on a lot of things, why I operate the way I do, and why I’ve had a lot of success. I’ve been in iconic projects. I have a lot of philosophies about things and I feel super blessed, I have a blessed career.
How is it being part of something so iconic?
It’s awesome. But then again, I’ve gotten to be in so many massive classics with Rugrats and with The Powerpuff Girls and Valley Girl. I just feel like, how lucky am I? It didn’t come without paying a lot of dues. I’ve been doing this for decades, so I’ve been in the industry for four decades, since I was a little girl. I didn’t know what I was doing half the time. Everything was trial and error and learning and growing and learning not to take things personally and just to enjoy the moment, the process. Today it’s ingrained in me how I operate when it comes to any of my projects. I will say that Rob Zombie movie I just did felt amazing and iconic as well, so we’ll see what happens with that. It’s fun, I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen with it but doing it was fantastic. It was so much fun, it was one of my favorite roles ever, in addition to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure [laughs].
Do fans drop the “loner” line on you all the time?
All the time. Even my boyfriend. I love it. [Laughs.] It’s great.