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.