If all else fails, Valeria Golino will be remembered as the adorable Italian actress who dared to kiss Pee-wee Herman on screen for 3 minutes and 16 seconds without coming up for air.
"This kiss, unbelievable," Golino said, in her husky, sexy accented English. "To me, it is one of my favorite scenes because it goes on so long that it will for sure get a reaction out of the public."
"Big Top Pee-wee" marks the American film debut for the 21-year-old, dark-haired, blue-eyed actress from Naples, who will soon be seen in the much anticipated "Rain Man," opposite Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
For the film makers, Golino may be the right actress in the right job, but for her, getting there was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. When she was 14, Golino was standing around at a party when a modeling agent saw her and insisted she come to work for her.
At 16, she was a model returning to her mother's home in Greece to complete her high school exams when director Lina Wertmuller, a good friend of Golino's aunt and uncle, asked her to do a screen test for a role in "A Joke of Destiny."
"I did this monologue of Shakespeare which to me was like Arab(ic)," Golino said. "I had never acted anything. And Lena saw it and called me and she said, 'It could be very dangerous to take you or very good, but I'll risk it.'
"I did it just for play, the first movie," Golino said, "but after that, movies I think are a little bit like heroin. You do it and you say, 'OK,' and then you have to try it again. But it was not like I had a dream as a little girl to be an actress. It just happened."
In Europe, Golino has proven to be more than just a pretty face, winning the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion Award and the equivalent of the Italian Oscar for her performance in Francesco Maselli's "Love Story." In her brief career, she has already starred in eight European dramas.
When Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pew-wee Herman) and director Randal Kleiser saw a screen test Golino had done for Paramount, they cast her as Gina Piccolapoopola, the sultry trapeze artist who steals Pee-wee's heart under the big top.
"They sent me the script, and I said I'm never going to do this," Golino said. "What is this: pigs that talk to Pee-wee? Who's Pee-wee? I had seen him on some covers of American magazines, but his first movie never came to Italy so he was a complete unknown. I had not done any comedy, and I wasn't going to start with this crazy thing."
But Golino said Reubens would not accept no from her, and after watching "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," she found his physical, affected character uniquely appealing--very much in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati.
It was tough at first for a dramatic actress to play a slapstick sidekick to one of this country's wackiest characters. But with what she calls a "safe" comic performance, Golino survived Pee-wee and, at the very least, is bound to be a hit with more than a few hot-blooded American males.
That's the thinking in Hollywood, at any rate. A scant 20 days after she finished "Big Top," Cruise, Hoffman and director Barry Levinson brought her to Cincinnati, to play the female lead in "Rain Man," a drama about the relationship between a troubled young man and his autistic older brother.
"I never had the Hollywood dream, but in the end I must've had it because I'm here," said Golino. "If you tell me, 'Come make a movie with Dustin Hoffman,' like I'm doing now, even if you wouldn't pay me, I'd do it. There are great artists here. And you do make more money."
She isn't the least concerned that, dressed up in a sexy circus costume and used as a smoldering prop for the infamous kiss, some Americans might dismiss her as just another imported sex kitten.
"They can say I'm a very pretty girl, and I'll be glad because after I do 'Rain Man' they won't be able to say that's all I am," Golino said. "And if they still say I'm just an Italian bimbo, what can happen? I can't work here anymore? So what. I was nothing here before.
"I'm more afraid of what will happen in Italy when they see it. They could say, 'Ah, she plays serious roles here, but just to be in a movie in America she'll do anything.' But I don't care."
She stopped, nibbled on her fingernails and then caught herself with an embarrassed grin. "See," she deadpanned, offering her savagely bitten fingernails as evidence. "I'm not worried about a thing."