James Franco and Tommy Wiseau may not seem to have much in common: the former is an Oscar-nominated actor, a director, a writer and a sometimes professor, while the latter is the mysterious and peculiar creator of the disasterious cult-classic The Room. One's an insider, the other's an outsider. Franco is from California, while Wiseau's origins are unknown. But turns out that he and Wiseau share more than a love of James Dean: they both arrived in L.A. around the same time with hopes of becoming actors, attended acting classes in the Valley, ate at Ernie's Taco House, and discovered how challenging it can be to break into Hollywood.
Franco discovered Wiseau's story through Greg Sestero's 2013 book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made ("I'm like the only guy that came to The Room through a book.") and decided to make it into a film. "It was such an incredible, bizarre story, unlike any other Hollywood story, but underneath, it was so universal and moving, because it's the story of outsider artists trying to achieve their dreams," Franco says.
Here, Franco explains how he convinced Wiseau to let him star in The Disaster Artist, why he stayed in character throughout the shoot and more.
When did you first see The Room?
I was late to the game on The Room. There was a billboard that Tommy [Wiseau] paid for himself to have up on Highland [in Los Angeles] for five years, and it was him with a lazy eyelid sort of glaring down at you, and it said The Room. And then there was a phone number, and it was like, "What? What movie has a phone number on it?"
I just always thought it was this weird cult, or some odd L.A. thing, like, "Call the number, and this crazy, weird vampire can be in your movie, or something." And then the book [The Disaster Artist] came out four years ago. The Disaster Artist was written by one of the other actors in it, Greg Sestero, who my brother [Dave Franco] plays in our movie, and this guy Tom Bissell. I'm like the only guy that came to The Room through a book. I started reading the book, and before I was halfway through, I just knew. It was such an incredible, bizarre story, unlike any other Hollywood story, but underneath, it was so universal and moving, because it's the story of outsider artists trying to achieve their dreams.
So, then I went to a screening. I was in Vancouver at the time, working on The Interview with Seth [Rogen], and I went to a midnight screening in Vancouver, and it was incredible. It was an event; there are spoons, and footballs, and tuxedos, and everyone yelling at the screen, and lots of weed. It was just incredible.
When did you first meet Tommy?
I learned I had to get not only the rights of the book, but I had to get Tommy and Greg's life rights. And so, the first time I ever talked to Tommy was on the phone to get his life rights, and I was like, "All right, what's up, man?" I didn't want to suggest that I play him in case he didn't like that idea. I had no idea what he was gonna think about that and I didn't have the contract yet, so I was very sheepish. He goes, "So, who, so who play me?" And I was like, "Well, I don't, psh, I don't know Tommy, I don't know." And he's like, "Well, how 'bout Johnny Depp?" And I laughed. He was immediately, like, "Why are you laughing?"
And I'm like, "Well, Johnny Depp's like the biggest movie star in the world. I don't know." And he was like, "Now, we go, we go back to before. I said Johnny Depp and you laugh. Why you laughing?" I'm like, I'm like, "All right, Tommy, I'll ask Johnny Depp. We'll see if he'll do it." And he's like, "Yeah, you don't go down that road, you don't know at the end of alley, you know?" And I'm like, "Very wise, Tommy. Yeah, very, very wise."
How did you end up playing him in the film?
I didn't know that Tommy was a huge James Dean fan, but I guess Tommy had watched my TV movie of James Dean many times. Greg goes, "How 'bout you, James?" And I'm still sort of sheepish, and like, "Well, yeah, maybe..." – and Tommy goes, "Yeah, James, I seen your stuff. You know, you do some good things, you do some bad things." I'm like, "Okay, thanks, yeah. Coming from you, Tommy, thanks, man."
And he goes, "Yeah, maybe I'll direct you in a movie someday, huh?" And I'm, "Yeah, okay. Okay, maybe." But then later I learned that the two people that he wanted were Johnny Depp and me. So, it was we were strangely meant to be. It was amazing, because Tommy's hero was James Dean, and one of my heroes was James Dean. We both kinda came to L.A. around the same time, and so, when I first read the book, I saw that idea that Tommy is unlike any other person. This story is unlike any other story, but underneath, I could completely relate. I realized that this is an incredibly personal story for me. Even when we were like going in location scouting, I'm like, "Oh my – this is the Ernie's Taco House where I used to eat when I was a struggling actor." There are these little acting classes in the Valley where I went, and it was like, "This is strangely like my story."
What was the film's premiere like?
When Tommy premiered The Room, he premiered it at this theater on Beverly called Laemmle's Fairfax. He had made all these t-shirts for The Room, and he drove to the Chinese Theater in his stretch white limo, popped out of the sunroof, and threw his Room shirts at everybody outside the Chinese Theater that night said, "Hi, don't go see that movie, come, come see my movie."
And then there we were 14 years later, at the Chinese Theater, premiering a movie about his life. It was kind of incredible. When I introduced the movie, I was like, "You know, when Tommy introduced his movie 14 years ago, he said, 'This my movie. This my life. Be cool.'" And I said, "I'll say the same thing. 'This my movie. This my life. Be cool.' 'Cause it's my story. In a weird way."
In addition to starring in the movie, you also directed the film. Did you stay in character the whole time, even when you were directing?
I famously stayed in character, both in front of the camera and behind the camera, when I was directing.
So, you talked to your own brother as Tommy?
[Laughs] Yeah. Well, I kinda didn't even realize I was doing it, but I've been thinking about it. You know, I went through two and a half hours of makeup and prosthetics, and putting on the wig, and everything every morning. I just plain looked different, and people just treated me differently, you know what I mean?
This is probably the only time in my whole career I'll be directing a movie, and acting in it, playing a guy that's directing a movie that he's acting in. It was so much easier to just simplify everything, and be one dude throughout. And I think it helped the vibe on the set. It was like, "These actors were playing actors in his movie," and to be Tommy, I think, just created an atmosphere.
I learned later, my brother and Seth would warn people. They'd be like, "All right, before you go on set, just realize it's a little weird. James is directing as Tommy." I didn't know that there was a whole prep before they got to set, but the prep didn't help. Every time a new cast member would come to start work there was like a period of adjustment. They would show up, and just be like, "What the F? Like, this is insane."
Watch: The Disaster Artist's Ari Graynor Explains "The Room" in 1 Minute