For years, Ari Graynor had heard about The Room from her friends Justin Long and Jonah Hill. But the actress, 34, known for her mix of acerbic wit and outright raunch in cult-y rom-coms like Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Celeste and Jesse Forever, and For a Good Time, Call…, had no idea of the extent of the feverish fandom behind the 2003 cult film until James Franco asked her to be part of The Disaster Artist, his dramatic telling of the story behind “the greatest bad film ever made.”
In theaters Friday, The Disaster Artist was adapted by Franco from Greg Sestero’s 2013 book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made, which tells Sestero’s journey with Tommy Wiseau, an enigmatic and grandiose wannabe actor and filmmaker who moved to Los Angeles to write and star in his own film, The Room. When The Room was released by Wiseau in 2003, it was a total failure, allegedly costing over $6 million of his own money to make and taking in under $2,000. Over the years, though, Wiseau has become a figure famed in Hollywood as a sort of noble fool, and The Room is now lauded as a 21st century Rocky Horror Picture Show.
These days, if you want to watch The Room, you can either go to a screening (midnight, probably), where people might dress in suits and throw spoons (inside jokes), or you can order a physical copy of it to be delivered to you (Wiseau owns the rights and does not allow it to be streamed). In The Disaster Artist, a film whose cast reads as a “who’s who” of alt comedy, Ari Graynor plays Juliette Danielle, an actress cast by Wiseau and Sestero (Dave Franco) to play Lisa, the ingenue of The Room. The first time Graynor, who most recently starred as the rambunctious Cassie on Showtime’s period series about standup comedians I’m Dying Up Here, watched The Room, it wasn’t an “ideal” viewing experience—she watched it alone in her apartment with no one to howl gleefully at or to quote lines with. Her friend and co-star Paul Scheer, who plays Raphael, The Room’s director of photography, gave her some advice for how to watch The Room the “right” way. “[Paul] says that watching The Room is like going on an ayahuasca trip. You really need to do it with a group of people and have a guide, and a community and someone to keep you safe!” Graynor explained. “It’s just such a weird, surprising, hilarious, somewhat uncomfortable viewing experience, especially if you’re watching it by yourself.”
There was a certain delicate balancing act to her portrayal of a real actor who took part in Wiseau’s film—especially one who was kept completely in the dark by her director. “None of the actors in The Room read the script, so no one had any idea what it was going to be. Tommy kept it bathed in mystery,” Graynor said. “A lot of times when people watch The Room, they’ll think ‘What were these actors thinking?!’ but like all of us, we’re a part of things, and you have no idea how they’re going to turn out. Especially when you’re young, but even now it’s still easy to fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Well maybe this will be a really incredible thing that people will love.’”
As Juliette Danielle (who plays “Lisa”), Graynor doesn’t dominate The Disaster Artist‘s running time—other than the Franco brothers, it’s truly an ensemble movie—but her character is instrumental to the creation of The Room and serves as inspiration for one of the film’s most memed catchphrases (do a quick search for “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa,” a quote that Tommy Wiseau kinda sorta lifted from James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause). Once Wiseau and Sestero decide they will actually film and produce The Room, they hold auditions for the role of Tommy’s character’s love interest who will later jilt him by sleeping with his best friend, Mark (played by Greg Sestero). It’s a fun montage at first, with recognizable comedic actresses pouring in and out of the audition room, while Tommy and Greg sit on the casting couch. Then, Juliette Danielle enters. They do not ask her to read lines like the other women who came before her, but Tommy instructs her to lick an ice cream cone, sexually, and immediately wants to cast her.
The scene is played for laughs, and might not have intended to shock. Tommy is a character who is essentially inscrutable—no matter how accurately Franco portrays him in The Disaster Artist or how close he got to the real Wiseau during the making of the film, Tommy’s motivations remain couched in secrets and intrigue. In this particular scene, there doesn’t appear to be malice in his request to ask Juliette to lick an ice cream cone before giving her a role in a film that absolutely did not require her to lick ice cream, but the Hollywood “casting couch” has long allowed for this sort of harassment and manipulation of women to recur without consequence in real life. Graynor felt that it was important to showcase the realities for many young actresses, even if only fleetingly during a very short audition scene. “The experience for me shooting those scenes was probably different than Juliette and Tommy, where I’m working with James and Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg], and these men who couldn’t be more respectful of me and of women, and of the environment,” she said. “So I always felt incredibly safe and supported, and free to do my work, to take risks, to be heard.”
This casting couch scene is garish and fast, and some might chalk it up to Tommy’s dumbfounding nature, but later on in the film Franco depicts him as an domineering tyrant on set. Before a sex scene between Tommy and Lisa, directed by and starring Tommy, he walks around the set unclothed, picks at Juliette’s skin, and verbally harasses her in front of a cast and crew who look extremely uncomfortable. As played in the film, the scene feels very prescient, with the waves of sexual assault allegations engulfing Hollywood. Now that The Disaster Artist has been birthed into this particular climate, Graynor found it useful to ask, “How would that be different now? Would it be different now?”
“It’s a very difficult situation to stand up to anyone, especially when you’re in your early 20s and you’re on set and say, ‘I don’t like your behavior,’ you know,” she went on. “That’s not the story we were telling, but I’m sure that was a wild environment for Juliette and I feel lucky that this experience for me did not feel like that at all. It was important to me when we were shooting those sex scenes—even just in little ways, where he’s picking at the skin on her body and she comes back and says, ‘I’m okay, I’m a professional’—that she had a sense of autonomy and wanted to do her work and that she was okay.”
In preparation for the role, Graynor spoke with the real Juliette Danielle on the phone. “Everyone had said about her, and it’s true when I spoke to her, that she’s the sweetest, kindest woman,” Graynor said. “She was so young when she shot The Room. She had just come to L.A.” As with her costars who also played actors, which includes Josh Hutcherson, Nathan Fielder, and Zac Efron, Graynor meticulously studied scenes from The Room in order to recreate them nearly to a T (the end credits put the original scenes and the restaged ones side by side, and it’s a delight). “I studied those Room scenes probably more diligently than I studied for the SAT,” Graynor said.
The Room, in all its absurdist glory, would barely make any sense to anyone who watches it straightforwardly. Character development is practically nonexistent and the plot woefully disjointed—storylines come and go without any sort of connective tissue between the scenes, and even the framing of the film is askew due to the fact that Wiseau attempted to shoot his movie on both digital and 35mm film at the same time. The movie is a mess, and that is why audiences still love it. Graynor reasoned that the 14-year long obsession with The Room has much to do with its status as an art object. ”You can feel Tommy Wiseau’s heart and soul in this movie,” she said. “It is a piece of art. It may not be a great piece of art, but it is his true expression of himself, his feelings, his outlook, and you can feel that earnestness and soul through the movie, which I think is what keeps people locked in after all these years.”
The Disaster Artist is a love letter to this kind of uncynical dreaming. It’s also an ode to what Graynor referred to as the “beautiful story of friendship” between Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau. The truth behind their friendship and the making of The Room is indeed stranger than any fictionalized movie, and the Franco brothers worked hard to present it without too much judgment. “You need the real deal, and I think The Room is the real deal,” Graynor said. “Even if it’s a terrible real deal, it’s the real deal.”