The Disaster Artist opened this past weekend to rave reviews thanks to its lighthearted but sneakily resonant telling of the bizarre, contentious, ultimately edifying friendship between Hollywood babyface Greg Sestero and unknown origin Red Bull gargoyle Tommy Wiseau. The hook was that theirs is a friendship forged largely in the fires of a famously strange cult movie. The Disaster Artist depicts the successful completion of that film — The Room, which stars and was written and directed by Wiseau — as a triumph of the artist, however strange, over adversity, mainly in the form of his own strangeness.
The first public screening of The Room provides the climax of The Disaster Artist, as recently described in The New York Times: “The audience is puzzled, then horrified, then delighted, and right before our eyes Tommy (James Franco) has to perform a tricky bit of emotional jujitsu, jettisoning his delusions and accepting that if the public loves his film, it’s only because it is so terrible.”
Of course, that kind of “emotional jujitsu” is easier when you’re the “star” of the movie like Wiseau — and when you’re seeing a piece of the estimated $20,000 – $25,000 the film still generates every month. It’s a little, well, let’s say different, when you took an acting job on a lark when you were 21 assuming no one would see it, baring your soul (and your body) in the part of a manipulative she-devil, only to end up becoming a quasi-celebrity based on the weirdest few weeks of your life, where one of your trademarks is a weirdly twitching neck muscle (or worse).
That’s closer to Juliette Danielle’s story, after playing Lisa of “you’re tearing me apart, Lisa” fame. She had the toughest job and gave the most of herself only to bear most of the most negative aspects of becoming an object of cult fascination. It would’ve been hard for some of The Room‘s inherent misogyny (Lisa is played as the ultimate harlot) not to have rubbed off the audience, even one watching it ironically.
Still, 15 or so years later Danielle is sanguine about it all, a consummate good sport, who, to an impressive extent, has managed to not let a few assholes poison her view of cult fandom (or humanity) as a whole. She’s an example for us all. Her only request in talking to me via email was to not write it as a “poor me kind of a thing.”
Done and done (I hope).
Tell me about what was happening in your life before you started shooting The Room.
I moved to LA in summer of 2001. I decided to start acting on something of a whim… something like “I’m here, why not?” My family moved to California from Sugar Land, Texas together. My mom, sister and I came out by ourselves. I had just finished my second year of college in Dubuque, Iowa (long story) and decided to go along with them. My sister was 10 at the time. I was 20. Can you imagine? Turning 21 in LA? So I was probably drinking and partying while holding down a full-time job and acting in my spare time. I was taking acting classes.
I’ve read Greg’s account of some of the bizarre auditions for The Room. What was your audition like?
Our auditions were unusual for film, but more appropriate for theater. There was a lot of improv. And although the ice cream eating scene in the movie wasn’t quite right… it did get the point across. Tommy would give us direction like, “You just won a million dollars. Go.”
What were the cast rumors about Tommy? There had to be some.
We didn’t know a lot about Tommy. We knew he liked Red Bull. He brought it in by the case.
Rumors? I think the most annoying thing consistently for the cast was having to be there every day whether we were shooting or not. That didn’t really affect me because I’m in most of the scenes.
What was your most bizarre day of shooting?
This is so hard! There are so many stories! One day without warning, Tommy brought in an acting coach. She was very sweet. But the most bizarre part was that we were shooting a phone scene between me and Greg. I don’t recall her coming back for any other days.
One of the hardest scenes for me to shoot was the roof scene. Tommy would tell me to act hysterical and be manipulative. The lines where I kept questioning Denny were so hard to deliver. I mean, “What kind of money?” How do you even deliver that line? I still don’t know. One day I was trying to push Tommy for more help on my character. Why is Lisa this way? I’ll never forget what he said to me one day, “That’s the twist.”
I feel like this shoot must’ve been intensely traumatic for you. Do you think of it that way?
The shoot had its moments. But I would say that the barrage of negative attention was by far the most traumatic thing for me. And it just kept coming.
Has the cult phenomenon aspect of The Room been overall positive or negative for you? It seems like it would be weird to have people obsessed with your weirdest gig as a 20-something.
It’s been a very negative part of my life. It’s something that forced me to hide, a practice I may have to take up again soon with all the new attention. Now don’t get me wrong, the fans who have been around for years? I LOVE THEM. They are, generally speaking, polite, kind, and they have allowed me to grow as a person in their eyes. I have the hardest time with brand new viewers who feel the need to find me on social media and spout the first thing that pops into their head. That’s generally not a good experience for me.
Oh God, what kind of stuff do they say to you? And… why the hell would someone do that?
I think they’re just excited and it doesn’t register that they’re actually reaching out and connecting with another human. Some just want to quote a line, which is fine unless it’s posted under one of my personal, serious, and heartfelt YouTube videos. Others just want to tweet me to tell me they’ve seen my boobs. Even some think they are being complimentary, but if you’re commenting about my body or my “level of hotness” in any way… it’s actually pretty invasive to my day-to-day life and feelings.
Is watching it at all like having to relive a traumatic experience and then have people make light of it?
I wasn’t sure what I would think of The Disaster Artist. It was surreal sitting in the theater watching it. But you know? I’m happy that I have something now I can actually WATCH. It’s also nice to be able to direct all of my friends and family — who have been forbidden to watch The Room — to a film they can actually watch and gain understanding. The Disaster Artist movie is a bit of a therapeutic experience for me.
Do you still talk to anyone else in the cast or crew?
By far, I’ve had the most contact with Kyle Vogt, who played Peter [pictured above, with Danielle on the right and Robyn Paris, who played Michelle, on the left], but I keep in contact with just about everybody. We had a fun moment on the set of “The Room Actors Where Are They Now?” We all sat down during lunch and reminisced about our days on the set. I wish there were more pictures. I only had a disposable camera back then! We didn’t have camera phones.
What have you been up to since The Room and how has it affected your career? Are you tired of being asked “Where are they now” type questions?
I honestly have no idea how it affected my career because I always let it affect ME so much. It felt wrong to embrace The Room and try and get gigs because of it, and it also felt wrong to completely ignore it because I felt like I was “missing out on an opportunity.” It sure hurt my confidence early on. I had no idea I was fat until the audience told me. I’m at peace with my body now, but that took me a long time.
How did that work exactly? Did they just yell it at the screen or something?
I made the mistake of going to a screening after it had gotten some momentum. I also (repeatedly) made the mistake of reading internet comments; those are just brutal. Then there are mainstream things like Rifftrax, who referred to me as a “bloated corpse of Brittney Spears.”
Where am I now? I’m happily living the most normal life I can in Texas. I still plan to act from time to time, on my terms. I just shot on the set of Texas Cotton with George Hardy a few weeks ago and I had a blast doing it! And the question where are they now can be answered in a bizarre way on our mockumentary that’s now up on Funny or Die!
Did you read The Disaster Artist? Was there anything you think Greg missed or underplayed, or any glaring omissions?
I read the book, and I think Greg did an amazing job. He has all the old behind-the-scenes footage (days and days of it) and he hit the nail on the head. He did leave a few things out from my story, and I think he did that as a kindness. One day, I will tell my side of the story.
Did Ari Graynor [who plays Juliette in The Disaster Artist] come to you for any advice? What did you tell her about playing you? Did that involve delving into any unresolved feelings?
Ari and I spoke before she shot. She is amazing. I remember sharing with her the utter humiliation I felt the night of the screening, watching it for the first time. I was very pleased with her performance, and I really appreciate them picking such a beautiful actress to play me.
Would you have played yourself if they’d asked? Would you rather it had been you?
Not in a million years. A bit part would have been fun though.