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Gregarious and Kind, Dark and Mysterious: Greg Sestero on THE ROOM

Gregarious and Kind, Dark and Mysterious: Greg Sestero on THE ROOM


There’s no
way to talk about The Room without talking
about irony. The theater 2003 release of the movie —funded mysteriously by its
writer/director/self-proclaimed vampire Tommy Wiseau—failed to outlast the
Hollywood billboard Wiseau purchased to advertise it. Given that The Room was considered cinematic
anti-matter, a piece of cinema so illogically conceived that Scott Foundas of Variety said it “
prompts most of its viewers to ask for their
money back…before even 30 minutes have passed,” that was no surprise. What was a surprise was how The
Room
rediscovered life in the late aughts as a new-millennium Rocky Horror. Prime ironists like David
Wain, David Cross and Patton Oswalt
saluted the splendor
of its awfulness
. Theaters began holding raucous midnight showings
packed with scene-quoting devotees who threw platsic silverware at the screen
and chanted its creators name wildly throughout the credits, proving that the
nation’s complex relationship to irony was—almost a decade after its proclaimed
cutural death—a pretty resilient thing.

Which makes
it all the more remarkable that The
Disaster Artist
, cast member Greg Sestero’s memoir about his experience
making The Room and living with its
aftermath, is a work of shocking sincerity. Written with an assist from
journalist/Room enthusiast Tom Bissell,
Sestero’s smart, wicked, yet (somehow) moving book proves sneakily ambitious. Yes,
it chronicles the making of the worst movie ever, and how Sestero was
reluctantly cast as Mark, the traitorous best friend of the film’s hero. But it’s
also a tale of Sestero’s peculiar, enduring friendship with Wiseau, a ruthless
tell-all, a fluid critique on the nature of mass enthusiasm, and a work of
invesitigative journalism, positing what might be the closest anyone’s gotten
to the slippery origins of The Room’s
creator.

I talked
with Sestero about the making of “the making of The Room,” the legacy of irony, what he (and the film) owes to
Anthony Minghella, and how he forced himself to say one
of the worst lines of dialogue in cinema history
.

Mike Scalise: You mentioned you’d been working on The Disaster Artist for four years. What
made you stick with it?

Greg Sestero: I really
felt strongly about the material. The stories about my experience were etched
in my memory. I told them to several people over the years, and they thought it
was such a unique and fascinating story. Then, in 2008, I got a call from Clark
Collis at Entertainment Weekly, who
had just experienced the movie and wanted to write an article about it. Once that article
ran in late 2008, The Room completely
took off. Needless to say, I was shocked. So I started to piece together how I wanted
to tell my story. I met Tom Bissell, who
wrote an incredible piece about the movie in Harper’s around that time, and we instantly clicked. We
came up with a narrative to tell about both the making of The Room and my unlikely friendship with Tommy.

MS: Part of your goal seemed to be to
clear the air about the nature of your involvement with The Room, and how important your previous friendship with Tommy
[Wiseau] was to that movie’s existence.

GS: The only
reason I ever ended up in the movie was to help him make it. Obviously when
you’re in your early twenties, you don’t think about your decisions and their
long term effects [laughs]. I decided
to take an acting class in San Francisco and ended up meeting this eccentric person
no one really gave a chance to, mostly because of his vampirish exterior and his
awkward social skills. But maybe because of both of us coming from a European
background, I could see something was interesting there. I’ve always been
fascinated by characters, and part of me wanted to help him at least accomplish
something he’d always wanted to do. But then there were times on set where he
would sabotage everything, yelling at people who were trying to help him
finally realize this goal of being a “movie star” or make this movie he’s
always wanted.

That’s part
of what got me through, I think: helping him complete this passion project. A
lot of the movie is about friendship, which is kind of weird [laughs]. In the
original script, everybody’s best friends. Michelle and Lisa are best friends,
Peter and Johnny are best friends. Its really kind of a fascinating study about
the life Tommy wanted to have.

MS: In the book you don’t shy away from
the many ways in which The Room was a
complete mess, from the script to the casting, filming, and editing. Those are
the funniest parts of the book, but you still remain so generous with regards
to your depiction of Tommy. How difficult was it to maintain that balance when
you wrote it?

GS: I know that
many of the book’s readers will have never seen the movie. So the only way to
do it was to be genuine and say, “this is really how it was” rather than
judging it. And to honor both sides of Tommy. The gregarious and kind coupled
with the dark and mysterious.

MS: Which is an acting credo as
well—don’t judge your character.

GS: I felt like
if I glamorized it, or protected it, or made it something that it wasn’t, that
wouldn’t be the right experience for people dying to find out what really
happened and people who are following the story.

MS: Like in that insane scene in the
book in which Tommy forced the cast to be silent for five straight minutes
(“for America”) while prepping for a day of shooting…

GS: Tommy’s
always got to do everything to the extreme—not ten seconds of silence, but five
minutes. Let’s not shoot with one camera, let’s shoot with two.

MS: Did you earn any sympathy for Tommy
when you tried with the book to add order to all the chaos?

GS: Absolutely.
I realized how hard it is to get something off the ground, and to get someone
to believe in what you’re trying to do, and for you, yourself, to take that
vision of what you want and make something that resembles it.

MS: I get two kinds of responses when I
bring up The Room: one is from the
type who I imagine shows up to the screenings, who see something valuable in
it, ironic or not. But there’s also the kind of person that responds to the
idea of The Room as a vanity
project—that Tommy’s an unchecked narcissist, out just to self-promote. But the
book makes the case that The Room
came from a far more complicated place.

GS: It
definitely does. Tommy had several motivations. One, I think, was to feel
understood. To feel accepted. No one was wiling to hire Tommy as an actor, so
he figured, “I will do it myself.”  It
was therapeutic for him to explore the ways in which he didn’t fit in, or to
explore aspects of human nature that he had a vendetta towards. We’ve all had
someone break our hearts, or have been fired from a job, or have been cheated.
For him, I think it was a way to show everyone he was mainstream.

One review called
it a vanity project gone horribly wrong, and there definitely is some truth in
that. But I think he made it with sincerity, and that’s what people respond to.
 Watching someone really put himself out
there, even if it’s an inept attempt.

MS: And as you detail in the book, Tommy
went to a really dark place during
the months he was writing it.

GS: I think in
some ways, he was trying to survive himself, tearing apart his psyche in a way
that he couldn’t even see. I don’t think it was to get fame, or girls, he was
just coming out of this dark place, and needed to feel accepted.

MS: You start each chapter with an
epilogue from either Billy Wilder’s Sunset
Boulevard
, or Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley. What do you think those films to say to
the experience of filming The Room,
watching The Room, watching people
watch The Room

GS: Both films
deal with not only delusion, but—like I said—wanting to be accepted. Norma
Desmond sees herself as someone meant to be a star, and Joe Gillis’ tries to
guide her, and protect that delusion. Poor guy. So much of that movie paired up
with The Room in strange ways, all
the way down to where The Room premiered, which was at Schwab’s Pharmacy, where
Joe Gillis goes to get work.

With Tom Ripley,
again, it’s a character who wants to feel like he’s respected and important.
And he sees in Dickie Greenleaf a guy who he thinks has all that and pursues a
friendship. Tommy, I think, saw me as this all-American kid who made him feel
like he belonged.

MS: You talked a bit about how you
wanted to bring The Room to a new
audience, but you also debunk many of the myths that persist among the film’s
rabid, midnight-screening-attending, spoon-carrying fanbase.

GS: One of the
things I did was consult with some of the biggest Room fans out there to make sure they were getting what they
wanted. My goal was to give them correct information and make the movie a
deeper, richer experience. Those people are the original fans, and have seen
the movie so many times, so I took their feedback.

MS: I think they’ll be happy with the
long, anguished passages that depict the inner struggle you endured in order to
say the line “leave your stupid comments in your pocket.”

GS: That was a
definite challenge to say that line with a serious face. When people watch this
movie, they probably see a bunch of young actors who thought this movie would
be their big break. That’s obviously not the case, but I I’ve done the same
thing with certain movies. You wonder what actors were thinking when they had
to say certain lines in a movie.  They
almost become a figment of your imagination. If you remember this movie called Private Resort, which came out in 1985. .
.

MS: Oh, I remember Private Resort.

GS: I’d watch
it as a kid and make fun of the characters, and they weren’t real to me: just
these people on screen. Obviously with The
Room
, I wasn’t on set thinking “I’m going to be Daniel Day Lewis” playing
Mark, but explaining how I even got involved in the movie shows how we all get
stuck in situations as actors—and this one ended up being one of the craziest.
Working on this movie, saying that dialogue, you’re almost surviving rather than acting. Saying that line—you just had to “get
it out” rather than “say it right.”

MS: Despite the quality of the end
product, through your involvement with The
Room
you’ve actually gotten many opportunities to try your had at a ton of
different roles. You were a model before you were an actor. You acted in The
Room, but you were also a crew member. Now you’re an author. What do you want
to focus on next?

GS: In the end,
I’m grateful for the experience. I’m looking forward to going in a different
direction and do creative projects I believe in and am passionate about. 

Mike Scalise’s essays and
articles have appeared or are forthcoming in
Agni, The Paris Review, PopMatters, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

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