I blame the fact that I’m a really, really good friend. And though I haven’t acted in over a decade the stage just calls to me. I agreed to be in a stage play adaptation of The Room, directed by the legend (in his own mind) Tommy Wiseau. It was one of the worst days ever. It’s a story I’ve been dining out on since 2011.
The Room is a movie best viewed and experienced unexplained, but I’ll give a bit of background for the uninitiated. Tommy Wiseau, a man of indeterminate age and birthplace, made a movie that he intended as a drama akin to a Marlon Brando film.
The film is nonsensical and just a massive mess. For years he paid to have the film screened at a movie theatre in Los Angeles and a giant billboard advertising the film (mainly featuring his face) looming over the heart of Hollywood. How he afforded either of those things is also cagey; the most that’d publically known is he was an importer/exporter in San Francisco (a fact stated in the book The Disaster Artist).
His film haunted Hollywood as a giant question mark until a group of famous comedians such as Patton Oswald, David Cross, Jonah Hill, Kristen Bell, and many others dubbed it a hilarious comedy and would attend multiple screenings. The film slowly morphed into a cult hit, drawing crowds around the country and promoted audience engagement a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Tommy and his very patient friend and fellow actor Greg Sestero traveled to screenings to introduce the film. Sometimes Tommy claims he intended it to be a comedy all along. The film doesn’t really support the claim because it does not have a strong hold on storytelling, whether drama or comedy. Greg Sestero (along with Tom Bissell) wrote an account of his connection to Tommy and their time working on The Room called The Disaster Artist that has a perfect grasp on the comedy of errors that surround the making of the film. James Franco directed and is starring (as Tommy himself) in the film adaptation of book. No matter my feelings about Franco (which could fill a whole other article), he has far more tolerance than I do for Wiseau. After spending seven hours with him I literally fled the room.
But let’s start at the beginning of my tale of woe. The year was 2011, The Room was in theatres for eight years by that point and had morphed into a midnight cult must-see. My friend Adrian followed Wiseau to a bunch of these screenings with a camera to potentially make a documentary about the weird following around this critically panned film. He texted me asking if I’d like to be in a staged reading of the film script. By that point in time, the script wasn’t released for publication. Tommy gave his blessing to Adrian. The reading would be done before the screening of the film at the AFI Silver Spring. Tommy insisted on playing himself and directing the reading. There was also the possibility that Greg Sestero would make it in time to be in the reading as well.
I’d seen the movie once at that point and thought it would be a fun time. I was a theatre major at Northwestern and gave up acting after graduation in favor of writing. I thought this would be a nice return to the stage.
I arrived at AFI Silver Spring around 8 a.m. Tommy was demanding we get an early start. We waited an hour for him to arrive. He was exactly what I expected: sunglasses indoors, flowing black hair, and a loud studded belt holding up too tight jeans. What I didn’t expect is that in his mysterious mind he believed we were doing a full performance complete with an added song and dance number. With one day’s rehearsal.
I didn’t know much about Tommy before that day. Maybe if I knew more about him I would have knew what to expect, but I also think that even if you’ve seen the film, you almost can’t believe a person like him exists: Someone so completely not in on the joke while simultaneously believing they have complete creative vision and control. The Disaster Artist book hadn’t yet been released so I hadn’t read it yet, obviously. Like I said, I’d seen the movie and that was almost it, I’d met him briefly once before. That screening I saw was one at E Street with him in attendance. When I met him previously at that show, he was polite and made some awkward joke about football. That night he just seemed to me almost a bit nervous, which made the ridiculous way he dressed for his age, his bizarre accent, and his incredible overacting almost charming. He just seemed like an odd man who loved movies but didn’t understand them and was now finding a weird sort of fame that he hadn’t created and also didn’t quite understand.
Tommy, aside from the way he looked (which doesn’t seem to ever change), of the play rehearsal day was a different story. He was arrogant right off the bat: name dropping actors he’d never met (Fred Astaire, James Dean) and treating the staff of the theatre and my friend Adrian like his personal assistants. He also told us he’d give us acting lessons that day before he cast us. At that moment I was devastated I’d spent four years at a public university studying theatre. I could have just skipped all that because I was about to get a real acting tutorial from Tommy Wiseau. If only I’d known I could have saved so much time and money. He earnestly and humbly told me as much himself. His lesson consisted mostly of showing us how to stand on the stage and he would give us line readings.
Line readings are a practice mostly frowned upon in acting because it’s where a director will tell an actor exactly how they’d like the line said by reading the line themselves and asking it to be repeated verbatim. Tommy did this for every single line in the script. If this is what he did during The Room it explains the acting, the cast was just parroting Tommy.
He asked the whole cast about our theatre backgrounds, if any, and I could tell he was impressed by my credentials, but also seemed to use them against me. He would make me enter a room over and over again, yelling at me that I wasn’t walking exactly how he wanted. We hadn’t even been cast yet; we were just doing an acting exercise. My patience for this man was already being tested.
After an hour or two of being yelled at and physically moved around the stage by him like a chess piece (but with less strategy, so not even a checker) it was time for casting. He indiscriminately picked roles for the men to play and the few women that were there he had us each hold up a red dress he had and chose one of us to play the love interest Lisa.
I was cast as Lisa’s nagging, self-centered mother Claudette. I wasn’t particularly offended because I’ve been cast in character actor roles before, also I was thrilled because it was looking like Tommy was going to demand a kissing scene out of whoever played Lisa. Never have I wanted to play the leading lady less. Even though I wasn’t his starlet, he still wouldn’t stop nitpicking everything I did or said; I believe at one point he murmured that he didn’t like the look on my face.
Cut to seven hours later: We’d barely made it through ten minutes of the actual script, Tommy began to choreograph the dance number (mostly consisting of a kick line), and I knew this was possibly one of the most embarrassing endeavors I could have gotten involved with.
Finally, Adrian pushed Tommy into giving us a dinner break. I weighed my options. I didn’t want to disappoint my friend, but this had gone beyond funny into exhausting and creepy and offensive and humiliating. I’m all for making fun of myself but this was going to be performed in front of an audience of at least 100 people. It was also going to be recorded and put on the Internet. I knew well enough back then that the Internet is forever. I wasn’t interested in looking like a fool and, if I played it the way Tommy wanted, wasn’t going to be allowed to be in on the joke. No wonder the actress who played Lisa never does public appearances.
During the brief break I pulled Adrian aside just to make sure he was OK with me bailing out. I’m someone who never quits things midstream; I finish every book I read, even if I hate it after the first five pages. I barely had to speak the words “I gotta quit” before he gave me a knowing nod and thanked me for my patience. I bolted out of that theatre as quickly as I could.
A minute later I get a call from Adrian. I could immediately tell from the flat tone of his voice the call was coerced by Tommy. My suspicion was confirmed when I heard Tommy ranting in the background about professionalism and disappointment and Sharon Stone.
“I’m sorry I can’t stay, Adrian,” I say politely. “Break a leg.”
I went to the AFI Silver the next night with my boyfriend (now my husband). He’s someone who gets very nervous around public speaking, even if he’s not the one doing the talking. He was thrilled to hear I’d backed out. He and his friends had seen The Room many more times than I had and he sensed that Tommy was not going to be the most productive collaborator.
I questioned whether I wanted to even go to the screening, but decided that a bunch of my friends were already going and most importantly we’d already bought the tickets; my cheapskate streak won out over my anxiety over being seen as a quitter. I was terrified Tommy would see me and publicly chastise me, but when Tommy saw me he looked right through me; I’m just not Sharon Stone.
After a full day of ‘working’ with Tommy, it appears he sees his world around him only how he wants it to be. If people are laughing at his work — it’s a comedy. The Room makes money now instead of him personally funding screenings, so he’s a success. He may look like a 80s hair band reject clad in Hot Topic garb, but he sees himself as a viable leading man. He directed a film so that makes him a repeated director. In an interview about the film The Disaster Artist all he seems interested in is discussing the cameo he makes, not as himself but as an actor in a FILM. It’s Tommy’s world, we’re just living in it, waiting with baited breath to see what he does next.
The performance was as humiliating as I expected, full of awkward pauses, unexplained jumps in the script, and extensive scene chewing by Tommy. I give major credit to all the actors that stuck with him, especially when I found out from Adrian after the show that they’d stayed well into the night and the next day putting up with Tommy’s directorial whims. We stayed for the film after the play and had a great time. There’s comfort in watching a film where spoons are consistently thrown at the screen and the damage to the performers has already been done.