Sestero Scalise promo

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.