In The Disaster Artist—the James Franco-directed and -starring look at the making of The Room, thought to be the worst movie ever made—Ari Graynor plays Juliette Danielle, the actress who plays Lisa in The Room. It's a tricky thing to play a real person, but perhaps an even trickier thing to play a real person playing... another person? If not tricky, at the very least, it's confusing. But Graynor carries it off beautifully, bringing Juliette and Lisa to life with humor and empathy. Recently, I had the chance to talk with Graynor about her work on The Disaster Artist, how she initially thought James Franco was pranking her when he asked if she wanted the part, and what it was like making "the greatest sex scene" of her life.
How did you first hear about this project? What were your first thoughts about it?
I had just gotten a new phone, and I think there had been a couple of funny things, where people had texted me and I didn’t know who it was, and so people were sort of fooling around with me on it. And then I got this text that said, “Hey, it’s James Franco,” and I thought it was a joke—and then I realized that it wasn’t. He asked me if I knew about The Room, and he was like, “Go watch The Room, read The Disaster Artist, we’re doing a movie about it, and I think you’d be an amazing Lisa.” I had heard about The Room for years in passing, little sort of nibbles from people on set. I remember Justin Long was obsessed with it and I remember Jonah Hill talking about it. But I never really got it—it’s a hard thing when people are talking about it and riffing and going back-and-forth, and you’re like, “I don’t know... Lisa dying, what?”
And then I got a copy of The Room, and part of what’s so great about it is that you really have to go on a hunt for it. In this day and age where everything is right at your fingertips, I think it’s really, actually, satisfying and part of the appeal, that you can’t just get it immediately. And then I watched it alone in my apartment, which I do not recommend! Paul Scheer says watching The Room for the first time is like going on an ayahuasca trip—you need a community and a guide and people to take care of you.
That’s a really solid analogy.
I was clutching imaginary arms next to me and audibly just kept saying, “Oh my god, oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening,” and trying to find people on my phone to text who I knew had seen it. Because it’s such an instinctual thing to want to talk about it with people, and you want to share this hilarious, crazy, unlike-anything-you’ve-ever-seen sort of movie.
Right away I wanted to be a part of it, and I love the making of stories, and I’ve always been fascinated by any sort of journey of expression or creativity or fighting to get your voice heard, to express yourself, to make something. Those are one my favorite stories, and I think they’re really hard to tell. A creative journey is such an insular sort of experience, it’s hard to find the right way to make that accessible to other people, or exciting, and I think that’s partly why people are responding to this movie so much, because it’s a really small target to hit, and I think it just hits it perfectly. It’s so honest and earnest which I love.
The Disaster Artist is really a portrayal of the American Dream, and how The Room really is this beautiful hopeful thing, this work of art, that then doesn't turn out in any way, shape, or form what it was probably originally conceptualized as being, but still is successful on its own terms. It's really heartwarming.
I think these are the kinds of movies that used to be made a lot in the '70s and '80s, and I think they don’t get made that much anymore. And for years, you’d hear people always saying, “Why don’t they make them like they used to?” And there are lots of reasons for that, and financial structures and the rise of huge Marvel movies and the rise of teeny indie movies and the sort-of middle space getting lost, but I also think that there’s a kind of cynicism that has come up in movies a little bit more, and there’s just something unabashedly hopeful and big-hearted and earnest about this that I think, in our culture, is what everyone wants. But I think we’ve become very accustomed to playing it cool. And I just think that this film is so refreshing because it feels like the soft part of all of us that we’ve just become accustomed to covering up a little bit more.
What was it like playing someone who is a real person acting as a character? Was it a challenge not to make it mean-spirited?
I think that was just apparent right from the get-go—there was not a mean bone in that script. And James and Seth [Rogen] and both of their producers and friends—they’re like an old family, they’re the kindest guys. And so, though there was that sort of fear before I really saw anything or got involved, where I was like, “I hope this isn’t mean or making fun of anybody,” as soon as it was there, it was clear that this was a love letter to the movie and a love letter to Tommy [Wiseau] and a love letter to everyone who participated. In a way, it's a recognition that this is what we’re doing, too, which is you love something, you put your heart in something, you believe in it, and you hope people like it. We’re all sort of on the same journey.
And then, playing a real person is always interesting. I was just talking about this with Alfred Molina—we just did a movie called The Front Runner that Jason Reitman was directing in Atlanta—and I was asking him about playing real people, and where there’s the balance of honoring the real person and also honoring the story that is being told and the movie you’re making. And those things have overlap, but they are also not always exactly the same thing—it’s finding the space within the Venn diagram kind of thing.
It is a really fascinating distinction because one is a person’s whole life and the other is the art that you’re making about a specific part of their life. So how hard was it not to just be cracking up on set all the time?
Oh, I mean, we did. It was so ridiculous. It was being so serious about the silliest things, which nothing makes me laugh more than being hyper-serious about really stupid stuff. Especially when we were recreating scenes from The Room, and you realize, when you’re doing them, how unnatural and awkward they feel. Like, it feels unnatural and weird when you watch them, but then, when you’re inside of it, it doesn’t follow any natural instinct of how you talk or how you’re feeling, It’s so weird. And James with those prosthetics and the hair... It’s like when you get the giggles in class, and you have to just look away and try to think of something horrible to keep yourself serious. It was a lot of that.
Also in this film, you have a pretty awesome sex scene.
[Laughs] You mean the greatest sex scene of my life?
You can just stop doing them after that because it won’t get better. But actually, I thought that your work in that...
[Laughs] You liked my work in the sex scene?
[Laughs] What I really liked was how the moment Tommy gets pulled away and told, “You’re being awful and abusive to Lisa, and you have to stop,” you, as the actress playing Lisa, are like, “No, it’s okay. I’m fine.” It just served as a really interesting microcosm of being a rising artist and the things they'll endure for their art. It also probably says a lot of bad stuff about what it is actors will endure for their careers, but there was this facet of it that was this really beautiful love letter, I thought, to acting and believing in the importance of art, like the actress playing Lisa was okay with what was happening, because it was in the service of something greater.
That’s so lovely, that really means a lot to me. I think there’s an incredible resilience that happens, and, like you said, a commitment to a group and to collaboration. And no one ever knows... Fans of The Room can watch that, and be like, “Well, why didn’t she just leave?” But you’re there, and you know... I think it’s not to be diminished, the sense of hope and commitment and work ethic and dreams and all of those things. That really means a lot to me.
There is that question of, “Well, why did they work on it? Was it just for the money?” And possibly that was partly what it was for, but it’s also this other thing, this question of whether or not this could be someone's break, someone's entry into this world that they want to be in.
You never know how anything is going to turn out. Watching this story, it feels... maybe it feels obvious that it’s going to be a disaster, but in everything that you do, I think, as any kind of artist, there’s an element of blind belief and hope and total fear that it could be a disaster. And sometimes it’s so hard to know, and maybe it doesn’t have to be as extreme a case of, “Oh my god, this is the most terrible movie that’s ever been made,” but in order to make anything, you have to believe in it, and you have to put your heart and soul into it. And part of that is hoping and believing in the piece, that it will somehow turn out great. And I think there’s not a creative person in the world who has not been wildly disappointed in some way about how something has turned out that you thought might be great.
It’s all true, but you still believe in it in the beginning.
Because what other choice do you have?
The Disaster Artist opens in theaters on December 1.