Since it was released in 2003, “The Room” has baffled audiences with its delightful ineptitude, gaining a reputation as the worst film ever made. In the decade since its premiere, the film has amassed a devoted cult of fans who try to parse all its secrets, but one question looms large: “Who is Tommy Wiseau?”
Wiseau, the enigmatic auteur behind "The Room," is often referred to as “the Orson Welles of bad directors,” but everything about him is a mystery. Wiseau insists that he’s American, claiming to be from New Orleans, yet he speaks with an indecipherable drawl that suggests Russia by way of France. No one knows his age, and Wiseau likes to keep it that way. So does Greg Sestero.
Sestero, who plays Mark in the film and acted as Wiseau's right-hand man, has written a book about his experience working on “The Room.” “The Disaster Artist” isn’t just an inside look at a cinematic disaster. The book doubles as a commentary on the desperate underbelly of L.A., a harrowing portrait of two unlikely friends doing whatever it takes to make it. I sat down with Greg Sestero, a handsome blond who looks like a soap opera actor, during the Chicago leg of his book tour.
To write “The Disaster Artist,” Sestero watched “My Best Fiend,” which chronicled the tortured relationship between German director Werner Herzog and his muse, Klaus Kinski. Between making art, the pair often plotted to kill each other. When Kinski tried to leave the set, Herzog threatened to shoot him.
“The Disaster Artist” similarly chronicles the ups and downs of Sestero's relationship with Wiseau after the two met in a San Francisco acting class. Sestero saw Tommy Wiseau act out the famous scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” where Stanley shouts to the rafters for Stella. Sestero wrote that his classmates began to howl with laughter: “Everyone in that basement studio knew they had just witnessed one of the most beautifully, chaotically wrong performances they would ever see.”
However, Sestero felt “resuscitated,” wanting to “learn some of his fearlessness.” “[Tommy Wiseau] was simply magically uninhibited,” Sestero said. “The rest of us were toying with train sets and he was lighting the lab on fire.”
That began Sestero’s lifelong fascination with Wiseau, who Sestero claims “made [him] feel like anything was possible.” “There’s something about Tommy that makes you feel alive when you’re experiencing the good aspects of his personality,” Sestero told me. “I’d never met anybody quite like that.”
The two struck up a fast friendship, despite being total opposites in every way. Sestero compares Tommy Wiseau to “one of the anonymous, Uzi-hugging goons who appeared for two seconds in a Jean-Claude Van Damme film before getting kicked off a catwalk.” “We look more like Marvel Comics nemeses than people who would be friends. If I met Tommy on the street today, there’s no way I’d speak to him,” Sestero said. “Somebody recently saw the movie and said, ‘There’s no way in hell these two guys would be friends in real life,’ and it’s oddly what [‘The Room’] was inspired out of.”
According to Greg Sestero, the first draft of “The Room” was written while the two were roommates in L.A. Wiseau offered Sestero a place to stay in his apartment, and the young, struggling actor couldn’t turn the offer down. Sestero claimed that Wiseau provided the encouragement he was lacking from his family: “Emotionally, it was like I was going to make it as an actor because I finally had somebody that believed in me.”
In a way, Wiseau and Sestero completed each other -- because each had what the other was lacking. Greg Sestero had the youth Tommy Wiseau craved, and Wiseau gave him the financial means to land his big break.
In the book, Sestero compares the situation to “Sunset Boulevard,” a cautionary tragedy about the ways we use each other to get ahead. “Norma Desmond wanted fame -- she wanted to be a star,” Sestero said of the film’s famous character, an aging film actress who longs for the spotlight again. “Norma Desmond had nothing left in her soul, but Tommy was sincere in a very profound way. That’s what Norma Desmond was lacking. With Norma Desmond, it was about survival.”
However, their method of survival came with a cost when Greg Sestero saw another side of his roommate. Sestero started to get callbacks for auditions (“basic beginner stuff”), and encouraged by his friend’s success, Wiseau had been sending out his head shots to everyone in town -- with no results. Wiseau quickly became distant and jealous. “I panicked when I started to see the different side of Tommy,” Sestero said. “Tommy created this new reality that I didn’t want to let go of.”
Sestero’s mother warned him that there was something wrong with Tommy. Sestero found this out the hard way when Wiseau drove Sestero out to the middle of nowhere and made him get out of the car, after telling him to find somewhere else to live. Wiseau quickly rescinded his threat, making him get back in the car.
“At that age, you hate to admit that your parents are right, but I had to admit to myself that my mom maybe was right, and I was wrong,” Sestero confessed. At first, he said, “I saw him in the perfect light to be intrigued by and open to the experience of meeting him and getting to know him.” But now he was seeing the real thing.
A friend recommended that Sestero watch “The Talented Mr. Ripley” for some insight into his relationship with Tommy. Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, the film chronicles a friendship that leads to obsession -- and murder. Sestero saw the film as “about someone who wanted to fit in and didn’t,” a sobering reminder of how his relationship with Tommy Wiseau had spun out of control. It scared the shit out of him.
But for Wiseau, the film was a source of divine inspiration. After seeing the film with Sestero, Wiseau began writing what would become the screenplay for “The Room.” “For Tommy, it evoked this passionate drive to make a drama about what he saw in life,” Sestero told me. “It was his way of being understood. He was going to show them something so deep that they wouldn’t be able to sleep for two weeks.” I looked up from my notes and responded, “But not in the way he intended.”
Until now, Sestero has been one of the few people to read the original draft of Wiseau’s screenplay, which was changed considerably during filming to make it sound more like words people might actually say. (The original script opens with the line, “I am not a slave here, am I?”) The film deals with a love triangle between the characters of Lisa, Johnny and Mark. Mark and Johnny are "best friends," despite looking like they are from different planets, and Lisa is Johnny's "future wife," an awkward phrase that routinely pops up in the film.
I asked Sestero what he thought the film was even about. He shook his head, still dumbfounded by that question. “On my way here, I was just thinking that,” Sestero explained. “I don’t even know that it’s even a movie anymore. It’s not a movie for me.”
Fans of “The Room” will no doubt get their share of juicy details from behind the scenes of the making of the film, which Greg Sestero never wanted to be in. Wiseau reportedly raised $6 million for the film -- partially accrued by smuggling jeans into the U.S. Wiseau had already cast another actor for the role, but Wiseau insisted that only Sestero could play Mark -- as the character was based on him. The money was too good for Sestero to turn down, even though the subtext of “The Room” was unnerving.
I've long thought that if Mark is based on Sestero himself and Johnny is an idealized version of Tommy Wiseau, an innocent betrayed by a cruel world, then Lisa must be Hollywood, the dame whose attention the two are fighting over. Maybe the film was a way for Wiseau to work out his anger with his best friend, a really expensive form of therapy.
When I shared this theory with Sestero, he agreed, to an extent: The movie, he says, "was [Wiseau's] take on Hollywood rejecting him.” However, he explained that the appeal of “The Room” lies in its puzzles. “When you watch the film, you’re marveling at what he was trying to accomplish,” Sestero said. “[For fans], the film is a new experience each time they see it.”
And Sestero is right. The reason the film has gained such a wide cult following is that viewers can’t figure out how such an atrocity came to be. This is a film that introduces bizarre plot threads -- like an impromptu breast cancer diagnosis -- only to discard them a second later. When one of the actors left the shoot during filming for another gig, Wiseau simply cast another actor for the part -- without bothering to explain to the audience who the new guy was.
Sestero accepts his role in not stepping in to stop it. “I was an enabling parent,” he said. “I never contemplated walking off set. It was really entertaining and crazy to watch [Tommy Wiseau] make this movie. You had to go to set every day to see what the hell was going to happen next.”
In his friendship with Wiseau, it was the mystery that kept Greg Sestero coming back. “What’s cool about his mystery is that it’s authentic,” Sestero claimed. “He’s not trying to be mysterious. He just is. Sometimes it’s interesting. Other times it’s maddening.” Sestero paused to laugh. “There’s never been a character quite like Tommy,” he continued. “He’s something you could have never possibly imagined.”
For Sestero, this character isn’t just a madman; he’s a modern Don Quixote whose profound delusions of greatness speak to why we create art. Sestero argues that art is a quest for love. The problem is, to paraphrase Johnny in “The Room,” Wiseau’s love is blind.
In many ways, “The Disaster Artist” is Sestero’s final attempt to put together the pieces of Tommy Wiseau. In the book’s most heartbreaking passage, Sestero sketches what he thinks he knows of Wiseau’s life -- a portrait of the artist as a young man, full of myths and half-truths. Tommy Wiseau grew up in the crumbling Eastern Bloc “sometime after the death of Stalin.” Sestero claimed that “79 percent of [Wiseau’s] hometown was destroyed in World War II.” “He inherits nightmares from this ruined landscape, this ravaged country,” Sestero writes. “Very early, [Wiseau] becomes determined to do something so simple and yet so impossible: come to America.”
“With Tommy, I felt like he was robbed of a childhood,” Sestero explained. “When he met me, it made him feel young again.” Sestero explained that filmmaking has been Wiseau’s road to “eternal youthfulness,” which is why all of Johnny’s friends in "The Room" are 20 years younger than he is. It’s also why he dresses like the undead. “We all deal with change differently,” Sestero said. “For him, being a vampire offers him a veil of uniqueness. He’s cool and he’s got long hair and he’s got sunglasses. It keeps him young and fresh.”
However, Sestero prefers that some parts of Tommy Wiseau remain unexplained. This is why Sestero did not disclose Wiseau’s real name, age or country of origin. “Keeping Tommy a mystery is better,” Sestero said. “It’s fun for the audience to decide and come up with their own answers.” Greg Sestero might never figure out Tommy Wiseau, but writing "The Disaster Artist” was a way to reclaim a history -- Sestero’s own. It also helped him move on. “[The book] was therapeutic,” Sestero said. “I’m glad I went through this experience, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
But Sestero won’t be leaving “The Room” behind just yet. After his book tour wraps, Greg Sestero plans on adapting “The Disaster Artist” into a film -- with an anonymous buyer close to securing the film rights. Sestero wouldn’t identify the buyer on the record, and keeping the secret for now seems appropriate. It’s how Tommy Wiseau would have wanted it.