Since making her debut on The Sopranos in 2001 as Caitlin Rucker (college roomie of Meadow Soprano), Ari Graynor has worked steadily in a succession of movies and TV shows, often specializing in showing off her comic skills in films like Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Lucky, What’s Your Number?, For A Good Time Call… and Celeste and Jesse Forever. But she made the jump this past year to more serious fare with a lead role in the Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here, about stand-up comics looking to make it on the Los Angeles scene during the 1970s, and now she’s got a featured role in one of the most buzzing movies of the winter season, The Disaster Artist.
The Disaster Artist is based on the true story of the production of The Room, widely considered one of the worst pictures ever made. James Franco (who also directed) stars as Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic oddball who wrote, directed and starred in The Room, with his brother Dave Franco as the one actor who believed in Wiseau, Greg Sestero. Graynor stars as Juliette Danielle, the real-life actress who auditioned for the movie, landed the female lead, and soon found out that the shoot wasn’t exactly what she bargained for.
Like everyone in The Disaster Artist, Graynor’s character is pulled into Wiseau’s orbit with a mixture of humor, curiosity and resignation: nobody involved in The Room really knew at the outset just how weird an experience it would be. Graynor pulls off the balancing act beautifully, playing both Juliette and Lisa, the character Juliette played, in recreated scenes from The Room itself. We spoke with Graynor about all this recently, and also touched on the second season of I’m Dying Up Here and her next big film role in Jason Reitman’s upcoming The Front Runner, in which she plays the political journalist Ann Devroy who was at the heart of the scandal that took down presidential contender Gary Hart in 1988.
Den of Geek: What was your experience of The Room or Tommy Wiseau before kind of coming on to this project?
Ari Graynor: I mean I’d heard about The Room for years. Just sort of in passing. People that I had worked with sort of talking about. But I never really understood what it was. The Room is a very hard thing to explain to someone who has no idea what you’re talking about. So I heard about it, but I’d never seen it. Maybe I had seen a couple bits online. But it wasn’t until James reached out to me about The Disaster Artist and said, “Do you know The Room? There’s this book, The Disaster Artist, we’re going to make a movie, I think you would be a great Lisa, go watch the movie, get the book, let’s talk.”
And I knew that people loved it. I always had had a kind of curiosity about it. But it’s a hard thing to track down unless you really make an effort to find it, which I think is part of the appeal, making it sort of feel like a secret. And I got a copy of the movie and then I watched it for the first time alone in my apartment, which is not the ideal viewing experience. I was going through my phone trying to find all the people that I knew that had seen it so I could text them, saying “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is really happening, this movie is insane.” So I was already watching it through the potential eyes of being a part of the making of this story. And wanted to be a part immediately.
Is the real Juliette around and did you track her down?
Yeah, I spoke with her a little bit before we started shooting. She is the kindest, sweetest, really lovely, wonderful person. She now I think is living in Texas. I think unlike Greg and Tommy, who are obviously still very focused on The Room, Juliette has since moved away and sort of created a whole other life that has moved pretty far away from this. She sells paintings of spoons or something, and will sometimes go to the screenings. So I think she’s supportive of what it’s all become but has moved past it herself.
Did you ever have that moment early in your career where you wonder, “Should I keep doing this? Should I go home? Should I give it up?” Does everyone have that kind of moment where you wonder if it’s going to work out?
Well I think to an extent you wonder that all the time. I mean I started acting when I was seven and in some ways it’s…I don’t want to say it’s never occurred to me to not do it because there have been many times along the way when things are not going well that you think maybe this isn’t going to happen. Maybe not everyone gets their dreams. Maybe this is far as I could take it and that’s that and maybe I’ll never work again. I mean I think every actor, when a job ends, thinks there’s a chance that they may never work again. That’s sort of a necessary evil of the business, and maybe in some sick way is part of the engine that keeps you going. There’s some thrill in the unknown and the terror.
Being a creative person you have to constantly put your heart in things and believe in them, and I don’t think anyone ever sets out to make anything that’s bad. Even the worst things. Like The Room. Everyone is approaching it with a hope that it could be great. And I think we fall in to that every time you go to work. You want to believe it’s going to be something good and something you can be proud of. A lot of times things do not turn out the way you think they’re going to turn out. Maybe not as drastically as The Room, but I think something every artist confronts is the balance between their dreams and their expectations and the potential disappointment.
Did you ever have a guilty pleasure bad movie that you like to watch?
Well I just see them as good movies. I don’t know if they’re bad movies, but they were good to me at the time. But I was thinking about She’s Out of Control, with Tony Danza, do you remember that movie? I loved that one, and looking back on it now it feels like not a great movie. I also love this movie, Hello Again, with Shelley Long. She chokes on a chicken bone and then comes back to life. Her sister Zelda does a spell and she comes back. I loved that movie. But they were not potentially as bad as The Room.
Do you remember the first time James came on set as Tommy? Did he stay in character when he wasn’t directing?
I think basically the entire time that I worked on The Disaster Artist, I only saw him as Tommy. Because of those prosthetics and the wig and all of that, he would be first in and then last out. So maybe at the end of the day I’d catch a piece of James Franco’s face, which then was so weird to look at him as James Franco because I was so accustomed to him as Tommy.
The first thing that I shot was me and James and Josh Hutcherson recreating the scene in The Room where we’re having the pillow fight on the bed. We really just dove right in on that first day. It was just so funny because James would keep that Tommy voice and that whole look, which is so strong. But it’s not like he was quote unquote method acting, where you had to refer to him as Tommy or something. But it was the nature of how we were shooting it — we’re doing these big scenes about the making of this movie and he’s playing director and actor and is also director and actor for real. The cameras would be running around and sometimes you’d hear him say, like, “Okay, let’s go again, let’s do it faster.” And I’d just stop for a second and say, “Is that James or is it Tommy?” And then you’d just see him crack a James smile and say, “No, it’s James.”
How rewarding was that first season of I’m Dying Up Here for you?
That was a real dream come true. I had been wanting and aching to do different kind of work for a long time. Something that felt more expressive and real. I love doing broader comedy stuff, but for a while I felt like I was playing sort of similar kinds of roles, and really feeling like there was all of this other life inside that I wanted to have a chance to get out and explore and play a different kind of character. It was just amazing to work on that show with all of those people, the most extraordinary cast, and a story that I really believed in. Cassie’s trajectory felt extremely close to home and close to my own sort of experiences, in symbolic ways and literal ways. I’m just so happy that they’re giving us a second season, I’m so excited to go back.
Any inkling of what they’re planning?
We start shooting in January. I think it’s going to be sort of a little bit lighter and sexier and looking at us almost like the American dream. Some people get success and money. I think someone described it as sort of pouring gasoline on it and having it sort of burn up a notch. But the stuff that I’ve heard is really exciting.
In my house we’ve been watching I’m Dying Up Here, which is LA in the ’70s, and then we’ve also been watching The Deuce, which is New York in the ’70s. Why do you think we have this fascination with that era?
It’s easy for me to look at it with a kind of nostalgia because I wasn’t there. But I think there was an energy, there was a freedom, there was this feeling of being at a precipice. So much was new, so much was changing post-Vietnam. And everything was going on with music and culture. There was a pulse there that felt vital, that anything was possible. There was a lot of fight against things, people were really elbowing their way in the world. And I think it was gritty, it was tough, but there was a freedom. And I think we’re just living in a very different time now.
Everyone nowadays is watching each other and watching themselves. There’s a constant feedback loop of doing something, recording it, tweeting about it, commenting on it, writing about it, liking it, not liking it, taking a picture of yourself. There was a presence in that experience then that is different from right now, for better or worse.
We’re also going to see you in The Front Runner next year.
Yes, I play Ann Devroy who at the time was the political editor of the Washington Post in 1987. She was a very big facilitator — at least and especially in our film — of the conversation that led to the reporters asking certain questions and talking amongst themselves as journalists of how to handle this sea change in journalism. Jason Reitman was saying that the film is ultimately sort of about the cross section of when journalism became sort of gossip journalism and politicians’ personal lives became journalistic fodder. And after Woodward and Bernstein, journalists were also becoming stars in their own right. And so it was this moment of a great change between journalism and politics. And what I love about the movie is it doesn’t take a side on any of the stuff, it just sort of asks all these really interesting questions about kind of how we got to where we are and where it all started.
Your life for the next little while will be all about I’m Dying Up Here, right?
Yeah, that’ll be the next five months, and then hopefully there’ll be another big gig after that.
The Disaster Artist is out now and continues to expand to more theaters around the country.