Britney Spears in 'The Disaster Artist'? Ari Graynor reveals how she beat out pop star for breakout role

Ari Graynor in <em>The Disaster Artist</em>; she plays Juliette Danielle, who plays Lisa in the film-within-a-film <em>The Room</em>. (Photo by Justina Mintz, courtesy of A24)
Ari Graynor in The Disaster Artist; she plays Juliette Danielle, who plays Lisa in the film-within-a-film The Room. (Photo by Justina Mintz, courtesy of A24)

Two years ago, Ari Graynor received a text from James Franco asking if she was familiar with The Room, the so-bad-it’s-brilliant 2003 drama written, directed, produced, starring, and independently financed by the mysterious Tommy Wiseau. What Franco was really asking was if she’d star in his film The Disaster Artist, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of Wiseau’s cult classic. Without ever having seen The Room, Graynor agreed.

“I’d done a bunch of movies with [producer] Seth Rogen throughout the years, and James and I had worked together years ago, and I just think they’re all such special, creative, smart, funny, lovely guys,” Graynor told Yahoo Entertainment. Later, she learned that she wasn’t technically Franco’s first choice to play actress Juliette Danielle, who played Wiseau’s unfaithful girlfriend Lisa in The Room. “Well, it’s funny — they apparently went down a short road with Britney Spears, which I think is hilarious,” she said.

With all due respect to Ms. Spears, casting Graynor was one of Franco’s smartest directorial decisions. Although her role is small in comparison to those of James Franco (who plays Wiseau) and his brother Dave Franco (who plays his best-friend-turned-co-star Greg Sestero, author of the book The Disaster Artist), Graynor is the film’s secret weapon. For one thing, her performance of Lisa in The Room is so similar to the real thing, it’s uncanny. (“I’ve never studied for anything harder in my life than watching those scenes,” she admitted.) Moreover, as Juliette, Graynor imbues the film with the optimism and unwavering dedication of every Hollywood actress in history who didn’t realize her film was a flop. Those qualities were inspired by the real Juliette Danielle, whom Graynor said is now “leading a very different life, far away from the movie business.”

“She’s the kindest, sweetest, best-intentioned person,” said Graynor, who talked to Danielle on the phone before filming began. “And you know, she was very young when they shot that movie. She had just come to L.A., it was her first time on a movie set, and she was looking to support her and her mom. And no one cast in The Room had read the script. … I think like all experiences, there were some things that were great, and some things that were hard.”

According to the book The Disaster Artist, the real Juliette’s most difficult days of filming were those spent on her prolonged sex scene with Wiseau. Franco doesn’t flinch in showing how badly the director treated the actress, barking orders and criticizing her body. In the current cultural climate, it’s painfully apparent how vulnerable Danielle’s position was, given that she was often the only woman on set. To some extent, Graynor has been there.

Ari Graynor attends <em>The Disaster Artist</em> premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Ari Graynor attends The Disaster Artist premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

“I think most women that are in this business have often been the only woman, or one of the only women, on set,” she said. “And there are a number of films that that’s been true for me in. I feel incredibly lucky that the men I’ve worked with in those situations have made me feel very comfortable and very respected, and I always felt like I was safe and had a voice. At the same time, it’s vulnerable, what we do. It can be vulnerable emotionally, it can be vulnerable physically. If there’s any nudity or any sex or any of that, it’s an awkward day on set for everybody involved.”

Graynor was quick to add that shooting the sex scene for The Disaster Artist was the opposite of Juliette’s traumatic experience on The Room. “Even though in The Room there was a lot of nudity for Juliette, and I think some of that was a surprise, that was never something that was on the table for this,” said Graynor. “Right away, James was like, ‘This is not about showing anything of you. This is about this wild moment in the making of this film where all of this stuff is going on with Tommy.’”

Indeed, it is Franco, as Wiseau, who is naked for most of the scene, which meant that he also directed his actors in the nude. “It was such a wild meta experience, where there he is, playing an actor who’s also the director, in a movie where he’s the actor also playing the director, and just basically naked for two days while we were shooting it,” Graynor recalled with a laugh. “I was like, I’ve got nothing to worry about. He’s so fearless and comfortable and setting the tone here I’m fine. I’m just fine.”

Watching Franco immerse himself in the role of Wiseau was a surreal experience for the cast, who all found themselves falling into Tommy’s inscrutable quasi-European accent between takes. “We were doing it incessantly off-camera,” Graynor said. “It’s so fun to do.” Because Franco never dropped the voice, and because he encouraged improvisation on set, it was often difficult for the actors to determine whether he was speaking to them as director James Franco or speaking to their characters as The Room director Tommy Wiseau.

“Sometimes, you’d just hear him say [in Tommy voice] ‘OK, let’s go again, I want to do it faster,’” said Graynor. “And I would just pause the scene and say, ‘Wait, sorry is this Tommy or is this James?’ And then you’d just see him break through in a James smile and say [still in Tommy voice] ‘No, this James.’”

For Graynor, The Disaster Artist cast’s dedication to their characters is a reflection of what makes The Room an enduring, if unlikely, classic. “You see everyone’s effort and earnestness in the work they’re doing,” Graynor said of The Room. “And maybe it’s not what people would qualify as the greatest work ever, but it’s why this film has remained in people’s lives and hearts for 15 years. … There was such a purity to their intentions when they were making that movie. Every movie that gets made, every piece of entertainment and art, whether you like it or not no one sets out to make something bad.”

The stars of ‘The Disaster Artist’ on the weirdness of ‘The Room’

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