That Time We Spent the Afternoon with Tommy Wiseau
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That Time We Spent the Afternoon with Tommy Wiseau

It’s 7 p.m. on Thursday and Tommy Wiseau is haggling with a vendor at one of those T-shirt and souvenir shops in the tacky heart of Spadina Avenue’s Chinatown. “$14.99,” says the guy behind the counter. “$15.”
“Did I hear $12?” Tommy replies, more compelled by the bargain than he is by the shirt.
They go back and forth a few times, and he ends up paying 14 Canadian dollars for a medium T-shirt with an image of a roaring cougar ironed onto it. In just over 24 hours, Tommy Wiseau will be in front of a sold-out audience at the Royal Cinema on College Street, fielding questions from devoted, and very likely well-soused, fans dressed like him. Because—in case you live under a rock or your idea of culture is plays, or acoustic guitar music, or chatting over appetizers or something—Tommy Wiseau is the writer, producer, director, and star of The Room, easily the most remarkable cult film of the past decade.

For almost two years, The Room has been playing to packed and packed-ish houses at the Royal on the third Friday of every month, snowballing into the kind of filmgoing experience that hasn’t gurgled up from the underground since The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like that granddaddy of cult films, The Room emboldens fanatic audience participation. But unlike Rocky Horror, with its sing-a-longs and dance numbers choreographed on-screen, fans of The Room don’t interact with it so much as they interact at it. They yell out their favourite lines, chant for an overlong pan shot across the Golden Gate Bridge, and chuck plastic spoons at the screen. (Admittedly, you kind of have to be there.)

Tommy on Newstalk 1010, mass-communicating.

“How many millions do you have in Toronto?” Wiseau asks, perched behind the Royal’s concession counter, where he’s been holding court for a rotating gauntlet of reporters. “I encourage all of them to see it.”
When Tommy asks about numbers and about populations, he’s really asking about potential audiences for The Room. Not only that, but he encourages everyone to see it at least three times. Presumably as the only way to catch all the subtlety and nuance of what Entertainment Weekly famously christened “The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies.”
Damning praise, sure. But it’s served the film better than both Wiseau’s initial tagline (“A Film with the Passion of Tennessee Williams”) and the revised ad copy (calling the film a “quirky black-comedy”), which still missed the point. We’ll skip working through the sundry reasons why the movie is bad. Just imagine the best film you’ve ever seen, turn it inside-out, and you’re still an anatomically mind-boggling sex scene away from The Room. But bad movies come and go. In the past eight years, The Room has become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, playing to rep cinema audiences across North America, Europe, and Oceania. (It’s apparently huge in Australia.)
The reception doesn’t seem to bother Tommy, though. He shows up for screenings and gamely fields questions at Q&A sessions, undaunted by audiences laughing at a film he funded entirely out-of-pocket (an estimated US$6 million for production and marketing) and, more crucially, invested with what is obviously every ounce of his creative and emotional energy. It’s hard not to see the dollar signs ka-chinging behind Wiseau’s black Oakleys. He swears he doesn’t mind how the film has been co-opted—because for Tommy, it’s all about self-expression and freedom.

Tommy Wiseau on personal and political freedom:

Everything’s possible. And I’m pro-freedom. So express yourself. I love when people crave something.

I think that communism and socialism is the biggest obstacle to world freedom.

In America you can get a pizza with Canadian bacon, pineapple, any topping. There’s no restriction!

A lot of people have questions about Tommy Wiseau. Always the same questions. Questions you ask even though you know he won’t answer them. People want to know if he has a special someone in his life. (He says, “Fifty per cent,” which of course doesn’t mean anything.) People want to know where he’s from. (He says America, though his accent betrays a foreignness that’s difficult to place.) People want to know how he accrued the capital to make The Room and, for some reason, people in Toronto really want to know what he had for breakfast. In general, people want to know what the “deal” is with Tommy Wiseau.
So. What’s the real deal with Tommy Wiseau? Well, he’s Catholic. We went into a church and he knew how to properly do the sign-of-the-cross thing (you know: spectacles, testicles, watch, wallet). He used to have a dog, but he won’t say what kind. He wears two belts. He estimates there are at least 5,000 cyclists in San Francisco. He swears he saw a ghost in his Sheraton hotel room the other night. And he’ll tell you that even though France makes the best leather, South Korea makes the best leather jackets.
“I love acting,” Tommy says. “I can act right now if you want me to.” We’re in a cab on the way back from a radio interview at Newstalk 1010 when Tommy says he’ll perform, on the spot. And considering that Greg Sestero, his Room co-star (also in the van and, like Tommy, an exceptionally nice guy) just mentioned that he first met Tommy in an acting class where he saw him deliver a Shakespearean sonnet, it’s hard not to take him up on the proposal. But the offer itself is even more instructive.
Wiseau’s not acting right now. Though it seems like he flips a switch when he’s asked a question that relates more directly to his artistic process, his reaction’s not some elaborate put-on. Some Room fans have long speculated that Wiseau is just a character, a kind of grand meta-joke at the expense of art, celebrity, taste, and fandom in general. This isn’t the case. It can’t be. Because if it was? Oh, man.
He’s not a prank with a heartbeat or an Andy Kaufman–esque hoax. He’s just a guy. He’s an actor. And a filmmaker. And he believes that he can live to be 200 years old.

Tommy Wiseau on life, longevity, and vampires:

We have certain individuals in the world that can live 200 years or more. I believe very strongly that you can live 200 years or more, based on technology. You know the expression “high maintenance”? That’s basically what we have.

Vampires are usually about killing, surviving, sucking blood—whatever else they do. My vampire movie would be much different. My vampire movie is about the king of vampires. And he controls everything. The entire world. Somewhat. Next question.

It’s hard to imagine how The Room will hold up in 200 years. There’s likely enough samizdat DVD-R copies floating around to survive any nuclear fallout. And it’s hard to imagine any conquering race of extra-terrestrials being able to distinguish it at all from any soapy network TV drama (or The King’s Speech, even). For now, though, it’s Tommy’s incidental masterpiece. And even this has been undermined recently by a script supervisor who worked on the film and attempted to take credit for “really” directing it, in a curious bid to bolster his own celebrity.
“Long story short: the guy worked for seven days or whatever,” says Wiseau of the scandal. “And he tried to be famous. But it doesn’t work, because people are not stupid. It’s laughable! It doesn’t make sense! I’ll laugh myself. Ha-ha!”

Tommy admiring the ROM. He mentioned having built some glass and steel buildings, a tiny and not-at-all-telling insight into his mysterious past.

Undermining Tommy’s artistic cred is easy. (Given, you know, The Room.) Impossible to challenge, though, is his celebrity. As we amble around Toronto, he’s approached every few blocks by fans wanting photos. Shy admirers can be heard whispering “OMG TOMMY WIZOOO!!!” into their cellphones. Sestero, substantially more self-aware than Tommy, takes these encounters in stride but generally seems less enthused. “At the end of the day, [The Room] is just a complete failure on all levels,” he says. “I can’t speak for Tommy, but for me, I love films like The Ghost Writer, films that really challenge you. You have to keep your perspective on it. Bottom line is people really enjoy it.”
Sestero is planning a book about his experience working with Tommy, from their chance meeting in a San Francisco acting class to their tours to support The Room. And, while he asked us not to say much about it, he’s fielding big offers. From big publishers. He also sees it spinning off into film of its own, in the style of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s masterfully compassionate portrait of Wiseau’s forerunner as purveyor of unselfconsciously bad films. One of the titles he’s kicking around is fittingly weird, and really great: Bat From Mars. “It’s kind of what Tommy is,” Sestero explains. “It doesn’t make any sense in this world. It’s this thing that flew in and that everyone’s enamoured with.”
It’s a fascinating idea, this book, reminiscent of Best Worst Movie, the outstanding documentary helmed by the stars of another so-bad-it’s-good standby, Troll 2. Sestero wants to reclaim The Room, a film he compares to a monster that’s gotten out of control. But The Room remains Tommy’s bread and butter. And he eagerly embraces nervously approaching fans with confidence. In addition to rolling out the film to more markets across the globe, he’s working on a Blu-ray release, and a 3D remaster.

Tommy really wanted a Canada cap. But it had to be just right.

Watching him haggle with a Kensington Market shopkeeper, this time over the price of a $4 souvenir ball-cap emblazoned with a Canadian flag (a negotiation he abandons when he’s not able to get her to compromise on the price), he falls ass-backwards into a philosophy that might as well define the whole pattern of The Room‘s astonishing, accidental success: “You know the principle of doing business? You never say no.”
Photos by Ryan Walker/Torontoist.
Tommy Wiseau will be in the house with The Room this weekend at the Royal Cinema (608 College Street) for five shows between Friday and Sunday (Fridays shows are already sold out). For showtimes and tickets, head to ticketweb.