Tommy Wiseau directed the legendarily awful 2003 motion picture The Room; this we know for certain. Beyond that, things start to get murky.
In the filmmaker’s spotty origin story, facts are in perilously short supply. Interviews with the man tend to come out incoherent and disjointed, as if Wiseau’s answering questions other than the ones being asked. He’s offered conflicting reports about his background on the record, and The Room star Greg Sestero (who authored the memoir The Disaster Artist, an account of the hysterical goings-on behind the scenes) remembers Wiseau as constantly spinning deluded stories from his own past in conversation. He’s jealously guarded information about his age, home country, and the source of the considerable personal fortune he used to finance his deranged passion project. Incredibly, his appearance — the Christlike mane of black hair, the Terminator shades, the preponderance of belts — doesn’t even crack the top five sketchiest things about him.
And then there’s the hearsay, of which there is quite a bit. Wiseau has propped himself up financially over the past decade or so by tirelessly touring around the globe with screenings of The Room, and every public appearance yields some bizarre new secondhand detail. I’ve heard word-of-mouth reports from fellow midnight-showing attendees that Tommy Wiseau pretends to be a bird without cause or warning, that he has a fake laugh and a real laugh. Even when on camera, Wiseau has been known to respond to basic greetings with “Ha ha, good one!” Tommy Wiseau doesn’t know the words to “Happy Birthday.” Tommy Wiseau smells like onions, but in a good way, like when you’re cooking and drop onions into a hot pan. (That one’s from my encounter in 2013.)
Public interest in the eccentric personality behind the film popularly touted as the worst of all time has flared in anticipation of James Franco’s new big-screen adaptation of The Disaster Artist, in which the director also portrays Wiseau. This excellent film is a lot of things — a valentine to the harebrained fringes of showbiz, a buddy comedy about two kindred souls taking a bite out of Los Angeles, the first persuasive argument that Dave Franco might have a future in this “acting” racket — but foremost among them, it’s an inquisition into the enigma that is Tommy Wiseau. This character study hits its emotional climax when Sestero demands to hear one grain of truth from the man who claims to be his friend, begging for an honest answer as to who Wiseau is. The inscrutable, muscular weirdo remains committed to his shroud of secrecy.
As a primer for Franco and Franco’s mesmerizing pas de deux (due for limited release December 1 before expanding one week later), we’ve assembled this dossier on Wiseau. Cribbed from a combination of interviews, the original The Disaster Artist book, and the 2016 documentary Room Full of Spoons, the following briefing sifts through the many fictions about this singular oddball in search of the man behind the masterpiece.
Where is he from?
While Wiseau’s heritage has been difficult to pin down, his glaringly Eastern European accent makes it easy to determine where he isn’t from. Wiseau asserted in 2010 that he was born in France, but moved to Louisiana at an early age with family still living in the city of Chalmette, and then claimed in 2012 to have grown up in New Orleans. Setting aside the fact that Wiseau’s voice would directly contradict this narrative, his doesn’t mount the most persuasive argument. Here he is in that 2010 interview, responding to an inquiry about his relatives’ presence in Chalmette:
“…my uncle lives there. I have an entire family there. That’s also a misconception with the media, because they think… I used to live in France, so the accent is their, like, Cajun or whatever you would call it, but I have a… I was just recently in Austin, Texas, and it’s very connected to New Orleans, believe it or not.”
Glancing past the suspicious similarity in speech patterns between Wiseau and the current commander-in-chief, he doesn’t come off as all that assured about his own story. In Room Full of Spoons, documentarian Rick Harper states that through independent research, he’s discovered that Wiseau was born in the Polish city of Poznań. This jibes both with Wiseau’s general vibe as well as the passage from The Disaster Artist wherein Sestero obtains a copy of Wiseau’s immigration papers through his brother’s well-connected girlfriend, and learns that he had emigrated from what was then known as the Eastern Bloc.
How old is he?
From that same cache of intel, Sestero claims to have learned that Wiseau was not, in fact, “however old you are, Greg.” Sestero learns from his brother’s girlfriend that Wiseau was born in the 1950s, which Rick Harper then refined in a recent sit-down with The Hollywood Reporter as 1955. It makes a twisted half-sense that Tommy would be so bizarrely defensive about his year of birth. The Disaster Artist describes Wiseau as having an intensive self-care routine, from regularly dyeing his hair to a comprehensive daily workout to keep up his hulking physique. In his own imagination, he’s a big-time Hollywood movie star, and he wouldn’t be the only one actively maintaining the outward appearance of youth.
Where did the money come from?
Due to staggeringly inefficient production techniques (why Wiseau had to shoot on film and digital videotape simultaneously, only god knows), he dumped 6 million of his own dollars into the production, promotion, and release of The Room. In Franco’s film adaptation, a Seth Rogen–played assistant director goes to cash his check and he’s shocked when it doesn’t bounce. The bank teller confides in him, “Between you and me, that account? Bottomless pit.” That Wiseau commands a practically limitless personal fortune is evident, but his shady manner hints at a colorful source. In The Disaster Artist, Sestero relates Wiseau’s flimsy story about buying and flipping retail space during his stint living in San Francisco, but Sestero assures the reader that this could not possibly be true.
One conspiracy theory suggests that Wiseau and elusive plane hijacker D.B. Cooper are one and the same; Wiseau has categorically denied this. An unsourced Reddit post speculates that Wiseau was struck in a car crash with a high-powered producer, and their out-of-court settlement took the form of producing The Room. That’s likely all bupkes, but with Wiseau, truth is often stranger than fiction, so you try not to rule anything out.
In a 2008 chat with Entertainment Weekly, Wiseau offers a cursory explanation. He told them of a vague clothing-shipping enterprise: “We import from Korea the leather jackets that we design here in America. If you work, you have to save money, right? I didn’t get money from the sky. I was preparing, let’s put it this way.” But his emphasis in those last couple sentences, about having earned all his money through work so just shut it and don’t worry, give inquiring minds pause.
Did he intend The Room as a comedy or a drama?
Tommy Wiseau’s named the major melodramatists as his greatest influences, citing a particular fondness for the sweltering domestic tragedies of Tennessee Williams. This comes across loud and clear in The Room, with all its overwrought emotions and impassioned betrayals, but Wiseau’s lacking the artistic skill to actually hit that emotional register. Once he became aware of the huge gulf between his intentions and results, however, he tried to bridge them.
As The Room has assumed the mantle of the cult film ne plus ultra, Wiseau has leaned into the skid and taken to proclaiming that he intended the film as hilariously inept from the start. The entirety of The Disaster Artist not only flies in the face of Wiseau’s attempt to save face, but paints Wiseau as precisely the man who’d try something so transparent. Any further doubts were assuaged with his irredeemably bad Hulu comedy The Neighbors, which was just as indecipherable as The Room but lacked its floundering charms. That the series is all but unwatchable cannily illustrates that something like The Room could not have happened on purpose, and only by accident. Its slavish fan base prizes the authenticity. As a comedy, it’s merely a bad movie, but as one fanatically pursued, astonishingly misguided dream, it’s part of history.
What other weird shit has he done?
Wiseau’s a jumbled collection of quirks and contradictions. In The Disaster Artist, he claims to have studied psychology at Oakland’s Laney College during a spell in San Francisco mostly spent peddling yo-yos and flawed discount jeans, and yet he cannot distinguish a psychiatrist from a psychologist. Sestero recalls an evening in which Wiseau aggressively refused to hand his keys to a valet for fear that the boy might fart on his seat while parking. Wiseau jokes a lot about being a vampire, to the point that one starts to wonder about the extent to which it’s all a joke. After seeing Sestero earn a SAG membership, Wiseau was so seized by jealousy that he self-financed enough commercials he could also star in to nab him a card as well. At home, he subsists on Red Bull and instant noodles, but would order ostentatiously while out to eat. His every move has been run through a filter of projected appearances.