Few modern American comedies are as beloved, celebrated and obsessively quoted as Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” The success that the film has achieved in the years following its largely ignored 2003 debut is all the more extraordinary, considering that it was never intended to be a comedy at all. Writer/director/star Wiseau had set out to make a searing relationship drama in which he played Johnny, the loving boyfriend of an adulterous sociopath named Lisa (played by Juliette Danielle). If aliens had attempted to mimic human behavior while staging their own version of a daytime soap opera, it would’ve looked something like this.
Many performers would’ve been too scared to step in front of a camera again, but not Danielle. On her exuberant blog and Facebook page, she has embraced her status as a cult icon and savored the ingenious “Room” tributes made by fans (such as an online video game and an uproariously funny review by Internet humorist Doug Walker, a.k.a. The Nostalgia Critic). In Mike Justice’s upcoming B-movie satire, “The Trouble with Barry,” Danielle plays Debbie, a proudly shallow gal whose lack of depth is played for intentional laughs. Indie Outlook had the supreme pleasure of chatting with Danielle about “The Room,” Tommy Wiseau, her love of cats and her gleefully campy new movie.
Q: What was happening in your life at the time when you first became involved in “The Room”?
A: I was just starting out as an actress in LA, and had been taking acting classes. Like everyone else, I submitted [my headshot] through Backstage West. Back then, we were still mailing in headshots instead of e-mailing them and uploading them online. For [“The Room”] auditions, they invited a bunch of the actors in and threw us into random situations while doing improv. At one point, I did a monologue to the camera. Tommy told us to jump up and down and act like we won a million dollars. It was unlike any other audition that I had done. I think Tommy’s style is similar to theatre. His background is in theatre, so it was sort of like going to a sketchy theatre audition. At the time, I didn’t have a lot of credits, so I was just trying to go for it at that point. [laughs]
Q: What was your initial perception of Lisa?
A: I was very young at the time. I was around 21. Now I feel like I would have so much more real-life experience to draw from–not that I’m like that, but because I’ve lived more. I basically saw Lisa as somebody who literally believed that the world revolved around her. I know people like that. They’ll ask you how you’re doing and then they’ll say, “That’s great, now let me talk about me.”
Q: What was production like?
A: The actual production had a full-on crew and they were very professional. The film had the largest crew of any production I have worked on. The recasting was a little bit odd. I know that there were at least two other Lisas cast. There was a lot of auditioning that took place even once you got the part. I don’t really have all the details, though I think Greg Sestero [who played Johnny’s friend Mark] is going to have a book coming out about the production. If you’re going to get the truth out of anyone, it would probably come from him.
Q: Was there ever a point when you would question Tommy about the plot inconsistencies, such as the subplot involving your mother’s breast cancer which is acknowledged and then promptly forgotten?
A: None of us thought that it was going to be seen by a large group of people. When you work on an independent film, you assume that it’s going to be seen by a small amount of people. We did question some of the dialogue. As far as dropping the breast cancer, I never had a whole script, so it’s not like I read it from beginning to end and could spot the plot holes.
When we would ask Tommy about what we were missing, Tommy said that he just wanted us to have the pieces that we were involved in, and that was it. So we didn’t think too much about it. We did ask some questions about the dialogue and some of it got changed, but for the majority of it, Tommy really wanted things the way that he wanted them. We were very professional and serious. There was minimal cracking up and laughing oncamera.
Q: Was there ever a moment when you were attempting to be funny?
A: We were all very serious. We were told it was serious and to play it serious. Whether Tommy was attempting to do otherwise, he never told us that. It was all straightforward. He was always talking about doing a project called “The Neighbors.” He meant for that project to be funny, and he was working on that at the same time. I think he likes comedy.
Q: Was Tommy’s line delivery disconcerting to you onset?
A: He’s a total Method actor. He’s very serious about what he does. Whether we find it humorous or not, for Tommy [it’s serious]. He calls everyone by their character name. He’ll call me Juliette now, but back then, it was always Lisa. In the scene where he smashes all the objects in his room, he was smashing them for real. Even when we were rehearsing, he would go for it.
Q: So you’d have things that would be broken for the rehearsal, and the crew would have to replace them for the actual filming.
A: Yep, and if the crew didn’t like it–boy, they’d just have to deal with it. [laughs]
Q: In your blog, you mention that there was a certain period in your life when you went into hiding after “The Room” was released. What had caused you to hide, and what made you decide to embrace the film’s cult following?
A: Most of the so-called “bad acting” in the film never really bothered me. In regards to what Tommy calls the “love scenes”…typically in movies, they will shoot a lot of footage and they will edit it down to this beautiful, 15 to 30-second teaser of what happened. But in “The Room,” Tommy literally used every bit of footage that we ever shot for the love scenes, and in some cases, I think he recycled some of it. When I sat down in the theater and saw that, I had to keep my mouth from dropping open. I think that was probably what made me want to hide. It was such a surprise. I’m not a skinny girl and I never will be. There were a lot of comments made about [how I looked] that I wasn’t ready to deal with at that time in my life. But after Facebook got popular and I got a fan page and people started contacting me and telling me that they actually loved the movie, I felt encouraged and got over it. There suddenly became a balance of the good with the bad. It just made it easier for me to transition into a point where that really doesn’t bother me anymore.
Q: Certain actresses, including Lena Dunham, are currently challenging Hollywood on its perception of what constitutes as physical beauty.
A: Unfortunately, the casting calls are still calling for rail thin. I can starve myself, but now I’m just going for the roles that are right for me. That’s been freeing, and it’s nice to come to terms with that.
Q: What has been your reaction to how people have embraced the film?
A: When I’m able to hop into the screenings during the regular bits, it’s so funny. I’ve seen a guy who shows up at screenings constantly and is part of the entertainment. He’ll go kick a can in front of the screen and go, “Aw, I show up here every time and every time it’s the same.” [laughs] And the throwing of the spoons–that’s got to be really fun for people. I’ve gone to a couple other [cult] movie screenings so I can see what the audience experience is about. I’ve gone to see “Troll 2” and tried to see what people like about these cult films, and I get it. I still need to see “Birdemic.” That’s next on my list.
Q: Any favorite fan tributes of yours? I’ve even seen a video game…
A: Yes, there is a video game. There’s also a bunch of YouTube videos. There’s a “Room/Full House” mash-up, there’s a “Room/Dark Knight” trailer, there’s a Dubstep remix–I’m still not clear on what Dubstep really is. [laughs] I enjoy all that stuff, and sometimes the fans will post things on my Facebook page. Today, a fan [Kevin Cárdenas] posted Tumblr art inspired by my line, “Don’t Worry About It.” I had to repost it and everyone loved it. Everyone on my fan page is so creative.
Q: It’s amazing how so many lines from that film have become immortalized.
A: And they can be worked into any conversation.
Q: A filmmaker from Austin, Texas, named Emily Hagins paid homage to Tommy’s line, “Oh, hai Mark,” by naming one of her characters “Mark O’Hai” in the film, “My Sucky Teen Romance.”
A: That is so cool!
Q: Do you keep in touch with any of your former co-stars?
A: Oh sure. I talk to Phil [Haldiman] who lives in Arizona. He played Denny. We both worked on a little something that I hope he’ll announce later this year. He grew this long Grizzly Adams beard and looked liked he was 40-something, but then he shaved it off and is back to looking like a young man. [laughs] I also keep in touch with Kyle Vogt who played Peter. He’s just a joy to talk to. He’s so smart and he’s a total computer nerd. He works for Disney and also does a lot of commercial work. And I keep in touch with Greg. When my cat passed away a couple years ago, I was really upset about it, and he was so sweet to reach out and send his condolences. And whenever I see Tommy, he’s very friendly.
Q: What acting projects have you been working on recently?
A: One of the first things I filmed this year was “Till Morning.” Brendan Russo was the director. It’s a long short film–I think he’s hoping to make it feature-length at some point. We were shooting on weekends, and the day would be over before we’d even notice. On that set, I remembered how much I enjoy acting and how much it feeds my soul and makes me happy. It was easy to forget that during the couple of years that I took off. You get involved in your 9 to 5 and that can be totally consuming. I’m actually going to be ending my job at the end of [September]. It’s the same company I’ve been working at for ten years. The company is closing its doors after fighting hard to keep afloat, and I’m one of the last employees that are still there. We’re sort of transitioning, and I’m going to have so much time on my hands to audition and work on as many projects as I can possibly get. I’m excited.
Q: Was it liberating to embrace the campy humor in “The Trouble with Barry”?
A: Oh absolutely. Mike did such a great job writing that character [of Debbie], and he wrote it for me. I originally had only one scene as the character. He just let me do whatever I wanted to do and was like, “Go for it!” Then he ended up writing a second scene for me. It was so much fun.
Q: What appealed to you about Debbie?
A: What’s great about Debbie is that she is very superficial. If you scratch her surface, you will literally find nothing underneath. She’s one of these people who floats along in life. She gets fired from being a gym attendant because she obviously sucks at her job, and then immediately gets another low-end menial job where there’s minimal effort required. If she loses that job, she’ll just go to another menial, meaningless job and get stuck at that too.
Q: What were your impressions of director Mike Justice?
A: Oh he’s fantastic. He loves movies more than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s like an IMDb database from the ’80s. The whole production was so efficient. He wrote everything into the script that needed to be directed. I don’t want to say the word “organic” because I hate that word. It’s just very relaxed and simple and no stress. I would work with all of them again in a heartbeat.
Q: I learned that your cats have a cameo in the film, and on your blog, you’ve mentioned your volunteer work at a cat rescue. How has that work enriched your life?
A: Oh gosh, I could talk about that for a long time. I grew up as a cat person–I think we had Persians when I was a little girl. Now, my husband and I have five RagaMuffin rescue cats that either came from the rescue where I volunteered or just off the street. When the housing market crashed, a lot of people abandoned their pets. Three cats showed up at our back door. We fed them a couple times and then picked them up, brought them in the house and they didn’t try to leave. So we kept them–after fixing them, of course. I grew up in Texas and in junior high, they had these programs where you did volunteer work, and that’s just a part of the school curriculum. I’ve always loved that feeling of being helpful. I go to the rescue one to three times a week, depending on what the schedule is. I scoop poo, snuggle kittens, help with their website and I love it.
The cool thing about pet rescue is that there are different ways to dip your toe in the water. You can obviously adopt first instead of buy. If you can’t adopt, you can foster. I’ve got to warn you, though–that’s how I got my first cat. I was fostering her and ended up saying, “There’s no way she’s going to leave!” [laughs] If you can’t foster, you can volunteer. If you can’t volunteer, you can find a rescue group on Facebook and just share all of their stuff.
Q: On one of your blog posts, you listed your favorite films, and “The Shawshank Redemption” topped the list. Why that film?
A: I could watch that movie anytime. The other one on that list that I can watch anytime is “Mr. Deeds.” That’s what I would watch to cheer myself up. But going back to “Shawshank,” I like a movie with character arc. Each character in that movie was so carefully thought out and they each had their own journey. In any movie I watch, if the characters don’t have an arc or some sort of redeeming quality, I just don’t like them. My husband loves “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and I just can’t get myself to like the main guy. He’s just an ass and he always will be. [laughs] But I love movies–even the stupid ones. I love “Encino Man” and “Mystery Men” and stuff like that. I like to be entertained and I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and just enjoy myself. I don’t want to take myself so seriously that I can’t enjoy a silly film.