Madeline Grant spent her undergraduate days with some real freaks.
The year is 2012, in a side aisle of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Tommy Wiseau, decked out in black and with a random assortment of chains dangling from his waist, is looming terrifyingly over a little girl who happens to be standing on one of the ancient grave slabs on the cathedral floor. ‘Do not disturb the dead,’ he rasps. The girl runs away in terror. How do I know? I was there, because I once spent a day in Oxford with the writer, director and star of The Room, the supposed ‘Worst Film Ever Made’.
It all began the previous summer, long before the Franco brothers had made The Disaster Artist, bringing the profound oddness of Wiseau to a global audience. I’d first seen The Room on holiday with my friend Tom. The first viewing was and remains the funniest thing I’d ever seen; cheeks aching, stomach spasms from laughing too much, tears streaming down my face.
If you’ve not yet seen The Room, it’s best described as a comically inept relationship drama, written, directed and produced by Wiseau. He also plays the film’s main character, a heavily accented man (of indeterminate origins) named Johnny, whose attempts to reconcile with his fiancée’s infidelity form the basis of its meandering script. The film’s acting, dialogue, direction and plot failed to set audiences alight, but soon after its 2003 release it became a midnight screening favourite and was universally accepted as that unlikeliest of animals: a film not merely in the realm of so-bad-it’s-good, but so-bad-it’s-great.
Like so many others, we spent our university years spreading the gospel of The Room with evangelical zeal. We established rituals to accompany every viewing – a drink for each of the film’s repeated phrases, ‘Johnny’s my best friend’, ‘She’s my future wife’, ‘Oh, hi Mark’, or each of Wiseau’s distinct laughs. But, like all zealous converts to any new thing, what we really needed was to mingle with others as devoted as we were. So, for Tom’s birthday, I got tickets for him and a friend to attend a midnight screening at the Prince Charles Cinema in London. Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, the actor who plays his best friend/love rival Mark, would be conducting a Q&A in person after the showing.
In the spirit of The Room, the boys wore tuxedos and brought an American football to throw around the auditorium, which a cinema ticket inspector promptly confiscated. Out of nowhere, came the rasping voice we had come to know and love. ‘Let them keep the ballllll,’ drawled Wiseau, who strode over and wrenched the football from the bewildered ticket lady’s hand. Tom and Tommy struck up a conversation, even nipping outside to chuck the ball around in Leicester Square. They exchanged emails and he promised to come and visit us in Oxford if they ever got bored during the day.
We thought nothing more of it, but two days later, I woke up to a single, life-changing text. ‘Tommy and Greg [are] coming to Oxford’. After hyperventilating for a couple of hours, we met them off the coach on the high street.
They made a bizarre duo: Wiseau, with his vampiric aesthetic and habit of speaking in aphorisms (his speech is expressed in exactly the same turns of phrase as his ‘character’ from The Room), and Sestero, handsome, charming and utterly normal – the all-American boy next door. We showed them the Radcliffe Camera and Christ Church Cathedral; the sights of Oxford you’d take an elderly relative or a group of Spanish exchange students to see. Except we weren’t taking an elderly relative. We were taking the man who wrote, directed and delivered such infamous lines as ‘You’re tearing me apart, Lisa’ and ‘Hi, doggie.’
As in the film, so in real life: Wiseau laughs at things which aren’t funny at all. In the film, examples of this include a harrowing description of domestic violence and a sort-of invitation to have a threesome with an underage boy. In real life, he limited himself to deploying his terrifying laugh at the concept of fish and chips, and the sight of some cows. And it was no normal chuckle. Some viewers of the film believe it to be randomly dubbed. I can assure you it is 100 per cent authentic. ‘Ah ha ha ha’. Had it come out of the mouth of anyone else, I’d have assumed it was fake, sarcastic even. But it didn’t. It came out of the mouth of Tommy Wiseau.
Next, a pit-stop at St John’s College for tea and biscuits. Surreal as it sounds, and over ten years later I almost can’t believe I’m typing this, but we sat there and had a cup of tea with Tommy Wiseau in a student room while, once again, the football was tossed around, repeating the film’s trademark ‘normal American’ activity. What did we talk about? Even in such a mundane scene as this, you never really have ‘a chat’ with Tommy Wiseau; you’re merely in the presence of his aphorisms.
We adjourned to a pub called The Chequers, where Wiseau ordered fish and chips (‘ees English tradition’). Over lunch, we gleaned a few tidbits. Out of earshot of the man in question, one of us asked Sestero where Wiseau was ‘really’ from; we listed a few countries to sense his reaction. A strategically raised eyebrow at ‘Poland’ was as close to an answer as we were going to get.
Perhaps the greatest fact revealed that day wasn’t the country of Wiseau’s origin, but rather his rationale behind the naming of the character ‘Mark’. Sestero revealed that Wiseau had chosen ‘Mark’ in honour of the star of one of his favourite films, The Talented Mr Ripley – whom Wiseau earnestly believed was, in fact, named ‘Mark Damon’.
After lunch, things got even weirder. The number of groupies and hangers-on grew exponentially throughout the day. By mid-afternoon the cult had expanded from five to 12. Omid, a friend and fellow Room fanatic who’d got wind of the visit, begged us to drop by Balliol College where he and ‘other fans’ would be waiting. Time was tight, but Wiseau grew defiant. ‘Fans come first, decision made.’
If The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad movies, this was its ‘I am Spartacus’ moment. We entered the student common room to a great roar from the crowd. More than 100 students had gathered there, dressed in tuxedos or red dresses, clutching American footballs. We had just enough time for Tommy to pose for a few photographs and enact a bizarre ceremony where he ‘knighted’ a student with a wooden spoon, solemnly intoning the words, ‘You are a musician now. Boom!’ And with this fittingly strange valediction, Tommy Wiseau’s visit to Oxford was over.
As a parting gift, we gave them hoodies branded with Oxford college insignia from a shop on the high street. Wiseau immediately put his on; to this day I sometimes picture him wandering around San Francisco wearing a St John’s hoodie with his two belts. In exchange, Wiseau and Sestero gave us tickets for that night’s screening back in London.
As we took our seats that night, giddy and resplendent in our tuxedos and red dresses, Wiseau drawled, ‘Can the Oxford people come on stage?’ We were ushered up, handed a microphone and told to explain what had happened that day to hundreds of bemused Room fans in the audience. Afterwards we went outside to Leicester Square once more for a final surreal throw of the ball. Then it was back to university and comparative normality, the standard ups and downs of student life.
A couple of months later, the guy I’d been seeing ended things. ‘I never loved you,’ he said. ‘And I never found The Room funny either.’ I know which part of that hurt more.
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