Ari Graynor is nervous. She doesn't love interviews, she tells me, and more than once during our conversation, she apologizes for rambling (she isn't) or losing track of the question (she doesn't). She's not shy, exactly, but she's self-conscious, more comfortable reading philosophy books and watching home renovation shows on Netflix than posting on social media or shouting from the rooftops. If this all sounds at odds with the characters depicted by Graynor on-screen — the loud, raunchy, always-down-to-party girl in Bad Teacher or For a Good Time, Call... — that's exactly the point. Those girls, they're clichés — what Hollywood thinks women should be. And while she may have played them for years, Graynor is the first to say that they couldn't be farther from who most women — herself included — actually are.
"For awhile, the modern archetype for women was the Type A personality, and then I think in reaction to that, there was a movement of: women don’t have to be perfect, and they can be messy, and they can talk like a guy, they can drink like a guy, they can not know what they’re doing, there can be toilet humor, all of that stuff," the 34-year-old star of Dec. 1's The Disaster Artist says, sitting down in Bustle's New York office in mid-November.
For years, Graynor was the go-to actor for just this type of woman. It didn't matter that she actually started her career in drama, appearing on The Sopranos and in thrillers like An American Crime. Once she played the free-spirited, heavy-drinking Caroline in 2008's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Graynor's name became synonymous with this particular breed of female cliché. Part of it was Hollywood's fault — "once you do something, that’s what people think of you as, and you get typecast," she says. But part of it was the path she chose for herself. "For awhile I was also gravitating toward those kinds of characters," Graynor explains. "I loved playing those kind of roles."
But, she adds, eventually some of the luster wore off. "As I was forming a deeper relationship to myself and understanding more and more parts of myself, I wanted to reflect that in the work that I was doing," she says.
In The Disaster Artist, Graynor is miles away from the archetypes of her past. The movie, directed by James Franco, tells the true story of the extraordinarily troubled making of the 2003 cult film The Room, and like with much of the cast, Graynor's role is two-fold. There's Juliette Danielle, a struggling actor willing to suffer inhumane work conditions just to see her name in the credits, and then there's Lisa, the deceptive, sensual character Juliette portrays in The Room.
For fans of Tommy Wiseau's disastrous film, Lisa is something of an icon; she's the subject of the infamous "you're tearing me apart, Lisa!" line, quoted by countless people at midnight screenings. But Juliette is far less-known. Since The Room, she's spent years balancing acting and real estate, according to AL.com, rarely speaking up about the movie and the fame it inadvertently bought. In The Disaster Artist, Graynor gives her a sympathetic voice; her version of Danielle is someone who truly thought The Room could be a success, and was crushed to find out it was anything but.
"All of us have been a part of things that you have huge expectations for, big hopes for, that turn out terribly. And no one ever sets out to make something bad," says Graynor. "There’s something so earnest about [The Room]... how much care and how deep it goes for [Wiseau] and how much everyone in it is committed to what they’re doing.
"The Disaster Artist, she continues, "is a love letter to The Room and is a love letter to all the people that made it."
The Room has a big following among Hollywood stars — name a celebrity, and there's a good chance he or she has a cameo in The Disaster Artist discussing their love for the '03 flop — but Graynor had never seen the movie before Franco approached her a few years back about taking on a role. To prep, she watched the film alone in her apartment, "which is absolutely not the right way to watch," she says with a laugh, and she found herself "literally clutching for imaginary arms" and yelling at the TV. The movie is such a colossal mess, full of plotlines with no purpose, dialogue that makes no sense, and gaffes every which way you look, that even now, Graynor still can't fully understand how it happened.
But somehow, it did, and over the years, The Room became a cult classic, with even Wiseau appeared at screenings. Eventually, interest in the movie and the enigmatic man behind the lens grew so high that its star, Greg Sestero, wrote a book about the filming experience — 2013's The Disaster Artist, from which Franco's movie is adapted. The book was eye-opening for fans; suddenly, from a star's perspective, Wiseau's personality quirks and strange filmmaking tactics went from funny to borderline abusive. Just take the sex scene, that infamous, far-too-lengthy sequence in which Juliette's Lisa and Wiseau's Johnny cavort in the bedroom. In The Room, it's simply a hilariously awkward scene, featuring way too much of Wiseau's bare bottom. In real life, though, it was painfully uncomfortable for Juliette, as she's addressed on Reddit, as Wiseau demanded to be naked and critiqued Juliette's body in front of everyone on set.
"In the past few months when all of these stories have come out in the news, it has completely changed the way we see everything," Graynor says now about Juliette's experience, which is re-enacted in the film. A situation once dismissed as simply "a tough day at work" or "a vulnerable moment" are looked at "differently now," the actor adds, "because everyone has a greater awareness."
"The way people are considering those situations, I think, is very different than the way we thought about it two years ago, 15 years ago, and even a few months ago," Graynor continues. "Maybe you felt it internally, but the conversation about it now has really changed."
Her own experience shooting the scene was very different than Juliette's, thankfully — "it was very clear from James when we were going to be shooting those scenes that there was no need or interest or desire to have it be exploitative of me in any way shape or form," she says — but even still, Graynor understands what Juliette must've been feeling.
"I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve circumvented a lot of traditional situations that felt icky," she tells me. "Not that there hasn’t been ickiness in life — I think if you’re a woman, you have experienced that everywhere in the world, in life, in college, and in business." Many of the movies she's worked on in the past have been directed or written by women, and even those that aren't, the actor says, are still feminist at their core. Just take The Front Runner, an upcoming political drama directed by Jason Reitman in which Graynor plays Ann Devroy, a widely admied '80s Washington Post journalist who chronicled a presidential candidate's sex scandal.
"I feel a certain kind of responsibility to those women, who are powerful women and often the only women in the room," Graynor says, referring to male-dominated fields. Recently, she adds, she's felt the tide "starting to change" when it comes to the way women are portrayed on-screen, with more complex roles being given to female actors. "The material coming out is, I think, better than it’s been in a long time in terms of people’s awareness about making characters human — including women," she says, taking care to emphasize that last point.
Although she's currently working on a number of scripts, as well as an essay collection, Graynor is self-deprecating when calling herself an artist. ("There’s a lot of eye roll that is attached to it," she says.) Years of working in Hollywood — not to mention the lessons of The Room — have taught her to never be over-confident or get her hopes too high about anything she's involved in. "I think almost everything I’ve ever been a part of, there’s a hope that it’s going to be the greatest movie ever made," she says with a laugh. "And then there’s always a little bit of a disappointment or reality check that’s like, oh, right."
She recalls a film she and Franco did back in 2007, An American Crime, that seemed destined for success, but never even saw a theatrical release. At the time, Graynor recalls, she didn't see the failure coming. "I went into that experience at Sundance feeling like well, I’m probably gonna get an Oscar nomination and my life is gonna change," she says. "And spoiler alert, that is not what happened. And that was a valuable lesson for me that I keep having over and over again — that it’s one thing to believe in what you’re doing and have hope about it, but you can’t have those kinds of expectations."
"Even now, there are certain... moments of thinking, this is going so great, all my dreams are coming true," she continues. "And then there are moments of feeling like nothing is happening, feeling like... people aren’t taking you seriously in the way you want to be taken."
And so, she's writing her scripts. And taking on more roles. And moving far, far away from the kind of characters who the world writes off from the get-go, because they're too busy partying and laughing and hanging out to be, well, human. Graynor knows no success is guaranteed — but she's intent on doing what she can to prove that she, at least, and women everywhere, should be taken more seriously than the characters they're so often playing on-screen.
Hair: Sebastian Scolarici using Serge Normant/TraceyMattingly.com
Makeup: Fabiola using CHANEL Les Beiges/TraceyMattingly.com