The Tender Bar is about the childhood of novelist and Pulitzer Prize winning writer, J.R Moehringer. We see J.R in two forms, in his adolescences by Daniel Ranieri and into his older form by Tye Sheridan, with both struggling with the absence of his father, substituting his uncle Charlie in for that missing parental figure. But the constant in his life is his mother Dorothy, played by Lily Rabe, who moves J.R and herself back into her childhood home and surrounds her son with a loving support system to help him grow further in life than she did. This is the strongest aspect of George Clooney’s film, the bond between mother and son, and it’s done effortlessly by Sheridan and Rabe.
For the Texan born actor, Sheridan is a hard worker and got his start in indie films The Tree of Life and Mud, where he delivered impeccable child performances. He grew up and landed prominent roles in more indies like Joe and this year’s The Card Counter, as well as took part in some big tent pole films like the rebooted X-Men franchise and Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and in the process has become one of the most versatile young actors of his generation. For Rabe, she’s been a prominent screen and stage actor for over twenty years, working with known directors like Barry Levinson, Julia Hart, Alex Ross Perry and Adam McKay. She’s also dazzled on television, with a multi-year run on American Horror Story, the Nicole Kidman limited series The Undoing as well as being a part of the ensemble for Barry Jenkins’ 2021 miniseries The Underground Railroad. At the time of this film, both actors have reached a part of their career where parts like these fit them perfectly, and they are able to comfortably execute them.
Following a screening of the film in Austin, Texas, I spoke with Sheridan and Rabe about their connection to the material, what it was like working with their director George Clooney and co-star Ben Affleck, who is the Uncle Charlie in their life, and how they created their on-screen bond in such a short amount of time. It was a pleasure speaking with these two actors about their craft and their passion in bringing Moehringer and his family’s life to the big screen.
The Tender Bar releases is in theaters wide on December 22, 2021 and will stream on Amazon Prime Video on January 7, 2022.
Ryan McQuade: What’s really great about the movie is that I think that we all have an Uncle Charlie in our lives. Someone that we can go to for guidance, for reassurance, and wisdom. Who is that for the both of you? And when you’re shooting this movie, was there ever a moment you thought about them?
Tye Sheridan: Who’s that person for you? (Looks at his co-star, Lily Rabe)
Lily Rabe: I don’t know that she was my uncle Charlie, but I had a very remarkable mother. And I felt her with me through the film, for sure. In a lot of ways that I may have seen coming, and then in a lot of ways that I was very surprised by. So she wasn’t that person who I… I had in my mother, a tremendous amount. I think if anything, that sort of feeling of who is the person that’s kind of holding my hand invisibly through this, it was her. She had a remarkable optimism, and willfulness, and she’s certainly very different than the woman that I play. But there was something about that, when Dorothy says, “Tomorrow is another day.” That thing, which I think she says all the time to him, that really is something… My mother had an amazing way of turning really unfortunate, terrible things into something where there was possibility.
TS: I might say the Uncle Charlie person… There’s a few people, they’re definitely great role models for me. But on a moral level, I would say in just like personal life stuff, relationships, all that, I’d say my dad really is like that for me. He’s such a big part of my life, it was an interesting thing to think about when playing this character. Thinking about the absence of my father, to think about how instrumental he was in my life, both my parents. So even to not have one of them, to think about that, it’s a strange thought. But yeah, I would say my dad. He’ll tell me things in the moment sometimes, I’m like, “I don’t know, man.” And then, two months later you’re like, “Damn. Yeah, he was right.” And so I think that’s definitely Uncle Charlie for JR. I think we all have somebody like that. I’d say the closest person is my dad.
LR: And you’re right. I think for everyone; it might be more than one person. Because I do… There are these different sorts of wonderful parts of who that person is, or that person that kind of fills a void that you have. And also, someone who gives you permission to do something that you probably know you’re meant to do, but you really need… You might need someone to give you that permission. Like I had an English teacher who… I loved writing so much, and I loved acting… That was where I was sort of focused in high school, and I talked with her. It was such a quiet conversation, that I just left it feeling like I had permission to do it. And maybe it was just because I had gotten to a place where I could hear it differently. But whoever sort of delivers that for us and gives you permission to do something that you love, that you want to do, it’s really important.
RM: The movie is also about finding your passion. So, when you’re both reading the script, or maybe when you’re making the movie, when does that all connect part of the film connect? Do you think back to a part of your life where you were this stuck, like JR, and are trying to get to the level of confidence to trust the path you want to be on?
TS: Yeah, I think also the journey feels so familiar, for me, especially. I come from a really small town in east Texas, and the population of my town is 1200. So not too many people are aspiring to become a filmmaker, an actor, something like that. And when I was… All I’ve ever loved to do… One thing I loved to do when I was like seven, when I was like seven or eight years old, was just to tell stories. I loved being around all the adults, listening to the stories that they were telling, and watching movies, and writing my own stories. My grandpa was a big role model for me. He was a manager at a paint store. During the summers, I would go to work with him at the paint store, and he would sit me down with a notebook, and we’d get there at like 6:00 AM.
He’d open the store, and he’d give me a notebook, and he’d say, “If you fill that entire notebook out, and you practice your writing, I’ll give you 5 dollars at the end of the day.” I was like, “Heck yeah, 5 dollars” And it’s like really encouraged me to do that, to embrace storytelling, the thing that I loved. And I think that’s really all I’ve ever cared about, was being able to tell a story. So, if you’re a writer, or if you’re an actor, or if you’re a director, there’s something so special about being a part of what people have been doing since the beginning of time. Since our existence, we’ve constantly been telling each other stories, and teaching each other lessons, and passing down wisdom. So I think that storytelling for me, although you can look at it like entertainment, and a lot of films are entertaining. But it’s a medium of a very old thing that we’ve been doing since the beginning of the time. And I think it’s cool to be a part of that.
RM: When you see a lot of movies like this, it’s really hard for audiences to buy this familial connection, but you both nailed it. How do you guys build this bond we see on screen? You are shooting during a pandemic, you’re on a tight schedule with George [Clooney] and you [Lily] are working with two different actors playing your son. So how do you build that bond, to have that connection of this mother and son, in this film?
LR: We just fall in love. It’s so easy to fall in love with both Ty, and Daniel. And I think that… I knew Tye a little bit, before we had met, but we didn’t have the luxury of sort of time.
TS: No, I don’t think George is very big on rehearsal.
LR: We didn’t need it.
TS: I think a lot of it is comes from the screenplay. The movie’s called The Tender Bar, and I think their relationship is very tender. You understand that they’re all what they have, it’s just each other, at some points in their lives. So, I think that that is at the core of everything. And I think even doing these scenes, mostly… This movie, especially, kind of pokes at something deeper in you, and makes you think about your relationships with those people in your life, whether it be your father or your mother. I think this made me… Doing the scenes with Lily made me think about my mom.
And I spent a lot of time with my mom, just me and her, when I was getting into films at a young age. And she was traveling with me and supporting me. And I think that it felt very similar to the relationship that JR has with his mom, and the support that she is for him. So I think I was familiar with that. And I think that it was just really like building on top of that love that you know, and really honing in on the idea that they’re each everything for each other.
LR: It’s like a wild love, that gets to exist in the movie between her and her son. And it was so important to me that… Because yes, she definitely has ambitions for him, and has set her sight on… She has her high bar. But really, to me, she’s not a stage mother. She’s not someone who’s trying to sort of live vicariously through her son. I never felt that way. But from the moment I read the script, it was none of that. It was really all coming from a place of that absolute unbridled love and devotion to this person. And that his joy is joy for her. But it’s not because she didn’t get to have these things, and so he needs to have them so that she can experience them through him. I think it really is coming from another part of her.
TS: I just want to add to that. I remember you and George talking about that on set, and making a very distinct decision, a choice, to approach it that way. I think that is what makes you such a special actor or actress, and so talented, doing what you do, is that a lot of people, I think, would approach that role from the place you’re talking about. And I think that it has more depth because it is coming from a place of love. And I think you just really… There’s so much to your performance in that, and it was just fun to watch you kind of take that on, and embrace that, and see you and George discuss it, and make those decisions. Talk about learning from other actors, there were so many great moments to watch and learn from all the talented people we had on this movie. And Lily was definitely one of them.
LR: Thank you. (Smiles at Sheridan)
RM: You’re not just working with one actor, writer, director in George [Clooney]. You’re also working with Ben [Affleck] as well. So, you’re working with one in front of the camera, as well as behind the camera. So, talk about the experiences of working with those two. And also, if you guys in the future want to go behind the camera, did you guys learn something from the both of them that you guys can put in your toolbox, and take with you guys down the road?
TS: For sure. Yeah, constantly. I mean, they’re constantly talking about old films that you haven’t seen. And you’re just kind of quietly sitting there, and just jotting everything down in your notepad. George loves to talk. And he’s got a lot of insightful things to say. Both he and Ben are just absolute film nerds. So, they’re always talking about what filmmakers they love, what movies. It’s like, “Oh man, I forgot about that. I got to go back and see that. That was so good. So and so is in that movie.” So, they’re always presenting a wealth of knowledge and film, and talking about directorial techniques.
I specifically remember one thing. I think it was the Sydney Pollack book that George had read. And it was advice to filmmakers, directors, was on first day, set up a shot, your first set up, first shot, that you’re never going to use. Ever, not in a million years. You just shoot it; you throw it away. But set it up. Nobody knows that. You set it up, you shoot it, you do one take, and you go, “Great. We’re moving on.” And suddenly the crew’s like, “Oh.” They’re on the balls of their feet, they’re ready to go from there on. Yeah. It’s like little pieces, little things like that. Little bits and pieces that you hear, that you just watch and learn sometimes, just by watching.
And then also George and Ben have like a great respect for each other. George is not telling Ben necessarily like… He’s not talking to him like actor to actor. They’re buddies, but he just has a great respect for Ben, and what he’s doing for the role. And they’re working it out together. And then also Ben with George, he’s not questioning what he’s doing in this sequence, or how he’s moving the camera, or whatever. There’s just a great trust there and a respect. So that was also interesting to see. Both of them being such talented directors and actors, how they collaborated together.
LR: Yeah. There was just a tremendous amount of trust. There was never that feeling of… George was our director, and we were all… We really could feel, in Ben, that there was this wonderful feeling of trust between them. The Sydney Pollack, why that’s so great, and why George doesn’t… He’s a director who doesn’t need to do that, because he has the thing that that’s trying to prove. Which is like very…
LB: And that I know what I want. I know when I have what I want, I know what I want.
TS: Oh, it’s very clear.
LR: It’s so clear. So that trick in the book, which is so great, George is someone who doesn’t need to do that. Because you feel it through the whole cast, through the whole crew, there’s such a wonderful sense of leadership. But I would say about Ben and George, something that… They’re both incredibly curious, very brilliant, very funny. They’re really, really, really funny. But that curiosity, and interest in process, neither one of them is ever going to get to a point where they sort of feel like they have it all figured out. They’re always in that learning process, and that’s what you want on a set. That’s what you want to feel. You want to just feel like everyone is leaning forward, and no one is kind of sitting back. And I think that we felt that across the board.
RM: Thank you so much for your time. Safe travels.
Both: Thank you, you too.
Photos: YouTube, Claire Folger/Amazon