‘The Tender Bar’ stars Lily Rabe, Tye Sheridan talk directors, playing complex characters, George Clooney


Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) and J.R. (Tye Sheridan) in “The Tender Bar.”

Noah Levine, Life & Arts Film Columnist

“The Tender Bar,” directed by George Clooney and based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, follows an aspiring writer, J.R. (Tye Sheridan), from childhood to his senior year of college at Yale. Living out of his grandfather’s house with his single mother (Lily Rabe), J.R. strikes up a fatherly relationship with his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who frequently takes him to the bar he manages. 

The Daily Texan spoke with stars Tye Sheridan (“Ready Player One,” “Mud”) and Lily Rabe (“American Horror Story”) about their work on the touching, coming-of-age story. 

The Daily Texan: Throughout the narrative, years pass by in the characters’ lives. How did you approach your performance as a character through different stages of their lives? 

Tye Sheridan: Good storytelling. You don’t have to tell the full story. You just have to tell enough that people can put the pieces together. If you see an image of a broken glass and then a child running, you might fear that the child is going to step on the broken glass. Give credit to the audience that they’re a lot smarter than you think they are. That’s especially how this movie was structured, so much time has passed and you’ll be catching up in the middle of one scene and realize, “Well, I guess that happened in this relationship.” I think that’s just good storytelling. You’re familiar with the characters’ journey, and where they are going, what they are dealing with. I think that you just hone in on that, that’s no different than doing one scene (and) then another.

Lily Rabe: The script does such a beautiful job with time specifically. I remember when they first sent me the script and I was like, “I get to do the whole thing.” I had two actors playing my son who were very different ages but for Ben and for myself to sort of span that time but to do it with such a delicate hand like George (Clooney) had. He trusts his audience, I don’t need to put a prosthetic on anyone, they know that time has passed. I really felt that watching the movie, you really feel those years go by but it’s done so delicately. And like Tye was saying, George really trusts his audience. I think it’s easier to make movies with a director who trusts his audience and easier to watch them as an audience member. When you feel like you have that trust. 

DT: Tye, since you are playing an older version of your character in the film, did you have any discussions with the actor playing your younger counterpart to prepare for the role?

TS: A little bit. He’s a true New Yorker, the first film he’s ever worked on. He’s a very fast learner, he’s a very talented young actor. It was just a pleasure to see someone like that doing their thing, learning. You could see him along the way picking up things. On the first day he had no idea what continuity was and then by week three he’s like, “Yeah, I need to reset this coffee cup right here.” You’re like, “Jeez, who is this kid?” More professional than me. I gotta step it up. I think we both have a little bit of a crazy family ourselves, me and young Daniel. His grandparents are always around, kind of the same with my family and that’s the same with J.R. Just talking about our crazy families a lot. We would hang out a little bit off set, play basketball on the weekends. We didn’t have a lot of scenes together but we play the same character. We did get to hang out a little bit. It was cool to see George and Ben (Affleck), everybody being that role model a first-time actor looks up to. They’re all patient with him. It reminded me of myself when I was 11 starting to get into film as an actor and stuff. It was cool to see. 

DT: Can you talk about the process of shooting in the midst of the COVID pandemic? How did it affect your experiences on set?

LR: I worked so much during COVID. … It was such a remarkable experience, sort of how different every shoot that I was on (was). Everyone handled it differently. Everything kept changing (in the world) as we were shooting. Listen, we are so lucky to be doing what we do, we love telling stories, but you definitely felt that appreciation in such a big way that we were able to not only do what we love but that we were able to be with this community of people. And I think that kind of preciousness was just very acute and I hope that never goes away because it is so lucky to be able to be with people telling a story. So yeah I thought that very acutely making this movie that we all just, … there was such a kind of wonderful feeling of focus.

LR: During COVID, there really is that feeling that we could get shut down tomorrow, no set is immune.

TS: It was such a pleasant experience. Most of the time (filmmakers) cram (filming) into as little time as they possibly can. … You’re pressed for time and you’re pressed for money. … It’s really strenuous on crews. It’s really hard to make films. … No pressure, not trying to scare you. You can do it but it just takes a lot of hard work. With this movie it was just very relaxed, very fun, we were telling a story that everybody cared about. Everyone was excited to be there. Everybody was really genuinely enjoying the experience of making that film. That doesn’t happen enough. 

DT: What’s one key thing you look for when deciding to join a project?

LR: The filmmaker or the creator, whatever that voice is. In TV it’s often the creator, in film it is the director. For me anyway, I think when I was younger I fell in love with a part and I fell in love with a script. I felt like if I loved it enough I could do it in a vacuum. I just wanted to play the part. I think as I worked more and more, I’ve realized it really isn’t great doing it alone if you don’t have that person whose vision you’re melding with. 

TS: You could have the greatest performance in the world but if the filmmaker can’t execute the movie, it doesn’t matter

LR: It’s never going to be the experience that you want it to be.

TS: We’ve all been there.

LR: It’s amazing, it’s that lightning in a bottle that you’re always looking for when you have that feeling about the part and the script and the filmmaker. That really happened here for me where everything aligned and it felt like George was exactly the right person to be telling this story. George has a tremendous amount of optimism and heart. … Not only wonderful things happen in the movie but you still do leave with this feeling of positivity and of hope. That’s really how George looks through the world.

DT: What’s a common thread you’ve noticed between effective directors?

LR: For me, it’s someone not making fear-based decisions.

TS: That they know what they want. That they’re not thinking, “Oh, I need to shoot this shot but then I need to have time to get this shot that I might or might not use.” That is no fun. What you want is somebody that has a singular vision that they adhere to. They let the story dictate their choices, … not some fear-based decisions. Where they think they gotta cover their ass and get enough coverage for the scene because they are thinking about being in the editing room. 

LR: It always makes your blood run a little cold when a director says, “I think we’ve got it!” and then you see them go off to talk to 10 people. That’s never a good feeling.

TS: I’ve worked with a lot of really great filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader, Terry Malik, Jeff Nichols, George Clooney, all of them — except for Terry Malik — know what they want, for the most part. Whenever someone asks them what they want, they are very quick to make a decision. They have a clear vision so I think that would be the consistent thread between filmmakers.

DT: I’m studying to be a director so I will make sure to never walk off set and talk to 10 people in front of my actors.

LR: It’s OK! Of course you want to, you need your support. But … just don’t do it in front of your actors.