Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd, Briana Middleton, Daniel Ranieri, William Monahan and Grant Heslov
Knocking Down a Few Cold Ones at The Tender Bar
by Jay S. Jacobs
With big names like Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan and director George Clooney, you’d think that The Tender Bar would be a huge blockbuster. However, it is a more intimate film, a sweet, nostalgic coming of age story based on the popular memoir of the same name by JR Moehringer.
The intimacy brings out some of their best work, with a solid cast that also features Lily Rabe, Christopher Lloyd and exciting first-time actors Briana Middleton and Daniel Ranieri. With a smart screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed), the film tells the story of growing up in the 1970s and 1980s with an eccentric but vibrant family outside of New York, where the family business is a tap room called The Dickens.
Young JR Moehringer (played by Ranieri as a boy and Sheridan as a young man) learns about life and love in that house and that bar – even though his disk jockey father is almost never around. As he grows older, he experiences school, unrequited love and even works for The New York Times – but JR always returns home.
A couple of weeks before The Tender Bar started its limited release in theaters, and a few more before it premiered on Amazon Prime, we were able to take part in a press conference with cast members Affleck, Sheridan, Rabe, Lloyd, Middleton and Ranieri, as well as screenwriter William Monahan and producer Grant Heslov.
Grant, I want to start with you because it’s my understanding that you’re the one that first read this book, and then pitched it to your production company partner, George Clooney. I’m curious to know how exactly you found the book. How did you sell it to George, what did you tell him that made him be on board?
Grant Heslov: Well, I wish it were that easy. I read the book when it came out about 15 years ago. I loved it. I called George and I said let’s go after this book. We went after it, and we didn’t get it. Then it went into development in various places. Cut to 15 years later, I got a call from Ted Hope, who was then running Amazon and said, “Hey, we’ve got this script. Nobody’s seen it. Literally. We just got it last night. We want to send it to you guys see if you’re interested in doing it.” So, they sent it, we read it. That was it. It came back to us somehow. But it was because of the screenplay that this guy wrote.
William, from your point of view, how did it enter your life? Why did you determine it was a good fit for you?
William Monahan: I’d read the book when it came out. I thought it was remarkable. Most first books by first time authors, they tend to throw their backgrounds and families under the bus, use them for material and mythologize themselves. You can go to Hemingway, Fitzgerald or anything in the 20th century. But this book by JR, it was about a guy who loved his family, and his family loved him. I thought this is great. When it came around and Amazon asked me to do it, I said yes, immediately. It was just really good fortune that Grant and George were in a state of readiness. It’s a very happy circumstance.
Ben, from your point of view, it’s just so cool to see this very impressive cast. I know Christopher Lloyd is someone you’ve idolized for a long time. Then you’re also working with these really exciting younger actors as well. What was it like for you to finally get a chance to work with Chris? What was your experience working with all these other people in the cast?
Ben Affleck: It was a tremendous experience just as an actor. It’s a collaborative medium. No matter what anybody tells you, you can only be as good – and do things as good as the material – as the director, as the other actors in it. In that sense it was so profoundly lucky for me. It was one of those cases where it was hard for me to understand. I read the script and thought, “Well, nobody’s passed on this, so I must be the first person and I can’t quite believe it.” I was really, really grateful. Then the cast got populated around me. I met this guy (motions to Daniel Ranieri), and we worked together, and he was so fabulous. I knew George and Grant well. I really liked them and love working with them. Every once in a while, something really great happens in your life, and you just hope that you’re ready and able to capitalize on that. Showed up and to work with Lily, where if you’re lost or confused – as I frequently am in scenes and wonder what I should do next – she’s like a life raft. As you’re flailing around in the ocean, you feel like okay, I’ll just follow her. And Chris, when Back to the Future came out, I was: “well, that ends the debate about the best picture ever made. That’s it.” Then I saw him. He was the first celebrity I ever saw in real life walking around the streets of Boston, I think doing a play there. I’ve been too shy to really follow up with Chris and ask him that, because I’m still too starstruck and intimidated.
In all senses across the board. Ending with George, who as a director, everything comes down from the top. He created this enormously welcoming, safe, beautiful atmosphere, where you felt like you can succeed. You felt like you could take chances. You felt as though people were working collectively and rooting for one another. One of his many, many gifts, is his deep understanding of actors and what it is that will help us be successful and his tremendous affinity for and fondness and compassion for actors. It shows. He is in his formative years, I get the sense, where he still sees himself as that guy showing up in LA and sleeping on Grant’s couch. Or Grant sleeping on his couch. Or them both sleeping on the couch together, whatever it was, and trying to make it in this business. He has a lot of compassion; how hard that is, how much rejection it is, and how much self-doubt can be involved in that. How when you get a chance to do something, you really want to be afforded the best opportunity to succeed. He’s very generous in that he gives that to everyone else. In particular, to me my performance benefited so much from his experience and wisdom and talent and his generosity. He’d say, “try this and try that” and inevitably, invariably made the scenes better. So usually you get on these things, these interviews and you sort of bullshit and say you liked everybody in it was great, and it’s very nice to actually be able to tell the truth.
Daniel, it’s such a cool kind of 21st century story of your mom’s shooting a video, which went viral and then ended up on Joel McHale’s Instagram and then you’re on Jimmy Kimmel, and George and Grant see it and who is this kid? Here you are in your first movie. I’m curious to know, when you got the part and thought about what this experience would be like, was doing this movie and acting for the first time easier or harder than you thought it would be?
Daniel Ranieri: To be honest, it was easier than I thought it would be.
Ben Affleck: That’s why he’s good.
Daniel Ranieri: The first scene I was nervous, but then after it I said oh wait, why? No reason to be nervous. It is easy. Then the rest of the scenes. I just wasn’t nervous. We just filmed there and had a good time. I loved the experience. It was so good. When my mom actually told me I got the part, I was so happy. I was running all around the house because I was so happy.
Ben Affleck: What did George say to make you not nervous?
Daniel Ranieri: Not to look directly into the camera, because then you get nervous.
Ben Affleck: Grant, If you learned that lesson, things could have been very different today.
Grant Heslov: I know. I’m looking in the camera right now and look…
William Monahan: I’ve got my glasses off. I don’t even know where the camera is.
Lily, I really like how Ben just described you as a life raft on set. What do you like to project on set to your other actors?
Lily Rabe: I think that’s something that was so remarkable about this group of people. Sometimes you walk onto a set, and you’ll be with other actors – or a director, or someone in the group, or multiple people – where you feel there’s a defensive posturing. People have come in, and they’re there to give their performance that they’ve made these choices about… and you can be there with them. This was the opposite experience in every single way. It was like every person, every actor, George, Grant, everyone arrived at the set with these wide-open hearts and this incredible curiosity and this incredible trust. There was no second guessing.
There was just an openness that was really palpable and remarkable to experience across the board. I think in the telling of a story like this, which is so heart forward, it was such a generous experience. George is such a generous director to his actors. I think he’s also very generous director to his audience. He doesn’t try to control what their experience is going to be and he’s never trying to control you as an actor. My hope is to always be able to come in from that place to a set. It’s a lot easier when you’re just surrounded by that kind of energy and genuine collaboration. Also just a sense we all felt very privileged to be telling such a quiet story and such a delicate story.
Christopher, when you’re in a movie like this, where the family dynamic is so important, is there something that you as an actor like to do with your castmates to foster a family dynamic that will then transfer to the screen?
Christopher Lloyd: I feel an ideal situation that this was, this kind of trust in each other, because we’re all trying to achieve the same thing for the same people. So, it’s a collaboration just by its nature. Which is great when you have that going on. You could do your thing and not have to apologize for it.
Briana, this is your first feature film. What was the most exciting aspect of working on this project? And what did George Clooney teach you that you might bring to future projects?
Briana Middleton: Everything was exciting. I love the script. After getting the part, I loved reading the book. I didn’t work with most of the people here. I mainly worked with Tye but getting to be a part of a cast like this was really exciting. Getting to bring this particular character to life in the body that I’m in as a black woman, I think was really exciting. I think the most important thing that George taught me that I’ve taken on other projects already was just that I can trust myself. Lily was saying that he’s such a kind, generous person. That comes out in the way that he directs his actors. Especially being very new, I felt very trusted and thought, “Okay, if he’s not worrying about me, then I don’t need to worry about myself.”
Tye not only are you and Daniel in this movie together playing the same character, but you actually have a scene together, which is such a unique thing. In playing the same character at different ages, how closely did you to work together to be able to do that and make the performances consistent?
Tye Sheridan: We didn’t really get to work too closely. There was a lot of overlap. We were shooting on the same days, and we would often have lunch together. So, we got to know each other a little bit off camera. Actually, that scene that you’re referring to wasn’t originally in the screenplay that I read when the project first came my way. I think that George had been playing around with this idea of the clash of these two characters. A confrontation of his younger self, to confront his direction in life. He told me like three or four weeks into production, “Hey, I’m working on this really cool scene. It’s between you and Daniel.” I’m like, really? He’s like, “Yeah, it’s a dream scene, I think it’s going to be really cool.” They sent it to me, and I read it. It was great. I’m glad we got we got one scene. Maybe Daniel can speak to this a little bit. We were, like I said, we were shooting simultaneously. It’s almost like we were building the character together at the same time, and George was just at the helm of directing that and making sure we were are both growing in the right way through the performance in the life of the shoot. What do you think Daniel?
Daniel Ranieri: Yes, the same thing. Me and you had lunch together in your trailer sometimes offset. It was just great. Me and Tye actually have a relation in real life now. I love him so much like my big brother.
Tye Sheridan: Aww, love you too buddy.
Daniel Ranieri: The scene that we got together was just great. The way George made it up was just impeccable and it was great.
Ben Affleck: You got to swear a lot.
Tye Sheridan: That’s what he was most excited about. You liked to slap me in the head. It was fun. Best scene in the movie.
In the film JR looks up to Uncle Charlie not only as a father figure but as a guy who he admires. Ben, when you were growing up, who in your life did you most look up to?
Ben Affleck: I have a number of people in my life that I was lucky enough to have really support me, in particular as regards [to] my ambitions. My father, interestingly, was also a guy who was a self-taught guy and then goes to college and was a similar sort of reverse class snob. But [he] was very, very interested in language and writing and storytelling and imbued in me at a young age an appreciation for that. You didn’t have to be a fancy person or a rich person or have gone to a cool school to use language well and to understand it. Understand the power of storytelling has become available to everybody in a very democratic way. My godfather, Jack McNeese is an extremely important figure in my life, my whole life, in so many ways.
I had a drama teacher who was extraordinarily inspiring and influential, without whose genuine belief – at least, I believed he believed in me, I don’t know whether he really did – but he seemed very authentic when he gave me a sense of confidence about going out being able to do this. So, it didn’t seem reckless and crazy and absurd to just go out to LA and decide that I could be in movies. Despite the fact that nobody wanted me in their movies, or their television show, or even as an extra or anything, I thought, “well, Jerry thinks I’m good, so I probably am, I guess.” That’s an incredibly powerful thing that people are able to provide young people as mentors. It’s an undervalued role in society. It makes a huge difference, I think.
William, what were the main assets of JR’s memoir for you? And what were the main challenges of translating it into cinematic language?
William Monahan: Well, the main problem always is you’re looking at a 400–500-page book and you’ve got to bring it in about 115 or 120 pages. If you had done a straight adaptation of the book, you would have had to have the kid, a teenager, and the young man. One of those had to go. That had to be the teenager, I guess. Try to make the young boy work with the college age kid was the way you had to go with it. As far as assets are concerned, the book itself, it’s just a mine of riches. I grew up at the same time. I think JR’s three or four years younger than I am. So, we did the same thing. We’re journalists in New York at the same time. I come from the same sort of background – less farting and septic – but same sort of background with very tough, literate Irish uncles. It just suited me. It suited me to the ground to do it. But it was a great challenge because a lot of people love the book. You don’t want to screw up. So, many assets.
Grant, the music in the film is almost its own character, and really helped set the overall tone. Was that a deliberate choice? And how involved were you in George in the song selection process?
Grant Heslov: Before we started shooting, we decided that we weren’t going to have a lot of traditional score for the film. We normally work with Alexandre Desplat, who we just love to work with. But as soon as the film started, we wanted to put people in the period. Even when we’re shooting George and I would just walk around with our phones and just play each other songs and say, “How about this one?” “How about this one?” That’s basically how we did it. Then when we started to see cut scenes, we would just take our iPhone and put it up and listen to it with the scene on. Then we got a great music supervisor who, once they told us what you can’t afford all those songs, then we said, “Okay, well, these are the kind of the songs we want.” Then we the big-ticket ones, the ones we couldn’t live without, the Paul Simon and Jackson Browne and some of those, that’s where we spent our money. The rest we had to do a little wheeling and dealing.
Lily, what were your biggest sources of inspiration in coming up with your characterization of Dorothy?
Lily Rabe: The script, and the memoir. The memoir, like he said, was just a mine of riches. It’s dedicated to his mother and there were so many beautiful things to fill my suitcase with before showing up to start shooting. I had a very wonderful mother. (ed. note: Her late mother was the Oscar-winning actress Jill Clayburgh.) She’s very different from Dorothy. But my mother was someone who from the beginning of my life, these periods of time that we have, where we feel like we are in waiting for the good things to start happening, to figure out what we’re going to do next between breakups are between jobs or at the age that that JR is in the film trying to figure out what that is, my mother was so brilliant at pointing me in the direction of realizing that there’s so much life to be had, in those moments in between. There’s so much opportunity for joy in the down moments. In those moments of stillness and that feeling of waiting, which you feel so much as a as a young person and then throughout your life. That was such a remarkable quality in my mother that I hope I was able to carry through in the in the playing of this part.
Grant Heslov: It wasn’t a bad actress either. Just want to say that.
Christopher, when it comes to accepting roles, what is it that you’re looking for in a project?
Christopher Lloyd: I guess when I read the part for the first time, I want to feel that I could connect with something about the person that everybody else can connect with if I do it right. Otherwise what’s the point?
Briana, Sydney is a very complex character, and that it’s very tough to side with or against her, depending on the situation. Is this something that you felt while playing her?
Briana Middleton: Yes and no. I hope people feel conflicted on how to feel about her throughout the film. As the person playing her, I was just an advocate for her and totally on her side. I’m glad that we get to see her family. There’s a scene with her family and we get to see the world that she comes from. I hope that adds an element to her, other than being the crazy girlfriend that breaks this guy’s heart. She’s very complex. I think she’s someone who knows what her trajectory is. Maybe conflicted about what that is and is still a young person, but [she] understands the world that she’s in. Where she comes from and the expectations that she has. I think we’re just seeing her figure that out, too. He just happens to get caught in the wake of it.
Ben Affleck: I just want to say this for purely selfish reasons, because I like to be right about things and validated later on. George is so good at casting. It’s no secret that Lily’s great, and Chris is great and Tye. [He] assembled all these amazing people but I hope that people remember this movie and like it for a lot of reasons. But I can promise you that this movie will be remembered for sure as Briana’s first movie. I watched the performance last night on a big screen, which I hadn’t seen it on. I know, big screen, there’s a lot of debate about this. But what is true, the bigger screen is bigger. Watching the nuances to her performance; the delicacy, the honesty, the elegance, the degree to which she didn’t judge, the character didn’t allow the audience to judge the character.
(He speaks directly to Briana.) The extraordinary presence that you have. I don’t know you. We didn’t get to work together. And I’m really sorry, now. You’re a spectacular actor. I think you’re going to have a really long, successful career. This will be “Do you know what her first movie was?” Our first movie was this. “There’s a little movie. Do you remember that actor Ben Affleck in his seventies? Anyway, George Clooney was a director. That was her first movie.” I think all of us will go down as footnotes as being in your first movie. I have not seen an actor that come out in the first performance and be that sophisticated, intelligent, as delicate. I mean, hey, look, what do I know? But I thought you’re fabulous.
Briana Middleton: Thank you, Ben.
This is being recorded. So you’re going to have that, Briana.
Ben Affleck: I want you to tell me I was right.
Tye, JR learns a lot from Uncle Charlie. What is something that you learned from him or from this film experience that you can adapt and use in your everyday life?
Tye Sheridan: That’s super important about every project you take on, right? I mean, you feel like you want to make sure it’s challenging you and you’re growing through it. think that this movie, man I felt a personal connection to it in so many ways. One in the relationship JR has with his mother. I spent a lot of time just me and my mom when I was younger. It really made me reflect back on those times. Also, a lot of times you find yourself stuck in life. You find yourself in a rut. You find yourself in desperate need of advice or desperate need for someone to call you out on your crap. Uncle Charlie does that in multiple ways in this film. We were talking about last night how important role models are in your life. How they can make or break you if you don’t have those people in your life. That’s one thing that I’ve learned through playing this character. Also, I think that JR spent so much time longing for someone or something that he feels is absent in his life. He comes to the realization that maybe he’s been looking in the wrong place. What he actually needs, what’s purely necessary has been there all along. I think that we all have that moment in our lives. It’s amazing to get to explore that through character, and specifically in this story.
Copyright ©2022 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 7, 2022.
Photo #1 ©2021. Courtesy of Amazon Studios. All rights reserved.
Photos #2-10 ©2021 Claire Folger. Courtesy of Amazon Studios. All rights reserved.