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Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Lily Rabe & cast – Knocking Down a Few Cold Ones at The Tender Bar

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.