Producing partners Grant Heslov and George Clooney attempted to purchase the film rights to The Tender Bar 15 years ago, immediately after Heslov read the memoir. They were unsuccessful back then, but eventually the script landed at Amazon and former co-head of movies at Amazon Studios Ted Hope reached out to inquire if Heslov and Clooney were interested in being involved.
“It came back to us somehow,” said Heslov during a virtual press conference hosted by Amazon Studios.
Based on J.R. Moehringer’s bestselling memoir and directed by two-time Oscar winner George Clooney, The Tender Bar explores the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s childhood and reveals the colorful characters who influenced his life. The cast includes Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Christopher Lloyd, Lily Rabe, Briana Middleton, and Daniel Ranieri. Oscar-winner William Monahan adapted the memoir for the screen and Clooney, Heslov, and Hope produced.
“It was a tremendous experience just as an actor to be…it’s a collaborative medium and no matter what anybody tells you, you can only be as good as the material, as the director, as the other actors in it. In that sense this was so profoundly lucky for me,” said two-time Oscar winner Ben Affleck, describing working on the drama. “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. I must be the first person. I can’t quite believe it.’ I was really grateful.”
Affleck added, “And then the cast got populated around me and I met [Daniel Ranieri] and we worked together, and he was so fabulous. I knew George and Grant well and I really liked them and loved working with them. You know, every once in a while something really great happens in your life and you just sort of hope that you’re ready and able to capitalize on that.”
Affleck had high praise for all of his The Tender Bar co-stars including Lily Rabe who plays his sister. Affleck credits Rabe with being a life raft when he was lost or confused in a scene.
Affleck also spoke about his long-time admiration for Christopher Lloyd. He recalled that when Back to the Future starring Lloyd and Matthew J. Fox was first released, he believed it was the best picture ever made. “[Christopher Lloyd] was the first celebrity I ever saw walking in real life, walking around the streets of Boston I assume doing a play there – although I’ve been too shy to really follow up with Chris and ask him that because I’m still too starstruck and intimidated,” confessed Affleck, laughing.
As for working with director George Clooney, Affleck said Clooney created a safe, welcoming atmosphere where the cast was given every opportunity to succeed. “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.”
Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) believes everyone involved arrived on set with wide-opened hearts and eager to collaborate. “There was no second-guessing; there was just an openness that was really palpable and remarkable to experience across the board,” said Rabe. “We all felt very privileged to be telling such a quiet story and such a delicate story.”
Christopher Lloyd stars as the Moehringer family patriarch, father to Affleck and Rabe’s characters and grandfather to Ranieri and Sheridan’s. Lloyd didn’t find it necessary to do anything special prior to filming to foster the family dynamic. “I feel the ideal situation that this was, there was kind of an innate trust in each other because we’re all trying to achieve the same thing,” said Lloyd. “It’s kind of a collaboration just by its nature, which is great. When you have that going on, you can do your thing and not have to apologize.”
The Tender Bar marks Briana Middleton’s first feature film and she was thrilled to be part of the talented ensemble. “Getting to bring this particular life in the body that I’m in as a Black woman I think was really exciting,” said Middleton. “The most important thing that George taught me that I’ve taken on other projects already is just that I can trust myself. He’s such a kind, generous person and that comes out in the way that he directs his actors. I felt…especially being very new…I felt very trusted. I thought, ‘Okay, if he’s not worried about me I don’t need to worry about myself.’”
Newcomer Daniel Ranieri plays J.R. Moehringer as a boy while Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One, The Card Counter) takes on the role of J.R. as a young man. The Tender Bar has an unusual twist in that the younger and the more mature versions of the character share a scene. That said, the two J.R.s didn’t have much of an opportunity to work together but did spend some of their downtime getting to know each other.
“The [shared scene] wasn’t in the screenplay that I read when the project first came my way. It was more of an idea, I think, that George had been playing around with, this idea of the clash of these two characters…really a confrontation of his younger self to confront his direction in life,” explained Sheridan.
“He told me 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 this dream scene. I think it’s going to be really cool.’ He sent it to me and I read it; it was great. So, I’m glad we got one scene,” said Sheridan.
“We were shooting simultaneously so it was almost like we were building the character together at the same time,” offered Sheridan. “George was just at the helm directing that and making sure we were both growing in the right way through the performance and the life of the shoot.”
Daniel Ranieri agreed and added, “Me and Tye actually have a relationship in real life now. I love him so much like my big brother. The scene that we got together was just great and the way that George made it up was just impeccable.”
J.R. Moehringer’s memoir is dedicated to his mother, Dorothy, and Lily Rabe said the book and William Monahan’s script were a mine of riches when it came to being able to understand Dorothy and figure out how to play her.
“There were so many beautiful things to sort of fill my suitcase with before showing up to start shooting,” said Lily Rabe. “I had a very wonderful mother and something which she had…she’s very different from Dorothy but my mother was someone who really, from the beginning of my life, there are these periods of time that we have where we sort of feel like we are in waiting for the good things to start happening, to figure out who we are, to figure out what we love, to figure out what we’re going to do next – between break-ups or between jobs. Or at the age that J.R. is in the film, trying to figure out what that is.
My mother was so brilliant at sort of 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 sort of down moments, in those moments of stillness, and that feeling of waiting, which you feel so much 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 playing of this part.”
Asked what he learned from working on The Tender Bar and what he’ll take with him going forward, Tye Sheridan replied, “That’s super important about every project you take on, right? You feel like you want to make sure it’s challenging you and you’re growing through it. I think this movie I felt a personal connection to it in so many ways – one, in the relationship that J.R. has with his mother. I spent a lot of time just me and my mom when I was younger and I think it really made me reflect back on those times. And then 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. I think Uncle Charlie does that in multiple ways in this film.”
Sheridan added, “Also, I think J.R. spent so much time longing for someone or something that he feels is absent in his life. And he comes to the realization that maybe he’s been looking in the wrong places, that what he actually needs – what’s purely necessary – has been there all along. I think we all have that moment in our lives and it’s amazing to get to explore that through character and specifically in this story.”
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The Tender Bar opened in theaters on December 22, 2021 and will be available on Prime Video on January 7, 2022.