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[This interview contains spoilers for The Card Counter.]
Tye Sheridan was just an 11-year-old kid from Texas when he was cast in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, an experience he compares to “summer camp.” He wasn’t expected to learn lines or even give a performance, but Malick’s set put him on a trajectory towards Jeff Nichols’ Mud and David Gordon Green’s Joe, which cemented his decision to become an actor. Sheridan, now 24, has since played Scott Summers/Cyclops in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise and starred in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, but he credits it all to those early days with Malick, Nichols and Green.
“I was only 11-years-old when I worked on The Tree of Life. I was not an actor yet, you know? I was just a kid from a small town in Texas who happened to be working in a movie,” Sheridan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So [Malick, Nichols and Green] really left an impression on me at a young age and they definitely inspired me. If I didn’t have my start with them, I don’t know if I would be doing what I’m doing now.”
Sheridan recently returned to the big screen in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, alongside Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish. Sheridan and Isaac already knew each other from 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which proved to be useful when Schrader caught them both off guard with a rather unusual approach to their first scene together.
“I was a little nervous, I’m not going to lie. I was trying to feel this character out and trying to feel Paul out,” Sheridan recalls. “So just before we started this big scene on the first day, Paul said, ‘Guys, I want you to start in the middle of the scene, from this line.’ So I was just thrown for a loop. I was thinking, ‘I don’t even know what this scene is and what it needs to be. So how am I going to just take it from the middle of the scene?’ So that’s a perfect example of his style, his thought process and where he wants to spend his time, focus and energy in the scene. So that definitely keeps you on your toes, but… I loved working with Paul.”
In November 2020, author Ernest Cline released Ready Player Two, the follow-up to Ready Player One, which Spielberg adapted in 2018. Naturally, Sheridan devoured Cline’s new book with great interest, but he’s still in the dark as far as the cinematic future of the property. (Ready Player One grossed nearly $600 million and received generally positive reviews.)
“Yeah, I read [Ready Player Two]. It’s interesting,” Sheridan says. “I love Ernie. I love all the places that he’s able to go and the worlds that he’s able to imagine. So it’s always fun reading his books. And in regard to a sequel of the film, I have no idea where they’re at or what the talks are at the studio. It’s just not up to me.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Sheridan also discusses working with Spielberg, as well as the common thread among all the acclaimed storytellers he’s collaborated with in his young career. Then he looks back at Scott Summers/Cyclops and what made the role so unexpectedly challenging.
In The Card Counter, whenever your character, Cirk, introduces himself, he mentions that it’s “Cirk with a c.” Is Tye with an e something you also have to say?
(Laughs.) That’s a good question. Well, people always ask me if it’s Tyler or if it’s just Tye. And when I say, “It’s just Tye,” they’re like, “Oh wow, it’s just Tye?” When I say my name over the phone or when somebody asks for my information, I usually say, “It’s Tye. T-Y-E.” So I like to spell it out for people because sometimes people think it’s, like, Kyle… (Laughs.) I guess my mom just wanted to make it difficult for everyone. (Laughs.)
Every time I watch movies that involve gambling or card games, whether it’s The Card Counter or something like Rounders, I get the itch to gamble, something I never do. Did you get a similar urge while shooting this?
Not really. I think I’m generally turned off by casinos just because of the cigarette smoke. If I had a role where I was actually counting cards, I think I would’ve been more interested in playing cards, but I’m not too much of a gambler. At least not in casinos anyway. I’ve got good self-control. (Laughs.) I do like to play poker.
Your characters may have had a moment on the battlefield at the end, but did you and Oscar get to know each other at all on X-Men: Apocalypse?
Yeah, a little bit. We didn’t have a lot of scenes together, but we were there for so long. So you have downtime, and everybody kind of hangs out together. So yeah, we got to know each other pretty good in Montreal when we shot X-Men, and I’ve always really liked Oscar. He’s a great actor, and he’s a really great guy, too. So when this project came around and he was attached, I was immediately excited by that. I was also excited by the fact that it’s a Paul Schrader movie. But yeah, Oscar is a super cool guy. We have very similar taste in music, and we’re always giving each other different music recommendations, so that’s always a lot of fun.
Since you both play guitar, was there an acoustic on set?
I don’t think so. I don’t think there was too much time between takes, at least not for Oscar and for Paul. I want to say we shot the movie in either 20 days or a little over 20 days, so it was a super-fast shoot. We were very much on the move all day long and just pushing to make our days. So there wasn’t a whole lot of downtime.
And the pandemic interrupted those 20 days?
Well, we shot this movie before Covid until we got delayed in production. We shot the movie in four weeks, but at the end of the third week and the beginning of the fourth week, the producers decided to shut down the production because someone had tested positive on our crew. So that was at the beginning of March, and then we came back to Mississippi in July. And that was very much in the height of Covid, but we finished the last week of shooting. So it was pretty interesting. I had never experienced a production that was put on hold. I live in Texas, and I remember driving back to Texas from Mississippi on a Monday morning. We were supposed to be shooting, but they just told me to drive home. So as I drove home, I just remember thinking, “Man, I wonder if we’re ever going to finish this movie.” In the second week of shooting before the delay, I remember Paul saying to me, “I don’t think we’re going to finish the film.” And I was thinking, “I think he’s just paranoid. There’s no way.” That was right when we had the first cases in the U.S., and sure enough, it spread super fast and even hit somebody on our crew. So we had to shut down the production, and it got very real, very fast. But we took all of the necessary protocols when we were back in July.
It sounds like Schrader had more foresight than most of our leaders.
Yeah, he was obsessed with coronavirus. You asked the question about playing guitar between takes, but Paul was reading coronavirus updates between takes, between every setup. He was just constantly following the news and obsessed with it.
How did Schrader direct you and Oscar most of the time? What was that dynamic like?
In this case, it was very much Oscar’s movie, and even the way that the schedule laid out, I was kind of in and out. Some days, I wouldn’t even shoot the whole day. I would just come in after they’d already been shooting for a couple of hours. So I didn’t get to spend as much time with Paul on set as maybe Oscar did. I mean, you can look at it one of two ways. When you’re working with a living legend like Paul Schrader or Steven Spielberg or someone of that caliber, you can look at it like, “Oh, that’s intimidating,” or, “Wow, this is really exciting because this guy has made so many great films and I can’t wait to learn and watch him in action.” So for me, the feeling is always the latter. It’s always excitement rather than intimidation. But Paul, he’s a bit of a nutcracker. He’s very transparent. He’ll tell you if he thinks a take wasn’t good or that you shouldn’t do something or that the choice you made was wrong. “I don’t think you should do it that way.” He’s very transparent in that sense, which is great. He’s straightforward, and he doesn’t do a lot of takes. He’s very economical in his style and that took me a bit to get used to.
On the first day, we were doing this scene by the pool, and it’s where Oscar’s character and my character make this bet with each other. And I was a little nervous, I’m not going to lie. I was trying to feel this character out and trying to feel Paul out. So just before we started this big scene on the first day, Paul said, “Guys, I want you to start in the middle of the scene, from this line.” So I was just thrown for a loop. (Laughs.) I was thinking, “I don’t even know what this scene is and what it needs to be. So how am I going to just take it from the middle of the scene?” He told us, “I’m only going to be in this shot for the later half of the scene. I don’t need you for the beginning of the scene. Just start in the middle of the scene.” So that’s a perfect example of his style, his thought process and where he wants to spend his time, focus and energy in the scene. So that definitely keeps you on your toes, but it was fun. I loved working with Paul.
So Cirk isn’t your finest fashion hour. He even wears socks with flip flops at one point. Plus, his hair is unkempt, and he doesn’t really clean up after himself. But then I quickly realized that Schrader was creating a contrast between Cirk and Tell (Isaac), who’s obsessively well-groomed. Did you guys explicitly discuss Cirk as being the polar opposite of Tell despite a shared interest?
I don’t think there was an explicit conversation about it, but I will say that Paul wanted me to cut my hair and be a bit more groomed. But when we started talking about it, I told him, “Maybe, he’s just kind of unkempt. I don’t think he’s a guy who cares much about his physical appearance.” That was just my perspective on the character. So initially, we talked about him being more groomed, and Paul mentioned a ’50s greaser, rock and roll-style at one point. And then, obviously, we strayed very far from that, but I’m sure it was something he thought about. You know, I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the current fashion trends, but actually, flip flops and socks are cool these days. (Laughs.)
I loved how Cirk and Tell both said, “You live like this?” when walking into each other’s hotel rooms.
Yeah, Paul was really excited about that as well. That’s interesting you bring that up because their past lives are kind of like a mirrored image of each other. They are connected through the events of their past, both indirectly and directly for Tell. So having them be polar opposite in so many ways and also having them share these similarities, even intricacies in how the narrative is woven like that, they mirror each other, I think. That was definitely something Paul was conscious of doing in the film, which I thought was really clever.
The climactic motel scene is something else as Tell confronted Cirk with an offer. There’s the old cliché that acting is reacting, but when you have an intimate, front-row seat to Oscar giving that kind of performance, it felt like a scene where you could only react naturally.
Oh yeah. The best acting is when you are just feeling what you need to feel, and I think that there’s no question about that. Oscar is an incredible guy to be opposite of and an incredible actor to play against. And yeah, all you have to do is just watch what he’s doing, you know? It’s like you’re playing catch with a baseball and he’s throwing you something. You’re receiving it, you’re throwing it back and he’s receiving it. And when actors are doing that, you can see the chemistry with people on screen and how they’re tuned in to what each person is doing. Some of film’s best duos occur when the actors are doing that with each other, and you can see the same thing when people are in two different movies. You can see when somebody is doing this thing and when somebody is playing it completely different, and they can’t find that bridge. That’s something that I’m aware of when I’m working, maybe subconsciously, but it’s definitely evident with Oscar and how he works as well.
[The next question and answer contains spoilers for The Card Counter.]
Tell offered Cirk a fresh start, at least financially, as long as he reconnected with his mother. How did you rationalize his decision to renege on the deal and pursue revenge instead?
At the end of the day, we’re all just alone in the world. We’re all just so alone with our feelings. This movie is largely about reckoning with past events, with past trauma, and how you move forward or don’t. It’s a very important topic because everybody has had events in the past that affect them now, whether that be who your family is or where you’re from or what’s occurred in your childhood. And that’s especially the case with Cirk; he just can’t shake it. He feels like he would get some satisfaction out of following through with this plan to get revenge and that it’s the only way to heal the pain that he suffers from, so to speak. And he’s obviously very stubborn. So maybe in the moment, that deal sounds really good, but once the adrenaline wears off and everything, you start falling back into an old cycle of thought. So I think that’s probably what happened. He just rationalizes that, “All the money in the world won’t make me believe that this isn’t the justice that I should serve.” So that’s really what it’s about. It’s about serving justice.
So have you read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player Two yet?
Yeah, I read it. It’s interesting. I love Ernie. I love all the places that he’s able to go and the worlds that he’s able to imagine. So it’s always fun reading his books. And in regard to a sequel of the film, I have no idea where they’re at or what the talks are at the studio. It’s just not up to me.
As an actor, you’re always under a microscope as pressure comes with the territory. I know we touched on this a little bit already, but when you’re on set with Steven Spielberg, are you ever able to mute the voice in your head that’s reminding you of the fact that arguably the greatest director of all time is analyzing your every move?
Yeah, I think it’s much more simple than that. It’s really about what your job at hand is, and that’s telling a story to the best of your ability. Everybody on set moves with that purpose, and every thought and move should be directed by that, whether it’s a $200,000 movie or a $200 million movie. You’re there to tell a story and to connect with people through that story. And really, after the first-day butterflies and pre-game jitters die off, it really just becomes about that. It’s just as simple as that. Did we get the right performance? Did we get the right take? Did we play it the right way? You’re a team with your director, and they are the singular vision that’s pushing the film forward. And you’re trying your best to give it your all and bring your perspective and experience to it in a collaborative way. It’s funny. When I first found out, I thought, “Oh wow, I’m going to be working with Steven Spielberg,” and there’s a bit of nervousness there, naturally. But it’s also the excitement that I talked about earlier. It’s pure excitement of having the opportunity. And how many people get to have that opportunity? Not many. So I’m grateful for that and the people that I get to work with. I love what I do. I love that I’ve fallen into the film business, and it’s a beautiful way to connect with people. It’s cool that I’ve gotten to work with a few living legends along the way and see them in action and see how hard they work. It just further proves the point that if you want to be successful at anything, you have to fully dedicate yourself. You have to fully focus all of your energy and work hard. That’s mostly what I’ve learned by being surrounded by successful people from a pretty young age. They’re all very focused and they work very hard. And Steven’s no different. He’s up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., sending the writer notes, which is probably not the most fun experience for the writer. (Laughs.) But it just goes to show how much his brain is working and how much energy he’s actually putting into his projects. And I have to say that it’s pretty impressive that he’s doing it at his age.
Did Mud feel like your second first movie, in a way, since Jeff Nichols’ set was so markedly different from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life set?
Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it. I mean, Mud was similar in some ways, but definitely more structured. And I was only 11-years-old when I worked on The Tree of Life. I was not an actor yet, you know? I was just a kid from a small town in Texas who happened to be working in a movie, and I wasn’t expected to learn the lines or deliver a performance. Maybe they were hopeful that I would deliver a performance, but I don’t think there was any real pressure in the sense that there always is by learning your lines and crafting a character. It almost felt like summer camp on The Tree of Life, and I had no idea what the movie was about. I never read a script, which I think was all intentional. I think Malick’s whole approach was to just capture these moments as naturally as possible, which would also facilitate the narrative. And for Jeff, I think his main concern was that I wasn’t an actor. At this time, I was 14 or 15, and he wasn’t sure if I could learn lines. He had me come in and audition several times, and then he finally cast me in the film. So yeah, it was a lot different. But there was still the freedom to really explore yourself through the character and through the nature of the film. The Mississippi River played a huge role in that movie, and just being there bled into the essence of all these characters. Plus, it was very similar to the world that I grew up in — a rural community that’s always spending time outdoors on the river and in the woods. So in that sense, it didn’t really feel too far from my reality. So it was a nice bridge to doing more structured work. And then with David Gordon Green on Joe, that was really where I started to decide that I wanted to do film for the rest of my life. I wanted to tell stories and be like these guys who inspired me: Terry, Jeff and David. And on Joe, it was just such a fun process because any idea you had was welcomed. Even if you wanted to fart in the middle of the scene, David would be like, “Alright, give it a shot if you have to.” (Laughs.) That’s silly, but it was just a lot of fun. So those three guys really left an impression on me at a young age and they definitely inspired me. If I didn’t have my start with them, I don’t know if I would be doing what I’m doing now.
So let’s settle this once and for all. Between Scott Summers/Cyclops’ visor in Dark Phoenix and his sunglasses in Apocalypse, which eyewear did you prefer most?
(Laughs.) Well, both come with some frustrating moments. There’s always a lot of people in those scenes, and there’s a lot of scenes where everybody runs into the room and you’ve got to hit your mark. Everyone’s mark is usually a different color. You’ve either got a T mark that’s pink, blue or green, and you know which color is yours. But because of the red lenses on the visor or the glasses, I just saw seven that are white. (Laughs.) They’re all the same color through the red tint. So there were so many times where I would run and stand on somebody else’s mark. And the first AD was like, “Alright, cut,” or, “We have to go again because Tye missed his mark again.” (Laughs.) So there’s that, and then there’s also the issue of peripheral vision. With the visor, you have peripheral vision, but it’s a bit like tunnel vision. You can’t see the immediate six feet in front of you, so I often had to ask them to put sandbags on the floor so I could actually feel it when I hit the mark. So I was half-blind with the glasses and the visor. But it’s a fun challenge to perform because you don’t have your eyes. So much of acting is looking at somebody’s eyes. You can tell what they’re thinking or what they’re feeling a lot of the time, but you can’t do that with that character. So there were a lot of challenges in a lot of different ways. So to answer your question, I don’t know if I really have a preference. (Laughs.)
The Card Counter is now playing in theaters.
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