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There was a unique energy in the air Sunday afternoon inside the Directors Guild of America, host of Amazon Studios’ tastemaker reveal of The Tender Bar, directed by George Clooney and starring Ben Affleck. The A-list pairing seemed to electrify the festivities long before their feet touched the carpet.
“This is a big one,” said a veteran red carpet journalist as other reporters buzzed about whether significant others Amal Clooney and Jennifer Lopez would make an appearance at the early evening screening. (For the record: Amal was in the building, while Lopez was rumored to be down the boulevard at Sunset Tower.) Plus-ones aside, “big one” could also apply to the creative reunion of Clooney, Affleck and producer Grant Heslov, who last teamed on the Affleck-directed Argo, which won a best picture Oscar in 2013.
Anticipation would have been high no matter what project inspired a reunion, but Tender Bar tossed more fuel on the fire as it’s adapted by Oscar winner William Monahan from J.R. Moehringer’s best-selling memoir that has been in development in Hollywood for more than a decade. The film is a coming-of-age story following J.R. (Tye Sheridan) as he and his mother (Lily Rabe) move into the dilapidated house of his grandfather (Christopher Lloyd). He spends many an hour hanging out at the local bar where, under the unconventional tutelage of Uncle Charlie (Affleck), a charismatic, self-educated bartender, J.R. grows into a young man determined to fulfill a dream of becoming a writer.
“It’s weird to do this again,” Clooney said as he took position in front of a crush of photographers shortly after 5:30 p.m., flanked by Affleck and Sheridan and referring to the return of red carpet events after an extended hiatus imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. They wasted no time in getting back into the swing of it, however, as Clooney and Affleck stopped for every outlet to promote their collaboration, unveiled long before its December release to accommodate the pair’s respective filming schedules.
Clooney also took center stage inside the theater — welcomed by Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke — and offered a brief but insightful introduction. “This is an odd time in our lives, where the discourse has become unkind in general, to one another, and this felt like a film that was about the opposite of that,” he said. His Smokehouse Pictures partner Heslov reiterated that to The Hollywood Reporter on the carpet. “It feels warm and tender and we thought it was a good time for a movie like this,” said Heslov, noting that he read Moehringer’s book prior to its 2005 publication while also crediting producer Ted Hope for sticking with it all these years.
“Warm and tender” only partially describes Clooney’s attraction to the material, which mirrors his own upbringing as he, too, had an uncle who worked in a bar that became like a second home. His uncle’s name? George. “I was the exact same age as this kid when I grew up in a bar with the same music, same sensibilities,” Clooney told THR. “There are great characters in a bar and you learn a lot. You grow up quickly, but it’s a fun way to grow up — lighting cigarettes for all your friends at 10 years old. I had a great growing up, though, it was a lot of fun.”
The film shot in Boston during the pandemic which allowed Amal to teach online classes at Columbia University while her husband directed the production, she noted. Included in the film’s production notes is a compliment from Affleck aimed at Clooney for providing him with the best performance notes he’s ever received in his career. Asked about that, Clooney shrugged off the love and praised both the casting department and Affleck’s skills as an actor.
“Casting is everything, and all you have to do is cast the right people,” he said of the department, lead by Rachel Tenner. “Ben is a really good actor. This is the best part he’s been given and he got a chance to show what he can do. I just had to get out of the way.” With that, he exited the carpet and made his way into the theater. Before that happened, THR had time to ask the Tender Bar actors to return the favor and describe what it was like being directed by Clooney. Below are their answers.
AFFLECK: “He gave me the best notes of any director I’ve ever worked with; the most playable, useful notes. It’s a function of his having done this job for so long, having done it really well and learned from really good directors. He credits other directors he’s worked with but even more than that, it’s just as much a credit to his own experience and the time he’s devoted to acting and playing the kinds of roles that he has. He can, in a very specific, shorthand way, articulate not only what he wants but he does it in such a way that the choices are so right on the money that you’re embarrassed you didn’t think of it. Oftentimes, it’s simple, like, ‘No, that line’s funny. This is funny.’ And it changes the whole scene and everything you’re doing to the point that he makes it five times better. I’ve had experiences when a director talks for 45 minutes before a scene and it can be circuitous and abstract and you leave thinking, I don’t know how to play this. George gives notes that are both about the character’s internal life but also the specificity of what’s actually happening in the moment. He really is an expert. I’m just lucky that I got the chance to work with him.”
SHERIDAN: “George is so much fun to work with as an actor because he understands all the tiny nuances that are taking place in a performance, and he’s very clued in. It feels like you’re acting the scene out together and trying to figure it out as a team. Of course, that’s always the case with an actor-director, but working with George was a completely different experience than I’ve had with any other director or actor. I picked up a lot of things from Ben, too. As an actor, you watch people that have been doing it for longer than you who are very talented and very good and what they do, and you get your notebook out, take notes and ask questions. Given that Ben and George are both actor-directors, that was super appealing to me to be able to work with them so that I could listen to the way they talk and absorb the way they think about film, what films they like and appreciate how they do what they do. It was a great learning experience.”
RHENZY FELIZ: “You think that George is a pretty cool dude, and then when you meet him, you find out that he really is that cool, but even cooler. He leaves the set very, very open so it allows actors to experiment and try new things. There were a couple of times I did that, which was tough for me because you want to be on your A-game and bring the best of what you’ve got. Going off-script doesn’t feel the most natural, but he made it so easy. I loved watching him direct me. The way he does it, you can see the cogs running and he can turn the actor side on right away. It’s so fun to see how his mind works.”
RABE: “George is an actor’s director. He is so sure of what he wants, and he knows when he has it. There is never any waffling. He’s never shooting something for the insurance because he’s so clear about the film that he’s making. Because of that, you have so much freedom as an actor. I felt he really understood what I wanted for the character, and we were very aligned with who she was. So, it was really wonderful to be able to play the part and feel that she was being seen through his eyes. Something so remarkable about [my character] is her optimism. Her circumstances aren’t great and she keeps getting hit but self-pity is not where she goes. I admire that in her and there’s this thing in the book where the sadder she was, the louder she would sing in the car and the happier the repertory of songs she would choose. She was really determined to keep the glass half full at all times for her son. And George has an incredible amount of optimism as a human being. Having his soul to be the one leading it felt so perfect.”
LLOYD: “He let me do whatever I came in with and then adjusted it, asked me to tone it down, one thing or another. There was nothing like, ‘You’re on the wrong track,’ or something. Just some great direction and little changes here and there. I love the character I was portraying, so everything was great and all the scenes were equally satisfying.”
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