Tye Sheridan, who seems to have established a monopoly on sensitive Southern teen roles with his performances in “The Tree of Life” and “Mud,” again plays Gary, a damaged young man in David Gordon Green’s “Joe,” in which his character, a kid with an abusive, alcoholic father, finds an unlikely protector in a local ex-con played by Nicolas Cage.
In a recent Dallas interview, Sheridan, a poised seventeen-year old with a shy smile, explained how he became involved in the project: “I received the script and really loved it, and e-mailed my manager and said, ‘Hey I really want to do this. Are they auditioning?’ So he e-mailed David, and I think David originally said that he wanted to find someone that was a non-actor—that’s kind of his style, what he likes doing.
“I told him, ‘Please let me audition.’ And so I auditioned in Austin, and then I got a call-back to read with Nic—Nicolas Cage.
“The story was very appealing to me, because it was set in the South, and I just fell in love with the characters. But my character specifically—I thought there were a couple of similarities between myself and him. But there were also differences—his dad was abusive and alcoholic, and that’s totally different from the way I grew up. I’ve always had a strong father figure in my life. That was one of the things I found interesting.”
With “Mud” and “Joe,” Tye has co-starred with two of the screen’s most idiosyncratic leading men—Matthew McConaughey and now Cage. “They’re two very different human beings,” Sheridan said. “But they’re both very, very eccentric—very distinct people. You learn so many things from an actor of that stature. I was a fan of Nic’s work in ‘Leaving Las Vegas,’ when he played an alcoholic. We were doing a scene where we were both playing drunk, and he would get out of the truck and spin around, and I’d go, ‘Hm, I’m going to try that.’”
But the third lead in “Joe”—of Gary’s father—went to Gary Poulter, one of Green’s non-actors. “Yeah, they found him on the street in Austin—he was a street performer, and they found him at a bus stop. He’d been in the Navy, and was stationed in Japan for awhile, and he spoke a little Japanese—a very talented guy, really smart but unfortunate in a large portion of his life.
“They found him on the street, and called him in to read for a small role. And he did absolutely great, so they called him in to read for a bigger role, and the next time they called him in, they wanted him to read for the third lead in the movie. It was interesting—he was looking to me for advice, which is not very common. I love working with non-actors”—of which there were quite a few in the film—“because it keeps you on your toes, because you don’t ever know what they’re going to say or do. In this case, he would just get on a roll, things would start coming out of his mouth, and you’d just have to roll with it.
“On the first day—and I think this is a signature move of David Gordon Green—we did one really big scene, and I think he [Poulter] was a little nervous at first. But once we got into it and started doing it, it was like he was an absolute pro. It was such an honor working with him every day and to see the smile on his face after we did a scene of when he was in rehearsal with Nicolas Cage. It was touching.”
Sheridan rehearsed before shooting began, but he didn’t fully get into character until the camera began to roll. “I think this is true of pretty much every actor,” he said. “You have a good understanding of what you want to do in the film with your character, but you can’t really grasp it until you’re on set and actually in motion.
And that can lead to some real nervousness. “Right before I did ‘Mud,’ I’d just got the call and they were offering me the role, and I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll do this with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. Then it set in—‘What if I don’t do good, what if I don’t do my job?’ That’s always in the back of my mind, and who wouldn’t worry in that case? Usually you just push it aside.”
Even at such a tender age, Sheridan has worked with some outstanding directors—Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life”), Jeff Nichols (“Mud”) and now Green. “My first three films I get to work with three of the top ten directors that are working now. And I just assumed that every director was that talented. But I found out that’s not the case—I did a couple films after this one, and it was a little bit harder for me to communicate with some of the directors, and the final cut wasn’t as good and as polished as this one was.
“But I would say that Terrence Malick and David have a kind of similar style, but they’re also very different, because they’re both very deep, but David is more outspoken and open to everybody’s ideas, where Terrence Malick also likes to improvise and likes some natural energy from his characters and performances, but it’s more in his head, and he’s a lot quieter. And Jeff Nichols works on a script for ten years and then super-bases everything off of his script.”
In the wake of three powerful dramas Sheridan is branching out. “I’m doing a movie this summer called ‘Scouts Vs. Zombies,’” he said, “which is going to be like an action comedy thriller. I’m really excited about that. It’s going to be my first taste of a studio film.
“And I just recently did a guest appearance on a sitcom, ‘Last Man Standing,’ the Tim Allen show. They do a live taping with an audience. It was a little weird for an audience to be laughing at me, because I’m so used to people being so quiet and letting me focus on set. Everybody was making fun of me—‘Oh, you’re so method.’ But there was this one scene where a say a line and it got a big laugh, and it was totally unexpected, and I just cracked and started busting out laughing. And the audience just loved it. I was trying to stop laughing, and they just kept laughing and I kept laughing.
“And we had to start over.”