Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar was published in 2005 and lauded for its lyrical depiction of a hard-knocks upbringing spent searching for the nomadic father who abandoned the author as a young child. Moehringer’s loving portrayal of his fiercely ambitious mother, his miserly grandfather, and, above all, his charismatic Uncle Charlie and the barflies at the pub where Charlie pours drinks is by turns poignant, raucous, hilarious, hopeless, and hopeful. In other words, perfect fodder for an unforgettable coming-of-age film directed by George Clooney.
Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov received a copy of the script, adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan, from producer Ted Hope, who was then an executive at Amazon Studios. “It’s the story of a not-privileged kid deciding to do the fundamentally impossible,” says Monahan. “But beneath the ordinary world, it is kind of an epic. It’s the very rare first book by a writer who doesn’t throw family and friends under the bus after chewing them up for material. It says of the family, I am them and they are me.
“J.R. had a very supportive, very loving family,” he adds. “They got him into Yale, they helped him, they compensated for his lack of a present, decent father. And in the end, despite his searching, he realizes that he always had a father — his Uncle Charlie, and even his grandfather. There’s something heroic in his story.”
Heslov had read the book before it was published and loved it so much he tried unsuccessfully to option it at the time. Although Clooney wasn’t familiar with the memoir until after he read the script, he was instantly won over. “The version we received was a tremendous adaptation of the book,” he recalls. “Bill Monahan’s a really great collaborator and a really smart writer, whom we admire greatly. When you have a really wonderful screenwriter like that, you can’t go wrong.”
Clooney and Heslov are both around the same age as Moehringer, and their connection with the material was strong and immediate. “So many of the elements of J.R.’s childhood are things I share with him,” says Heslov. “It just resonated with me.”
Clooney felt an even more specific kinship to the material. “Growing up in Kentucky, which is nothing like Manhasset, I had an Uncle George who I was named after,” he says. “George lived above a really beat-up old bar. When I was 9 or 10 years old, which is the exact time period in which the early part of the movie is set, he’d give me 50 cents to go get him cigarettes from the machine and a can of beer. So I grew up in and around a bar like the bar in the film, with all the wild characters that called me ‘kid.’”
Turning a 400-page memoir into a two-hour movie inevitably involves some changes. And Clooney, who with Heslov has made several other projects based on books, including Syriana and “Catch-22,” knows from experience that a screenplay can never be exactly the same as a book. “They’re two completely different animals,” he says. “A book will tell you what someone is thinking, and a movie has to show you. But we think we stayed true to the essence of the book. The Tender Bar is still a story about class, about being raised in a bar, and about the intimacy of family.”
Despite the changes, Moehringer agrees that many of the important themes of his memoir remain. “The lost father,” he says. “The particular loneliness of being an only child of a single mom. The search for surrogates. The terror of being at an Ivy League college — any college, really — and feeling that you don’t belong, academically or socially or both.”
Clooney has starred in some of the films he’s directed while remaining strictly behind the camera in others, as he did with The Tender Bar. “That simplifies the job for sure,” he says. “This was an easy one to direct anyway because it was a really good script, we had really wonderful actors and we had a great crew. I just loved all these characters. It’s The Wizard of Oz in a way. J.R. is constantly looking for happiness and his place in the world, and it’s right there all along. I think that’s a voyage we all enjoy watching.”
Everybody Needs an Uncle Charlie
The most influential male in young J.R.’s life is his Uncle Charlie, his mother’s brother, and the bartender at the local pub, Dickens. Charlie is a man’s man who lives by a simple code he refers to as “the male sciences.” The code dictates how a man treats women (“You don’t hit a woman, ever, up to and including if she has stabbed you with scissors”) and how he takes care of his business and family. In Charlie’s view, they are basically everything a boy needs to know to become a man.
“Once we told Amazon we wanted to do The Tender Bar, the question was who was going to play Uncle Charlie,” says Clooney. “The character had to have two specific qualities. You have to believe he’s really smart and really well-read. That is a no-brainer with Ben Affleck. He’s a really smart actor and a smart man. And then he has to be a little worn down. He needs a bit of gravitas. Ben is a different actor now than he was 15 years ago. With age comes a little bit of gray in the hair and a little bit of crinkle in his eye. Ben couldn’t have played this part five or 10 years ago. Now he is exactly right for it. As soon as we read the script, we thought of him.”
Affleck had already collaborated with Clooney and Heslov when he directed and starred in the Academy Award®-winning espionage thriller Argo, which the three also produced. “The luckiest thing that can happen to you as an actor is to have a great script with a great director fall out of the sky,” he says.
“That’s what happened to me. The character’s intelligence and use of language, as well as his evident compassion for his nephew and the non-traditional ways he shows it made it extremely appealing.”
Charlie, Affleck says, reminds him of what his character in Good Will Hunting might have been like 25 years later had he grown up on Long Island. He also recognized a lot of his own father in Charlie. “My father was a bartender in a working people’s bar in the 1980s. He was very well-read and had strong feelings about elitism and education. So I had a lot to draw from.”
The actor says he’s never worked with a director with as strong a command of the practical aspects of performing on camera. “In fact, it’s easy to say George gave me the best performance notes I’ve ever been given,” he says. “He understands how much of acting comes down to the choices an actor makes as much as how he or she is able to connect with a character’s emotional life.”
According to Affleck, in a roughly 40-year career that began as a child actor, shooting The Tender Bar has been one of his most enjoyable professional experiences. “I cannot say I had a bad day or even a bad moment, except when George made us all go swimming in the ocean in March. That’s not something normal human beings do in Massachusetts because the water is 33 degrees.”
J.R. and J.R.
Casting the character of J.R. posed an unusual challenge: The character is 9 years old at the start of the film and in his 20s by the end. Obviously, they would need two actors who would be believable as the same person separated by at least 10 crucial years.
Tye Sheridan, who plays the older J.R., was impressed by the seamless transition from boy to teenager to young man in the film. “That can be credited to a well-written script and a flawlessly constructed narrative,” says Sheridan. “I could not trust anyone more than George to guide that ship so that the audience believes this journey into the older version of the character.”
Clooney had had an eye on Sheridan’s work since he appeared as a teenager in 2012’s Mud opposite Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Paulson. “He’s a really unique young man who has a natural aptitude for storytelling,” the director believes. “You don’t ever question whether he’s telling you the truth on screen. That doesn’t happen often with young actors. They usually try to show you a little more than you need. We were thrilled to have him come on board.”
According to Heslov, the actor had everything the filmmakers were looking for. “He is good-looking, but not a pretty boy. Watching him, you automatically feel empathy. He does a lot of reacting in this role and that is something he does really well. He’s also just a really smart kid who is curious about everything that happens on set because he wants to be a filmmaker.”
Sheridan says reading the book before filming was initially helpful, but once production started, he set it aside. “It’s great to be aware of the source material,” he notes. “But you can get confused by what’s in the screenplay and what’s in the book, so eventually I just focused on the screenplay.”
At the beginning of the film, J.R. already carries the weight of his mother’s high hopes for him. “He feels a great responsibility to accomplish certain things — specifically to go to Yale and become a lawyer — but all he really wants to do is be a writer,” says Sheridan. “He has a lot to overcome in his life. That was something very relatable and really exciting for me to play.”
Despite the presence of his Uncle Charlie, his grandparents, and extended family in his life, his mother is the only person J.R. feels he can totally depend on. “She’s his only parent,” Sheridan observes.
“She’s it. Their relationship is tender and sweet. Sometimes he gives her a bit of an eye roll, but he loves her for all she is and has given to him. Lily Rabe, who plays J.R.’s mother, is a phenomenal actress who brings a depth that I don’t think many people could bring.”
Eight-year-old Brooklynite Daniel Ranieri, who plays the younger J.R., was discovered via a YouTube video that has come to be known as the “f---ing lockdown video.” In 2020, Daniel’s mother was talking to him about the upcoming summer and all the outdoor activities it would allow. Daniel launched into a colorful rant about the need to comply with COVID-19 restrictions by staying indoors. The video she took of his comments went viral, earning him an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” A star was born.
“A friend sent the video to me as a joke, while we were trying to cast the young J.R.,” says Clooney. “We’d seen a lot of kid actors but the reality is when you cast kids, it’s less about the quality of the acting and more about how close they seem to be to the character. Daniel has a great East Coast accent. He was very funny and has really good energy in the video. I got in touch with his family, sent over some pages and he read them on Zoom. He was just right for the part. Every take we did with him was one take. He is just phenomenal.” Even Daniel’s mother, Danielle, was given a role in the film, playing J.R.’s aunt.
Ranieri admits he was very surprised to get this opportunity. “I never met anybody famous before or filmed a movie. I think I was most excited to meet George Clooney. I have seen him in a lot of movies, like Ocean’s Eleven and Batman. I love Batman. He told me that I shouldn’t be nervous to film the movie and that I did very good with my lines. And it was great having Grant’s and George’s dogs around, ’cause I love dogs.”
At a point in the story when the adult J.R. is at his lowest, sitting alone, drunk, at Dickens, he is confronted by his younger self, who berates him for giving up too easily on his goals. “That scene was very cool,” says Ranieri. “J.R. is drunk and his younger self is mad because he thought that he was going to grow up to be a writer, but meanwhile here he is a copy boy and he’s always drinking! Young J.R. is very mad about that. I felt like that was a very good scene because I got to tell him off and that was great.”
Every Unhappy Family
As J.R.’s stubbornly ambitious mother, Dorothy, Lily Rabe is radiant, tough, and deeply vulnerable all at the same time. Dorothy gave up her chance at an education when she had her child and was soon left to care for him alone when her husband moved on. Although hardworking, she never seems to be able to get ahead. She is periodically forced to bounce back to her rundown family home and sleep in her childhood bedroom with her son, a situation she finds utterly humiliating.
“She is dancing as fast as she can,” says Rabe. “The character felt like no one I had ever known and yet there’s something so relatable about her. Every time she leaves, she thinks she’s leaving for the last time, and every time she comes back, she’s coming back for the last time — but it keeps happening.” Having given up her own dreams, Dorothy has turned her indomitable energy to making her only child a success.
“I have wanted to work with Lily for a long time,” Heslov says. “When this came along, she was just right for the part. She is really smart, she’s funny and she’s excited about the work in a good way. Honestly, once you cast the right person, I think the rest is pretty easy.”
Getting someone of Rabe’s caliber for the role was fantastic, Clooney agrees. “She’s first and foremost one of the really truly great actresses in her age category,” he says. “I have come to find out she’s also a great person.”
Rabe enjoyed playing mom to both Sheridan and Ranieri. “There’s incredible sensitivity and awareness to each of them and I loved the soulful experience of interacting with them,” she says. “It was also one of the most exciting scripts I’d ever read. The writing is so beautiful — it’s delicate, restrained, and specific. No character is simply a placeholder or foil for someone else. I fell in love with Moehringer’s story and it was such a gift to have his book offer details about his mother that aren’t in the script — like the way that she would sing certain songs in the car really loudly, particularly when she was feeling down.”
Although there is a lot of conflict and contradiction in the household, Rabe observes there’s also room for surprise, humor, and love. “And great comfort,” she adds. “They can be exactly who they are with one another, and there’s something so loving and safe about that, even if it’s also a nightmare in certain ways.”
To play Dorothy’s cantankerous father, the filmmakers were looking for an actor who could be crusty and funny and unpredictable when they met with Christopher Lloyd. “Obviously we got the right person for the part,” says Heslov. “He’s all those things. He’s got such a great face. We were all thrilled to be able to work with somebody we’ve been watching for years.”
Clooney describes the actor as “amazing and funny and fun to work with — a lot of the fun is just watching Chris be Chris.”
Affleck confesses to feeling a little intimidated acting alongside Lloyd. “He was the first celebrity I ever saw in real life,” says the actor. “I was 12 years old in Boston. I had just seen Back to the Future and decided it was my favorite movie ever when I saw Christopher Lloyd walking down the street. I followed him for blocks. I had watched him on ‘Taxi’ my whole childhood and I couldn’t believe it was the same person in real life. Working with him, seeing him on the set, I felt the exact same star-struck feeling I had in 1985. I never got over it. And I never really got up the nerve to talk to him.”
Frugal and unsentimental to a fault, Grandpa is openly dismissive of his daughter’s aspirations for her son. “She makes 30 bucks a day, how is her son going to go to Harvard or Yale?” Lloyd muses. “It just ain’t happening. But it does. I think everyone senses that J.R. is special. He’s such an adorable, sweet, imaginative child that the one good thing Grandpa can do is to help him along.”
His character has led a strange and unconventional life, according to Lloyd. He once aspired to be a pro baseball player but he was cut from the team. “Maybe people just couldn’t stand being in the dugout with him,” the actor suggests. “He’s a Dartmouth man, speaks several languages. He made some money in the insurance business and was canny enough to invest it well. When he reached the point where he thought he had made enough money for the rest of his life he quit his job, bought the house, and there he is. Every day he goes to the railroad station to pull the last edition of the newspaper out of the trash because he won’t spend a nickel to check the financial news. He’s kind of raggedy but he doesn’t care. He’s carved out his own existence and the world has to deal with that.”
Because much of the story is told through the eyes of a precocious 9-year-old, it holds a great deal of warmth and charm for Lloyd. “J.R. is like an alien in the household come down to see who these people are and how they live,” he says. “There isn’t anybody in the script that’s vicious though. There are difficult moments but everybody is looking for love and that comes out in a strong way.”
Grandma, played by Sondra James, who passed away in September 2021, is Grandpa’s perfect match, quietly going toe to toe with him at every opportunity. “She’s unforgettable in this part,” says Heslov. “It’s a small part but she made the most of it. Sondra was like a firecracker full of energy.”
J.R. knows his father best as The Voice, a peripatetic deejay who abandoned him and his mother shortly after his birth. His father’s career has taken him up and down the East Coast, as J.R. follows, surfing the radio dial. “J.R. is always trying to listen to his dad,” says Ranieri. “Because he can’t see him, he tries to connect to him through the radio. But his mom always stops him. She doesn’t want him listening to the dad that left him.”
Played by veteran actor Max Martini, The Voice is still a handsome man with a seedy charm that some women — and his kid — find irresistible. In addition to good looks and strong acting chops, the person playing the role had to have certain very specific qualities, according to Clooney. “He had to have a great voice. Also, because Ben’s six-foot-three, it had to be a guy that you believe could kick Ben’s ass, and that was tough. Max had all of those qualities. It’s just a beautiful performance.”
Martini never shied away from the character’s darker impulses, according to Heslov. In fact, he relished them. “Whenever we think there might be a door open for him to do the right thing, he grabs the opportunity to make the wrong choice.”
The Voice is basically surviving on his ego and an overabundance of confidence in his celebrity says, Martini. “That doesn’t really mix well with this family struggling with a working-class existence. The family is trying to protect the kid, so when they run to shut off the radio or try to change the subject it’s for his own protection. I do think this really pathetic character is making an effort to reconnect with his son and the tragedy is that, in the end, he fails miserably. But the victory is that his son grows from the experience, learns to let go and moves on with his life.”
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