Harper (Tye Sheridan), a young law student, believes that his stepfather was involved in the devastating car crash that left his mother comatose. He drowns his suspicions in whiskey until he finds himself engrossed in conversation with a volatile grafter, Johnny (Emory Cohen), and his stripper companion, Cherry (Bel Powley). As daylight breaks and the haziness of promises made becomes clearer, how will Harper handle the repercussions (not to mention the violent duo now on his doorstep)? Employing a split-narrative structure to tell this tale of deception and murder, writer/director Christopher Smith takes his audience on a thrill ride full of hairpin turns, where it’s never quite clear what or who can be trusted.
Young Tye Sheridan burst on the scene as one of the boys in Terrence Malick’s epic, The Tree of Life. He then held his own opposite Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon in Jeff Nichols’ poignant Mud, and has been wowing audiences ever since in films such as Joe, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and X-Men: Apocalypse. I sat down to talk with 20-year-old Tye Sheridan in Los Angeles about his latest film, Detour, and his impressive career which includes a role in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming futuristic film, Ready Player One.
Danny Miller: I remember talking to Jeff Nichols about Mud several years ago and he spent most of the interview talking about you. I remember how impressed he was at the way you took the actor who played Neckbone in that film who had no acting experience under your wing during the shoot.
Tye Sheridan: But I didn’t really have any acting experience either! I mean, I had spent five months on a Terrence Malick film but I don’t know if you know very much about how he works —
Not a typical movie experience, I assume!
To say the least. He uses a very unconventional style of filmmaking. And that’s how I learned! I was about 13 when I worked on The Tree of Life.
But weren’t you working as a child actor before that?
No, not at all, I really had no aspirations to act back then. I was always interested in telling stories but I always thought I’d become a novelist or something.
So how did you end up being in that very high-profile movie?
I grew up in a really small town between Dallas and Houston. Terry had sent out all these casting directors throughout the state of Texas and they ended up recruiting about 10,000 kids to audition for the three roles of the sons. I just kept getting called back and called back and finally got cast in the movie. It was crazy! But shooting that film felt like being at a really great summer camp, I still didn’t feel like, “Okay, now I’m an actor,” it was more like this really cool experience. It wasn’t until I made Mud and then my third film that I really fell in love with it and thought, “Yeah, this is what I want to do!”
Did you have a clue at the time that your initial experience with Malick was not a typical acting experience?
No, not back then, how could I know? Remember, we never even had a script so I didn’t even know what the film was about! I remember when I finally saw the movie, I was totally confused. Terry shoots so many scenes that never make it into his films — we could have made seven or eight films out of all that footage!
Wow, do you think any of it will ever see the light of day?
Well, I was in his office just recently, and I know that he’s working on a big extended directors cut of The Tree of Life so I’m looking forward to seeing that. But at the time I just wondered why most of the stuff that we shot wasn’t in the film. It’s funny, because when we wrapped the movie, they put together this big reel of outtakes for us, using all those scenes that didn’t make it into the film, and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is going to be such a funny family movie about these three kids!” Well, not exactly. At the first screening, all three of us boys were like “What the hell is this?” But I loved that whole experience, and I love Terry. It was great working with him.
It’s incredible that you basically carry Mud, your second film, even though you’re acting opposite big Hollywood heavyweights. I also remember your Arkansas accent being dead on accurate. Was that a challenge?
No, not really. I mean, I grew up in the middle of east Texas, so I had that thick accent to start with. After Mud, I became a lot more conscious about getting rid of it because I didn’t just want to be that kid who does Southern dramas!
This is such an interesting part. I love movies where there’s not necessarily a clear-cut distinction between good and bad and right and wrong. And coming from a home where my own parents divorced when I was young, I so got Harper’s tendency to create this suspicious scenario about his stepfather.
Thank you for saying that, that’s what was so interesting to me, too, and not everyone picks up on it. I think we often do have these psychological build-ups in our head about different people in our lives and Chris Smith really explores that in this film.
I also loved the split-screen device that was used. I don’t want to give anything away but it became clear to me that what I first thought was happening in those was very different from what they were really showing.
Yeah, that was amazing, and I know people have different interpretations of that. There are things that most people probably won’t ever pick up on and I don’t want to give any spoilers, but if you watch my clothes carefully and other objects in the scenes, you get clues as to what’s really going on. I’ve always loved movies like that where you realize certain things in the end that change everything. It makes you want to watch the movie over again. I felt that way with A Beautiful Mind.
Yeah, and The Sixth Sense was obviously another big one in terms of learning something later on that changes all your subsequent viewings. I really enjoyed your chemistry with Emory Cohen and Bel Powley. Such good actors and Emory’s character was really interesting. Totally menacing but with all these surprises.
I loved working with those two, they were great. My very first day of shooting was the scene when Emory comes to the door with Bel and tells me we’re going to Vegas. I didn’t know Emory that well yet because he just showed up a few days before we started shooting and I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him much. When I met him, I thought, “Oh, what a nice, sweet guy.” And then we shot that scene and he just scared the living shit out of me! I remember going to Chris that day and saying, “Oh, shit, I had no idea he was going to be that scary!”
You have such an interesting career — and you’ve already had the experience of making these gigantic studio blockbusters along with these tiny low-budget indies. Do you hope to keep doing both?
Absolutely. What fuels me as an artist is a story that I feel needs to be told. I always ask myself that question when I read a script, and sometimes I get an immediate answer. It just sticks out like an odd color. That’s when I know I have to pursue a role, no matter what the medium or the format or the budget. That’s how I felt about this film. And to be honest, I was also consciously thinking that I wanted to do something that was more mature, I felt I was ready to take on a young adult role instead of all of the coming-of-age films I’ve done.
I think this marks the end of your “He’s the kid from The Tree of Life” phase.
I hope so! (Laughs.) I really appreciate Chris taking a shot on me for this different kind of part.
There were some very physical scenes in this film. How was it shooting those — like that intense fight between you and Stephen Moyer?
Those were fun! Stephen has done a lot of stunt work in True Blood and other projects and we talked a lot about it beforehand and worked it out. But I feel like in every movie that I do I’m always punching someone or getting into a fight in at least one scene. There’s one shot here that’s so great — the slo-mo shot of Stephen rolling onto the back patio with the sun reflecting through the sprinkler.
I assume you did that in one take only?
Yeah, we had to get it one take! Chris was all excited about doing that scene “Tarantino-style!” He loved referencing directors in his work. He’d say, “Let’s do the Malick shot,” or “Here’s our Paul Thomas Anderson shot,” it was hilarious.
I could tell from watching this movie that Chris Smith is a real movie lover.
Oh, yeah, definitely. And you can see the poster of Paul Newman in Harper in my bedroom, he loves that stuff!
I know you just finished shooting Steven Spielberg’s new movie. The caliber of people you’ve worked with for someone who just turned 20 is truly astounding.
I know, I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been! I guess it’s all downhill from here. (Laughs.)
Detour is now available in theaters, OnDemand, and on Amazon Video and iTunes.