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Actor Tye Sheridan isn’t even 20 years old yet, but for his first three on screen appearances he was lucky enough to work with some great directors and actors that those just starting out in the industry often have to wait for. He first appeared in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as one of Brad Pitt’s sons. From there he would move on to Jeff Nichols’ Mud, opposite Matthew McConaughey. Then he would show up opposite one of Nicolas Cage’s best performances in David Gordon Green’s Joe. He has certainly packed a lot into a short amount of time.

That good fortune – and a recent string of characters that find themselves drawn towards criminal types – continues this weekend with the release of The Forger (now playing at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto and available on VOD nationwide) and a role that pits him opposite a pair of other acting heavyweights: John Travolta and Christopher Plummer.

Texas native Sheridan plays Will Cutter, the son of an infamous Boston area art forger, Ray Cutter (Travolta), who also has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Ray has recently been released from prison, and he wants to spend time with his son while he still can. Ray moves back in with his con artist father (Plummer) and sets about on “one last job” with the help of his son: steal and forge Monet’s “Woman with Parasol” for a cartel dealer.

The film, from British director Philip Martin, played at TIFF this past fall, where we were able to sit down with Martin and Sheridan to talk about it.

The thing that I really like about this film is that this isn’t a heist movie in the strictest genre sense, but it’s more of a family drama with a heist hook to it. What was it about the material that spoke to you guys?

Philip Martin: I think it was exactly as you say. It’s not what you expect, and also I love the fact that this dysfunctional family that previously couldn’t connect or communicate or understand each other properly is in the heist. I love the fact that this becomes a functional family that works quite brilliantly together when they’re stealing something. That felt like just another nice idea. In truth, the heart of the film is that emotional story, but certainly the heist is important.

What certainly attracted me was that heart of the film, which is what I would call it. The heist is interesting, and that’s a great thread that runs through it, but in some ways the thing you go to a movie for is to see human beings trying to wrestle themselves out of situations that they find themselves in that they shouldn’t be in. In some ways, it’s that that interests me. It’s about character, performance, emotional honesty, and that journey that Ray, Will, and Joseph – the Christopher Plummer character – seem to make. They want to get through this situation that they’re in, and that was what interested me, but to put that into a heist situation gives it a new context. You can play with the genre a bit when you do that. It’s what the French call a policier. It’s about embracing the genre elements of it, but for the focus of the film it should be the emotional story.

Tye, the dynamic you have with John Travolta and Christopher Plummer on screen makes it very clear that you guys are from the same family. You all talk in a similar manner and seem to have just slightly different attitudes, but none of you are on the same page.

Tye Sheridan: Yeah! Exactly. They are three generations, but they’re three generations of the same DNA. They’re all cut from the same cloth. When you’re introduced to all these characters, you can almost tell that from the first time you see them. It’s funny how people can be so alike, but there can be so much conflict between them, and that’s something that I always find beautiful in a story.

It’s about embracing the genre elements of it, but for the focus of the film it should be the emotional story.

You seem to take more after your grandfather than you do your father in the film, which makes sense since your father wasn’t around very much. Did you talk maybe a little bit more to Christopher Plummer about how to approach the family dynamic than maybe you did with John Travolta?

Tye Sheridan: I think that’s just the way it was written and originally put together. I think our writer, Richard D’Ovidio, wanted to make it pretty obvious that Ray hasn’t been around and that my character wouldn’t really know each other that well. And honestly, I would have wanted to keep the interactions between my character and John’s awkward because that’s kind of how they have to be, you know? There’s conflict there.

As someone who lived in Boston for quite a long time, I’m always critical – especially in crime films set there – about how over the top people tend to go, and I was happy to see that wasn’t the case here. It’s not showy, and it’s grounded in normal everyday life.

Tye Sheridan: Exactly. I always see that as a huge distraction for me, too, when I see people approaching that kind of material in that way. Sometimes it works, but it has to be a very specific kind of movie with its own set of rules for stuff like that. And, Philip, I think that was kind of what you were going for, too, if I remember correctly. You were always telling me to tone it up and down so you could find a middle ground to be at.

But yeah, that was something I always wanted from the beginning. I mean, I’m from the South, so I have a southern accent, which is very different from a Boston accent, so making it a subtle thing and letting people know that it was there was a part of the character, but you never want to let that rule a performance to a point where that will ever become distracting. I have that same reaction when I see people in a film that takes place in the South. It can be very unrealistic.

Philip Martin: There’s something about Boston, New York, and the Southern United States that seems to bring that out in people, for better and for worse. People tend to go too “BAW-STON.” It goes way too far over the top. It can become two hours of people with goofy accents, dropping curses, and overcompensating.

Tye Sheridan: Yeah, and when you see things like that you automatically wonder where the story is. Why should you even care about it? It becomes madness.

The film takes a lot of time and effort to build up the characters for about an hour before the heist actually happens. There’s a lot of great character stuff in here. What’s it like getting to make a film like this where you can spend the time with these people long enough to get invested with these characters.

Philip Martin: Again, it’s that human stuff. A good film should be like a wildlife film, but with humans in it. Behaviour is what people respond to in a film; the idea of people connecting and changing. That’s what’s really interesting. It was great to do that. You know there’s a genre element that needs to be served, but allowing the characters to evolve before the heist makes that climax more powerful, and the audience becomes more invested in those characters.

Behaviour is what people respond to in a film; the idea of people connecting and changing. That’s what’s really interesting.

It’s hard for any young actor to play a character that’s in touch with his own sense of mortality. What’s it like approaching a character that’s fully capable, but also understands that he’s dying?

Tye Sheridan: It’s written where there are moments where the character just loses everything, where you can see all of his tension and figure out everything that’s going through his mind, and there are moments where everything is very subtle, reserved, and he’s content with the time he has left. I wanted to play that all in a small way, if that makes sense. This is the kind of character who has lived with this for so long now that he would react to it in a smaller way. To do anything more than that would be going back to what we were talking about with performances being distracting. I just didn’t want to take it to any point beyond what was appropriate. I just had to keep asking myself what it would be like if I had been diagnosed with cancer. Would you want to go on with your regular life the way you wanted it even if you only had a few months left to live? I think there are a lot of people who go through that who would react similarly. You can think critically, realistically, or fatally, and I think most people at that point just want to be happy, and Will does have a support system around him that can afford him some kind of happiness. He can still live in the moment.

And that kind of extends to how afraid Will becomes. He gets scared about his condition only really at first and then gradually as he goes on through the film. There’s a moment towards the end where John and I are lying in a hammock and a chair, and grandpa is happy, and it’s such a beautiful and peaceful moment. I think it all leads to a moment where these people can finally be at peace with the world, and they can all be really happy to just be in the moment they’re in at that particular time.

Philip Martin: What I love is that Will is constantly saying to his father in his own way is that he’s going to be okay in his own way. In a way, he’s liberating his father so he can deal with Will’s eventual death, which is a great gift to give to someone, if you think about it. And yet, it’s all done mostly through looks, performance, and wonderful chemistry. It’s unquantifiable, but remarkably precise.

Across a few films now, you’ve had to play either a son, or a son-like figure, to some pretty big name actors. What have you picked up from working with people like the people you’ve been working with? Was there ever an intimidation when it comes to developing a relationship with these people?

Tye Sheridan: Well, I don’t think I’m really intimidated, because when you’re performing with such intimacy with great actors, you just grow together as people and you form a bond for however long that might be. If you’re doing your job right, that bond seems unbreakable. And during that close, intimate time, I think you can just share things and talk about the story and characters. Then you can start talking about what’s going on in your own life and try to incorporate some of that with the help of others. It makes it that much easier when you can have that open relationship. I think that’s one of the best things you could have.

I’ve never been one to really ask for advice, so I really like to just listen to whatever someone is saying and just watching what they’re doing. You just take mental notes and pick up on things, move on, and start trying things out for yourself. In the end, it’s still all about what works for you and finding that sweet spot.

The Forger is now playing at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto and is available everywhere on VOD.