If you’ve read or heard anything about Mud, writer/director Jeff Nichols’ tale about two boys who encounter a fugitive hiding on an island in the Mississippi River, it’s most likely been about Matthew McConaughey, who gives an electric performance as a handsome rogue named Mud who’s wanted by the authorities after a crime of passion. But as deserving of praise as McConaughey is, the movie wouldn’t work without Tye Sheridan, the 16-year-old who shoulders the emotional weight of the story as one of the young river-rats, Ellis. With his parents’ marriage collapsing at the same time that he takes his own clumsy first steps into the minefield of teen romance, Ellis forges a bond with the idealistic Mud that threatens to put the boy and those he loves in harm’s way.
Nichols needed Sheridan to do a lot of heavy lifting, and he took a chance on the then-14-year-old, based on a recommendation from producer Sarah Green, who was working with Sheridan at the time on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Sheridan had been cast as Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s youngest of three sons in that film after a talent search of 10,000 candidates. “On the Malick set, they referred to him as the Torpedo,” said Nichols, when he spoke to EW at the Sundance Film Festival, where Mud had its American premiere. “When things got a little flat or just needed to be mixed up, they’d send Tye in and he’d just shake it up. No scripts. He just had this natural energy that people responded to.”
But Nichols had a script, thank you very much, and he wasn’t about to sacrifice one precious word for freewheeling jolts of natural energy. The role demanded precision and a well of emotional depth. Nichols handed Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, who plays Ellis’ more suspicious friend, Neckbone, and expected them to absorb the timeless flow of life on the Mississippi. “I think that really helped me so much,” said Sheridan. “Just reading about the kids on the river in the late 1800s and then being able to go out and enjoy that same river, every day, was amazing. And we just kind of fell right into it.”
The classic novel’s snapshot of a boy’s first vivid encounter with the adult world and all its cruelties and injustices made a profound impact, and Sheridan used Twain’s world as fuel. “The first big emotional scene we did was the scene with his father, where he comes home and lays out the fact they they’re going to get a divorce,” said Nichols. “And I just remember watching Ellis’s reactions; he looked confused and nervous. It looked like his heart was kind of breaking. It was great.”
Sheridan, who grew up in eastern Texas, had never acted before landing the role in Tree of Life. “I’ve always had a feeling that I was going to fall into acting somehow,” he said. “I just felt that it was kind of my thing.”
He was too young to be awed by working opposite a big Hollywood star like Brad Pitt in Tree of Life — he didn’t even know who Pitt was at the time — and he wasn’t intimidated by his scenes with McConaughey either. “It’s always been that way for me,” he said. “It just doesn’t matter. Everybody’s human.”
McConaughey paid Sheridan the compliment of treating him like an equal and expecting him to be as professional and polished as he was, a challenge that that the young actor rose to. “Tye is a young man who understands the craft of acting,” says McConaughey, who bonded with his two young co-stars during fishing excursions and camping overnights. “His success is that you don’t catch him acting a lot. A lot of younger children, that’s the problem. You catch them catching. You want them not to act.”
Acting? Not acting? It’s a delicate dance. But Sheridan has a gift for just the right balance. There are scenes in Mud, like when Ellis is confronted by the older girl who he thinks is his girlfriend, that will put a lump in your throat and remind you just how helpless being 14 can seem. But in his most tense scene with McConaughey, Sheridan proved to Nichols that there was more to his method than just being himself. “We were there that morning and I say, ‘Tye, what are you thinking about? Pretty big day today…'” remembered the director. “And he goes, ‘I just need about five minutes.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ And I walked off and he kind of sat down on this log off in the woods, and then he looked up at me and was like, Okay. And we just started rolling camera, and he came up and it exploded out of him. It’s very much like working with Mike Shannon and Jessica Chastain. You’re just like, ‘Thanks for doing that in my film.'”