Tye Sheridan knows a big break. At the age of 11, the American actor was plucked from a group of 10,000 boys to star alongside Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in Terrence Malick’s careening The Tree of Life. Since that first film 10 years ago, he’s acted in countless more, holding his own in hard-edged war movies such as 2017’s The Yellow Birds; as Cyclops in the ever watchable X-Men franchise; and as an orphaned teenager navigating the slums of Steven Spielberg’s 2018 sci-fi adventure, Ready Player One.

At 25, with more than 20 film credits to his name, Sheridan has also starred in an international Prada campaign and co-launched his own tech start-up, developing artificial-intelligence software that helps filmmakers create animations at a fraction of the going rate.

Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan in The Tender Bar.

The tenacity and drive that has propelled his career is also what helped him prepare for his latest role, in The Tender Bar, the George Clooney–directed adaptation of J. R. Moehringer’s much-lauded memoir, in which Sheridan stars opposite Ben Affleck. (Moehringer is currently ghostwriting Prince Harry’s memoir, set to be published by Penguin Random House next year.)

“I connected with this idea of striving for something, having big goals and big dreams,” Sheridan says of the coming-of-age story that follows a young boy’s ascent from a poor childhood in a broken family to Yale and, eventually, a career as a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. “When you come from a place that maybe has its limitations like Long Island,” where the film is set, or the small town in East Texas where Sheridan grew up, the struggle hits close to home. “And then I also have a bit of a crazy family.... So there was that familiarity as well.... More than most of the films I’ve done, this is one that I’ve related to more personally.”

Clockwise from left, Jessica Chastain, Sheridan, Brad Pitt, and Laramie Eppler in The Tree of Life.

The Tender Bar hits on universal themes but also has something lighter going for it. “I didn’t realize that the movie was that funny,” explains Sheridan. “You know, seeing it with an audience of 400 or 500 people in a screening room, there were a lot of people laughing!”

Completing this project has led Sheridan to another insight, this time about himself. “One thing I care a lot about now is making sure I’m having fun. And just telling stories that are important, for the current period in time that we’re living in, but also important to me.”

The Tender Bar hits theaters on December 17. It will be available on Prime Video beginning January 7

Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for Air Mail