At 18 years old, Tye Sheridan has a career that would make even the most accomplished actor jealous. In the four years since making his acting debut opposite Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” Sheridan has continued to work with some of the biggest and most acclaimed names in the business, including Jeff Nichols and Matthew McConaughey on “Mud,” David Gordon Green and Nicolas Cage on “Joe,” Rodrigo Garcia and Ewan McGregor on “Last Days in the Desert” and more. Joining Indiewire over the phone from the Montreal set of another envious project — Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” where he’s taking on the role of a young Cyclops — Sheridan spoke about working on his latest heralded indie, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” which hits VOD today, as well as joining the tentpole world for the very first time.
How familiar were you with the actual Stanford Prison Experiment before signing on to the project?
I don’t think I was familiar with it all actually. When I got the script I quickly started researching it. I had probably heard people talk about it before, and I knew it was a big deal. I was on vacation with my family in Cancun, Mexico when I got sent the script. I woke up and I got this email at 9am and I read through the email and it sounded so exciting. I started googling “Stanford Prison Experiment” and watching all of these YouTube videos because they have raw footage of the experiment on YouTube from a documentary. It just blew my mind. I literally sat there for two hours, while I was on vacation in my hotel room, just watching all of these videos. That was before I even read the script! When I finally read it I read straight through it. By the end of the day, I had been in my hotel room for the entire day just reading the script and researching the actual project. It’s so fascinating to me what these kinds went through and what they experienced — the amount of abuse their minds took.
So as you were researching the actual events, were you already thinking about, from an actor’s perspective at least, what side of the experiment would be more interesting to play: prisoners or guards?
Kyle [Patrick Alvarez] wrote me a letter saying he had seen another one of my movies and that he really loved it and saw me as this prisoner character. So I knew early on that I’d be on the prisoner side. But as an actor it’s so fascinating this entire experiment. The guard roles and the prisoner roles are so different. You take on a prisoner and you’re humiliated and emotional and your minds have to be fucked with, but as a guard you’re more role-playing, and there’s more aggression and power. So it’s two totally different elements to each side of the experiment from an actor’s perspective, and I was excited about being a prisoner. Especially after doing all that research and watching all those videos. To be a part of the cast too, I didn’t care what side of the experiment I was on!
The cast is pretty extraordinary. Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, Thomas Mann, Jack Kilmer, yourself — it’s sort of the next generation of great male actors in a way.
Those guys are for sure! [Laughs]
I think many would put you in there too.
Thank you, thank you.
What was it like living through this experiment from the prisoner side as you were shooting? It plays like such an intimidating nightmare on the screen.
It was more exciting than intimidating, but what was so comforting about the whole experience was that we kept everything so true to what actually happened, which I’m so proud of. I’m so proud of the way Kyle and the screenwriters approached recreating this experiment. They way they executed and pulled it off was so cool to me. We kind of shot in order. They actually went to Stanford University and measured the hallways where it took place so that they could build an exact replica of the hallways and the classrooms that were the set. It felt very real on set. It was so authentic.
We would show up on set — which was that really tiny, claustrophobic hallway — and put on these gowns that make you feel embarrassed and humiliated, and you have the stockings on your head. There are elements to shooting it that felt so similar to what these guys must have gone through in the experiment. As an actor who was was playing a prisoner, it was a process that started off light and then quickly escalated and never let up. We were joking around and we always kept it relatively light, but there were times when it was fucking scary and real. There’s a scene where I’m talking to the priest and Zimbardo, and it’s a really emotional scene and it just felt very real. It’s the breaking point for my character, and I remember shooting it and I remember that it didn’t feel like acting. It was just emoting what I actually was feeling.
You’ve worked with some of the most acclaimed indie directors in the business — Malick, Nichols — and now you’re transitioning head first into the world of big budget tentpoles by joining Bryan Singer and the “X-Men” franchise. Was this move something you always envisioned? How has the change been?
I never even imagined that I would be in the position I am now, or even the industry I am in now doing films and acting. It still hasn’t set in. I’m still waiting for reality to come crashing down on me. There’s no franchise I’d rather be a part of and doing sort of as my first foray into larger budget stuff than “X-Men.” When you go back and look at all the movies — the history of X-Men is so rich and the characters are so rich and they have such depth, and there’s such depth to the stories. I feel like most franchises and superhero films don’t have that. I think that’s why this franchise is not just special to me, but also just so special in general. I’m so lucky and grateful to be a part of it.
How does this iteration of Cyclops compare to some of the other characters you’ve taken on?
It’s quite similar actually. It’s a nice progression with the roles I’ve played in the past. It’s forced me to use everything I’ve learned playing all the characters I have. My character is angry and a bit lost, which I feel like is where I’ve met a lot of my characters — in these sort of young life transitions where they’re struggling to figure things out about themselves. He’s now learning about being a mutant and trying to handle his superhero powers. The arc for the character is really cool for me — it’s not like I’m just stepping into it and I’m a superhero and it’s cool and all that with the suit. You kind of see the progression of this character — where he comes from, what he has to overcome and where he goes at the end of the film. It’s a great arc.
And, like “Stanford,” it’s a pretty incredible ensemble.
You can’t even begin to comprehend what working with this cast is like. I remember shooting for the first week, getting off for a week, and then coming back and they were shooting with Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender, and it hits me that I’m really going to be working with the greats. I came back from having a week off and it’s my first scene to shoot with James McAvoy, and let me tell you something — James McAvoy is my idol! We get along great, and I’ve told him how big of a fan I am, but just to even be working with him — just to meet him and talk to him is amazing. But having a scene where I’m one on one with him — my god, it’s insane! We were shooting in the X Mansion and I walk on set and there’s 300 people on set, everyone’s walking, it’s like being in the heart of New York City or something, there’s a hustle and bustle. I walk in and I look down and I’m standing on the X of the X Mansion and that’s when it really settled in like, “Shit, I’m in an X-Men movie!'”
The Stanford Prison Experiment is now available On Demand. “X-Men: Apocalypse” hits theaters May 27, 2016.