On the wall of a family restaurant in Austin, Texas, nestled among dozens of celebrity diners, is a photograph of a famous DJ. The only person on the wall who isn’t wielding a guitar, or tipping a Stetson at the camera. He is decked out in a racing-green tracksuit, hair buzzed short, eyes framed by big copper glasses and a gap between his two front teeth that could comfortably accommodate a 50p coin. You might see it while you’re waiting for a table, and wonder who he is. You might even think he looks like an imposter, a fraud. Well, you’d be right. The DJ, dear reader, is me.
How did this happen? How did a diligent yet modest magazine journalist from London accidentally become immortalised on a reputable family eatery’s wall of big cheeses? Well, it is the fault, though we hate to point the finger, of the man sitting opposite me: Texas native and bona-fide big deal Tye Sheridan, currently found meticulously squeezing lemon wedges into his water.
“Do I… know you guys?” asks the waitress, hovering by our table. “I don’t watch much TV, so I don’t know if y’all are on a show or something…”
“That’s all right ma’am,” the 21-year-old actor says. “We’re just two dudes, having some chicken-fried steak. He’s visiting from England.”
He pointedly doesn’t explain who he is to her; his face is calm and measured, giving away nothing. He has the contemplative look someone wears while smoking a cigar. “Not famous,” the waitress says, looking at us both. “But walking around like you are… would you mind having your picture taken?”
I’m waiting for Sheridan to crack. Hey, I get it. Most actors who can avoid outing themselves as actors probably relish the anonymity. But Sheridan is Texas royalty; a local lad cast at 11 by The Tree Of Life director Terrence Malick. An indie wunderkind (Mud, The Stanford Prison Experiment), Prada poster boy, laser-blasting superhero (in X-Men: Apocalypse) and now Spielberg prodigy thanks to his starring role in Eighties nostalgia-fest Ready Player One. There’s a huge mural of him downtown, and one at the airport, his eyes covered by Oculus goggles. But he says nothing.
“Are you putting the picture up somewhere?” I ask her. “Can we?” she replies. “I think it’s a good idea,” Sheridan says. Then, gesturing at me: “You should get a picture with the DJ.”
To avoid detection, he spins a yarn that he’s a writer, interviewing me for a magazine. You do realise, I tell him, as the waitress readies her camera, that now I’m going to be immortalised on the wall of fame? He beams. “I know.”
The diner is a short walk from the shoot location: the most beautiful pile of junk you’ve ever seen. Sheridan has heard about this place – the Cathedral of Junk, on a road of detached bungalows – less a monument to neglect and excess and more a curated edifice of pop-culture artefacts. Artfully constructed in the back garden of an eccentric Southern gent who calls himself the Junk King, the Cathedral contains 60 tonnes of stuff – vacuum cleaners, PC monitors, road signs and pipes, welded and slotted and arranged into a building worthy of religious symbolism. There’s a wall sprayed buttercup yellow; plastic dinosaurs roam a toilet full of soil. Fred Flintstone’s decapitated head watches as you walk past a wall made of bikes.
“How do you think it stays together?” Sheridan asks, as we walk through an antechamber marked by a bright-red shopping trolley and a sign for Grizzly smokeless tobacco (‘Low Price. No Sacrifice’). As we wander the corridors, light filters through the domed mesh roof, hitting 10 blue bottles fused into the wall. Next to a fridge pockmarked with rust is a string of CDs that sing like wind chimes (including 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’).
At this year’s SXSW, as part of the publicity for Ready Player One, Sheridan will meet a group of young influencers – some of the most influential ones, apparently – to show them a ‘branded VR experience’ promoting the movie.
I wonder what they’ll make of a film packed to the brim with Eighties nostalgia and retro aesthetics – a love letter to a period they didn’t live through. “The Eighties never, ever, lost its charm,” Sheridan says. “I’m a Nineties kid, so to me the Eighties was a special era. But that’s not to say I didn’t learn a lot. There’s a scene where my character has to play an Atari game, and I’d never even held an Atari controller before. I’d researched how it was played, as much as you can do without actually playing it, but when we were shooting, I asked Steven for tips. He told me, ‘Put your thumb here, hold it like this.’ I guess I learned from the best.”
Sheridan talks about his rural upbringing: sports, garden work and fishing. “We would hunt deer in winter. Me and my dad would stuff the freezer full of meat so we didn’t have to buy beef or anything for six months.
I grew up hunting with a rifle, until I was 12 or 13. Now I hunt with a bow and arrow. It’s much more of a challenge, because you have to have the animal within about 30 yards, and that’s a lot harder to do.”
As a kid, he spent his summers hanging out at his grandfather’s paint store, writing stories on notepads he found in the stationery cabinet and reading them out to him at the end of the day. Then came The Tree Of Life, and a load of offers from people who were drawn to his Southern sensitivity and inherent bashfulness. “I wasn’t working consistently as an actor until I was 17 or so,” he points out.
During the early part of his career, his bucolic, all-American upbringing proved appealing to casting directors and audiences alike. There’s something wholesome and unique about a young guy in Hollywood being this polite, all ‘sirs’ and ‘ma’ams’, delivered in flat Texan vowels. But all he really wanted to do was go to college and study – left to his own devices, he says that he’d have pursued writing or psychology, if acting hadn’t taken up so much of his teenage years.
“I had a really hard time getting into schools, and I wanted to put my [early] career on hold. I was willing to do that. I just wanted to have a nice normal education.” While filming Ready Player One, he even looked into studying in England, wanting to pursue something that fascinated him.
I ask what kind of things he’s fascinated by at the moment. “The odd coincidences in life,” he says. “Like the way the world functions and how the events that fall into place don’t seem random. Sometimes things happen and you wonder how they came to be.”
I wonder if he’s referring to his own trajectory. “And I’m completely fascinated by psychology. I think it can help us navigate the world. Or make it even more confusing. I don’t know.”
After the photoshoot, and accompanied by a not-unfriendly bodyguard called Matt, we walk through the West Congress district, down a long road that runs parallel to the python-shaped Williamson Creek. Matt tails us by five to 10 steps at all times. At one point, when we cut across a grassy lawn, he sticks to the pavement, like a diligent cyborg.
We’re looking for the most Texas thing we could do. There’s a place called St Elmo’s Centre, a retail park that lists services on a huge billboard. It has MMA and jiu jitsu. And bank loans. We briefly consider jiu jitsu, but it’s hard to get good conversation out of someone while administering a choke hold. So we settle on lunch, skirting the café that serves Mexican breakfasts and wedding cakes and instead entering a diner with a big buzzy sign, wood-panelled walls and a heady aroma of charcoal that jousts you in the nostrils when you walk in. That’s when Sheridan has his bright idea.
“You should try a chicken-fried steak.”
“It’s a sort of fried steak.”
“No, no chicken. It’s chicken-fried.”
It’s fried in chicken?
“No, no, it’s like fried chicken. But it’s a steak.’”
So it’s like a schnitzel? Sheridan shrugs. “I guess. It’s a steak that you batter and throw in a fryer. It’s a Southern thing, they’re insane.”
The beauty of the chicken-fried steak, locals will tell you, is that it takes something that doesn’t seem very palatable and makes it so. Back in the day, people would take a cheap, tough cut of meat and lovingly mallet the hell out of it to make it tender and delicious, before drenching it in flour and chucking it in a load of oil. The dish occupies a special place in the culinary culture of the Deep South; the Texas State House of Representatives even made 26 October official Chicken-Fried Steak Day.
As if on cue, a piece of breaded beef the size of a labrador’s head arrives on our table with a thud. It comes encased in a thick, golden crust, smothered in soupy gravy and served with sweet-potato fries and greens that are, if we’re being a bit Gregg Wallace about it, pretty grey. Under his breath, an excited Sheridan chants “chicken… fried… steak” as I take the first of about 65 forkfuls of Southern hospitality.
Later this year, in addition to another optics-blasting outing in X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Sheridan will go back to his indie roots with Friday’s Child. It’s a low-budget film in which he plays an 18-year-old who’s graduated from the foster-care system. Adrift, he falls into a life of petty crime with the aid of a guy named Swim, played by Caleb Landry Jones, the guy Hollywood currently looks to for unhinged, enjoyable oddballs.
“We were shooting around Austin, and we were put in a condo together,” Sheridan explains. “Caleb wore his character’s wardrobe for the whole two weeks – even when we weren’t shooting. I got home and he said to me, ‘Sheridan,’” – he drops his voice and adopts Jones’ low, raspy voice – “‘did you get my present?’ and I said, ‘Dude, what?’ ’I left it on your balcony.’ So I went to my balcony and there was this snowman, like something from Christmas, a foot tall, covered in red tape that he’d melted, so it coated the snowman. He’d drawn all these crazy faces on it and it was strung up, with a note saying ‘cut me down’.
I found a USB attached to it, and Caleb said, ‘Watch it.’ So I did and it was a mash-up of all these really scary videos.”
I tell him that it sounds quite… endearing, in its own way. “I think he was trying to freak me out.”
As I’ve taken up so much of his day, it seems cruel to deny the industry’s most influential influencers their opportunity to influence. Our food is cleared and, with approximately 27 mouthfuls of steak left, I get it to take away. “What did you think?” he asks, looking slightly crestfallen when I say I didn’t really get it. “What’s not to get?” he wonders.
We hop in a huge SUV – the sort that would be a lot easier to enter and exit repeatedly if someone supplied a tiny step ladder – that’s taking Sheridan downtown. The steak and its associated liquids are pooling in the box, and they will continue to pool and press against the soft polystyrene until, hours later, my only option will be to unceremoniously dump its contents into the nearest bin.
Posters of Sheridan are everywhere, including one of his character climbing a ladder that went viral last year due to the vastly different proportions of his legs. “I thought it was super-funny,” he says. “I think someone looked into it, and apparently proved my legs are to scale. It’s the angle that makes it look weird.” Right. The angle. “But it certainly made people laugh,” he concedes.
Ready Player One has a lot to say about the internet’s role in fostering communities, but Sheridan’s own social-media use is limited. “There’s a lot of pollution that comes with it. We’re learning to navigate it, but it’s still so new, there are no rules. In Ready Player One, people are escaping to a virtual world and neglecting the real one. On the internet, you can be who you want, but not at the expense of who you are in the real world.”
We’re approaching the SXSW area. “Are you ready?” someone asks him, as a throng of fans gathers round the SUV. He nods. The door is opened, and he steps out to greet them, leaving me sitting alone in the humongous car with a box of chicken-fried steak.
Ready Player One is at cinemas now