It all came down to a 6-year-old Texan named Ellar Coltrane. When the blue-eyed lad auditioned for Richard Linklater in 2002, the writer-director made a risky bet that this unknown child actor was the right kid for Boyhood — a daring, unprecedented project that would film the same people as they aged, in real time, over 12 years. ”Child actors have this adult-pleasing personality,” Linklater says. ”They are cute kids who are trying to have an effect on you, make you laugh. Ellar wasn’t like that at all. He didn’t give a s— what you thought of him, which was refreshing.”
The R-rated movie, which shot for a few days around Texas each year from 2002 to 2013, chronicles the life of Mason (Coltrane). We see him shuttle between his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke), cope with his mother’s remarriages (and the two lowlife stepfathers who come with them), endure puberty, discover pot, fall in love, and get his heart broken. It’s a grand cinematic experiment from a director who regularly traffics in them, but none of it would have happened if Coltrane, the son of two artists, had lost interest or turned into a schmuck. Thankfully, he did neither.
While making Boyhood, Hawke, Linklater’s frequent collaborator, watched Coltrane evolve from a self-assured kid into a soft-spoken young man. They formed a bond, so Hawke, once a child actor himself, asked to interview his onscreen son for EW. A month before Boyhood’s July 11 opening, the two wiry actors, now 43 and 19, reunited in L.A. for a long chat (with input from EW’s Nicole Sperling). The first order of business? Shoes off.
[Barefoot and cross-legged on an ottoman facing Coltrane] A lot of kids go to theater workshops. You went to the Richard Linklater cinema-studies class at age 7. And you have a thesis project to show for the whole deal. Does it feel like that?
[Removing his Velcro sandals] Yeah, in a certain way. I was just kind of along for the ride when I was young. It’s very strange to have this reflection of all this work that I put a lot of myself into. But I almost didn’t think of it as a [film] project. It was just something I was doing.
But you did think about it. When you were very young, you were always extremely opinionated about movies, books, music. You started to remind me of my friend River Phoenix. How much of your interest in the arts comes from your parents?
Even before we started filming, I was being pushed to create something. But I also learned a lot from you, Rick, and Patricia—the method, the long-term nature of this. I learned a lot about patience. And I never thought about this movie coming out.
We never talked about it. When Rick texted me that photo [at the wrap of production in 2013] of you two hugging in the middle of the road in a desert, I kinda fell apart. I couldn’t believe that our secret little project was done. Did it feel like that to you?
Yeah, definitely. It was just this personal experience. It was something we were doing for ourselves.
When I was doing Dead Poets Society, I was about the same age that you are right now, and the actor Norman Lloyd said to me, ”You have no idea how lucky you are.” He was saying that [director] Peter Weir is a rare person, and this experience of Dead Poets Society [was unique]. I feel like that toward you. I don’t think you know how uncommon Rick is.
Yeah, I’m terrified to work on another project.
You’ll be profoundly disappointed. [Laughs] If this movie had come out when you were 7, you’d be a different person now.
I probably would have lost my mind. Just seeing how much effort it’s taken me to navigate this [publicity campaign], I can’t imagine how I would have dealt with it at a younger age.
Your parents split up during filming. Was it tough for you, especially since divorce figures prominently in the movie?
I became very depressed, and looking back now, I see that. I went to a really dark place, completely, as a result of my parents splitting up. Watching the movie, some of the scenes with the stepfathers and the more painful elements of the broken home, I didn’t let myself relate to at the time. But watching it, it feels very familiar.
I think the movie gave your childhood a little more structure than it would have had without it.
Absolutely, it was the only structure I had, pretty much.
Didn’t you get a driver’s license for the movie?
Yes. The art director taught me to drive. [Laughs]
What was your childhood outside of this movie like?
Free-form, I suppose. My mom comes from a really out-there upbringing, so for her the way she raised me is pretty disciplined. I was homeschooled but more unschooled, really.
He was kind of raised by wolves.
That’s what I’ve been saying, that I was left to a pack of wolves…. I wasn’t raised in an environment that ever caused me to want to rebel. And I certainly had no reason to ever stop [doing Boyhood].
”F— this movie.”
[Laughs] Right. I never felt that way.
A couple of my favorite scenes that I’ve ever been in are with you. The whole dialogue about elves and kissing girls, those are conversations a lot of parents and kids have.
This movie must feel even more personal to you, since you collaborated on so much of the story, too.
Absolutely. Very little was orchestrated ahead of time by Rick. It was all very organic, especially when I got older. In the same way it’s myself reflected, it’s also an artistic reflection of myself and seeing the first piece of art I’ve followed to the end.
Ellar, are there any scenes that are hard for you to watch?
The end. It’s my life in a lot of ways. I don’t feel emotional very often, so watching the movie, I’m sucked into my own head and I’m lost in that place. But then when it ends, [I think] ”Oh, that’s a movie, that’s this thing I helped create.” What’s happening after the credits, that’s my life.
Does this experience make you want to be an actor?
This makes me want to make art. Whatever that is, if acting can be an outlet to that, then absolutely.
That’s a good answer.