Movie moms often get the short shrift in terms of character development: When seen over a number of years, they’re either the immutable rock of the family or a one-dimensional obstacle. But in Boyhood, which director Richard Linklater filmed with the same actors over 12 years, Patricia Arquette’s Olivia is as in-flux, flawed, and complex as the kids who are growing up before the audience’s eyes.
EW got a chance to speak to the actress about her experiences and surprisingly personal inspirations for Olivia.
The interview below references specific scenes in Boyhood.
EW: When did you first see the whole movie?
PATRICIA ARQUETTE: I saw it at Sundance with 1,200 people. Rick had given me the option to see it alone first, but I actually just wanted to experience the whole thing finished and with people. It was a very strange experience because we’d never had a full script. To see the scenes that my character wasn’t in, it wasn’t just me watching the movie—my character was watching the scenes she wasn’t in and reevaluating. Having a lot of thoughts and feelings even from that perspective was very strange.
Olivia changes quite a bit over the years. What was the process in crafting Olivia’s arc?
When Rick first called me with this idea of working for 12 years and shooting a week a year and sort of following this boy from first grade to 12th grade, I was excited immediately and wanted to participate. And I committed myself, and then thought, oh I should ask what my character is. He said, “you’ll be playing the mom,’” and I thought I guess I should read the script, and he goes, “I don’t really have one.” But, he did really tell me all the main changes as to what was going to happen with my character and things that would happen to the family. We spent a couple of hours that first time just really talking about ideas for the character and starting to think about the subtle changes.
Did you draw inspiration from a particular source?
I kind of used certain parts of my mom as a touchstone. Oddly enough, both my mom and Rick’s mom went back to school and got their degrees. Both taught. Both were in the therapeutic sciences. Rick and Ethan [Hawke]’s dads both became insurance salesmen. There’s a weird, crossover commonality between certain things. I remember coming home when I was 12, 13, 14, 15 and my mom would be studying in bed with piles of papers and grading things. I was excited about showing that change and the subtle changes, too. I saw this energetic change happen in my mom from being reactive to being a little non-reactive and observant as she got older.
And you got the experience to really grow and change over the years with your character.
The weird thing is—Ethan and I were talking about this—we could have played 45-year-olds when we were 35-year-olds, but really we would be playing it and guessing. To actually be able to play a 45-year-old Olivia at 45? That gave me a different understanding. It’s not just time and space and looks that change. I think we change in our interior, too, in ways that are common with each other.
Is that an actor’s dream? To be able to live with a character for so long?
I think it’s either an actor’s dream or an actor’s nightmare. There are some actors who you really, really love who hate improvisation. They want a script where they know what their character is saying, they know the feeling of the movie. There are actors who will dictate everything if you give them the option. It’ll be a movie that’s only about them and they’ll want to go for the most dramatic option at every turn to showcase themselves. But being on the set it was always so beautiful and supportive and we were all of like minds politically, emotionally, spiritually, and about art. We all came from different perspectives that turned each other on. It was a really effective alchemy.
There’s a haircut scene when Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is still quite young and then an incredible moment with your character and his where he admits he’s upset. What do remember about that scene?
Ellar was much more worldly than Mason was. At six Ellar was listening to Nine Inch Nails and his favorite movie was Waking Life and talking philosophically about it. He had a wallet chain. Lorelei [Linklater, who plays Mason’s sister] was listening to 15th-century harpsichord music. When we’d go to shoot, they’d be like, “Why do we have to wear this? This is hideous!” We had to say, “Your characters aren’t as cool as you are.” So the haircut—Rick called Ellar the year before and said “don’t get your hair cut because there’s this important scene.” He really listened. He grew his hair long. But Ellar was actually dying to cut his hair. You only have one take of that scene and if the kid starts smiling or laughing or bad acting, you lose that moment. But he was such a good little actor already that you didn’t see that.
Olivia and the kids are put into some difficult situations. Can you talk about her passive nature?
There were parts of my character that I really had no reference for in my own self. For me, if you attack me and my kids I’m going to beat you down. I’m kind of a scary warrior person if entrapped. So the part of her that observed but didn’t act yet, that was my biggest struggle with her. But I really recognize that all of us have these blind spots in our lives. Even when her husband starts commenting on his Mason’s nail polish, she just says “get your sister some water” to diffuse it, but there’s a part of her that doesn’t confront directly. If in a year Mason brought it up, I think she’d be like, “That never happened.” I think some of these negative moments, she almost doesn’t remember them even as they’re happening.
Also, later in the movie, your character has a really interesting moment with a near-stranger from her past. For those who’ve seen the movie, can you talk about how you decided to play that?
I think it was a mix of this mother thing… this single-mom thing and seeing my friends go through it. I’d gone through it. I was a single mom at 20 years old, struggling to build my career and buy diapers and all of that with a little baby. I’ve seen my kids take me for granted and not appreciate me, and I remember taking my mom for granted. I took care of my mom when she was dying. She was a therapist and did thousands of hours of free therapy for people at this clinic that was sliding-scale. People would start lining up out of the house. I thought she was tired and needed to rest, but she would just say “I don’t even know these people. But let them in, they need closure.” They would say that she saved their life, their marriage. My mom really touched people. We do affect each other. We do. And a little encouragement goes a long way.
Finally, how do you think audiences should best experience the film?
It doesn’t adhere to any principles of storytelling, or how you’re supposed to make a movie that will entertain people. I think they have to be ready for a more subtle experience, and a very human experience.