In person, with a hooped nose ring, gelled hair and thoughtful replies, Ellar Coltrane gives off a composed and unerringly normal vibe; he has the high-intellect ambivalence of a young person who already recognizes the value of an examined life, but also realizes he’s just starting his own journey. Of course, chatting with the heretofore unknown Coltrane after the experience of watching Boyhood feels deeply unusual in and of itself—probing, and a bit like a violation of some unspoken privacy, as if you’ve stumbled across a cache of home videos.
That’s because Richard Linklater’s striking film, shot intermittently over the course of a dozen years, charts the unfolding adolescence of one boy, Mason (Coltrane), against the backdrop of various relationships, including with his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and divorced parents, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Recently, Paste had a chance to chat with the Austin-based Coltrane one-on-one about his experience making the unique film, and how his own boyhood tracked with that of the character he played. The conversation is excerpted below:
Paste: Any sort of 12-year commitment is tough, but it’s even more difficult when you’re expecting it from someone for whom that represents twice their entire life up to that point. What are your memories of first talking about the movie with Rick?
Ellar Coltrane: (laughs) I mean, my memories are pretty vague, as I think being six years old is for most people. But I’d been auditioning a lot at that point in time, and this movie was very different from any other audition because he didn’t really have a script. He knew the general arc of the story, but he wasn’t even telling me that, really. I think he was much more interested in just kind of getting to know potential actors. It was just kind of a conversation, which is the way most things are with Rick. He has his master plan, but you never know it—or more accurately, you never feel like you’re being directed or manipulated or anything. He’s just chatting with you, and in this case 12 years later you’ve made a movie. It was very casual.
Paste: I know Lorelei, his daughter, was really into making the movie when she was younger and then had a period where she didn’t want to be in it, and asked that he kill off her character. The film could have survived that or other more structured dramatic contrivances that impacted other characters, but not with you, obviously. Was there ever a point, though, where you just thought, “Man, I’m not really into this anymore?”
Coltrane: Not really. It was just great, it was always a learning experience. I mean, creating art is the only thing I’ve found I really crave in my life. The only thing that really gives me solace is to be in the thick of that sort of process of creating something. And so it was kind of therapeutic to throw myself into it year after year and always have that outlet, and to get to learn from someone like Rick, and from Ethan and Patricia too, [who] are very genuine but very experienced actors and creators. Especially with Rick’s method, I learned a lot. Plus, it was always fun. The way I was raised, I never had much of a reason to rebel. I only ever did things because I wanted to do them, and it was the same way with this. I’m sure if I ever wanted to stop Rick wouldn’t have stopped me.
Paste: Both your parents are artists as well, is that correct?
Coltrane: Yes, my mom was a dancer and a painter for a long time. And my dad’s a musician, traveling. He goes back and forth—he settles down sometimes and then wants to tear everything apart for a while.
Paste: Rick is as you describe him—very relaxed, and obviously super-bright. But a working relationship with someone spanning their formative years is different than the sort of adult relationships he must have had with Ethan and Patricia. How he directed you as a young kid would have to be slightly different than how he talked to you as a teenager, right?
Coltrane: Very much, yeah. When you’re young, you’re just kind of there and along for the ride. Rick has a great way of maintaining that, of setting the place for you to just kind of be there—with children, especially. I think it’s easy to push kids too hard and get an unnatural performance because a lot of times they feel like they need to be likable or be something that they’re not. So [his method] was … much less direct when I was young. He would glean information from me to use, to flesh out the character and write the lines so that they would be natural for me. But as I got older, I became much more of a direct part of crafting the character and writing the dialogue and just being part of the project—definitely a collaborator, I guess. It was more of a level plane. Everyone had a lot of input.
Paste: The film shows the aftermath of your graduation, but notably no ceremony, and it isn’t built around firsts—like sex or drinking or whatever. You get the aftermath of those moments, and learn about their after-effects. So I’m interested in some of the conversations you had with Rick in shaping the character as you got older. Was he very interested in certain milestones in your life, even though they don’t appear in the film?
Coltrane: No. (pause) I mean, he kind of tried to avoid that, at least too directly. He would ask me about certain things, like kissing a girl or drinking a beer, because he didn’t want to have me do something on screen for the first time that I hadn’t done in my own life. But I think … that he wanted to avoid on all fronts focusing too much on these set markers in your life. That’s a lot of what the movie is about—the importance of everyday life, and that these big moments that we expect to define us in the end don’t mean anything, really, or don’t mean anything more than the other moments, and that it’s really every moment that counts. That’s more what our conversations were about—little things about how I interacted with my friends on a daily basis, and how I talked to my parents and what I would do when I was alone.
Paste: But we can confirm the breaking news, then: you have had a beer.
Coltrane: (laughs) I have illegally drank. I have had a beer.
Paste: One of the most interesting things to witness in watching the film with an audience is how viewers react to various characters that come into Mason’s life briefly—there’s unease and protectiveness when he’s a kid in some scary situations, and a sort of knowing tittering that accompanies other characters who ride him a bit as a teenager, like his photography instructor and his boss in the restaurant. It’s a reminder that big truths or relevant advice can come from people who [have a fleeting connection to] our lives. Is there any experience you can recall with someone like that—someone who broadened your perspective in unusual and unexpected ways? Or was that the experience itself of making this film?
Coltrane: Well, I think it’s kind of everything, you know? It’s not always things you realize. But those [latter] characters you mention … I don’t think Mason saw that as meaningful advice. He was probably just annoyed that these adults were giving him shit. That’s how you feel about a lot of things, I think. People tell you things, and it’s difficult to be receptive to advice. You still absorb it, even if in the moment you aren’t completely open to what someone’s telling you—you still hear it and it’s still in your head, and it can still affect the way you go about your life, from that point on. But I don’t know … my parents were both supportive growing up, but very hands-off also. I’ve been allowed to kind of make my own way. But I’ve had a lot of teachers, really. That’s one of the greatest blessings of my life, that I’ve had so many passionate people give me the benefit of their experience.
Paste: Do you feel like your own growing up tracked more or less in parallel fashion with Mason’s, or was his adolescence separate and distinct, and just a product of this artful collaboration?
Coltrane: A lot of Mason’s life is kind of the opposite of mine. I never went to public school, so I never had that social dynamic he has. And my parents were married (when we started). They’re divorced now, but they were married until I was nine, so that’s very different. A lot of it was this parallel universe, and getting to step out of myself and see what may in many ways be a more common childhood—you’re not really doing it, but you’re experiencing it and seeing how it feels to live in a different way.
Paste: If this is too personal that’s fine, but considering that your parents split up during the production process, did the film offer some sort of therapeutic value in helping to cope with that?
Coltrane: Probably so. Not consciously, I think. (pause) As a child, I was very good at thinking my way out of emotions. That’s something I’ve been talking about with Ethan, and I think it’s a quality that Rick and I might share—a certain detachment. It’s something I’m trying to kind of get better at, feeling my emotions. But as a child, I just detached myself from that and any emotions that the divorce might have caused in me. I didn’t even really see parallels at the time between my life and the film, because I just couldn’t—I couldn’t let myself feel that. But watching it back now, it hits very close to home, and it definitely means a lot to me, to see the stepfathers and the relationship between the parents, and the fact that they see only the worst parts in each other. Olivia and Mason both obviously care very much for their children, but they’re very flawed people [and] they have this weird, combative relationship. That’s true with a lot of family relationships—you just end up only seeing the bad things. Certainly, I can’t really speak to how it affected me in the moment, but watching the film now is very therapeutic for my relationship with my family. It’s allowed me to gain a lot of respect for them, I think.
Paste: Rick mentioned that he recommended that you watch the film by yourself a couple times before its Sundance premiere.
Coltrane: Absolutely, and I knew I always should and would do that. I knew it was going to be inevitably a very intense experience to watch it for the first time, and I don’t do well with crowds, so I didn’t want to experience those emotions for the first time with an audience. I mean, watching it with an audience is incredible because they love it and we get so much warmth from people, which is beautiful. I’m so grateful for that because it’s so tender for me, and so if it was anything else it would be hard.
Paste: What stuff are you most into now? Is acting something you think you want to stick with?
Coltrane: Well, I don’t know. I definitely like acting. I enjoy it. But what I’ve really learned is that creating art is really what life is about for me. If acting can be an outlet for that—which it definitely can be—and I can find the right projects then I definitely would like to continue acting, but I’m also interested in painting and drawing and music. I’m just doing this right now, so … we’ll see.
Boyhood is now playing. Check out Brent Simon’s previous chats with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. For more information on the film, visit BoyhoodMovie.Tumblr.com.