Richard Linklater’s striking Boyhood, which the director filmed intermittently over the course of a dozen years, charts the unfolding adolescence of one boy, Mason (Ellar 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 Arquette one-on-one about her experiences making the unique film, the excitement of seeing herself age on screen, and the moment that salved her own adolescent restlessness. The conversation is excerpted below:
Paste: Ethan Hawke had a relationship with Richard spanning many films and years, but Boyhood was your first film with him. Did Richard just sidle up to you and slyly ask what you were doing for the next 12 years or so?
Patricia Arquette: We’d met one time very briefly, at the Chateau Marmont at a party. It was very fleeting. I said I was a big fan of his, and he said he loved True Romance. We talked a little bit about life, and he knew that I was a young mom. I was a mom when I was 20, so already basically when my career started—my son was in True Romance at the end, actually—he plays my son in the movie. It was weird at that time. There weren’t a lot of other young mother actresses. I guess that was in Rick’s mind, and he just called me and said he had this idea for a movie over 12 years about this family. And my heart got so excited, so I said, “Are you thinking about me for it?” And he was like, “Yeah, I was wondering if you’d be interested in doing it.” And I said, “Oh, I’m in.” And then later I thought, “Oh, maybe I should’ve asked what my part was.” But I was doing it no matter what.
Paste: This is a film without a conventional script—it incorporates real-life events in rolling fashion into its backdrop. How many conversations with Rick about what was going on in your own life shaped your understanding of who Olivia was?
Arquette: Well, on so many levels this movie was different. The first conversation I had with Rick, he told me the main, big, pivotal changes for my character, so that stuff was already locked in. He told me they’re divorced, Mason Sr. went off and was more of a free spirit, and that it starts when the son starts first grade and ends in high school. He told me about the marriages and divorces, and why some of them happened. And through the course of making this movie, of course a lot of people would say there should be more dramatic moments—like, in Film School 101, under Formula 5-CO3, the character is supposed to do this and the arch-nemesis does this and then the protagonist does that. But Rick was always very clear that life could hold itself, that life was enough—that it’s not about the first time you have sex or about these major moments, that life is in between all of that. That is the fabric of life, and that we lose sight of that in this ever-aggressive culture of accomplishing milestones. …We did talk about other stuff some, pop cultural things that we would remember from throughout each year—like, “Oh, wow, everyone’s on Facebook, and now there’s this new thing, Instagram.” We would talk about those things but throw out about 99 percent of them. This movie would be super-weird if none of those things were involved, but [we tried to work them in] subtly. For example, you get a sense that she got a great deal on this one house because it was in foreclosure, but later of course you’re house-poor and you have pressure because of a high interest rate.
Paste: Rick recommended to Ellar that he watch the film in private first, which makes sense. But how was your first viewing experience, which came at its Sundance premiere, right?
Arquette: Yes, the first time I watched it was with 1,200 people, so I had all those weird feelings in public. Rick had asked if I wanted to see it before. And I [had seen] the first five years cut together and was like, “Wow, this is amazing, but I don’t want to see anymore until it’s all done.” I think there’s something great about this age, in that you get braver and more okay about mistakes and flaws—you just get more okay about being vulnerable and raw. One of the things that was really strange and incredible about finally seeing the movie was that I was excited to see myself age and change. Me and Ethan were young actors once, and maybe people saw me for the first time in True Romance, and Ethan was young when he came into people’s consciousnesses. In a weird way, people freeze you a lot at that age they first see you, and even though at that age I wanted to get rid of being an ingénue as quick as I could, I really with this movie knew that I would be able to explode it into 100 million pieces and be completely done with that forever. There’s a responsibility and a burden carrying that dumb thing, and I wanted to be brave enough to see that end. And certainly there was another level of just watching the movie and remembering [things about] our own lives: “Oh, that’s the year Ethan got divorced, and oh right, Rick had his twins that year, and oh, my daughter was born, oh, I got a divorce, oh, my son went off to college.” It was remembering all of these things from real life. But back to what you said earlier, about not having a full script—I also wasn’t exposed to what all the other characters were doing, so then the third layer was experiencing all of these scenes that I wasn’t in, that I never read in a script. Olivia has this real resentment with Mason Sr., and he has some for her, too. But in seeing the movie, there were moments [where it was almost like] my character is also watching him have private moments with his kids for the first time—seeing what he says to them, seeing them go camping. And when you look at the big picture, I think she would let a lot of resentment go by seeing the beautiful contribution he’s also making to their lives. And I think he would with her, too.
Paste: Sure. In any relationship that suffers or falters, there’s a point where, after being bound together so tightly, you start being able to almost only see the negative in the other person, even if you’re still adjacent to all these other great qualities. It must have been interesting to experience that perspective, through watching Olivia.
Arquette: I think the film really taught me something as a human being, about how we compartmentalize each other—and it’s not the truth. We’re living in this little illusion. Because this was such a collaborative project, you had to stay open and be really facile to who your character was, and be willing to let them grow in ways you weren’t even comfortable with them growing, and maybe make choices you weren’t always even comfortable with them making. You had to figure out how to play them in a real fashion. For example, there’s the scene where Mason’s stepdad makes fun of him for wearing nail polish and Olivia doesn’t say anything, and so I said to Rick, “Why wouldn’t she say something like, ‘Don’t be a jerk,’ or ‘Leave him alone’?” But I think what I loved about Rick’s choice of having her not say anything was that I think it was a leftover from some Texas female childhood, where she was raised by her mom, and her generation was not really getting involved with man-on-man stuff, or basically just thinking, ‘Is that really a fight I want to take on a war over?’ And I think honestly if Mason had brought it up the next year, Olivia just wouldn’t remember it. It felt like a reminder that we have blinders in our lives, whether we like it or not.
Paste: The film is called Boyhood, yes, but Olivia’s arc is pretty amazing, too. One thing that’s interesting is that people may not be sympathetic to some of the choices she makes early on, but you come to see she’s a woman who at her core has a desperate desire to bring stability to her kids’ lives, and part of what is informing some choices is that she feels she needs a man, not so much for her but to help provide a nuclear family life that Mason Sr. can’t.
Arquette: Yeah, for sure. And I don’t know anyone perfect—show me your perfect life, and the perfect choices you made as a parent, or the perfect thing that you said at the perfect moment, and I’ll say, “I don’t believe you. You’re a delusional lunatic.” Did Olivia make choices that she regrets? Of course, but were they human mistakes. [With respect to some of the men in her life,] I think that guys who turn out to be wrestling with inner demons don’t show that at first. Everyone wants to be loved. And even somebody wrestling with the demon of alcoholism wants to be loved and present the best parts of themselves for a long time. (pause) And then suddenly one day it’s like, “Surprise, there’s a monster in the room!” So I wouldn’t fault her. What is she supposed to do, be alone forever?
Paste: I’d be interested in your relationship with Ellar. There’s that old saw about never working with animals or kids. But as an actress with professional training, you’re working here with a kid who at a certain point isn’t really a kid anymore. How did you recalibrate that working relationship, if that makes sense?
Arquette: Well, I think our rehearsal process was so intimate, and it was just that. Hopefully working on any movie is somewhat intimate, working with other actors and the director—but particularly on this project we would jump in and all brainstorm on things, talk about different ideas, like, “Oh, when that happened with my mom or son, we did this.” That process in itself would reintegrate you in some way. The kids, when they were little, weren’t really contributing in that way. But when they got older, we would talk, and I’m sure they helped take the story off in different directions that it wouldn’t have gone without them. They were serious contributors. I think Rick was brilliant in his casting. Lorelei is really smart but sardonic and has a dark sensibility about the world. And that was a really great foil for Ellar’s openness and his philosophical daydreaming. She was kind of a hyperrealist in a way, and was like that even as a really small kid. Rick treated them both with a tremendous amount of respect and patience and gentleness, and wanted to know their opinion on this and that. He spoke to them all the way through like that.
Paste: When we’re younger, we often get advice, and it may be something we don’t want to hear. So we put up a wall but absorb it kind of tangentially, and upon later reflection one can see how it took hold. In regards to the film, I’m thinking particularly of the advice the younger Mason gets from a photography instructor, Mr. Turlington. Did you have any experience with a teacher like that in high school—someone who maybe helped elucidate the fact that you have to really lean forward into your interests, whatever they are?
Arquette: (pause) It’s maybe not exactly an answer to that, but there was a pivotal moment in my life when I was really restless in school, and I changed schools a lot. I really felt like it was a prison and that I was learning stupid things. I didn’t know why I was there. I was desperate for my “real” life to begin and I probably would have dropped out of school if I didn’t have this English teacher who I really liked. And the way my schedule worked, I couldn’t have her for English. But even though I was technically too young at the time, she gave me a free period where she was my English teacher and I would do journal entries and drop them off to her. I would just sit alone by the lunch tables and write, and somehow that really made me stay in school because it fit what I really needed at that moment—a little space. I still did my work, but I did it in a little different way that fit for me. And just that kept me there, in school.
(NOTE: Boyhood opened in limited release on July 11, and expands nationally July 18. For more information, click here.)