Thanks to the combined efforts of Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane, those who see Boyhood — and I’m of the mind that anybody with so much as the slightest passing interest must buy a ticket — will be witness to one of the most unique performances ever captured on film. This sounds hyperbolic, I know, but few other qualifications are as immediately applicable to a 160-minute-long, 12-year-spanning journey that wears many different hats with aplomb. At its heart is just one person: Mason, who we meet as a young boy and leave as… well, if not exactly a man, someone with whom we’ve nevertheless experienced more than any normal-length film would seem capable of capturing.
I was pleased to meet Coltrane at SoHo’s Crosby Street Hotel earlier this week, where we talked about both project and performance — though that’s hardly the entirety of it. Boyhood reaches in so many different directions in any given scene — historical, cultural, personal, tonal — that any worthwhile discussion with one of its main creative forces can’t help but bring us many places. With this overlap between title and talk in mind, it’s my hope that what’s provided below will offer some additional insight into a complicated work of art.
The Film Stage: How many interviews have you done today?
Ellar Coltrane: I just did three phone interviews, and I was on The Today Show this morning.
I was hoping to look at that and make sure there wasn’t any overlap between my questions and their own, but I had to rush out the door. We’ll see.
Well, no worries.
Are you tired of talking about yourself? Or at least the whole press thing?
It’s very bizarre; it is. I think I’m coming to terms with it. It was just overwhelming at first, and it’s weird to analyze myself this much — but I also kind of do that all the time, anyways. But I’m becoming more comfortable with it and kind of establishing just, you know, what I want to do, I guess, and being able to be more vulnerable. Because it’s easy to kind of… like you said, I get asked a lot of the same questions, so it’s kind of easy to just slip into giving scripted answers, which I really don’t like. It feels very ingenuine to just kind of regurgitate the same answer over and over again, so I think I’m just getting better at just kind of keeping my mind clear and, you know, being able to just kind of try to be surprised.
How long have you been in New York for?
I just got in last night.
When I boarded a subway to come here, there was an ad hanging at the station.
It was just one of those weird moments. I don’t know if you’ve seen ads for it around town, or…
Yeah. There are a couple of posters up in Austin, which is very, very strange.
Watching this film, it’s interesting how you not only become more prominent as a figure in the film, but — and I say this as a compliment — you become a better presence, as in, a better actor.
Oh, thank you.
To the point where, by the end, I thought it was such a perfectly sustained turn. I’m wondering if you feel the same way — if you felt yourself growing into this role over the years.
Definitely, and I think as the character grew up and, you know, became more of a person and had more to say — and the character required more input — I was also growing up and becoming a person and had more input to give. I definitely think there was a point where I became an active participant as opposed to just a subject.
Was there ever the feeling of wanting to stick around longer, seeing as you’re growing into it more and more?
Yeah. Rick and I have talked a lot about that — just, really, from the second half on, it seemed like every year was the best year we had done. It kind of just got better and better as we all became closer to each other and closer to the project and gained confidence. Maybe me, most of all, as far as gaining confidence, but we all grew — they’re better actors than they were twelve years ago, and I think Rick’s better at making movies. We all kind of grew into ourselves. Definitely. It was sad; as exciting as it was to be done, it was also kind of sad to think that we’re not going to go back and do it this year.
When you get to the final moments, I’d be curious, when you’re shooting the final scene, if there was sort of a pressure to get it right in one take — this moment that’s been led up to for twelve years.
Yeah, and because we needed the sunset. So there was. But I never really felt pressured. By that point, it was so comfortable that… I mean, Rick’s comfort and Rick’s confidence is very infectious. It’s a very relaxed kind of dynamic on the set. But it was — I mean, it was intense. It definitely was to just, simultaneously, what we were doing on camera and just, what I just said — the knowledge that it was coming to an end — and this very important part of my life was just kind of being wrapped-up at that moment, and struggling to appreciate it. Struggling to be there in the moment and, you know, appreciate what I had just done. So it was a bizarre moment.
A viewer has this 160-minute lead-up to the final bit of dialogue, which I already think is one of the great closing lines from any movie.
[Laughs] I like it. It’s good.
It’s almost, at the last second, Linklater acknowledging that this was all very strange, this twelve-year thing. And you started shooting in 2002, playing six, but you’re actually nineteen. So, when it starts, you’re really playing younger.
Yeah. I think the idea was that I was usually about a year — the character was about a year younger than I was. I mean, it was never very specific, but I think that was usually the idea.
So that never had some sort of impact on your performance, playing slightly younger?
Not really. I mean, I was home-schooled growing up, so I think a lot of the, like, divisions between ages that are just really a couple of years apart, I think public school kind of instills that in you. “You are very different and separate from someone who’s a year older than you.” I mean, I always had friends that were all different ages. I never really thought about it, and I think it also kind of helped; part of what Rick thought about, I think, was kind of not having me do anything on camera that I hadn’t already experienced in real life. Just a slight bit ahead, so I had kind of a head start to understand what the character might be going through.
Can you talk a bit about the evolution of how we worked with you, from a kid to basically an adult?
I mean, when I was young, I think a lot of what Rick was doing was kind of just trying to create an environment where me and Lorelei would be comfortable to just be ourselves, because most kinds aren’t, like, super-dramatic. Dramatic, in ways, but they’re not fully formed people yet, and so it’s just kind of capturing these little things about them. As far as the script-writing process: when I was young, I think it was more a matter of Rick just asking me questions and trying to get a feel, sort of vicariously, for what I might be and what kind of experiences he could kind of pull from my life to supplement the character with.
But as I got older — somewhere around halfway through — I became more of an active participant in that process. It was more of a collaboration, where he would kind of come to me with what was going to happen that year, and he very rarely had dialogue written ahead of time. Sometimes. He had his outline, and we would take that and compare it to what I was going through — what things I could reference, and what dynamics were like between me and girlfriends, or my family, or friends. That kind of thing. So I was able to use my experiences to flesh out the character and make him more of a real person.
Were there things you felt uncomfortable sharing and wished to withhold, for the sake of privacy?
Not consciously, really. I’m a pretty open person; I’ve always had a really respectful relationship with my parents, so I never… I don’t know, I never really felt the need to close myself off. But certainly, watching it back, there are things — especially kind of in the teenage years — that I maybe didn’t know I was expressing at the time. You know, just certain aspects of myself and my emotional state that I didn’t know how, like, obvious they were. [Laughs] So that’s a little interesting, to go, “Oh, I didn’t know anybody could see that.”
And do you think other people can see it, or is it just you?
I don’t know, I mean… I mean, definitely, but it’s kind of under the surface. You know, it’s self-conscious, so I definitely think other people see it, and I think that’s why so many people connect to it in such a meaningful way: because there is so much that’s unsaid — there’s just so much that’s just under the surface. Which is amazing. That’s an amazing thing that Rick did, making it — making us comfortable enough to express the same things.
We’re right around the same age, so I was thinking of small signifiers: if his hair’s growing longer, maybe that’s a sign of… not exactly rebellion, but a lot of friends around that time would —
Let their hair grow longer.
You notice personality changes which come with that.
Or if they’re skateboarding, or something, that’s a new facet of their personality which comes around. I feel like these things happened around similar times for my friends. For instance, I was able to place one part as 2007 because of the Soulja Boy cue.
Did you have a lot of say in the music?
No, actually. Rick did a lot of consulting for all of the music, and he asked me & Lorelei [Linklater, the writer-director’s daughter and actress portraying Mason’s sister], but I don’t think we were much help, because he wanted, you know… I mean, kind of a timestamp. That’s really one of the biggest timestamps that any of the years have, is the music — it kind of lets you know. And neither of us ever really listened to current music. There was an interview with me from the first year, when I’m seven, and he asked me what my favorite bands are, and it’s, like, Tool and System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine. Later it was Pink Floyd and Radiohead and stuff like that. I love all the music. Some of those songs are songs that I like now; I’d never heard of them before and I… but, yeah, I wasn’t quite “on the pulse” of what most kids were into.
So you did home-schooling from 1st to 8th grade, then attended a public high school?
I went to half a year of sixth grade, and, yeah, then I went to two-and-a-half years of high school.
One thing I’ve been curious about: when I first read about this film — in maybe 2007 or so — I was just searching around to learn a bit more, and, in the process, came across your IMDb page. When you were in public school, did friends ever Google your name, for whatever reason, and then found out you were doing this film —
And then you get questions: “what is this thing I found?”
Right. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, the only people that thought to do that were people I had already told about it. But it was weird. I mean, as big a part of my life as it was, it was also, like, a week out of the year, so a lot of times I would forget about it and, like, forget to tell my friends about it. Then I go off to do it, and they’re like, “What are you talking about? What are you doing?” And I’m like, “Oh, right: there’s this weird thing I’m a part of.” My first girlfriend, actually: I was dating her for months, and then I went to go do it, and she was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” But that’s happening now, you know? I mean, I get texts, every day, with pictures of myself from the Internet, and I’m just… you think I want to see that? I know. Believe me: I really know. But, yeah, people freak out about it. It’s bizarre.
I know you also did a role in Fast Food Nation.
Yeah, real small.
Did that come about from… were they shooting around the same time, or was it just a matter of Linklater calling you up?
Yeah, I think Rick just kind of wanted to just do something with me — just give me a chance to come see a different set. I’m not really sure; maybe I have to ask him. But I think it was just kind of just a little thing to do.
Do you have favorite films by him? I assume you’ve seen most of them by now.
The only ones I haven’t seen are the Before series.
Yeah, amazingly, I haven’t seen any of those. But I’ve seen all the other ones, and I think Waking Life has always been my favorite; that’s a very special film to me. And Slacker, also. I mean, that’s right around the time I was born, and it’s a love letter to Austin. Austin’s home, I know a lot people in that film, and it’s very surreal to watch.
Well, doesn’t an actor from Slacker appear in the film? Later on, when you’re in the Tex-Mex cafe with your girlfriend?
Oh… yeah, I think so. Yeah, maybe the guy that’s talking to himself?
Yeah. Yeah, I remember him; I remember that.
I’d thought, “Maybe these exist in the same universe.”
That’s sort of lovely.
I mean, yeah, Rick has constructed his own little world, and some of us get to inhabit it. [Laughs] Definitely. I think he has his own universe.
And where Mason is at Boyhood’s conclusion kind of dovetails neatly with Slacker. I remember many saying it felt like he could just walk into it by film’s end.
I don’t know if you ever felt that connection.
I mean, never specifically, but even though I haven’t seen the Before series, we also talked about that: that it’s like, maybe Mason gets on a train and goes to Europe and meets a woman. So I certainly have thought about that. It’s kind of this bizarre meta reflection of the other films.
Now that it’s coming out… I had read you were considering pursuing an acting career. Boyhood is a pretty good piece on your résumé, but do you ever feel like this is a good “cap” to the career, too, just because it’s one of the most unique roles any actor has ever had?
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I mean, I don’t feel desperate or pressured to start some kind of career. I think, more than anything, what this has taught me and inspired me to do is just make art, in general. I definitely can be acting — I enjoy acting — but it’s also all kinds of other things, you know, but yeah, it is weird. It would be hard to “top” this experience, so we’ll see.
Really I just want to be lost in the creative process, more than anything, and that’s kind of what I found over the last twelve years, is that that’s really the thing that makes me the happiest: to just be submerged in the process of making something and kind not concerned with the outcome. Working over that long, that’s kind of how it became. I think we, in a way, forgot that it was ever going to come out — it was ever going to be a movie. It was just this experience that we were having, and that’s a beautiful thing.
And then it finally hits you that we’re here.
This movie I’d known about for years and could find hide nor hair of, and now —
[Raises hands] Now it’s a thing. Now everybody knows about it. It’s crazy. It’s crazy.
Boyhood will enter limited release on July 11 and expand from the week of July 18. See the full roll-out plans here.