Ellar Coltrane has only had one starring role in his career, yet many people over the course of a scant two and a half hours can watch him grow up on screen in front of their very eyes. A veteran of storytelling, Coltrane stars as Mason, the protagonist of Richard Linklater’s epic, twelve years in the making look at growing up, Boyhood (which expands to many major cities across Canada this weekend).
Coltrane, who was a professional working actor at a young age in Texas, was chosen by Linklater for an ambitious project: the chronicling of a young boy on his way to adulthood that moved at the speed of life. For a few days every year starting when he would have just been entering school for the first time, Coltrane would rejoin his cast and crew to reprise his role. Mason would go through many of the ups and downs of being a kid, while Coltrane experienced his own life very differently outside of the character of Mason.
Linklater created the character of Mason to try to show the reality of growing up in the modern age, but as Coltrane got older, the already well established director behind the Before trilogy, School of Rock, Slacker, and Dazed and Confused would turn to his star to better inform the film in terms of how someone would act age appropriately. It was a collaborative relationship unlike any other in film history, leading to a film that many have heralded as the best film of the year and a masterpiece of modern cinema. You know, no pressure for someone who’s still just barely out of their teens and still trying to find their own way in the world. (That was sarcasm. The kids use that these days.)
We got a chance to talk to Coltrane as he passed through Toronto one weekend to participate in some special screening Q&As about the lengthy, but laid back process of making one of the most ambitious films in recent memory,
Do you feel like you’ve aged more now while you’ve been promoting the movie than when you made it?
Ellar Coltrane: (laughs) Yeah! I think I’ve grown up tenfold in the last six months. It all happens very fast. It was a blast, you know, to have that experience growing up, and this is kind of like the curtain call for all of it now that we get to talk about it. We didn’t have to talk about it very much while we were making it. We didn’t even have to really think all that much about it. It was just this art project that we all kind of threw ourselves into. And we’re just being confronted by it now.
Richard Linklater said that during the casting process he wanted to find someone who was already a professional child actor, someone with credits or at least a headshot. How has your feelings on acting changed from when you were young to now?
EC: Yeah, I was really going for it back then when I was younger. But I really can’t exactly tell you from the six year old point of view. I mean, I liked it. I think all kids liked pretending. It was something I was good at, and it was exciting to work with directors who would kind of treat you like an equal. As a kid, you’re used to being talked to like a pet or something. Richard always just spoke to me really candidly as a person. I think a lot of it at the time was just being made to feel like I was a part of something and not being treated like a child.
But now, things have definitely changed. For a long time, I had really lost interest in acting. I always enjoyed doing this project, but this was different. Very different. I wasn’t pursuing anything else for a long time, though. Looking back on this process and talking about it so much, I can see just how satisfying and beneficial it was to have a project like this that I could throw myself into and how much I enjoyed being able to do that. The opportunity to lose myself in the creative process is what I’m really into.
When did you realize the scope of the film you were making and who Richard Linklater was?
EC: I had seen a lot of his films even when we started. When I was young Waking Life was one of my favourite movies. (laughs) But it dawned on me gradually who he was. As far as the scope of the film, I don’t think I really thought about it at all during filming, so it’s been kind of more in the aftermath that I’ve kind of just realized how bizarre it all is to see now, and to see the effect that it had on me and on other people.
As you were growing up and getting older, was it easier or harder to come back to shooting the film every year since you guys would only shoot for a few days every year and you’d only have Richard contacting you every now and then to talk about the film over 12 years?
EC: It was both, I guess. I really didn’t have to think about it very much for more than a few days every year, and it wasn’t really invasive in a direct way. But it’s true; I was constantly being asked to analyze my life, and my interactions with others, and my personality for it all to be used in this script. It was VERY introspective.
Especially as you’re growing up and you might be afraid that some of that stuff in your life might show up exactly in the same way as the character is envisioned by Richard.
EC: I stopped talking about it at one point, actually, in either direction. At one point, I had to tell my ex-girlfriend, who I had been dating for a year, that I was going off to do this thing, and she was just, like, “Wait… what?” (laughs) “Oh shit! Yeah, there’s this whole thing that I go off and do every year! I forgot!” (laughs)
Is it at all eerie or strange to watch how you’ve progressed over all these years in the same film instead of over many different films like some actors?
EC: Very. Very strange. It’s incredibly surreal, and I think that passage of time and the way that you change and mature is really elusive in that most art tries to get at that. You’re wondering how you change from day to day, and every day you can look in the mirror and pictures, but you can’t see it because you’re there. You’re in the thick of it. To see it altogether like that is very eerie, but beautiful. It’s incredible.
Since Richard was asking you so much about how your life was going to better inform your character, I was wondering in terms of how Mason looked and how he carried himself and dressed, how much of that was Richard and how much of that was you?
EC: It was more and more me as we went on. At the beginning they cut my hair, put me in a costume, all of that. But as the character got older, most of the high school haircuts were my own haircuts.
Did you ever want to get back at him with your hairstyles for the head shaving when you were younger in the film?
EC: (laughs) No! Actually, I was thinking about it, and if anything I was getting back at him for making me grow my hair OUT so they could shave it. It’s really hot in Texas in the summer, and I really wanted to cut my hair, and that’s the kind of thing when you’re a kid that really bugs you. But they wanted it to be long so that scene would be dramatic. (laughs)
Was there anything during the process of filming that you had to hold yourself back from doing like getting any tattoos or piercings or anything like that? Was there much in your personal life where you had to stop being like a careless or reckless teenager like most of us are at that age?
EC: (laughs) I did have to refrain from lighting my head on fire. But, no, I didn’t refrain from being reckless, that’s for sure. And I did pierce my ears, and that made it into the movie. But before I did that, I did call Richard and ask him if it was cool, and I think I actually thought about it more than he did, honestly. He wanted to avoid controlling my life in any way. He just said, “as long as it’s something guys your age do.”
Richard is kind of like a father figure. He’s like a crazy uncle that happens to be a magician. He’s the guy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s a special relationship we had. He just has a way of making people feel really comfortable. One of the first things I remembered liking about Richard right away was that he talked to me like an adult, and he made me comfortable. There’s a joke that goes around about his sets that sometimes you won’t even know when you’re filming. It can just be this conversation where you’re going in and out of scenes and he’ll just all of a sudden say, “We got it.” It’s all so casual.
And also, being a part of creating the character and being able to put parts of myself into it like that helps. It is very much a fictional character and very much outside of myself, I was still familiar with it. I still don’t know how to quite put that into words.
Since Richard wasn’t really of your time and he wanted to make a film about someone growing up today and there’s all this technology that didn’t exist when he was a kid, were there any contributions that you specifically made to the script or to the film? And did you have any specific input as to the musical choices that were made in the film and what your character might listen to?
EC: The scene where I was listing the three best movies of the summer as The Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder, and Pineapple Express, that was SO my doing. Those were my favourite movies of that summer. (laughs)
But as for the music, no. Richard always wanted to have the songs act as sort of a time stamp for what was on the air at that time. He asked me and Lorelei what we were listening to when we were getting older, and I was into Pink Floyd and she was listening to 18th Century harpsichord music. (laughs) We weren’t very helpful in that respect.
Are there particular years of filming you can look back on more fondly now in hindsight and others where you could tell you just weren’t into acting as much?
EC: Yeah! My involvement and investment grew and grew as the years went on, but the year when me and Ethan went camping was the first one and the one that I remember the best and had the best feeling about. I was taking acting classes and I was just really interested in it. I had a huge part in writing the dialogue that year and in the years after that. That was the first year where I kind of had that freedom and I was a part of that collaborative process.
I mean, it was never a struggle for me really so there aren’t any years where I don’t look back on it fondly. Maybe I was a little bit apathetic. Maybe I didn’t feel like I applied myself as much. But the character at the time was apathetic, so it worked. (laughs)
Going back to that camping scene, what’s it like to see the part where you and Ethan make jokes about the potential of there being a new Star Wars movie?
EC: (laughs) I know! That gets the biggest laugh in the movie, but it wasn’t a joke 8 years ago! That was just my opinion about Star Wars, and now it’s just very ironic.
That camping scene and the scene towards the end where you’re meeting with Ethan at the bar after your graduation show that you guys had a really great chemistry together, so what’s it like being alone with actors like Ethan and Patricia who have worked with Richard before and getting to have one-on-one scenes with them as an actor literally growing up on set?
EC: It’s incredible. It’s so inspiring to be around people who have been doing this for so long and who have been through this process so many times. To see them coming back all this time because they have to also go out and make money and they always have to be professional, and to have them keep coming back to throw themselves entirely into this project is just insane to think about. It very well could have never come out. We weren’t making much money and we all could have left, but we were just there and just doing it because we wanted to and because we thought it would be beautiful, and that’s just incredibly beautiful to be around.
And it seems like this was a project where everything went well and no one was ever really worried about anything. Even something like Ethan Hawke skipping a rock…
EC: Which was on the first take! And Lorelei in the bowling scene was bowling strikes by the second take. (laughs)
Did you feel that relaxed all the way through or did you ever feel like it was just going to fall apart at some point?
EC: I mean, we never thought that way, but when we were getting to years six, seven, and eight and we realized that not only has nothing gone wrong, but that everything has gone better than perfect helped us to just keep building momentum as the years went on.
One of the only things that went wrong is literally tied into the final moment of the movie. The government in Texas had shut down. We were supposed to shoot the ending in a National Park, but it was closed, so we had to go to the State park, and even then what we got actually turned out better than we probably would have gotten.
You guys even go to an Astros game with Roger Clemens pitching.
EC: And he GLOWERS at the camera! You can’t even PLAN that stuff. I don’t know how in the hell we ever managed some of this.
When the film was starting to come to the end, did you feel like you were going to miss it when it was gone having spent this much time on it?
EC: It hasn’t even quite set in for me that we’re done because we only wrapped for good back in October and we’re still out and talking about it now. If we were still going on it, I would still have the same feeling. I think come Christmastime, that will feel a bit more real.
But it was totally bittersweet to stop filming. That really kind of snuck up on us. The goal of it actually being finished was so distant for so much of the project that we just never thought about it. We were lost in it and just doing it, but that last moment in the film was the last moment that we filmed, and that moment that Mason is experiencing is very much what all of us involved with the film were experiencing, but for different reasons. It was just a chapter of all of our lives that was coming to an end, especially for the adults that do this kind of thing for a living. You ask them and they’ll say that you could never fall in love with a project quite like that, so yeah, it was definitely bittersweet.
I’m hanging onto the moment right now. It’s been a really therapeutic kind of thing to have in my life. I mean, I’m enjoying now and being done with it and learning everything I’m picking up in the aftermath, but it’s something I’ll always hold dear. Just having an outlet to explore your emotions in this kind of distant way, and to take this character and relate what I was going through via that character. I wasn’t experiencing life in the same way as Mason, but these could be my real feelings. I was applying myself to this other universe and exploring what those situations might make me feel and how I would express them. Those are all parts of figuring out who you are, and I appreciated it.
Did you ever get the chance to see any of the footage as Richard was assembling it along the way over the years?
EC: No, and I’m glad I didn’t because it totally would have changed my approach drastically. And Rick kind of felt that way, too. Nor did I ever feel the need to ask to see it. It just felt like I never had to. I would have become self-conscious about it and not in a good way.
What was your experience like watching the completed film for the first time?
EC: It was just a few weeks before it debuted at Sundance, and Rick just gave me a disc of it and he said, “You should watch this alone.” (laughs) I watched it two or three times, I think, and I was just devastated afterward. Not in a negative way, but I was pretty out of it. It was very emotional to see.
Your parents also supported you a lot on this journey, so what was it like for them seeing it?
EC: Well, my dad saw it at Sundance, and my mom saw it in Berlin. They were just blown away. I think it was different for them than it would be for anyone else because they really already watched me grow up once already. It was beautiful.
Mason goes through a lot of stuff that many people still have sometimes really heavy memories of, like dealing with an alcoholic stepparent or their first beark-up, and I think sometimes people when they see the film have really visceral reactions to what they’re seeing. It can mean a lot to a lot different people, so what does it make you feel when people come up to you after a screening and tell you that this character you played for 12 years really spoke to them in some way?
EC: It’s incredible. It’s so beautiful for anything to elicit that kind of emotion in people and have them feel comfortable and involved and vulnerable enough to express it. Even in the most intimate of relationships, it’s hard to express those vulnerable emotions and that kind of tenderness. It’s really hard to cry. Emotions are often very repressed. It’s beautiful to have people express that, and I feel responsible to validate what’s given back to me. We presented ourselves in a really vulnerable way, and they’re returning it. It’s an incredible way to tell a story.