Boyhood chronicles the growth of a young boy from first grade through entering college, with the actress playing the single mother who sacrifices her own happiness for her children.
For cineastes, especially those who endured the mad pangs of adolescence in the halcyon ’90s, the mental image of Patricia Arquette will always be that of a badass Southern belle in a push-up bra with blood-red lipstick, Charlie’s Angels blond bob, and five-dollar shades. Her Alabama Worley, a prostitute-cum-outlaw in Tony Scott’s True Romance, remains one of the most indelible screen sirens ever.
It’s been over 20 years—21, to be exact—since she uttered the phrase “You’re so cool…,” and Arquette looks a bit older now, but she still radiates that same intriguing blend of spunk and effortless cool. We’re seated in a courtyard on the Lower East Side sipping margaritas (her idea), and the actress is chain-smoking Parliament Lights (sorry, Bloomberg). And perhaps you can chalk it up to the liquid courage, but Arquette is refreshingly open; this is an actual conversation, not a strange game of tug-of-war, like so many movie star interviews.
She’s here in New York to promote Boyhood, which could also explain her candor and cheer. Arquette delivers the best performance of her career as Olivia, a determined single mother raising two young children who suffers through a string of abusive relationships in order to keep a roof over their heads. Richard Linklater’s film—or “life project,” as he describes it—was shot for a few days each year for 12 years, and chronicles the growth of her character’s son, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), from age 6 to 18. The movie, which many, present company included, think is a masterpiece, also stars Ethan Hawke as her ex-husband, and Lorelei Linklater as her daughter.
A bit buzzed, we discuss Arquette’s storied career, which began with standout films True Romance, Ed Wood, and the underrated David O. Russell screwball Flirting with Disaster, before she migrated over to the small screen, starring on Medium and the upcoming CSI: Cyber. And, of course, her towering performance in Boyhood.
Since Boyhood was shot intermittently over 12 years, did you have a good grasp over the quality of your performance?
It was pretty clear who she was, and it wasn’t hard to get back to that. During moments of my life I’ve been her, and my mom was her. Even though my dad was the breadwinner, he always had this joke that he changed my diaper once, so she had a lot on her plate. My mom also went back to school, got her degree, became a therapist, and taught for a while, so I remember seeing her worry about paying the bills and how she’d make the house payments. And when I first started work, I got a few small jobs and then got Last Exit to Brooklyn, which was my first amazing part, but I turned it down because I was pregnant. I didn’t know if I’d have a career to go back to because I was only 20 and hadn’t gotten a part like that before, but I didn’t want to be pregnant and raped in that movie—it gets really heavy. So I had my son and was really struggling to build my career as a Mom, because his Dad [Paul Rossi] and I broke up when he was a month old. Sometimes, I’d be like, “OK, I have money for diapers or food… which one are we gonna do?”
"I remember him pushing me around in a shopping cart, and I had a little strainer on my head."
When did your luck start to change?
Well, I got a job as a waitress and the day before I showed up, I got a part. So I called them and said, “Thank you so much for hiring me!” I didn’t have a lot of waitressing experience, but I told them I learned fast, and to please give me the job because I had a baby I needed to feed, and they did. I don’t even remember what the part was.
Shortly after that you were in True Romance, which I love. That film—and the character of Alabama—has really aged well.
She’s a tough broad! A really fun girl, and a good-hearted person. Enzo, my son, is the baby at the end of the film. He plays “Elvis” at the end. Tony Scott saw me in Indian Runner and then called Sean [Penn], who said some really nice things about me, and then brought me in to audition. They originally wanted to give the part to Drew Barrymore, but I think she turned it down. Lucky for me!
And True Romance contains one of the most insane fight sequences in movie history between you and James Gandolfini. How difficult was that to shoot?
It was pretty crazy. It was James’ first movie, and he was really in character on the movie so he was literally sleeping in his car in his character’s clothes for days and days. He was really sweet, but at one point, on his reaction shot when I nail him in the foot with a screwdriver, he wanted me to take this pen that had a cap on it and really jam it hard into his foot, so I did it. And he said, “No, that’s not hard enough. Do it harder.” I tried a little harder and he said it wasn’t hard enough, so I said, “Man, I’m an actor! I don’t want to injure you on purpose.” So by that point, my stunt double was so pissed off at James for having shot that sequence that she said, “Give me that fuckin’ pen!” and just nailed him in the foot with it.
How long did it take to shoot that sequence?
We shot that scene over three or five days. He grabbed a fist full of hair in one take, and we were pretty banged up by the end of it. I have a really funny story about James, though. Some years ago, we were supposed to present together at the Golden Globes, so we did the rehearsal, and they give you all these presents and all that. But James was also nominated that night for The Sopranos and he didn’t win, so he left before we presented. So I’m already nervous and hate those things, and they come up to me and go, “We can’t find James… Michael Imperioli is going to present in his place.” I was like, “I’m going to kill that fuckin’ James Gandolfini next time I see him!”
Cut to a few months later, and I’m in New Orleans visiting my ex-husband [Thomas Jane] on a movie with my baby daughter. And James was the king of the Mardi Gras parade that year. So, I can’t find a bathroom for my baby daughter and I’m trapped behind this police blockade, and the parade comes by. And James is there at the head of it. James sees me, and is like, “Hey!” And I’m like [gives middle finger], “FUCK YOU!” And he’s like, “What?!” So, he floats down the road, and police open up the barricade, but then I find myself trapped behind another barricade, and what do you know, the float comes by again with James. He looks at me again, and I’m like, “Fuck you!” And he gets up and goes, “What am I doing?” and starts ripping apart his paper hat, jumps off the float, and bails. I think he thought I was some ghost judging him or something!
Do you even remember working with Brad Pitt on that movie, as the lovable stoner, Floyd?
I think he might’ve actually been offered Clarence but he wanted to play the stoner-friend.
Did you and Christian Slater have a romantic fling on True Romance? You two had amazing chemistry in that movie.
We did… have a little flirtation, yeah. I wouldn’t call it a full-on relationship, though. But we had a little romantic crush on each other.
You had such a great run there, including Ed Wood, with Johnny Depp. What was it like shooting that film with him?
We were never romantically involved, and I’d known Johnny since I was 17—auditioning for parts, and trying to come up together. The first time I remember hanging out with him was at the parking lot of Canter’s drinking beers, and then we went over to the supermarket and I remember him pushing me around in a shopping cart, and I had a little strainer on my head. [Laughs]
I also love Flirting with Disaster. It will go down as the only movie ever, probably, that features Josh Brolin furiously licking your armpit.
That was my idea! I figured that going into the dating pool was full of weird unknowns, and you might end up with someone who has some weird proclivity that you don’t understand, and maybe it’s not so great to be in the dating pool, so I said, “Why doesn’t he just lick my armpit or something?” and David [O. Russell] said, “That’s great!” and Josh said, “That’s great!” Unfortunately, I forgot that I’d put on deodorant so poor Josh was lapping that up.
I remember seeing Lost Highway as a young teen and having no idea what the hell it was about the first time. Do you even know what it’s about?
I have my own theory of Lost Highway. I’d say to David [Lynch], “Am I playing a ghost right now? Am I real? Am I a phantasm?” and he’d go, “I don’t know, Patricia… What do you think?” So, I decided that her husband, Fred, was a misogynist who really hated women, and was convinced that she was a whore, and cheating on him. She was actually afraid of him and trying to starve him to death so he would leave her, but he kills her… but he can’t remember killing her, because it was in a blind rage. He can’t deal with the fact that he killed her, so he reinvents himself as a mechanic who is everything he’s not. Then, he meets this girl—played by me, again—who’s this lying whore, because he’s a misogynist, and again, he can’t have her. David wrote it at the same time as the O.J. Simpson trial, so I kind of believe that he was influenced by it, and the fact that maybe O.J. also led himself to believe that he didn’t do it.
Let’s get back to Boyhood. How did you land the role of the Mom?
Well, I’d met Richard once at a cocktail party years and years ago, right after True Romance came out, and told him I was a fan. He’d done Slacker and Dazed and Confused, both of which I loved. He asked me about my kid, since it was pretty rare that someone that young, as an actress, had chosen to be a Mom, so we discussed it. Years went by, my phone rang, and he said, “Hey, this is Richard Linklater… What are you going to be doing for the next 12 years?” I literally thought, “Is he asking me to marry him for a 12-year defined period of time, and then we’ll get divorced?” I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, “I’m thinking about shooting this movie a week a year, where you see this little boy start first grade and it ends when he graduates high school.” Everything in me was like, “Oh my God, yes! Fuck, that’s going to be rad.”
Was there a script at that point?
I said, “Well, I guess I should read a script,” and he said, “I don’t really have a script!” Usually, I’m driven by the director and the script, because by a script you can really tell the tone and where it’s going, but I had total blind faith in this experiment and this collaboration. He told me the main plot points and what my character would go through. This was about a year before, and then I thought perhaps the financing had fallen apart, but then he called me and said, “Let’s do this thing.” I didn’t get the memo that we weren’t supposed to talk about this thing, so I told everyone, but nobody gave a shit! Their eyes just glazed over.
There are very intense scenes in the film where your character is the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of a violent drunk. Those scenes appear so powerful, and real. Do you have any history of dealing with alcoholism, or abuse?
I had one boyfriend pull my hair, and I immediately broke up with him. My dad was an alcoholic growing up, so I knew how scary that was from a child’s perspective—the volatility. My mom was more violent than my dad was, so I knew what violence was like. And, growing up in the South, I’d see kids getting the shit beaten out of them in the supermarket all the time. It was a different time. But I did have a big reevaluation of my life when I turned 40. I thought, “These are all the relationships I’ve done, all the things I’ve gone through, places I’ve gone to and haven’t gone to yet.” I really thought, “This life is short, so grab onto it.” And it was coupled with, “This movie’s finishing?! Don’t let it finish! I don’t accept it! I renege on the 12-year agreement! Fuck you, it has to be 44 years!” [Laughs]
How did you make the filming work while also being the lead on CBS’ Medium?
I was lucky. We shot sometimes over weekends, so they’d give me a Friday and a Monday off, I’d fly in Thursday night, we’d rehearse until 1 a.m., and then shoot. I needed to jump out of the show, into this, and back into that; it helped both things be fresher.
Speaking of television, you’re set to star as the lead in this new series CSI: Cyber, which seems like a pretty big deal.
It’s the best TV script I’ve gotten since Medium, and I think it’s so relevant because we don’t know what the fuck is going on. There’s this cyber world, and we didn’t know that the NSA was tracking our every move. And now, we’re at the point where enough hackers could zero balance a nation; creeps can hack into the camera on your kid’s phone and take pictures; countries are hacking other countries. We’ve opened up this Pandora’s box, and what’s it brought us? People are masturbating, shopping, and doing work. Other than that, you’re just bringing insanity into your experience.
Yeah, but who knows how it’s going to turn out! I really like the people a lot, and love the idea of being on TV, as well as smaller movies. On any given week, you’d have 8 million people tuning in to Medium, and if that many people bought movie tickets, it’d be the biggest fuckin’ movie that weekend! I’ve crafted a really weird career for myself. Also, most of the stories for women are about being young, and desire, and falling in love, while the rest of the parts are usually pretty damn boring, supportive characters. “OK, honey, you can do it!” “OK, son, you can do it!” Financiers these days are bankers looking at spreadsheets and seeing where people fit, and it didn’t used to be that way, whereas on television, you can craft these really rich, layered female characters.