He’s one of the most captivating child actors Hollywood has produced in ages. And, though he’s been steadily working for the last 12 years, you have never heard of him.
That’s about to change, in a big way.
Ellar Coltrane is the star of Boyhood, a coming-of-story that doubles as a cinematic experiment put on by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, the Before Sunrise trilogy). Boyhood traces 12 years in the life of Mason, from a quiet 6-year-old first-grader to a contemplative young man at his first day of college. Coltrane, who’s on the cusp of his 20th birthday, shot his first scenes for the film in Austin in 2002, and once or twice year for the next 12 years would reunite to shoot four or five more days of footage with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who play his divorced parents in the film.
The result is an audacious-in-concept, tenderly-moving-in-execution chronicle of one boy’s maturation over his short lifetime, with the same actor in the leading role throughout. We see not only how his parents’ divorce affects Mason, but also the events of real-life that happened in the 12 years since Linklater conceived the project—things ranging from the rise of Britney Spears and the Harry Potter phenomenon to the events of 9/11 and the advent of Facebook. Things that Linklater could never have predicted had he written and filmed one script back in 2002. Things that make Mason’s story, in a cathartic and transformative way, seem like our own.
And Coltrane? He’s sensational. It’s a star-is-born, overnight-sensation kind of breakout performance—that just happened to be 12 years in the making.
As such, Coltrane, who has spent his entire childhood acting, has managed to escape the curse of the child actor, because when he was a child acting, he was shielded by the media circus and nefarious Hollywood temptations that beckon when a young performer opens a movie as excellent as this.
Instead, he’s now facing the Hollywood publicity machine as a grown man, and one at a fascinating juncture. He’s the star of a film that’s the toast of the industry, but he’s unsure of a future in the business. He’s spent the time since wrapping Boyhood doing landscape work for his stepfather and is testing the waters in Hollywood by sending out a handful of audition tapes, but is largely unsure of his next step in his life. You know, like a normal 19-year-old.
Coltrane, then, is none of what you would expect a child-star-all-grown-up-to-be. In the absence of a studio-flack-assembled wardrobe and styling, Coltrane is wearing a gray Henley shirt and skinny jeans when I meet him in a New York City hotel room for Boyhood’s big press day. His piercing azure eyes are complemented by a new addition to his appearance: a septum piercing in his nose.
He’s sitting cross-legged and comfortably in an arm chair and answers questions with refreshing rambles that would typically give studio publicists heart attacks, but instead sets Coltrane up to be the best thing to happen to the industry in a while: a talented performer unaffected by industry’s worst tendencies, and unshackled from its most frustrating controlling mechanisms.
As such we had a lot to talk about—12 years of stuff to talk about, actually. Meet the boy from Boyhood.
Have you gotten used to talking about yourself with strangers yet?
It’s definitely bizarre. It was really overwhelming at first. I think I’m becoming more comfortable with it. When I talk to my mom or my closer friends about it, it’s kind of a joke. We laugh that, of all people, I am in this situation. Because I’m a very introverted person. I just don’t talk about myself to strangers. But it’s kind of great in that way. I certainly have come out of my shell a lot. It’s kind of like free therapy. I think a lot of times I end up answering questions in ways that people don’t expect. When you’re asked the same questions a lot, it’s easy to slip into a pattern where you’re just regurgitating the same things and I fell into that a little bit and I really don’t like that. It feels very ingenuine to just do that, to give the same answer.
And here you are contemplating your future in a very public forum. That must be so strange.
It’s really weird. And I just have no idea. It’s weird because I come out here and do this stuff and get pampered and have a handler and hired cars. And then I go back home and I’m poor. I don’t have any money. I’m a normal guy.
That nose ring wasn’t there in the last scene of the movie. Why’d you get that?
It’s a septum piercing. Got it two or three months ago. Was there a reason? I wanted to. I read that it’s an acupuncture point and it can kind of clear energy and blockage. I don’t know. I liked it a lot. I liked the pain. It wakes you up. I had gotten my ears pierced, but that was nothing. This was cool. You feel it. I don’t know if you’ve gotten acupuncture either, but that was what it was like. You feel pressure through your head.
They didn’t seem to regulate your appearance or how you’re expressing yourself at all.
They never did. The only time they asked me to do something was grow my hair so they could shave it in that one scene. That was really the only thing. I called right before I pierced my ears, and he was like “Whatever. You didn’t have to call me.”
That was polite of you to call, though.
Yeah! I was probably more polite than I needed to be. I was always aware of it. But certainly, it grew and grew as I got older that there was more and more of my personality on screen. I’m wearing a lot of my clothes in certain scenes. Those haircuts were my haircuts. That’s weird. One of the weirdest parts of the movie for me is that. It was still very much a character. I was very much acting. But there was so much of myself that was kind of supplanted into that character. It’s very surreal.
I heard that you cried when the movie ended the first time you watched it.
Yeah, very much. It’s strange. The first couple of times, it was like, throughout the film I was kind of enraptured. I was stuck in my own head. It’s me. I’m in my head already, and then watching myself, I’m in my own head in the movie experiencing myself, like re-experiencing these things that I’ve done for the last 12 years. But then when the credits roll, it just breaks. It’s this building over the course of the film and over the past 12 years of all of this emotion and expectation and curiosity about what I am and what the movie is. And to just see it all cataloged like that and to see the passage of time and see myself in so many different places is very cathartic.
At what point in this process did you realize how different this was, that you weren’t just filming a movie, you were part of a cinematic experiment?
That’s still dawning on me, really. It’s a gradual thing.
When did you realize that Richard Linklater was Richard Linklater? Or that Ethan Hawke was Ethan Hawke—that this guy you’ve been acting with all these years was on Entertainment Tonight every night?
I was always kind of aware. My parents showed me a lot of Rick’s movies and Patricia and Ethan’s movies when I was young. So I had sort of a sense. I think by the point that I maybe realized just how accomplished they were, it was such an intimate relationship that they were just friends, that I didn’t think about it that much. It was just so gradual. My kind of understanding of what the project was, it was always there to an extent. I always knew how weird it was and how special it could be. But it just was my life, so I didn’t exactly think of it from an outside perspective. So I think most of that awe has come after the fact, from watching it and seeing other people’s reactions to it. Watching it with audiences and feeling their reactions to it. That’s when I see just how special it is, because to me it was just my life.
When I look back on growing up, there are so many things I experienced but there are only a handful of moments that I can remember every detail of. And they’re not even particularly exciting days. What do you think, 10 years from now, you can pinpoint as those days for you?
Obviously the last couple of years I remember really clearly. I remember filming out in the woods with Ethan, that camping scene. That year was really the first year that I stepped over the threshold and became more of a collaborator. That little tidbit of dialogue about Star Wars, which is now very ironic, there was like 10 minutes of that, and that was really the first bit of dialogue I was part of writing. That was the first big piece of input from my personal interest that was put in the film.
I read that Richard wouldn’t put anything in the movie that hadn’t already happened to you in real life first: the drinking, the drugs, the sex, the girlfriend. At one point did you feel comfortable enough with him and the rest of the team to talk about those kinds of things, which I don’t know if I’d ever have been comfortable talking to grown-ups about?
I don’t know that we ever did talk explicitly about many of those things. Rick just has a great way of feeling things out. He would just sort of get it out of me without ever asking me, “Ellar, have you had sex yet?” Or “Have you smoked a joint?” There was just a point when I was obviously a pothead, and that I had a girlfriend so I probably kissed her and had sex with her. I think he just felt it out. He was really careful about it. I wasn’t entirely aware of it at the time, that he was doing that, that he was gauging where I was developmentally to then put the character a step behind. Because you’re right, it would’ve been awkward to put me on the spot like that. It’s totally weird to talk about to anyone, especially adults you respect and look up to.
What were those yearly sessions like, when you guys would all get together again?
At the beginning, Rick would take me to lunch or something a month or two beforehand to get me up to date on everything that was going on, because he and Ethan are always in contact and working on something or other. But we would talk and I’d tell him about what was going on in my life and that type of thing. And he would give me an assignment or something to be thinking about my life, or take notes on it.
Everybody would then meet up about a week before we would start filming and just talk through everything. Sometimes Rick would have dialogue written. Sometimes he would just have an outline of the scene and we would build the dialogue out with our own words. Especially as I got older, I would help with that, creating the dialogue by ad-libbing the conversation for Rick to write down and form into a functional scene. And then about three or four days of filming.
Have you noticed doing these interviews how people seize the same details to craft a narrative about you? There’s the life-imitating-art angle, with your parents divorcing in real life during the shoot, and the fact that you were homeschooled. And people love the story that Richard cast you after you presented him with a drawing of a monkey on the back of the poster for your dad’s band, which he was a fan of. What’s it like to walk around with an already-written narrative of your life following you?
It’s very strange. And it is strange that, yeah, the art imitating life and vice versa is something that people are really interested in. I get this feeling from a lot of people that they want me to be the character. That they want me to tell them that, “Oh yeah, it’s just me.” But it’s not true and makes me feel uncomfortable to be pushed in that direction, like it’s a documentary or something. Because it’s not! It’s an expression, but everything is. All movies are expressions of everyone who’s involved in them to some extent. I think this is just much more natural and eclectic than a lot of films. But it’s very bizarre to have that follow me.
Do you still have that monkey drawing?
I have no idea where it is. It might be somewhere. Maybe Rick has it. You know what, I really need to find out what happened to that. That’s a good question.
What do you think your relationship going forward will be with the movie? I know you’ve watched it several times in the past few months, and it may be hard to imagine what your life perspective will be like five or 10 years from now…
Yeah, I think about that a lot. Because my experience with it changes every time I watch it, really. I watched it a couple of weeks ago and it was so different from the first time I watched it. So I can’t even imagine. Because at this point, where the film ends is more or less—especially the first time I watched it—where I am in my life. It’s exactly where Mason is in that last scene. I was going through that emotional change and that process. So it was very super fresh, and every time I watch it I’m getting a little farther away from the film and from where the character is at the end. So I can’t imagine in 10 years, but I’ll always have it. And it’s comforting to know that I’ll always have this thing to watch at any point in my life and just remind myself.