The 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) continued its tradition of honoring the year’s standout performers by presenting one of this year’s Virtuosos awards to Ellar Coltrane for his work in Boyhood. A unique project that director Richard Linklater shot with the same actors over 12 years, the highly acclaimed film depicts the adolescence of a young boy (Coltrane) in Texas growing up with divorced parents (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke).
While there, Ellar Coltrane talked about how he got involved with the film, how the film affected him, why it was exciting to have something to be responsible for, every year for 12 years, when the character started to become more like him, getting fed up with the audition grind, why he kept this project to himself, still wrapping his head around whether he considers himself an actor, and which 2014 movie he would recommend. Here are the highlights of what he had to say during the Q&A.
ELLAR COLTRANE: I did a lot of theater when I was really little, so I think I always had the bug. My aunt was a fashion model and I happened to go to her agency with her, one day, when I was five. A talent agent said, “You should come talk to us.” I did a few things. I did an indie movie and commercials, and stuff. I just went to the audition for us. I had seen a couple of Richard Linklater’s movies, and my parents were huge fans of his.
Had you seen Dazed and Confused at six years old?
COLTRANE: No, but I’d seen Waking Life.
Was any of the more intense stuff traumatic for you to go through, being so young?
COLTRANE: Looking back, I think so. In the moment, as a kid, it’s easy to just forget something. It doesn’t seem real. Patricia [Arquette] would always be joking between takes, to keep it light on set, so I didn’t grasp the reality. But as I’ve grown up and had more real dark experiences in my life, and watching the film back, it’s really intense. I’m sure it did affect me in ways that I wasn’t aware of, as a 9-year-old. Even though you’re pretending, you’re still experiencing it. It definitely had some affect on me, I’m sure.
COLTRANE: Not really for a second. I think a lot of people were like, “Oh, you’re 13, you’re gonna rebel.” But I was never in public school and I was never really forced to do much of anything, as a kid. So, having this obligation, I felt a responsibility to be a part of this thing, and to Richard. It’s exciting to have something to be responsible for.
You guys would get together for a week, every year, to shoot this. Did you have contact with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette outside of that, or was it just a reunion for those few days?
COLTRANE: Not with them, that much. I live in Austin, so Richard would take me out to lunch, a few times in the year, to touch base on where Mason was in the story and to ask me about where I was in my life, and to figure out where those two might intersect.
When would you say Mason started becoming more and more like you?
COLTRANE: From the very beginning, it was always a matter of comparing our lives. All acting and storytelling is, to some extent, but it became more so. I became more aware of myself and had more experiences to call upon. As a kid, your life is your parents, so it was just about how I would interact with my parents. As I got older, the character became more independent and had more to say, and it required more input. Around 13 or 14, I started becoming a larger part of the writing process, in creating the character, but it was always there. Even was I was 7, he would always ask for my opinion.
COLTRANE: Not much. I kept auditioning for a bit, and I had a small part in Richard’s movie, Fast Food Nation. I didn’t, really. I was fed up with the audition grind. Now, I’m glad I didn’t do anything else. The fact that I’d never really seen myself on screen allowed for a blissful ignorance. It didn’t feel like a movie. I didn’t have that self-consciousness. It was a game that I was playing.
Did you keep this to yourself, or did you tell people you were doing it?
COLTRANE: When I was young, I certainly told my friends. I was home-schooled, so I didn’t have a massive peer group to brag to. There was a point, when I did get older and went to public school for a few years, to keep it to myself. It’s weird to feel like you’re bragging. It’s easy for people to understand now that the movie is all over the place, but I couldn’t tell people, “It’s going to take 12 years, and it’s not really about anything.” People would have been like, “Good luck with that.”
Would you recommend this process, as a way of working?
COLTRANE: Absolutely! But, I’ve never made a normal movie.
What’s it like to be hearing so much praise for the film?
COLTRANE: Because of the nature of this movie, I only saw myself on the screen, for the first time, a year ago. We made this movie for 12 years, but it wasn’t a movie, really, until very recently, so it’s strange to think of myself as an actor. I’m still wrapping my head around that. But, I definitely put myself out there and it’s been a hell of a ride. Being recognized for that is really, really exciting.
After all of this acclaim, do you have something lined up to do next?
COLTRANE: Not exactly, but I’m moving in that direction, definitely.
What is one movie that came out in 2014 that you loved and would recommend?
COLTRANE: One that I thought was really amazing was Under the Skin. It’s really visual, and it uses aesthetics to tell a story. The little dialogue that there is, is ancillary. It’s an aesthetically abstract story, but it works and it’s still a story that’s follow-able. That’s exciting. I hope there are more movies like that.