Richard Linklater's Boyhood is not like any other movie we've seen, and that isn't simply because of its 12-year-long production. The film follows young Mason, who ages from six to 18 (portrayed throughout by Ellar Coltrane), in a story that plays less like a traditional forward-moving narrative than a poetic tribute to every moment along the way. Although it is natural to affix attention on Coltrane and Mason in discussions of Boyhood, we'd be remiss to overlook the terrific performance of Patricia Arquette, who plays Mason's mother. As single mom Olivia, who is perpetually on the hunt for "something more," Arquette delivers some of the film's most piercing moments, including her final scene in the film (about which Arquette might have changed the way we think altogether). The actress, who worked with Linklater previously on Fast Food Nation, discusses her part the director's latest effort, and everything it has to say about cinema, parenting, and life in general.
The one thing I tell everyone who hasn’t seen Boyhood is that you don't experience this like you do a normal movie. I keep thinking of the scene where they’re throwing hatchets. In any other movie, someone would get injured. But it’s just about watching these kids.
Patricia Arquette: That’s part of what is amazing about this movie. First of all, to get financing for something you’re not going to see a return on for 13 years. But also the fact that Rick [Linklater] really chose to direct it with this really specific restraint that life in itself was enough. That most of us survive childhood. That there are some underlying difficult times, things that we have to move through in our lives, but most of it is okay. We’re so preconditioned as audiences to think… I was scared in that scene! Because we didn’t have the script to begin with, I didn’t know exactly what was happening.
And I also felt this undercurrent of opening male sexuality. Older, corruptive teenagers that might be a negative influence. One kid [is] like, ‘Lie to girls,’ or whatever. More negative influence. It’s like, where is this going? This is getting scary. And I think there are moments that are scary in childhood. It’s not what we’re used to because we’re preconditioned as viewers to think, like, now they’re going to become junkies, they’re going to go to prison, they’re going to do a robbery, or some crazy thing. But I think that is part of what was so brave of Rick, because he had 12 years to constantly say to himself, ‘Oh, a film is supposed to be this.’ And he didn’t do it.
That really carries through. Is that something that, as an actor in this movie, you really understood going in? Or that you had to keep reminding yourself?
PA: The whole thing was so different. The whole thing was so human from the very beginning. Usually the whole structure… just even in getting material, you go through this gauntlet of agents, and then you read material, and then you have this meeting, and then there’s this business aspect to it where they’re offering and you’re going back and forth.
With this, I met Rick once at a little cocktail party for five minutes. Years go by and then he called me, and he said, ‘What are you going to be doing for the next 12 years?’ It was just human to human. I said, ‘…I don’t know, what are you going to be doing?’ And he said, ‘I want to do this movie a week a year for 12 years.’ And I just got so excited creatively. I said, ‘Are you thinking about me?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I was wondering if you’d be interested.’ And I was like, ‘I’m in. What’s my part?’ That was secondary [to] this adventure of working together. And he said, ‘The mom.’ I said, ‘I guess I should read a script.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t really have a script.’ But he did tell me the main plot points for my character. And those remained. But his collaborative way of working was very human also.
The weird thing was the movie coming out. It felt so organic making it. It felt so supportive and beautiful and human making it. This part got scary to me. This is the only thing where I’ve ever been like, ‘I’m so sad this is over.’ I usually love endings. But this was really hard.
Do you think you were more invested in Olivia than you have been in most of your other characters?
PA: I think so. It’s like when people look back on their own family, in a way, or the summer camp they went to every [year]. It’s not just the experience on film, we also had our own artistic experience in the making of it. It was so warm and supportive. And not ego-driven by anyone at any time. It was such a beautiful personal experience.
I guess I didn’t get the memo that we weren’t supposed to talk about it but along the way when I would talk about it, people were not that excited about it. I would say, ‘We’re making a movie about these kids. This boy starts first grade and it ends when he graduates high school.’ Nobody was really all that excited. [Laughs] I thought it was insane! I thought they were crazy people. I don’t know.
You did mention that the main ideas for where Olivia was going to go stayed from the beginning.
PA: They did. I think, also, this movie is a testament to Rick’s sensibility. If you look at Waking Life and you look at the Sunrise trilogy… He had only made the first one [Before Sunrise] by the time we had started this. During the making of [Boyhood], he and Ethan [Hawke] were like, ‘Hey, we should revisit that.’ So, in a weird way, this movie spawned that happening. It’s interesting how things develop organically out of each other. But Rick’s whole body of work… there’s really no other filmmaker like him.
Did your thoughts of who Olivia was, or did what you wanted for her, change over the course of making the movie?
PA: It’s interesting, because sometimes when you have a full script, you can make really specific choices about everything. I really never wanted my ego as an actor or my business to influence my character in some way I didn’t think was authentic. So I didn’t want to make weird specific choices for my character just to be an actor, you know? I also didn’t want her to be a struggling mom who is going to school and working and raising her kids and working out all the time and is always in a good mood no matter what. I didn’t want to Hollywood everything up. I really wanted to be pure to who she was.
And I felt a lot of responsibility and respect for single moms, and I had so many examples in my own life. I’ve been that woman before in increments. I’ve seen my mom, all of my best friends, everyone around me, for portions. But there would be moments where, because it was this collaborative thing, you had to have a very open faith in working this way. We would come together, we would workshop… that year’s work, and sometimes people would make suggestions and I wouldn’t know how to play that.
Do you have any examples?
PA: Well, like for me, when I dropped my son off at college — which I did during the course of this movie — my whole thing with him was to pump him up. ‘Are you nervous? Don’t be nervous! You’ve got this! Your portfolio is great! Everyone’s nervous, babe! Everyone in there is nervous! This is going to be amazing! This is going to be great! Your family is here for you all the time! You’ve got this! You’ve got it!’ Then, when I dropped him off, I cried for nine hours.
So, for me, it was like, wow… does it sound like she’s making it about her in that moment? But our producer had said to her daughter, ‘This is the worst day of my life,’ when she dropped her off at school. And Ethan [Coltrane]’s mom had said something. They were all based in real human things. So then I had to go, ‘How do I play this?’ Whenever I’d encounter those things — being in an abusive relationship for her, not saying when one of his stepdads says something negative to them — it was like playing blinders. We go through our lives and we have these blinders, and we don’t even notice them.
Even though she’s done all this personal work and this psychological work, professional work…I don’t think she knew how to process, ‘Oh my god. I was a daughter, I went right to being a mom. I subconsciously thought some life was going to happen when I raised you great kids and let you off in the world.’ Now [she] actually, subconsciously, [is] thinking, ‘No, my whole life was to be a mother. What is happening? Who has taken my life away?’
I’m glad that you brought up the scene where Olivia cries before Mason heads to college. Obviously it’s Olivia’s final scene in the movie, and it was a point of discussion between my friend and me. We were both kind of hoping that Olivia would get a happier ending. Even if you think the scene is honest, is that at all something you wanted? Her last moment to be a little more upbeat?
PA: I didn’t mind that. Because I did feel like, even though I was trying to pump my son up when I dropped him off, when I drove away I cried for nine hours… then he called me, like, ‘Mom, I forgot to pack socks.’ Two days later: ‘Mom, where’s my insurance card?’ ‘Where do you buy Vitamin C?” [Laughs] Suddenly, it was all fine. It wasn’t the death you think it is in that moment of, like, ‘This is the end!’ So if you saw Olivia in three days, she’d be getting those phone calls, and she would be laughing. ‘Ugh! God. Here we go.’ But yeah, that particular moment… intense transition for her.
I’m glad that you said that. That gives me a little bit of relief.
PA: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s all going to be fine. In that moment… well, you also feel like you’re dying [when you] give birth. Literally. I had my daughter at home. You feel like you’re being drawn and quartered. [Laughs] I kind of have to die to pull someone from the other side back through with me. There are moments… we are an organic species, and part of the thing with watching these kids grow up, and watching me and Ethan get older… we are organic material. And Hollywood wants to arrest you. It could do a pretty good and weird job of doing so. But we, as a species, are organic material. We go through this evolution. We go through many little deaths, and rebirths, and growths.
Finally, I feel like it’s only natural to envision, while you’re making the movie, what this is going to look like on the screen. Especially since you had such a long time to think about it. Now that it’s complete, are there any particularly noteworthy differences between your imagination and what it ultimately turned out to be?
PA: Well, I saw a rough cut of the first five years… at five years. And then I didn’t want to see any more, because I really wanted, as an audience, to see the kids grow up. But sometimes Rick would call me and say, ‘You’re going to be leaving this year,’ or, ‘You’re going to be getting a divorce.’ And I would think, ‘I want to gain a few pounds now, because I feel like she’s unhappy at this moment in her life,’ and sometimes I would cut my hair.
Before one year I had blue hair, and then I had to go back. One year I had brownish hair, and Rick is like, ‘Yeah, she could have brown hair. She’s trying to change her look up, or whatever.’ And I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t think so. I’m going to go back to [blonde].’ This kind of evolution of [her trying] to find herself. She grows her hair long, it’s too long, she can’t do anything with it, she cuts it, then she’s like, ‘I’ve got to grow my hair out! What am I doing?’ You’re never completely comfortable with where you’re at in your life.
Boyhood comes out on July 11.