Patricia Arquette calls her 12-year ‘Boyhood’ experience an ‘anti-movie’

HOLLYWOOD – This Friday is a significant date for the cast and crew of Richard Linklater's “Boyhood.” After 12 long years of production on one of the most unique film projects of all time, the film will finally be unleashed on the movie-going public.

For Patricia Arquette, the anxiety mostly came at the end of shooting, when she realized this clearly life-altering experience was coming to a close. In the film, she stars as the mother of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a headstrong woman already dealing with the effects of a broken home at the beginning of the story who is challenged with finding her way through the ups and downs of life as much as her son. The film could just as easily have been called “Motherhood,” and indeed, you come away sensing that Arquette delivers the film's stand-out performance.

Recently I sat down for lunch with Arquette at Hollywood's Musso & Frank Grill. The venue was her suggestion, though it was serendipity, as it is a location I often select for interviews. Perhaps it was subconscious for her, as her grandfather – radio titan Clifford Arquette – has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame just across the street. But there are a few ties to her family on this project, both in the making of it and the promotion of it, as you'll soon find out.

You can read through the back and forth below, but please note that here and there we get into light spoilers about the film. “Boyhood” isn't really a “spoiler” sort of movie, though, so I think you would be fine to read this as a primer for the nearly three-hour experience if you wish. It's a movie about life, and we're all living life, after all.

“Boyhood” opens in limited release Friday, July 11.


HitFix: So I imagine you've been doing a lot for this movie lately. The release is coming up. Are you nervous?

Patricia Arquette: I was freaking out about it. Look, it's, like, the longest gestation on Earth. But when we finished the last year I was really, really angry that this movie was finishing. Well, I wasn't angry, I was actually just sad that it was finishing and I was sad that we were going to give it to the world and that people would get to have an opinion and I didn't know if people would really understand the subtle beauty of this movie. So it's so nice that some people will relate.

Did Rick [Linklater] show you stuff along the way or did you not see everything until the very end when it premiered at Sundance?

I saw a rough cut of the first five years, which was great. But then I was really excited to see the kids grow up on screen and I just wanted to wait until the end and just see it as much as I could, like, an audience member. You never really can as an actor.

Especially something like this because you've been with it for so long. It's not like you shot a movie for three months and moved on to other things. You've been doing this consistently for 12 years; it's so unique.

And then you also see, when you're watching it, your own life. Like, “That's when I got married.” “That's when I got divorced.” “That's the year I dropped my son off to school.” “That's when Ethan [Hawke] got married.” “Oh, that's when Ethan got divorced.” “That's when he had his kids.” “That's when Rick had his twins.” “That's when Ellar's parents split up.” And I got to see all the scenes Ethan's character and the kids were in and who he was as a father when she wasn't around. It was the craziest thing to watch this movie from all these different vantage points.

I just followed you on Twitter and you retweeted something recently, from AFI, I think. It was a quote that you had said about how you've basically watched yourself on screen since you were 14.

I wasn't actually 14. I think that might have gotten a little mixed up. Me and Ethan were both saying that. I think his first movie was at 14. I mean, I had been on video with my family. My dad, my grandfather, we had early home film. Like, I have footage of my dad when he was a baby because his dad, he was a pioneer in early radio but he also loved movies and was always getting ahold of gadgets.

Well, it was just interesting to me because either way, the point being, you started out young and you've watched yourself on screen for so long, and this movie is like a microcosm of that in a way. You sit down and you watch yourself over 12 years. Few people can empathize with that idea of a child star watching yourself on screen for decades, basically watching yourself grow up on screen. What does that do for your self-image?

I think I don't know where to separate out what being a woman is and your own image of being a woman in the world anyway, what the world expects us to be, what we're supposed to look like, what society tells us we're supposed to look like. I mean, obviously, that's really expanded by 100,000 when you're in this business. So much of this business subtly and not subtly at all tells you what you're supposed to look like and what you're supposed to contribute to be a woman or to have any value, really. I've always had a little bit of a renegade/question authority element to me. Like, even when I was a teenager when my parents said, “Do you want to get braces and straighten your teeth,” I said I didn't. I think I didn't want to look perfect; I was more complicated than that. So I've always sort of wanted to question that status and norm and I did that in “Medium” and I've continued to do that still. You're programmed in your own mind by society and you do see fault with yourself and that you're not supposed to have faults if you're an actor in this business. And part of what was exciting was just not Hollywood-ing that up and being frankly honest about this character and not looking as great as you could all the time.

I don't even know what kind of objectivity you can bring to such a question because obviously you're living it for all those years, but to watch yourself on screen for so long, I wonder if it would lead to more self-criticism than you might normally have, you know, the requisite amount as an actress.

It's so obviously in your face. I mean, the weird thing about being an actor is it's not only your own self-perception, but then you also hear other people's perception of you. So I've had people come up to me and say, “Oh my God, you age so beautifully in this movie. I just thought you looked so beautiful at the end.” And then some people will be, like, “How does it feel to watch yourself not be the hot girl anymore,” or something. It says a lot more about them and their perception, but that's the great thing about getting older and that's the great thing about being around the block 100 million times by the time this comes out. I worry more for the kids because they're new and what does that mean to them? But yeah, it is strange growing up. I'd always loved to watch a seedling be planted and speed photography and see it start to sprout and grow and then open this bud and flower and then petals falling off and then starting to decay. We are organic creatures, you know, human beings, and we go through this life cycle. And it happens really quickly, or it happens slowly, depending on our perspective. So I wanted to see that. Still, it's strange to watch.

I'm sure you've seen Rick's “Before” movies. But you guys started shooting this prior to “Before Sunset” even coming out. So it's interesting, because that whole idea of it as a “Linklater concept” wasn't even a “Linklater concept” quite yet when you embarked on this journey.

Yeah. But Rick's body of work, especially when you look at “Waking Life,” you see this philosophical conversation and there's a very different kind of way of communicating. Most American filmmakers don't have that language. But also it has this real human component and the complicated and simple parts of human relationships. So the mixture of both of those, I think, are in this movie and in those other movies and it's a big testament to him as a filmmaker.

It's also in “Dazed and Confused,” which is one of my favorite movies of all time. The natural relationships in that movie – they never bring anything false. That's the crazy thing about this one. Going into the movie I'm thinking, “This is such an epic undertaking. Twelve years.” But then that was never really on my mind when I was watching it. You notice the progression, of course, but it's such a natural flow. How do you maintain the connectivity when you come together every year to film more of the story and maintain that consistent organic atmosphere?

Just from a structural point of view, you could have had chapters and you could've had, like, a title card. You could have had a school picture. You could've had Christmas, which year it was. You could've made a big production of that and a lot of people would have. But Rick, really early on, decided he didn't want to tell people when which year went to the next because it's not the way memory works. It's not the way we look back on our lives. Everything was very different about this project and in a weird way it's like an anti-movie, because usually there's a whole procedure. Someone calls your agent and then, you know, sends you a script. Then you read it. Then maybe you meet with them if you're interested in it, ask questions. I had met Rick at a cocktail party years before, the only time I ever met him. We talked for about three-to-five minutes. I told him I was a huge fan of “Dazed and Confused” and “Slacker” and he told me he was a big fan of “True Romance.” We were both pretty young parents, so maybe that was in the back of his mind. Because a lot of actresses weren't choosing to be moms at 20 years old like I did. Then years went by and he called me and just said, “What are you doing the next 12 years?” I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I didn't even think it had anything to do with a movie. How could it for 12 years? And then he said, “Well, yeah, I'm thinking about doing this movie where we shoot a week a year for 12 years.” And I was like, “Oh my God, I want to do it. Yes.”

It was just a human experience. I said, “Okay, great, what's my part?” And he told me I'd be the mom and I said, “Great. Well, probably I should read the script.” And he's like, “I don't really have a script.” So everything was just strange and human. You had to really have a lot of faith in him, and the process. And I did. My whole body did and I never doubted it. It was a trust system because you can't contractually be obligated, so we all just loved coming back and it was always in the back of my mind, when I was thinking about vacationing with my family or something I'd say, “Call 'Boyhood' first and find out what dates they're thinking because I want to book tickets to take my daughter for a vacation but I don't know what dates work with them.” Every year we would come together and the first thing we would do is really workshop that year of work, talk a little bit about what we had all gone through this year personally and then bring stories of our own lives and our friends' lives and things our kids had sent to us, things we'd said to our parents.

Is that scary? Because as an actress, your job is to inhabit somebody else, so you're bringing this real personal stuff to the table here. Is that hard at all?

Well, the thing is there is a security in having a script and you can chart out where all the highs or lows are and make broad and finite decisions about your character's perception of the world and their value system and their sense of humor and their sexuality and all of these things. Now, my dad passed away, my mom passed away, but my dad was an actor. And one of the things that he did was he worked with Viola Spolin and she was one of the foremost people that worked in this kind of style of acting that was really all about improvisation. So I grew up with improvisation. And my dad's ghost has been around a lot in the course of this part of the movie. We had a screening for the movie on Father's Day and it happened to be at the place we had my dad's wake. I went to a screening in Santa Barbara and in the bathroom they had this wallpaper I had never seen before. It was all these Playbills, and one of them was “Story Theater,” this play my dad did on Broadway. It was from his, not a revival, the one he was in, and it was an improvisation. And you just ordered Shrimp Louie and his name is Lewis! I'm like, “Dad, you're just everywhere now aren't you? You're excited about this movie.” So he really laid the foundation for me to not be afraid of improvisation, to not be afraid at all of experimentation and openness. I think a lot of actors would have had a big problem with it, but none of us did. And in a weird way that was also part of the perfect casting that Rick did. We were, like, of the same tribe. We believed the same feeling about creating, about listening to the other actor, about sharing things together.

Nevertheless, I imagine not having a script is incredibly daunting.

Well, he had the armature. He had the skeleton. He had the major organs. He told me the first time we talked about it, he said, “You won't get remarried. This is why you're getting a divorce, blah, blah, blah, you're going to back to school.” He told me all the main parts structurally, and those always remained the same. And then a few months or a few weeks before each year he'd say, “Okay this year you guys are going to be moving.” Like, “We're going to have a scene where you guys are in the car and we're going to have this other scene so start thinking about this.” He would get more specific than that. Like, “They don't want to go and you're convincing them.” And then he would write a scene, we would come together, we would read it and then we would all talk about all these different life experiences everyone had or people we knew had. And then we would improvise. And then he would take pieces of the improvisations and add them to the script. We would always have a finished script for that year before we would be shooting the scene.

I had to stay pretty open because this character was an amalgamation of a lot of different women. So if I was too strict about my perception, maybe some of the things would have gotten lost along the way. But, I mean, I definitely feel a lot of my mom in this performance and I wanted to. There were weird correlations, too. Like, Ethan's dad and Rick's dad both became insurance salesman. My mom and Rick's mom both went back to school, both taught, both studied, like, psychological sciences and therapeutic sciences. So I had grown up coming back home from a dance thing or something and my mom would be up studying in her bed with papers everywhere and she would be talking to us about passive-aggressives and borderline personalities and different philosophies that later worked in this script. So I had foundations.

I keep thinking back to what you said about Rick's comment, about how memory works. It's so true. You know, when you look at old photos or something and you're trying to figure out, like, “When was this?” And you look for clues in the photo, “Oh, I'm wearing that. This is that year.” And it's interesting because that's kind of what happened to me when I was watching the movie, just trying to peg, “Oh, I'm hearing a song playing that was from this year or that year,” and it makes it kind of an interactive experience as you're watching the movie.

I think what's weird is, in a lot of ways, it's a big testament to Rick because he didn't follow any screenwriting structure as we know it. Like, “In the third act, a protagonist is supposed to blah, blah, blah.” And he could have and he had 12 years to second-guess himself and think, “Oh, I should do this thing that's more dramatic.” A lot of people would have made a very “dramatic” movie. But I think part of what is special about this movie and resonates is this is a human movie. And it's strange how few human movies we have about our species and how we really simply and painfully and beautifully communicate with each other. And it is a movie of this time. Even parental rights have changed so much, expectations of fathers – there's many more 50/50 parents than there were at the beginning of this movie. And technology has changed so much and the world has changed so much. So it is sort of a time capsule.

Yeah, when I was watching it I was thinking, “Of course this had to be a broken family,” because that's the majority of families today. It's emblematic of society, culture, whatever.

But I think there's a lot of happy families that are together. There are a lot of happy second families, and then there's a lot of people that didn't get divorced…

That aren't happy.

That aren't happy. But basically, I don't think anyone escapes childhood completely unscathed or without some sort of experience of seeing how complicated relationships are.

Speaking of which, it's funny because I was having this kind of surrogate experience where I was really looking for interaction between you at Ethan the whole time. Part of me was, like, “I kind of want them to get back together,” even though I've never seen them together. It's just this weird desire to see these two people, who I know obviously had a connection, have kids together, and I just want to see them together. What was the direction there for you guys as far as how you would interact with Ethan throughout the movie?

Well, we didn't even plan, before the last year, to even have that scene in the kitchen that we have. But Rick was, like, “You know what? We should do that. We should have a little scene there at the graduation thing just between you guys.” We always wanted to have a lot more, but the truth was these characters had so much pain and resentment to each other. I think my character was so hurt by him, because she was so crazy, madly in love with him, and I don't think she ever wanted to choose another partner that was capable of hurting her in that same way ever again.

Right. She would very likely be on guard about being too close at all with him anyway.

Yeah. I think they both hurt each other so much that they kind of – part of intimacy is holding onto resentment. It's a way to stay intimate. It's such a deep feeling. You still love each other but you're angry on some level or care about that other person's opinion or something. So I think they have a lot going on.

What was your favorite scene to shoot or year to shoot?

There is something really incredible about the first year, I have to say. Just starting this adventure with these people, the organic and abnormal way that we went about it, it just was so different than making any movie. And the kids – children are always really pure. They are completely authentic and trusting and alive and beautiful and immediate. Just starting this project felt like a gift.

Do you have a favorite moment from the movie?

I have a lot of moments. It's hard because the movie is mixed with my memory and it's hard, but to see different things…

Something might be a great moment in the movie for you but it's associated with maybe something that's not so great in real life?

Or extra great. You know that language that Lorelei [Linklater]'s character, Samantha, speaks? Lorelei really created that language. She really could talk and she can still talk that way in her own language. It's kind of a mind-boggling. So sometimes it would be behind-the-scenes things. It seems like a very simple movie but when you look back on it, even as a viewer, let alone as an actor in it, it's very complicated. The movie really has a lot of things going on. There's many, many layers, I think, for everything, so it's hard to dissect it completely as a movie. What was your favorite moment?

Your kind of breakdown when Ellar goes off to college is great and it felt really authentic. I loved that. And I really liked the scene earlier on where Ethan has the kids over at his place, where he has this roommate. I don't know. There was something sweet about all of that to me.


And that guy being a musician and everything, like, I've got an uncle who is Raleigh-based and has been in a lot of bands and I've kind of grown up around that vibe.

So it reminded you of your childhood?

A little bit. I mean, I think that's the interesting thing is there's a lot of specificity to the movie, but I think there's a lot of just – much of it is mundane enough that it will appeal to a lot of people. People will see themselves in it.


And that's a tough trick to pull off.

It is.

When you saw it all together and were reminded of the ups and downs you've gone through over the last 10 or 12 years, was that hard at all or strange at all? Did that affect your view of the movie?

Well, my circumstances were so different, in a way. I wasn't divorcing for the same reasons or the same person and I didn't have any domestic violence situation. I only had one boyfriend pull my hair and that was the end of that relationship many, many years ago. But I had seen that and I had helped friends move away from boyfriends and I'd picked them up and moved them in the night. So the weird thing was it was so many people that I knew in different things that I would be an observer of something like that, or a support system in something like that. So I had a real foundation of human truth, but it wasn't necessarily my truth.

The actor who played the abusive husband is really good. Like the slow build of that was done so well.

Yeah. And another thing that's interesting is he's a total opposite of Ethan's character, and she was really trying to get an adult who's responsible, who could be her partner.

There's an irony to that in the end.

Yeah. It's hard when you're trying to carry three people up the hill and it's mostly your job and somebody says, like, “No, you don't have to do this alone. I'll be your partner. It will be an easier life and we'll have a good time.” I think she makes this choice, but again, I don't think he blows her mind the way that Ethan's character did. I don't think she's madly in love with him. She's making what she considers at that time a more adult decision.

And it's reflective of her journey, because it's at a time when she's going back to school and trying to build her career and build her professional life.

And give her kids a stable family life and these stepkids are great and it seems more like a stronger foundation. The thing is some people would say, like, “Why do these smart women make terrible choices?” Well, first of all, Ethan's character only has the kid every other weekend, so we don't see all the shitty relationships he has along the way. And then second, everybody wants love. People who are battling their own demons want love and they don't show you that. They're ashamed of that part of themselves and they hide it very well for quite a while.

Well, she obviously makes the strong and right decision in the end.

But even that moment of, like, needing help from someone else is so humiliating as an adult, to, like, have to go to some woman's house and flee with your kids and not even have all their stuff. There's that scene where Samantha's, like, “I'm wearing dirty clothes to a new school.”

It's kind of heartbreaking.

Yeah. It's a nightmare.

And Lorelei is Rick's daughter, which is interesting. She's fantastic.

It was great casting because her character's really down to earth, a realist, sort of a dry, sardonic wit. And Ellar's character is so dreamy and gentle, which I think is another amazing thing, that Rick, like, really loved Ellar's gentleness. We don't see a lot of male leads that are more philosophical, that aren't either the full-on ladies' man or the tough guy or Mr. Cool or “I'm obviously a geek” or some kind of thing.

When did you first meet Ellar?

Well, when Rick called me and said, “OK, so we're going to do this,” I was like, “Oh my God, dude, you got that financing? I cannot believe it.” Because even though I was super excited about the idea, I didn't know if he could really pull it off, so I said, “Alright, we're going to do this. We're going to shoot the first year.” I came and I met the kids and they said, “This is going to be your mom,” and then I had the kids for the weekend, just me and them. So we bonded. I made them dinner, we did art projects, we played with dinosaurs in the backyard in the dirt, we talked about what stuff they would have in their room and should we paint a mural over their beds. I mean, even though it's only one second you would see it, it was like, we already started developing little bits of our family history. And they were so sweet, those kids.

It must have been an undertaking to find Ellar, too.

Yeah. Rick said he saw a lot of kids and he saw them a lot of times. And most directors wouldn't have hired Ellar. He was seven. He didn't know how to read. I mean he went on to be an amazing reader, but Rick says that part of what he loved about Ellar was most kids – especially acting kids – but most kids are trying to please adults. And Ellar really didn't care what you thought about him. You'd ask him questions and he would talk about how he saw things, not how he thought you wanted him to answer.

I'm curious, since Rick is such a unique filmmaker in the spectrum, did you learn anything from him on this experience that you'll continue to carry with you throughout your career?

I think much more complicated and finite things. But his level of openness and trust, his mixture of total structure and complete openness together, I don't think I've ever worked with a human being that was so committed to human beings and the human being story, which I think was really why I started acting to begin with.

You don't get a lot of these opportunities, I imagine. Does this light a fire for you at all as far as maybe refocusing what you definitely want to do as an actress?

I don't think you can replicate something. And what's fun about acting, too, is all of this mix of all these different things. But I also felt sort of a sacred, solemn responsibility with all the moms that have really worked hard and struggled and I wanted to be honest about that struggle and not have it be fun or funny or cutesy or Hollywood-y.

Well, I do think it's a masterpiece. And I don't know how many people could have pulled it off.

I don't know. I swear, I don't think anyone else would have done it like this, for sure.

I don't know who else would have attempted to do it.

Me neither. I know. It's such a beautiful experience in my life. Just artistically, creatively, it felt like a beautiful, incredible way to work, and it wasn't about the outcome. Because after the first year, the anomaly became the last year, when it was like, wait…

We're not doing this anymore.

And this has to come out? Oh, right. This is a movie. Are we stopping this? No.

When I was watching it I was thinking he could keep going for another three hours and I would totally sit there and watch it.

That's great. Yeah. Totally beautiful experience to have and so lucky to be in it. It's weird because this movie took so long and was such a part of all of our lives. A lot of times you have a personal experience with a movie and you have personal feelings about a movie and what it does for your career or doesn't do for your career. All of that stays with you to some extent, like “True Romance.” But this is very weird because for many people, this will be a movie. But for me, this will be a really significant part of my life.