Patricia Arquette stars in "Boyhood," one of the most ambitious projects to hit the big screen in years, and 2014's only film to date that's garnered a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It's a hit, too: Opening in just five theaters last weekend, "Boyhood" had the second biggest per-screen average of 2014, behind only Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel."
Celebrated writer-director Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise," "School of Rock") filmed the movie in three- and four-day intervals over the course of 12 years, documenting the fictional coming-of-age story of a young boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his family. Arquette portrays Mason's mother, Olivia, while frequent Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke is on hand as his distant father. (Linklater's daughter Lorelei plays Mason's sister.) Coltrane is the movie's center, but "Boyhood" is as much a depiction of Mason's parents' evolutions as well. That narrative structure allows Arquette, who won an Emmy for "Medium" in 2005, to walk away with her strongest role in years.
HuffPost Entertainment sat down with Arquette at the New York press day for "Boyhood" to discuss what it was like to make such a sprawling film.
Was it hard to make a 12-year commitment to a movie?
No. I think if I was more of a cerebral person, if I didn’t trust my instincts so much, maybe it would have been. But my instincts were immediately like: This is going to be amazing. I’m so excited to be a part of this. As soon as Rick [Linklater] called me and said he was thinking of doing this movie for 12 years, I was like, "Oh my god, that’s amazing, are you thinking about me?" And then I said I should probably read a script, and he said, "I don't really have one." He told me my main character’s beats during the first conversation we had, but he also left a lot of openness because we didn't know what the world was going to be. Kids could be getting drafted at 18. All of his friends could be going to war. People could be dying. He could be a football player -- that would be a whole other thing. Rick always had the perfect balance of structure and openness.
What was your first meeting with the two kids like?
It was so beautiful because obviously it means they had a lot of faith in me. But they introduced me like, "Okay, this lady is going to play your mom." And then I had them for the whole weekend, so I cooked for them, we did arts-and-crafts projects, we played dinosaurs in the backyard.
Down in Texas, where the movie was filmed?
Yeah. And kids are so pure and honest, so we'd be shooting a scene but they'd be like, "I have to pee," "I need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," "I'm hungry." And I'd say, "Okay, wait, I gotta make them a sandwich."
Were you guys ever nervous the two kids would back out?
Well, Lorelei wanted to be in the movie originally, but at one point she did ask to die. Not be killed, not some grisly murder. Just somehow lay down and die.
Because she wanted to be done?
Yeah, at that moment. But now she wants to act again, so it was a transition. I don't remember exactly what year, but Rick had also talked to her all the way along the line, asking whether she was sure she wanted to do this. You have to really commit to this role. I think the kids got a great part of the experience of the gypsy community of making a movie without the weird stuff of it coming out and your friends thinking you’ve changed or you didn’t. This is the weird part now, it's coming out. We had a history of making a movie for so many years. This is the first time we actually put out a movie together, so this is the strange new thing.
What were the homes you shot it? Surely the $2.4 million production budget wasn't large enough to construct sets every year.
We had a great art department, and we had a lot of our key grips who stayed 10 years or more, and some stayed the whole time. So they would pack up props and store them through the years -- family pictures and different things. We would make relationships with certain people, like the location manager, who owned a house. We shot in his house for two years. We did lose an apartment one year, so Rick said, "Okay, you guys are moving now." They had a two-year deal with an apartment, and the apartment kicked them out, sort of the way the family would get kicked out.
Did the people who were actually living in said apartment vacate for you guys?
Did you keep in touch with Ellar and Lorelei between shoots?
Not that much. Sometimes we would occasionally. I love those kids. I feel really bonded to them. Lorelei’s a great painter. Ellar’s a painter and a photographer. They’re just really cool people in their own right. Even at the beginning, Rick really had them contribute. Even when they were babies, they’d be in the backseat and he’d say, “Okay, guys, you’re fighting. What do you think you’d be fighting about? Well, let’s practice a few different things.” But then as they got older they really started contributing a lot.
Was it difficult to shoot certain scenes with them when they were younger?
They really got along great, so no fighting was ever natural for them. It was always acting. The year before Ellar got the haircut that his stepfather takes him to get, Rick told Ellar, “Okay, you’re going to have this big haircut this year. You gotta grow your hair out. Can’t cut your hair this year.” And Ellar was on board. Then Ellar was dying to cut his hair, so that’s a testament. He was so little and he looks so bummed, but he was actually inside really happy. He’s actually thrilled to cut his hair.
So you basically got one take to make that happen. That's terrifying.
It is the test of: Are we going to pull it off, or will we see how happy he really is? But he does a great job. I mean, the kids were different than who they were on screen. Ellar’s parents were artists, and sometimes he’d have saggy pants and be listening to Nine Inch Nails and have a wallet chain, and Rick would be like, “Okay, your character can’t dress as cool as you are.” We’d all go to the Salvation Army to get our clothes, or we’d wear our own clothes. We’d find things and blend them together. Sometimes they’d just hate their clothes.
What sort of parallels did the movie have to your own life?
It’s a really weird amalgamation because there were definitely correlations to things. I had been a mom at 20. I really did feel like I went from someone’s daughter to someone’s mother, and that’s something I said. I remember when my son was really little, only having enough to buy diapers or food. But I was nursing, so I was like, "But if I don’t eat something, how am I going to make milk? But I also need diapers. How am I going to do this?" And I remember getting an acting job and working all night, letting the babysitter go at dawn when I got home, but then having to get up in two hours with the baby. So I knew that and I’d had the example of my mom.
During the course of the movie, my son went off to college. But my experience of sending him off to college was so different than my character’s. Ethan’s mom had said some of the things in that scene, and the producer had said some of those things in that scene to her daughter when she went off to school. So it wasn’t always my personal life. Usually it wasn’t. I would behave totally differently from my character in a domestic-violence situation. So there was a lot of difference, but there were also other people’s experiences that were more similar to my character’s.
Your character has a big moment where she breaks down before sending Mason off to college. Having watched Ellar grow up off-camera, was that a cathartic scene to shoot?
The good news is, for me, I got to shoot my last scene as my last scene. I am never sad when a project’s over. I love endings and I love not knowing what the future is. I love not knowing what the next adventure is. This movie, I was really sad it was ending. Him going to college was sort of the same as us ending the project: I don’t know where this is going and I don’t know when I’m going to see you again. Is this going to be the end of this thing? I don’t know what comes after, so there was some human chords of similar-ish feelings. Also, as a mom, I know in the moment where your kid goes away, subconsciously it feels like a death. But then the next day they call you and they forgot to pack their socks or they need another hundred bucks, and it’s all fine again. But in that moment, and there are little deaths in life: The moment you give birth is like a little bit of a death, and there are these different transitions that are difficult transitions. But you move through them.
Do you recognize the movie as a sort of record of pop culture and current events? There are so many timely songs and political references.
There were a few things Rick said that he knew. Like, "Okay, this computer is going to look old pretty soon." If you’re going to make a movie about Americans growing up in America, it’s unavoidable. Whatever technology, music -- whatever the culture is at the moment -- if you removed all of that, it would feel weird, because the truth is that it is such a part of our lives. Rick would write down some of the songs that were happening in that year. He would ask younger interns what they were listening to when they were 12. But he was also choosing music according to which character was listening to it. Olivia in her car would be listening to Sheryl Crow; she’s not going to be listening to Lady Gaga. The kids will be listening to Lady Gaga at a certain age. And then there were things that we didn’t know what we’d get clearance for. Like, I’m reading the kids the "Harry Potter" books because that was such a phenomenon, but I also read them another series of books. Lorelei sings a Britney Spears song, but she also sings this other song in case we couldn’t get clearance.
What was the other book series?
"Lemony Snicket." And then Lorelei sang “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” I think, and “Oops! I Did It Again.”
What was the most surprising thing about seeing yourself age both physically and emotionally, as an actress and as a character onscreen?
That was part of what I was really excited about. Having said that, it is a weird thing to see yourself so rapidly aging, and it sort of is that culmination at the end where she’s saying, "It just goes so fast, I thought there was going to be more." There’s not enough time in this life to cram in all the lessons and all the experiences you’d like to have through it all, so it is intense to see it rapidly. We all had conversations about not wanting to Hollywood it up. And you can do a lot to not age, but I didn’t want that. We’re organic species, and I really wanted to see this organic material go through its life cycle. But everything in Hollywood will tell you, especially as an actress, that you’re not supposed to do any of that. But I’m a little bit of an anti-authoritarian, punk-rock problem child anyway, so I liked taking that on.
You mentioned domestic violence. What did you agree or disagree with in terms of the way Olivia handled the various stages of those troubling relationships?
I myself personally –- I don’t know if this would be better for kids to observe, but I would have climbed across the table and poked him with a knife. I had a whole conversation with Rick about this one moment where the second stepdad makes a comment about Mason’s nail polish. And we kind of came to agree on her saying, “Why don’t you get your sister some water?” Let’s just avoid a war. I was at first like, "Why wouldn’t I say to him, 'Don’t worry about his nails -- you have your own nails'? Why aren’t I standing up for him, having been through everything I’ve been through?” We had a lot of conversations about that.
As actors, we aren’t necessarily trying to portray our ideal person or how perfect people respond all the time. I think she didn’t have that warrior part of her that I have. I think she felt terribly guilty putting her kids in this situation because it was her second failed marriage now. And how do you extract them? And they love these other kids. Do you try to go to therapy and try to work this out with him and try to get him to calm down and stop drinking and get him to go to AA? All of these mechanisms she was going to try to do before she broke up another family and moved away from it. It’s a complicated situation, but I think it s a true, common thing that people deal with a lot.
I was bummed that we never got to see what happened to the first stepdad's two kids.
It’s funny because I said to Rick, “Can we invite them to Mason’s graduation?” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s a cool idea.” But we couldn’t find them. That’s kind of the way life is. You kind of do lose track of people. I mean, that’s the painful thing. As a kid, you’re powerless.
That's the one question the movie left me with. I know you couldn't take them in, but they were left in a violent situation as well.
I know. Well, that’s why I said, "Rick, okay, I can see why she’s leaving, not them, but the dad. But I do think we have to address everything she did: called Social Services, called the mom." Legally, things aren’t always set up to protect kids. You’re fucked. You can’t kidnap someone else’s kids. It was important to me to walk through that.