This summer, a boy named Mason captured our hearts and minds as we watched him grow up. He transported us back to our own childhood, recalling the struggles and successes we felt as we got older. Mason’s story is told in “Boyhood,” a film directed by Richard Linklater. What makes “Boyhood” so special is that as we watch Mason grow older, we watch actor Ellar Coltrane grow older too. They filmed him for one week per year for 12 years, from age 7 through 18. The Daily Californian spoke with Coltrane over the phone about his experience on such an ambitious and unique project.
The Daily Californian: Can you speak a little about how you got connected with “Boyhood” and how they found you?
Ellar Coltrane: I was 6 when I went to the audition in Texas … I think Richard (Linklater, the director) obviously didn’t want a known actor, but he wanted someone with experience and at least an interest in acting …. You know, I don’t know (laughs) why he chose me really. I think Richard and I think in a similar way, and so he probably could kind of sense that when I was young.
DC: What do you mean you think in a similar way?
EC: We work together very well. And that isn’t something you could have known when I was 6, but as I got older, it became a larger part of the collaboration of creating the characters and the script. It was a good match … It’s also just Rich and I kind of get along, and that’s a big thing when you’re going to be working together for 12 years.
DC: At the time — so long ago and at such a young age — did you have a sense of the magnitude of the project?
EC: Not entirely. I definitely understood that it was unusual and a big undertaking, to some extent. One of the most shocking aspects of this is just the amount of time. And that’s not something that you can really comprehend at 6. It’s difficult for me to imagine the next 12 years now, but at 6, it’s pretty much impossible. My perception of the amount of time has changed a lot as the years have gone on, and as I got closer to the end, and now the last year or so, releasing the film and being done with it, it’s been very strange to look back and realize how much of my life I really did spend working on that and how big of an undertaking it was. It was a week out of the year, so it never felt like a burden or anything, but I did put a lot of my life into it.
DC: Waiting a year between shooting each new section, was it ever difficult to form this continuous character?
EC: It never really was, because there was so much impetus put around the character-building process. For several days before I was handed a script or we even thought about shooting, we would just sit around and discuss this character … We would compare Richard’s story to our lives, thoughts and experiences — what had been happening to us over the past year … It never felt like having to get back into character … All of the actors were a pretty integral part of creating their characters. We knew who they were by the time we got around to filming.
DC: What was it like having to wait all those years to see this all play out? Were you ever discouraged or impatient?
EC: I really didn’t think about it that much. I never saw any of the footage throughout the years. I think on Richard’s part, he didn’t want me to become self-conscious or anything, which I think is very wise, because it’s very likely it would have changed my experience and my perception on acting. It could have been different if I had been watching the footage throughout thinking about it constantly; I could have been impatient. I think it’s great the way that we were able to just be lost in it and not really worry about the end.
DC: The film is about this character, Mason, that you all have created. But somehow I feel like it’s telling my story, my friends have said they feel like it’s telling their story. Is there a reason everyone can identify with Mason and do you personally identify with him?
EC: I absolutely do. In the same ways that everyone does. Most of the specifics of his life and who he is are very different from my life and my experiences. The emotional changes that he goes through I very much relate with. They’re very general. A lot of the things that we see Mason experiencing are almost universal across cultures and genders. Whether the situation is completely different, most of us have to deal with the same things growing up. I think a lot of how that was achieved in the film is that Mason is an amalgamation of my life and Richard’s life and Ethan’s life — their relationships with their children and their relationships with their parents. It’s the result of a lot of input from a lot of different human experiences. I think if it really were just about me and that really was just my life, or just Richard’s life, I don’t know that it would affect people in the same way.
DC: Not everyone gets to watch themselves grow up on screen in a couple hours. After all these years, what was it like seeing the completed film for the first time?
EC: Yeah, it’s really fucking fun. It’s been a couple months since I watched it now. I watched the film probably nine or 10 times in the last eight months or so. The first time, it was just kind of complete catharsis. Just a lot of emotion coming out at once. It was a really personal kind of experience. All the stuff that had been building up and that I had been wondering about for so long and just have it all put in front of me. And then also to see this incredibly illusive part of existence — the way that we change over time, the way that we perceive the passage of time. I think everyone really wonders about these things to some degree. To see it in front of you in such a tender way is profound, I think for a lot of people, but maybe especially for me. I don’t really know. It’s different, I guess, just because it’s me. As I’ve watched it more, that’s changed. It’s not as emotionally intense to watch it. It’s not as much about me. The first time, it was very much watching myself grow up, suffering through these awkward or painful moments. Seeing things I don’t remember or seeing things I do remember, but in a different way. All of that was pretty personal. As I’ve watched it more, that kind of balanced out. I’m able to see the film more as a whole and more about just whatever the film is about. Which I don’t really know. (laughs) Life, I guess. Experiencing the dynamics between all of the characters and the dynamics of the story, the subtleties and that kind of thing. For me, that has been really beautiful, and that is kind of a reflection of my experience of my own life. You spend your teenage years kind of self-obsessed and analyze everything. The only way to really appreciate reality is to let go of yourself a little bit and experience the balance.
“Boyhood” is playing at the California Theatre in Berkeley.