Boyhood: Finding the Boy in Linklater’s Masterpiece

The biggest challenge of BOYHOOD was finding the boy to play the lead role.

“We were looking for someone to come along with us for 12 years – and that’s not something a kid can fathom at 6 or 7,” Linklater notes.  “So it was kind of a crazy task, where I was looking at kids wondering, ‘Who are you going to be when you grow up and what’s your life going to be like?’”

He found he had an instinctual answer to that answer when he auditioned Austin native Ellar Coltrane.  “I had the feeling Ellar was going to be an artist of some kind even at that age, in part because his parents are both artists but also there was just something unique about him,” Linklater remembers.  “And I felt the world he was growing up in would lend itself to what we were doing.  It became more and more apparent how smart and interesting Ellar was, and it was a pleasure just watching his life unfold.  He became more and more of an active collaborator every year.”

For Coltrane, becoming part of BOYHOOD meant having a boyhood unlike any other, one that would ultimately be bracingly exposed on the screen.  But, in the beginning, he really had no idea what he was in for, or what it all meant.  “It wasn’t possible for me to fathom it,” he explains.  “12 years was already twice my lifetime at the point when we started.  It’s hard enough to contemplate the next 12 years now for me, or probably at any age, but then it wasn’t possible.  It wasn’t for several years that it really began to sink in just what the film was or why it was so different.”

At the same time, Coltrane looks back now and is glad that he was able to work for those years in a private space unseen by the world.  “I’m extremely grateful to have delayed having to be confronted right away with seeing myself on screen and being seen,” he comments.  “It’s something that I think I’m more equipped to deal with now than I would have been at the start of this process.”

Even Coltrane’s memories of early production have that blurry childhood haze over them, with only flashes of direct memory.  He recalls that at first he was strongly guided by Linklater and did a lot of memorization.  But as he grew along with Mason, the process gradually opened up and he began to assert his own creative instincts more and more, which became more and more satisfying.

“Rick and I would usually start each new year by talking about where I was at and then incorporating some of that into the character,” he recalls.  “Over time, my life and my character’s life began to meet in places and I became a bigger part of creating who Mason was.  As a kid, of course, everything feels much more simple and now there’s so much more that I can see now about how dense and complicated this family’s relationships are.  I think, in many ways, being part of the film gave me more perspective on relationships, especially my relationship with my own mom which, like Mason’s, is complicated.”

Linklater says that in many ways Coltrane advanced beyond where he thought Mason might be, but Coltrane comments:  “There were times when I was getting a bit out there, but I think along the way my sensibilities mellowed a bit while Mason’s expanded.”

The extreme intimacy of being with the cast and crew every year for most of his life gave Coltrane a kind of second family.  “Even now, I consider Rick, Lorelei and many other people from the production to be among my closest friends,” he says.  “I think a lot of the relationships in the film came so naturally because we really did form a kind of family.”

Boy’s Sister

Finding Mason’s sister, Sam, was an easier process because Linklater already knew someone close to home who wanted the part: his then 9 year-old daughter Lorelei.  “She was at that age when she was singing and dancing and being extroverted and at that moment, she really wanted to do it,” he recalls.  “It was also a really practical choice because I at least had a little bit of control over her availability.”

Linklater could not anticipate the ways in which his daughter might change her mind, or her relationship to the project, in the ensuing years.  “A few years into the film, she became much more interested in the visual arts, where she has a lot of talent, and less interested in performing.  At one point, when she really didn’t want to dress up a certain way, she came to me and asked ‘Can my character die?” he laughs.  “In a lot of ways, Lorelei isn’t much like Sam at all, but participating in the film probably meant different things to her at different times.   I think the artist in her ultimately appreciated the scope of the thing she was involved in, however awkward it had been at times.”

The palpable link between Lorelei and Ellar also shifted over the years, mirroring the subtle evolution that siblings often go through.  “Sister and brother is a really kind of awkward relationship when you’re a kid, and we had that in the beginning because we were more stand-offish with each other at first, and there was more a feeling of rivalry.  But that changed a lot as we got older,” Coltrane explains.  “Today, I really value my relationship with Lorelei because she is the only other person who has been through this same strange experience of growing up in this film – and who really understands what that was like, to go through this and come out the other side.  It’s so nice to have her to talk to.”

For Patricia Arquette, working with both Ellar and Lorelei was often a revelation.  “I can’t say enough how great they were,” she says.  “It was just so cool to see them changing so quickly and so beautifully right in front of us.”