If you are one of the many who caught Richard Linklater’s "Boyhood" this weekend in theaters, you know that despite the title, the coming-of-age drama isn’t solely centered on one boy’s coming of age, but also on the shifting lives of his divorced parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Like everyone involved in the project, they stayed on call for Linklater to shoot approximately once a year over a 12-year period.
Indiewire sat down with Arquette in New York days before the film exploded at the box office, to discuss her journey of making "Boyhood" and what it was like to see 12 years of her life’s work up on screen for the first time.
Does it feel surreal to you that the film’s finally opening?
Every year we had this beautiful experience of making it. When we finished in October, it was brutalizing to end this movie. That’s when I was like, I don’t want to be done. And I don’t want to give it to the world. And I know this is special and I don’t know if they’re gonna get it. This is the weird part for the kids I think, too, they’ve never had a movie come out. They’ve never done press. They’ve never read reviews about themselves. So, this is a very fragile time.
Have they come to you seeking advice?
This movie has actually been getting some really beautiful responses, which is pretty rare. So we’ve all told them, it’s pretty rare you know. There might be some turkeys, just don’t take it too seriously, you know. Honestly, don’t take it too personally if you get negative reviews at some point. My advice was like, don’t read any reviews, you did what you did and you know how it matters to you, you did the best you could and you gotta let it go.
The Sundance response must have meant a lot to you given how well it was received.
Well, we had no idea what the response would be. We all knew we loved our project. We were in it 1000 percent and it meant a lot to us and I knew it was incredibly adventurous for the financiers, but also Rick’s directing with such restraint. Even though a studio would look at this and go, what demographic are you making this damn thing for, it doesn’t fit into anything. To see young kids crying, old people crying, that just felt really beautiful.
Do you now feel ready to give the film up?
I don’t feel ready to give it up really. Luckily, we’re all hanging out together and supporting each other through this part of it. It will be weird when it’s done, when it’s out and finished being out, and settled. I mean look, I’m gonna look back on this experience all of my life, and when I’m an old gal in my dying days I’m gonna be like, I was part of a really important work of art.
When did you first see it?
At Sundance! I didn’t want to see it before. Rick was like, ‘Do you want to see it?’ And I was like I want to see it with an audience. He was like, ‘Are you sure? I want to show the kids before they’re with an audience.’ And I wanted to see it like that, finished totally, sound done and everything. And then as I was watching it, I was watching it in multiple dimensions. Remembering behind the scenes, seeing the kids grow up as they get older. As an audience member, as much as you can as an actor, also my character was seeing it for the first time, because we never had a full script. So, my character was now watching Ethan’s character’s relationship with the kids independent of her. Because her experience was, Dad’s picking you up, okay there’s your bag, here’s your sleeping bag, see you Sunday night, don’t get them back too late. I didn’t know what they were saying on the camping trip. She had so much resentment for her ex-husband, he had so much resentment for her. When I got to watch the movie my character was watching who he was as a dad, and he was a beautiful dad, and it made me sad we can’t be flies on the wall to see people in their wholeness. That we hold on all these resentments, that maybe we don’t need to.
Watching the film as your character…had you ever experienced that before?
That was really weird. No, because usually you have a full script. So you’re already in on all these experiences you’re not, may not be privy to. Like, my character was making all these discoveries while I was watching it.
What was that like?
It was really moving. And I feel like I learned a really important lesson as a human being. She felt so much about, here’s how you are as a dad and you gave them this and you gave them that. Wow, you really cared about what they were going through, who they were as people and you really loved them. They feel loved by their dad. So yeah, in a weird way you’re still processing acting on some deep level while watching it. It was so weird and also I was like, that’s the year my daughter was born and I got married there, oh I got divorced, oh that’s when Rick had his twins, Ethan had his daughter there, oh yeah Ethan got divorced. I mean it was just weird. Ellar’s parents split up. I’m watching through like so many dimensions, it was the weirdest thing.
Have you seen it since?
No I haven’t. I will watch it again. I saw it with a thousand people or something. Maybe next time I’ll watch it quietly.
Were you behind Rick’s idea for this project when he first approached you, or did it take some work on his part to convince you?
Oh I was on board. Everything was unorthodox about this project. Usually you go through a battering ram of agents and offers and reading material and go back and forth. Well, I met him once at a cocktail party, I told him I was a fan. I think also there was this thing in Hollywood where, I was a mom at 20. I was a single mom very young. And he was a pretty young dad. So, he called me years later out of nowhere and just said, ‘What are you doing the next 12 years?’ And I didn’t even reference it to a movie. I thought is asking me to marry him for 12 years and then get divorced, what is he talking about? I don’t understand, what is he referencing? And I said, ‘Well I’ll probably be raising my son, and hustling to get a job and everything I’m doing right now…What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Well I’m thinking of making this movie for 12 years.’ And every cell of my body just, yes you know.
I’m not a really intellectual person, I’m a person, I trust my gut. And everything in my body said, ‘oh my God, that’s so exciting. I really want to see that.’ And I said, ‘Are you thinking about me?’ And he said ‘Yeah,’ and I said ‘I’m in, oh yeah I’ll do it!’ He told me all the main plot points my character would be going through, but he also left a lot of space. I mean we could be at war, kids could be getting drafted. The kid could be a football player, like to leave space. He had the perfect balance of structure and openness.
How often was the project on your mind when you weren’t shooting?
It always was somewhere in my mind, ’cause if I’d be trying to plan a vacation or trying to work on a project, I’d say, ‘Well what are the dates? Call Rick first and see if those work for him.’ So it was always like that was my primary concern. There was a lot of openness with this project and a lot of faith. I wanted it to be a human story and I wanted this woman to be an imperfect, real human who has taken on this awesome responsibility of raising her kids. I’ve known so many women in this situation and that was sort of sacred to me in sort of a weird way.
Also I remember seeing my mom’s emotional life change. Like, there’s a little moment where Ethan picks up the kids and we just see each other outside and I’m sort of just shaking my head like taking it in, it’s all over. I remember when my mom started to get this different emotional meter started coming in. A little more observant. A little less reactive than before. So I think some of those things come with age. If I had been a 27 year old playing a 45 year old, I would be playing a 45 year old. I wouldn’t really understand the subtleties and all the values and the way you can perceive things when you’re older.
How did you maintain the family unit with the actors who play your children over 12 years when not shooting. Did you make an effort to keep in touch?
We didn’t talk all that much. Once in a while we would check in with each other. The first year — I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody maybe other than us, because you could get some weird, creepy perv for a movie — I had the kids for the whole weekend. We made dinner and we played arts and crafts, we played out in the back yard with dinosaurs, we bonded really early on. Kids are so honest. They’d be like in between scenes: ‘I’m hungry.’ So you would just have this accumulation every year that would build on itself, your history.
And it’s fun making a movie, and they would have this fun experience with you. And just to see them grow is incredible. I mean they were always collaborators, Rick always brought them in with total respect like. He wasn’t dictating everything and everybody else.
How will any professional experience going forward even compare to "Boyhood"?
[Long pause.] You only a few great loves in your life. But you don’t lay down and die in between. You can still learn great lessons along the way, have fun with other people, learn things about your craft. Nothing’s ever gonna feel like this again.