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Ellar Coltrane Spent 12 Years Acting for Richard Linklater. Now What?

On a hot, humid day in Ellar Coltrane’s last spring as a teenager, nothing is going as planned. The star of Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, a feat of conceptual daring that tracks a fictional boy over episodes spanning 12 years, shot in bursts spanning 12 actual years, Coltrane has just returned to Austin after a month of “adventuring” through the Southwest with his father, a rock musician, and leaves tomorrow for a film festival in Australia. Now on the precipice of not just adulthood but a level of fame that plainly terrifies him, he has one afternoon to see his mother, a dancer and equine therapist; retrieve a printer from a friend’s landlady; indulge a reporter’s questions; lie in wet grass for a photo shoot; and, if he can manage it, take his first swim of the year in Barton Springs Pool. “They switched my flight a day ahead without telling me,” Coltrane says, while picking out a $5 pair of silver swim trunks at the Goodwill on South Lamar Boulevard. “But, you know, it’s fine.”

Coltrane, who will turn 20 in August, has spent almost all his life here in “keep it weird” Austin — mostly home-schooled except for three years of high school, followed by a GED; landscaping work for his stepfather; photography and painting in the trippy vein of Alex Grey; and the slow-burn emotional time bomb of a movie formerly known as “The 12-Year Project.” Linklater’s deep-focus, pseudo-vérité coming-of-age story was designed to capture a fictional family in messy real time — the mutable boy, Mason (Coltrane); his straight-A sister, Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei); and their divorced parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). Every year before the usually four-day-long shoot, Linklater would hold a week of rehearsals, dinners, and collaborative rewrites — a process also used in Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Hawke, who was in those too, compares it to the improv-plus rewriting approach of Mike Leigh. “We all used this fictional family as a crucible,” he says, “in which to pour our collective thoughts on growing up.”

But Linklater’s film isn’t just an aesthetic gambit. It’s also a psychological experiment, absorbing the personalities and dramas of its stars and, 12 years later, showing them — and then the world — a fictional doppelgänger of their lives. That might feel like a small step for grown-up actors accustomed to the perils of self-exposure, but for Coltrane, raised to treat “career” and “celebrity” like four-letter words, it’s a giant leap.

“It’s completely mind-bending,” says Coltrane, while navigating us from the passenger seat to Barton Springs, the three-acre spring-fed pond where half of under-30 Austin seems to spend its summer evenings. Vegan-thin, he wears a black T-shirt, black pants, sandals accented in maroon, and an omega-shape nose ring through his septum. “I try not to worry about my appearance as much as possible,” he says. Hawke may marvel at the luck of his co-star’s “growing up to look like James Dean,” but Coltrane seems anxious to leave behind the self-conscious look-at-me phases that typify any interesting adolescence — and which gave the meandering Boyhood its rhythm and narrative structure, punctuating annual scene changes with both clarity and pathos. “Everyone wants to be cool, but I just don’t, I really fucking don’t,” he says, his voice rising. (“I rant a lot,” he’ll say later.) “It’s just this kind of physical appearancebased thing that I’ve been striving for, for so long, and it doesn’t bring me happiness! You should get in the left lane.”

He rubs his eyes with double fists. “As soon as they’re not admiring me, then I’m just left with however I feel about myself. You should take a left here. But it gets better every day. Yeah, yeah, keep going and — ” He reads a posted sign: “Pool is closed for maintenance. God fucking damn it, that’s some bullshit. How lame is that?” He sighs. “Well, I mean, we could just sit in the park.”

***

“I could talk your ears off for hours about the way reality works,” says Coltrane, his mood lifting a bit as we settle on a shady hill opposite the pool, in the ruins of a long-ago koi pond still encircled by a low wall of striated rock. He talks with an autodidact’s passion about his latest interests — geology, meditation, David Foster Wallace — and all the things he did and didn’t learn in the course of his own fascinating boyhood. 

His parents, he says, are “strange people, and they took a very bizarre approach to parenting, but they supported me unconditionally, which is something a lot of parents fail at.” Coltrane is Ellar’s middle name; he decided to use it professionally as his last name when the film wrapped, “because Salmon is a family name. It just feels too personal to put on the screen.” His father, Bruce Salmon (stage name: Brewski Sal Mineo), grew up in a conservative, wealthy New Orleans family — “lovely people but very closed-minded, and not at all supportive of my father dropping out of college to be a musician.” Whereas Boyhood’s Mason bristles at authority figures — mainly a couple of stepfathers he calls “a parade of drunken assholes” — Coltrane got his rebellion secondhand. “I didn’t have my parents to rebel against, but I had society, and that definitely is what they taught me. Just: Trust nothing.”

The casting process felt, to Linklater, like a high-stakes gamble. “It’s a bit like getting the new Dalai Lama — I remember staring at him and wondering, Who are you? Are you the real one?” he says. “Ellar seemed like the most interesting of them all, kind of ethereal — a lot like now. There were other kids who were a little more straitlaced, future athletes and class presidents.” Coltrane’s aunt was a fashion model, and a scout had discovered him in an agency waiting room and put him up for a few commercials that led to an indie movie. For Boyhood, Coltrane recalls many callbacks — no line readings, just chats (he was only 6). He remembers bringing in a drawing of a monkey in a tree; on the back was a poster for a rock show featuring Bruce’s 1990s band, Joe Rockhead. Linklater was a fan. “I have a suspicion he cast me because my dad’s cool.” 

Linklater laughs when I relay the idea but doesn’t dismiss it. “It helps when you think the parents are cool,” he says. “The nightmare is to go four or five years in and they’ll say, ‘We don’t think this is good for Ellar.’ Artists get it — storytelling over 12 years. Money people balk and think of all the bad things that could happen. Artists tend to think of all the good things.”

Boyhood begins with young Mason staring at clouds. He forgets to turn in finished homework, “technically” flunks first grade, and is dabbling in graffiti by the second scene. He’s a minor rebel but still a blank slate; he watches wide-eyed as his mother fights with a boyfriend, a deer caught in the headlights of working-class, broken-home America. 

Ellar’s boyhood bore little resemblance to Mason’s — his strikingly free-range adolescence was more of a millennial update on the Austin slacker archetype familiar from Linklater’s other movies — but young Ellar didn’t always distinguish between the set and the world. Only after seeing the movie did he realize that he’d watched one particularly exciting Astros game, complete with a serendipitous home run, not with his own dad but with Ethan Hawke. He also began to see how deeper currents in his own life were reflected in Mason’s — especially his own parents’ divorce and tensions with a stepfather. “I don’t know how much I talked to Rick about that, but I’m sure he saw it,” says Coltrane.

“I was very angsty from a very young age,” he adds. “The way people start acting when they’re 15, I started being at 8.” Hawke remembers one of his first meetings with Coltrane: “He told me that Waking Life” — Linklater’s animated, plotless, metaphysical fantasia — “was his favorite movie. There’s not a lot of 7-year-olds that have seen Waking Life.

“He was like a little rock star,” says Linklater. And as he grew older, the film adapted to him, even as Ellar adapted to the fact that he was playing a character who went to school every day and devoured Harry Potter instead of Tolkien. Linklater would give him extracurricular assignments: “When you find yourself alone talking to a girl in an intimate situation, go home and write it up.” Two write-ups — about Star Wars and the evils of Facebook — made it into the movie. A painting from a “graffiti camp” Ellar had attended soon adorned Mason’s wall. And when Ellar came in one year wearing purple nail polish, Linklater used it as fodder for Mason’s stepfather’s mockery. 

As Coltrane grew older, he experimented — with drugs, with haircuts, with unusual piercings — and though he asked Linklater before making cosmetic changes, he says the director never objected. There was, however, a clash over his hair; when he was around 11, a producer demanded that he grow it out to shoulder length so that it could be shaved in a crucial confrontational scene. Ellar resisted: “I was just like, ‘Fuck you, I’m living my life!’” But he did it anyway. Onscreen, the shaving of his head is a traumatic, almost abusive moment. It was Coltrane’s first acting triumph. “That look of despair,” he says, “that was put on.”

For Coltrane, the annual shoots were both a reality check and a life raft. “It was surreal to step out of my own existence and see how most American children experience things,” he says. It was also a way of learning about something concrete and long term. “I didn’t learn anything academic, ever,” he says. The film shoot “taught me discipline and patience. It was my school.” “How much did the movie shape Ellar, and how much did Ellar shape the movie?” Linklater wonders. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to answer that.”

 ***

Back on the road with Coltrane, in search of a raw vegan restaurant called Beets Café, I’m missing one left turn after another and getting intermittently lost. “The traffic, man, it sucks,” says Coltrane. 

My phone’s GPS might help, but I’m reluctant to let robotic commands intrude on our conversation, particularly with someone who suspects the web is turning us into automatons. Coltrane recently disconnected his iPhone from the internet. “I’m trying to teach myself not to rely on that,” he says. “It’s really hard. I get lost so much.” By the time we manage to find Beets, it’s closed for the day — another plan botched. “Are you serious?!” Coltrane says, before reverting to slacker forbearance. “It’s cool,” he says. “I’ll just have dinner with my mom.”

Meanwhile, he’s got an errand to run. His friend David had bought a printer from him, then moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and now Coltrane has to take it off the hands of David’s landlady, Cindy. “I’m sorry about this,” he says. “I forgot I had to do this, and I thought I’d have tomorrow, but I don’t have tomorrow.” Cindy actually needs a ride to her house from another house — a predicament she explains from the back seat after we pick her up. “I’ve got a father, cancer, hospital, Houston, appointment, emergency room, pack him up, get him moved here, he’s doing well, but my house is filled with boxes and boxes, it was my grandmother’s house.” Struck by the easy intimacy, I ask how long Ellar has known Cindy. “We’ve never met.”

Over the course of “The 12-Year Project,” Coltrane appeared in just a handful of other films, including Linklater’s Fast Food Nation in 2006. But when Linklater put him up for another part, he just said, “I’m not working this summer.” Soon he fired his agent. “I didn’t want to be an actor anymore,” says Coltrane. (Los Angeles, for one thing, “scares the shit out of me.”) But in the wake of Boyhood, he’s reconsidering. During his road trip, he used a friend’s house in New Mexico to shoot an audition tape for a famously innovative director he won’t name on the record. He’s even got a manager now.

“Ellar’s a good actor,” says Linklater, but he isn’t so sure he’ll go the distance. “You’ve got to have some bad qualities, too. Like something to prove. You’ve got to want it bad.” Linklater cites one exception, Matthew McConaughey, whose breakthrough was in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. “I remember him saying, ‘You know, I’m thinking about maybe going out there.’ He went out to L.A. The first thing he went up on, he got. It was meant to happen.”

Hawke, who began acting in his teens, has counseled Coltrane to take his inevitable fame in stride — light advice that comes from a dark place. “I’ve lost two of the best actors of my generation to heroin,” says Hawke. “River Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. So one has to look at it all with perspective. I’m really encouraging Ellar to take his time and be gentle with himself. And to keep his sense of humor, that’s the key.” Before signing off, Hawke says, “Take care of Ellar. It’s a delicate moment for him.”

Coltrane has now seen Boyhood eight or nine times across as many cities, putting a lot of mileage, physical and emotional, between himself and Mason. But Linklater had refused to show Ellar or Lorelei any footage before the film was complete. Already protected from the worst part about being a child actor — the surge of praise and criticism that comes with a film’s release — they were also sheltered from the painful self-consciousness of seeing their gawky adolescence immortalized in real time. When the movie was finished, Linklater gave copies to Ellar and Lorelei and told them, “Watch this alone. You’re going to have to build your relationship with this movie before others start jumping in.”

On that first, solitary viewing, Coltrane’s boyhood flashed in front of him for the movie’s full 2:45 — haircut by haircut, growth spurt after growth spurt. He felt almost nothing. “But then,” he says, “as soon as the credits roll, it’s just waterworks.” He pins it all to the last scene. Filmed among the majestic mesas of Big Bend on Texas’s southwestern border, it’s the culmination of both Coltrane’s childhood and the most important single project of his life so far. On the surface, it’s just a tripped-out conversation between Mason and a girl he met that day, gazing out at the sunset vista and talking about the importance of not just this moment but “the moment.” 

“That’s what really gets me,” says Coltrane. “This is the beginning of my life, and that movie is the fucking beacon of that. That was my life for the last 12 years. That’s over. And now, now what?”

He doesn’t think he’ll ever leave the movie behind. “It’s a huge part of me,” he says. “It’s a gift that Rick gave me. It’s kind of proof that I’m real.”

*This article appears in the June 30, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: IFC Films