Ethan Hawke has made three movies in the Before Sunrise series with director Richard Linklater, but before the first of those sequels was even a gleam in either man's eyes, they'd already embarked on shooting an audacious, similarly time-spanning secret project: Boyhood, a coming-of age tale that Linklater filmed in installments over 12 years. The movie's main character is Mason (Ellar Coltrane), but when we meet him as a shy, still-unformed kid, Mason's life is dominated and shaped by his divorced parents, Mason Sr. (Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette). As Mason grows up, so does his sometimes-irresponsible dad, and, as Hawke told Vulture in a recent interview, watching that experience unfold onscreen was surreal.
Have you watched the movie with your own kids?
Uh-huh. It’s weird for them. For them, the dad in the movie is actually their dad. Everybody relates to this movie somehow, but for them, there are things they said to me that made it into the movie. The conversation in the movie about the Beatles’ Black Album, that stemmed from a letter I wrote to my daughter once. The songs that my character plays are song that I wrote that my kids grew up with. It’s surreal to them. Their parents are split up too, and they go between us every other weekend. It was like a portrait of their lives.
I’m sure it’s a surreal film for you to watch, too. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour snapshot of the last decade or so of your life.
I started making movies 30 years ago this year, so for me to be involved in something that is so completely different to any other movie I’ve done … this isn’t like another job to me. I didn’t know we could do that.
You started acting as a teenager. Have your reasons for acting changed since?
They have to. If you were still doing your teenage paper route as an adult, your reasons for doing it would have to shift, you know what I mean? When I was younger, I think I did it because I wanted people — namely, my father — to notice me and love me. Okay, that’s a pretty juvenile motivation, but an understandable one, right? But if you’re 25 and you’re still acting because of something like that, you’re kind of an idiot. I mean, my father does love me, it’s time to move on! So now that I’m not doing it for attention, am I doing it for material gain? That doesn’t feel honest. So it’s always evolving. I’m always curious to meet actors like Christopher Plummer or Jeff Bridges, people who’ve been doing it even longer than I have. Where does it take you?
So what do you get out of it now?
Luckily, acting can be infinitely fascinating. It’s tied to what it’s like to be alive. Oftentimes, if I can integrate what makes me a good actor with making me a stronger person, then good things happen. I try to listen to my son as effectively in life as I listen as an actor, you know what I mean? In acting, they often say it’s moment-to-moment work, but you also hear that in life, too: Just live in the moment. So acting and being are kind of symbiotic, in a strange way. The more deeply you explore acting, the more you realize that everything about your personality is a kind of artifice. Acting teaches you that you can change the way you talk, but you’re still you. You can change your outfit, you can look like a total idiot, but you’re still you.
As a former child actor yourself, what do you think makes Richard Linklater so good at directing kids?
It’s the same reason he works with adult actors so well. Like a good athletic coach, he knows how to put you into position to do what you do well. If you’re really good at rebounding, he doesn’t make you take three-point shots, you know? He plays to people’s strengths, and he’s incredibly relaxed in the way he works. The cliché of most film directors — that they’re neurotic, pulling on their hair, staying up all night screaming at people — that’s true, more often than not! But Rick doesn’t have a dictatorial vision of his movie — he’s accepting of whatever happens. I’ve made eight movies with him now, and I remember one of the actors I worked with on one of them said, “I can’t remember when we started filming! When did we stop rehearsing and stop filming?” Most actors get so worked up before the first shot, but with him, you don’t remember when it even happened. And that’s what makes him excel with young people, this atmosphere he creates where he’s like, “Later, we’ll make the real movie. Right now, we’re just going to have fun.”
It helps, too, that he cast his real daughter Lorelai as Mason's sister in Boyhood. She’s great in the movie.
She’s the ace in the hole. It was awesome. I’m one of her dad’s best friends, I held her when she was a baby, so to get to do a scene where we’re talking about sex, it’s almost as uncomfortable as if I were her father!
There's obviously a whole lot of backstory between your character and Patricia Arquette's, but they don't really share a scene in the movie until Mason's high-school graduation.
It’s funny: We weren’t really going to have that scene. All throughout the movie, we wondered if there would be a big moment between the two of them somehow, and then it seemed like almost enough that my character would be invited to his graduation party. But then, at the very last minute, we all said, “This seems like a missed opportunity. If they were real people, they’d have some interaction, and what would it be?” We worked it up on the spot — we wrote that scene before lunch and shot it around dinnertime. Mason Sr. has got that pretty funny line, “I’ve finally turned into the boring, castrated guy she always wanted me to be.” If she’d been a little more patient …
I was glad we got that scene, but what's unique about Boyhood is that it skips a lot of the scenes you might expect to find in a coming-of-age story like this one. It's more interested in a good conversation than a first kiss.
That’s the peculiar genius of the movie, and the cumulative effect of it is that by not hitting the “TV moments,” when the movie ends, you almost feel like you’ve seen every moment of that kid’s life. You intuit all the big ones. Someone made the comment that in almost all of my scenes, I’m driving — but that’s what you usually do with your dad! When you spend time with your dad, he’s either at work, asleep, or driving you somewhere.
Another cumulative effect is that I became proud of the parents in the movie when they finally learned from their mistakes and matured. It feels like you've been rooting for them for so long.
You begin to actually believe in these people, and you trust their reality because you’ve seen them over time. When you see Mason Sr. sell his GTO, for example, there’s a part of you that feels sad for him, and another part that’s proud of him. In some ways he’s giving up his dreams, and in other ways he’s growing up. It’s got all of the complexities that life is full of.