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How Patricia Arquette Got Her Finest Role in Years With Boyhood

20 May 2014, Los Angeles, California, USA --- arrives to the CBS TV Summer Soiree at the London Hotel. Pictured: Patricia Arquette --- Image by ? Nate Beckett/Splash News/Corbis
Patricia Arquette. Photo: Nate Beckett/Corbis

Patricia Arquette has a bone to pick with people who call her new film Boyhood a coming-of-age tale. “It’s not just the kids growing up in this movie,” she told Vulture recently. “It’s the grown-ups, too.” Arquette is right, of course: Director Richard Linklater has been hailed for the unique way he shot Boyhood, filming the movie in small installments over a series of twelve years so we can watch young Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) actually age from tyke to college freshman, but Mason’s divorced parents (played by Arquette and Ethan Hawke) mature as well. In the case of Arquette’s harried mother Olivia, though, that evolution is anything but steady: She has to weather several ill-advised relationships before she can finally come out the other end older and wiser. Last month, Arquette sat down with Vulture to discuss the movie and her best big-screen role in years.

I was just talking to your director Richard Linklater, and I asked him why he had you in mind for this role.
Oooh, what did he say?

He said he’d always been a fan of yours, and he was intrigued by the fact that you were a young mother, but most of all, he knew that you wouldn’t be afraid to play this character’s blind spots.
That’s so funny, because he told me that he thought, “What actress is still going to have a career in twelve years?” [Laughs.] But that is really true! With certain characters, I’ll realize there’s a core message there or something to learn, and with Olivia, the thing really is her blind spots. It’s interesting to play a blind spot. I think she gets frustrated by it. The kids definitely get frustrated.

The first half of the movie could almost be called Motherhood. Your character is the one driving the whole story, and the family dynamic changes considerably based on the men she gets involved with.
The thing is, even if this mother did her best and still made some quote-unquote mistakes, there’s that moment near the end where the kids say to her, “You’re moving? Where are we gonna stay for Christmas?” And they don’t mean they’re going to stay with their dad — she’s their home, you know? I know that sometimes audiences think, “She keeps having these jerky relationships, but why? She’s a smart woman.” First of all, guys who are jerks don’t display themselves as jerks immediately. And the other thing is that Ethan’s character, their dad, has ten days out of the week to have his shitty relationships without his kids seeing them. As a woman, are you supposed to never have love in your life again because you have kids? Is that what we’re asking women to do? I think everyone’s doing the best they can.

The movie isn’t a tear-jerker in any intentional way, but I did well up at the end, when your character sends Mason off to college.
That was my last scene, and I was super glad it was scheduled as my last scene. I was feeling super-weepy that year, not wanting this film to be over. I didn’t want to give it to the world, to have them say anything bad about it. “No, they can’t have this!” And Rick told me, “We did make a movie to show the world.” I said, “Okay. I guess we have to.” But it is like giving your baby up.

Olivia gets very emotional as Mason leaves.
At the end of the movie, she still has a blind spot. She still doesn’t known emotionally what’s happening to her. When Mason leaves for college, it’s like a death for her, but it’s really just an “empty nest” experience. Still, when your kid leaves — for a moment, as ridiculous as it seems — it’s almost like a death.

I don’t think that sounds ridiculous at all! It’s natural to feel that loss.
Four days later, though, Mason is gonna call and say, “Mom, where’s my insurance card?” And “Mom, where do you get vitamin C? I have a cold.”

Did you know Rick well before he offered you the role?
We had met for a few minutes at a party and I told him I was a fan, and when he told me about this project, I got so excited, I said, “Were you thinking about me for this?” And he said, “Yeah, I was wondering if you’d be interested.” I told him that if he’d have me, I’d do it. And then later I said, “Oh yeah, what’s my part? I should ask you that, probably.” But this just fell in my lap and I couldn’t deny it. I had to go through this door.

Did he show any of the film to you before it was finished?
I saw a rough cut at five years, and I said, “Okay, that’s enough. I don’t want to see any more until it’s all done.” The weird thing about this is that we never had a script, so Rick would say things like, “Oh, this year, Ethan is gonna take the kids camping and they’re gonna go to a ballgame,” but I wouldn’t know the specifics of those scenes. So when I did see the movie, not only was I watching myself age and saying things like, “Oh, that’s right around when I had my daughter in real life,” or “That’s when I got a divorce,” but also, in parallel, my character was watching her ex-husband as a father like a fly on the wall. She’d been dragging around all this resentment for so long — like, “These are your kids, too, buddy” — and meanwhile, he was walking around saying, “Your mom’s a pain in the ass, she’s close-minded, she doesn’t let me be me.” But when I watched the movie, I could also see that he was an amazing dad, that he loves his kids, that he gives them great gifts, and I think if Olivia could open herself to that and see that, she could let a lot of resentment go. It made me sad for them that they couldn’t see that part of each other.

At least they eventually recognize that they’ve both raised two great kids.
I love who Mason becomes during the course of the film. He’s a cool person. I’d want to be his friend, if I was growing up. And that’s how I feel about Ellar, and also about Lorelai, who plays his sister. There was a lot going on early on in filming where Ellar was more escalated and teenage-y than Mason could be at that time — and Lorelei was, too, in her own way. Lorelei would dress more eccentric than her character, or Ellar would have his saggy jeans and wallet chain when Mason was 7. Rick would say, “Do you think Mason would really wear that?” So we’d go to Goodwill, and they’d go, “We hate our clothes now!” [Laughs.] It wasn’t until later in the movie that they got to be cool.

Patricia Arquette on Boyhood and Blind Spots