A film twelve years in the making and a childhood captured on-screen, Ellar Coltrane has had a truly unique acting experience through his work on a film that he has never really had to talk about until now, when he suddenly has been “confronted [with this] art project”, as he calls it. Toronto Film Scene had the opportunity to speak to the breakout star, a boy who has acted since he was six, who the world finally gets to meet, on a fictional journey with his character Mason in Richard Linklater’s masterpiece, Boyhood. Ellar Coltrane was cast in the film when he was six years old, and his life from ages seven to eighteen have been documented in a one-of-a-kind portrait of childhood.
Linklater has spoken about the difficulty and importance of the casting of the role of Mason, and Ellar discusses what acting meant to him, and what it means now, “I can’t tell you from the six year old point of view. I liked it, I think all kids like pretending. It was something I was good at. It was exciting to work with directors and to be treated like an equal. As a kid you’re used to being talked to like a pet or something, and Richard always spoke to me candidly and like I was a person. A lot of it was being a part of something, I didn’t really like being treated like a child but now, I mean my interest has changed. For a long time I really lost interest in acting, I mean I always enjoyed this project very much, but this is different, and I didn’t pursue [acting] for a long time, but looking back and in this process of talking about it so much, I’ve just seen how incredibly satisfying and beneficial it was to have that project to throw myself into, and how much I enjoyed it. The opportunity to lose myself in the creative process, that’s what I want from acting.”
At six years old, an actor could not possibly perceive the impact of a twelve-year shoot, a film that would literally encapsulate a life, and Ellar describes, “It dawned on me gradually, but as far as the scope of the film, I didn’t think about that much when we were filming, so it has been more in the aftermath. That I’ve kind of just realized how bizarre it is, and how big of an impact it has had on me, and how big of an impact it is seeming to have on other people as well.”
Boyhood is a film with a rare amount of praise, and it is particularly because of how impressive the dedication it takes to make a film of this scope. On all of the positive reactions, Ellar says, “It’s so weird, it makes me feel guilty. After a point, I don’t even know how to appreciate the praise, because it’s constant. Then I look at other people who are in movies that everybody hates, and I feel so bad for them.” Ellar only has this one film under his belt, but it is something that he has been working on for his whole life. It’s hard to imagine the time he spent on this one character simply for one three-hour film, and Ellar tells us a bit about his experience, “It wasn’t invasive in a direct way, but it is true that I was constantly being asked to analyze my own life and my interactions and my personality to then use in this script, so it was very introspective.” As much as Mason is a fictional character, many aspects of him are taken from Ellar’s own personality and life,
“Having an outlet to explore your emotions through in a distanced way. To have this fictional character to relate what I was going through so that, I’m not exactly examining myself, but I kind of am, these are my real feelings, that I am applying them to this other universe and thinking about what emotions this situation would make me feel, what those emotions feel like, and how I would express them, and those are all parts of figuring out who you are. All teenagers need help understanding their emotions, and I appreciated that. [However] all of it is definitely a character, it’s very outside of myself. As far as what Mason goes through, it all feels pretty true even though the direct experiences are foreign to me. So much of his life is school life, and his relationship with his parents is really different than anything I did growing up, but emotionally it all feels very true.”
On working with Richard Linklater, Ellar says, “He has an amazing way of making people feel comfortable. I remember one of the first things I really liked about Richard was that he talked to me like an adult. It was very comfortable, there’s a joke about his sets that you don’t even know when you’re filming, because it’s just this conversation and you’re going in and out of scenes, it’s very casual. And also being a part of creating the character is a lot of it too, and putting elements of myself into the character, so even though it is very much a character that is fictional and outside of myself, I was familiar with it so I wasn’t putting on this artificial thing.”
When Ellar finally watched the film, it was his first time seeing everything he had worked on, which he describes, “It was a few weeks before Sundance and Rick just gave me a disk and said, you should watch this alone. And I watched it two or three times and was just devastated for a couple of days, not in a negative way, but I was pretty out of it, it’s very emotional. It’s very strange. It’s incredibly surreal. I think that passage of time and the way that you mature and change is really elusive, it’s something that most art is trying to get at, and something that everyone wonders about, you wonder how you’re changing day to day. You can look in the mirror or look at pictures but you can’t really see it cause you’re just there in the thick of it. To see it all together like that is very eerie. But beautiful, incredible.”
Ellar essentially grew up on a film set through his work on Boyhood, and he discusses how his involvement in the project evolved with time, “My involvement and investment grew and grew as the years go on, but the year when me and Ethan go camping, that was the first year that I was really [into it], I was taking acting classes, I was really interested, I wrote a lot of the dialogue in that, and all the years after, but that was the first one that I was really part of the collaborative process. That was exciting and a lot of fun. It was never a struggle really, there were a few years where I was maybe apathetic, and didn’t apply myself as much. But the character was apathetic too, so it worked. When Mason is listing the three best movies of the summer, those were my favourite movies that summer.”
There have been many emotional responses to the film from those who have seen it, and when people share that experience with Ellar, he describes it as, “Incredible, it’s so beautiful for anything to elicit that kind of emotion in people and have them feel comfortable and vulnerable enough to express it. That’s so rare even in intimate relationships to have someone express vulnerable emotions. That kind of tenderness and to cry openly, emotions are very repressed and it’s beautiful to have people express that and I feel responsible to validate that, because it’s like we have presented ourselves in a very vulnerable way, and they’re returning it.”
On his own memories of filming Boyhood, Ellar says, “It’s pretty spotty towards the beginning. I have a couple memories of shooting the first couple of years, but solid memories don’t start until halfway through. There’s a lot of that I really don’t remember at all. There’s some of it that is little snippets of my childhood. But like I didn’t care about Harry Potter, that was so foreign to me. I didn’t go to school. So a lot of it is pretty foreign. It’s like me but in this other situation. I know who that person is, but he’s living in this very strange world. I’m hanging on to the memory. It’s been a really therapeutic and incredible thing to have, and I don’t want to get away from that. I’m enjoying now, being done and learning everything that I am learning now in the aftermath. It’s something I will always hold dear.”
It feels as though everything in the making of this film has gone perfectly, considering the risk and the dedication involved. When asked if there were concerns about the making of the film, Ellar says, “We never thought that way, but when we got to year six, seven, eight, it was just like wow, not only has nothing gone wrong, everything has gone better than perfect, and it’s amazing. The momentum just kept building and building up as the years went on until that final moment in the desert. One of the only things that did go wrong, there was a government shutdown, and we were planning to film at the National Park, and it was shutdown, and so we had to go to the State Park. But the place that we found at the State Park was even better, so it kind of worked out.”
On choosing his next acting project and how seemingly nothing could compare to Boyhood, Ellar admits, “I think in a way, I am kind of afraid that nothing is going to compare. But with the success of this and how intensely satisfying it was, and how incredible all of it is, and now with it being so well received, it kind of takes the pressure off. Now, there’s nowhere else to go. I can just make movies and I don’t have to worry much. I’ll have enough money to support myself, and I’ll have the satisfaction of having created this, and anything else, it’ll be great if it works out well, but I think it can work that way, and it doesn’t matter if my next film is a masterpiece or not.”
Shooting on Boyhood only ended late last year, so the experience of this film is still very recent and Ellar is currently in the thick of it with the films release. Ellar discusses how it feels to finally conclude a twelve-year project, “It hasn’t set in yet that it’s done cause we wrapped in October. If we were still going, we wouldn’t have even done it yet, so come Christmas time it will feel a little more real. But it was, it was very bittersweet, it snuck up on all of us I think, cause the goal of it being finished was so distant for so much of the project that we really didn’t think of it, there was no pressure about finishing it. We were just doing it because we were doing it. And when it did get there it was like, ‘Wow, It’s done.’ That last moment was the last moment that we filmed, and what’s expressed and what Mason was experiencing was very much what all of us were experiencing, you know for very different reasons. ‘Wow’ this is a chapter of all of our lives that’s coming to an end, and it has come to mean so much more to us then we could have ever expected. Especially the adults that do this for a living, you don’t expect to fall in love with a project like that. So it was very bittersweet.”
You can experience Ellar’s growing up on screen as Mason in Boyhood, currently in theatres.