Talking About the Nostalgia of 'Boyhood' with its Star, Ellar Coltrane

Richard Linklater's Boyhood is marvelous for its specificity—there is no Hollywood wizardry just one boy, Ellar Coltrane, growing up over time—and its universality. 

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Richard Linklater's Boyhood is marvelous for both its specificity—there is no Hollywood wizardry, just one boy, Mason, growing up over time—and its universality. Everyone can identify with its vision of youth, and for viewers who grew up around the same time as Mason (this writer raises her hand) certain music and cultural cues, from Harry Potter to Pearl the Landlord, immediately provoke a strong nostalgic reaction.

So, when The Wire got a chance to talk to Coltrane earlier this week, about how the movie taps into his own sense of nostalgia.

Does watching the movie make you feel nostalgic at all?

Yeah, I mean, definitely. There’s a lot of it that I don’t remember, that I don’t remember filming, so it is very nostalgic. You get so lost in just what you’re doing every day that it kind of places. Being a fully formed person is about balancing the past, the present and the future, and to have this huge image of my past is very centering.

In addition to watching Mason’s story, there are cultural touchstones in the movie that I remembered from my youth. I read in the New York story about you, that Mason’s interests didn’t always align with yours. Did you talk to Rick about bringing the generational elements?

I think that was more outside of me. Most of my input was very kind of incidental and emotional and was about dynamics of the characters and that kind of thing. Interests are one thing, but, yeah, his life and experiences were very different from mine. That was kind of part of what was surreal about filming it. I never went to public school. I never had that kind of social dynamic. And I never was really into modern music or anything like that. It’s strange to see the other side almost.

Was there a “this is what other kids my age are listening to” disconnect? Or reading? The Harry Potter stuff really struck me...

I never read Harry Potter so that was definitely a big thing where all my friends were way into it and it was like, okay, I get to go experience this in this alternate universe, but it’s completely outside of myself. And certainly watching it back and just like the timestamps of all the music is very much that way too.

The music for me, even if I wasn’t particularly into the song…

You remember it.

Yeah. Hearing "Soulja Boy" brings back such crazy…

And it’s that way for me too. Even though I didn’t listen to most of that music, I was aware of most of it. It definitely brings back a certain feeling.

How many times have you seen it?

Quite a few. Eight or nine...

Does watching the movie change your perception of your—


Your reality and your youth?

Absolutely. I think the maturation process and the way time passes and the way things change over time and don’t change, that’s really one of the most striking parts about it is how little anything changes. But that’s a very elusive thing. That’s something we all wonder about, you all look in the mirror, several times a day most people, and everyone’s kind of trying to track how they are changing from day to day much less over a period of years. So to see that all kind of catalogued in front of me is, very, I don’t know, very eye opening.

Obviously it’s so specifically the story of Mason—

But it’s also just life in general.

There’s also a complete universality to it and that’s one of the reasons the nostalgic cues really drew me in. I was wondering if you’ve talked to anyone around your age about living this experience and—I hate to use this word—the millennial element to it.

No, it definitely is. And a lot of people come up to be after screenings. A lot of older people where it’s kind of their relationship with their kids, but also lots of people our age that are just freaking out because “that was my life.” And it is. But that’s the thing, it’s not just our generation, it’s just life. Even though the situation are different, the specifics are different, that family, those characters are just a vessel for expressing this universal human experience of being a teenager. That’s really one of the only emotional states that pretty much everyone goes through. People change into so many different things when they become an adult or whatever, but emotions are just so raw when you’re a teenager that the experience is kind of universal.

You don’t know when exactly Mason loses his virginity or any of those other rites of passage.

As far as those big moments, that’s something I thought and think about a lot, is just these moments that our culture places so much weight on like graduation, you get drunk for the first time, you lose your virginity, whatever it is, these things that are supposed to be these important moments aren’t really. The first time most people have sex kind of sucks and graduation is boring. I think that’s a lot of what makes it powerful, is that it doesn’t try to make this big dramatic thing out of these singular moments, because in the end that’s not what defines you, it’s everything in between.

How did growing as an actor and starting to define the role more manifest itself for you? Was there anything you started doing differently?

Not consciously. It was so gradual, just working with Patricia [Arquette] and Ethan [Hawke] and Rick for so long you just kind of absorb—absorb technique things that it wasn’t entirely conscious. There was definitely a point where I became much more of an active collaborator in building the dialogue and the character and kind of deciding what parts of myself to use and that kind of thing. It was never conscious. Rick has an amazing way of just going with the flow, as corny as that sounds, he just kind of goes and does it and it was allowed to be very natural.

Did you ever experience a period of disillusionment at all?

Not really. I was definitely apathetic for a couple of years, less invested than I maybe wish I would have been. But I wasn’t in public school. I was never really forced to do anything as a kid, so I didn’t have that need to rebel against everything like so many people had. I’m sure if I had been forced to go to public school I might have seen the movie as this authority thing that I needed to separate myself from, but as it was it was really the only commitment I had growing up. It was kind of nice and comforting to have this structure to go back to and this guided process.

Because of that did you see the experience as a type of schooling?

Definitely. Absolutely. It was an art camp, kind of. What I’ve discovered and kind of put my finger on recently is the only thing that really gives me any solace is being lost in the creative process and it being so long term and having the end, the goal, the product of it being viewed was so distant that it’s like we forgot that was ever going to happen. The point was that we were doing it. The experience of creating it was our purpose, and that’s an incredible thing. Both of my parents are artists too so I’ve kind of gotten it from every direction. But, certainly, to be a part of Rick’s method has shown me a lot about what I want to do with my life.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.