Q&A: Oscars 2015: ‘Boyhood’s’ Ellar Coltrane balances fame and the future

"Boyhood" star Ellar Coltrane says he's considering what's might be next as an actor, but school is "a bigger priority."
“Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane says he’s considering what’s might be next as an actor, but school is “a bigger priority.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A little more than a year ago, Ellar Coltrane was a homeschooled Texas teenager nobody had heard of. As the Oscars loom, the “Boyhood” actor now finds himself at the center of one of the year’s biggest cinematic phenomena.

The movie has become a touchstone for many film fans and critics who admire not only the marathon process that brought it into being but also its casual authenticity and naturalism. They see Coltrane, whom indie auteur Richard Linklater chose from a pool of dozens on a hunch that the then-7-year-old boy would grow into a complex adult, as the embodiment of an ethereal, highly relatable child.

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Coltrane, 20, spoke by phone last week after returning home from London, where he managed to steal away for a few days after the British Academy Film Awards (where “Boyhood” won best picture).

The Oscar circuit can be a crazy ride even for those who’ve been around Hollywood for a while, let alone as someone’s first encounter with the movie business. What’s it been like?

It’s been fascinating to see. It’s a machine and a circus and a little smoke and mirrors. It’s totally bizarre to see the machine that creates all of it, that’s creating this whole TV show. Just the rapid-fire nature of everything. Interview after interview after interview. You go to five parties in one night and stand around just long enough to be photographed before you go to the next. Anyone following it on the Internet just sees one or two of these, and they get the impression of you standing around all night enjoying this party. But you’re there just long enough to be photographed so you can go to the next. It’s a job where a large part of the work is to make it look like you’re not working.

Did it ever make you wonder what it’s all for?

Constantly. I get the PR aspect; I understand the purpose of doing it. But intellectually, it’s “What does it really mean?” “What does anyone really gain from any of this?” What makes me happiest is when I think of this as a celebration of art. For a movie like ours, more people are going to see the movie, and that’s the great reward. It’s easy to forget because it’s so much about the parties and the schmoozing and what clothes you’re wearing. If you take it too seriously it becomes really morbid. And then if I remember it’s a big circus, I get to wear a costume and act ridiculous, it can be a lot more fun.

You don’t seem to have changed much since I first talked to you at Sundance a year ago. You seem to be the same unassuming young man, amused and a little mystified by the hype. Do you think that’s accurate?

It’s a tough line to walk, having to put on this act, and a lot of times I just ended up sitting down because it’s way too uncomfortable to be ingenuine. I really refuse to feign excitement. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it all; it’s not that I don’t appreciate being a part of it. I’m just not walking around grinning all the time.

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Out at events you seem to have really forged a bond with Linklater and co-stars Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Lorelei Linklater. Has that been true?

It’s interesting how we spent monumentally more time together this year than we have in the last 12 years making the movie. People hear 12 years, and they get this idea of a massive amount of time. But in reality it was a few days each year. What’s jarring is that we used to have a whole year to figure out what we were going to do next. It was such a gradual, plodding process. And with this you don’t really feel like you have time to think about what you’re doing.

Is there a last-hurrah aspect to these hangouts?

I think it’s going to hit me in October, when we’d usually see each other [to shoot the movie]. I think it will feel like a void.

Ethan has said you had the best of both worlds — all the fun of a set without the negative aspects of being a child actor.

Totally. When you’re at an age that your ego and identity are being forged, I think it would be hard to do this. I’m still figuring out who I am, but I’m a lot more stable in my ego and personality than when I was 10 or 15. Just having done all this and seeing how much strain it’s put on my mind, people telling you crazy things about yourself. It does [mess] with your head, and I’m infinitely grateful I didn’t do it when I was 15. I wouldn’t have wanted to meet the person I would have become.

How do you think it has messed with your head?

Being complimented is really overwhelming. When you’re being complimented by so many people, and so emphatically, you can’t resent these things they’re telling you. But so much energy is being thrown at you. And the thing is, it’s not really you. It’s an abstract concept being projected onto you. I didn’t even have as much of this as a lot of people, just because of the nature of the movie I’m in. It would be different if I was in a superhero movie. There’s pressure — pressure to receive all of that praise, to be grateful and not be this jaded Hollywood actor who thinks they’re better than everyone.

That raises a question I think a lot of people have: Will you be acting again soon?

I’m looking at a lot of scripts, and there are some cool things. And I’d like to work with Richard again. But I’m wary of jumping headlong into a full-time career. I think it’s really important to figure myself out before I’m busy all the time. I know what I want to do, know the kinds of things I want to create, and that there’s no real reason to do something I don’t believe in. I’m not really interested in being wealthy. If I found a project that I think I could add something, then great. I’m also looking at a lot of schools. I haven’t decided, but that’s definitely a bigger priority. People ask me, “Oh, are you an actor now?” And the answer, really, is no. It’s not that I don’t want to keep acting. I enjoy it very much, and I’d like to learn more about it. But I don’t want to define myself as that.

There’s been a lot of talk about awards and where “Boyhood” will end up — first as a near-lock for best picture, now as a longer shot. Do you pay attention to that? Does it matter to you?

I believe I can speak for everyone who worked on the movie that the thrill was getting it made and spending all the time together on something that was personal, and then having it connect with people. It’s exciting and great to be here, just being in the room. I don’t think anyone will be that torn up if we don’t win except for maybe [producer and Linklater manager] John Sloss.

There’s also a weird thing that’s happened with awards where Arquette and Hawke have been recognized a lot, but for some reason you haven’t, even though you anchor the film. Has that bothered you?

It’s a lot of pressure to be in that position. I’m, like, overwhelmed enough with the movie getting all this attention. I think I’m a bit relieved that it’s not pointed at me in particular.

Some of the lack of recognition seems almost a function of you being as convincingly human as you are on-screen — like, some voters seem to think you’re just playing yourself, so should we call that acting?

People do have that impression sometimes, like they just followed me around and filmed me. And that’s definitely not the case. But I also don’t know if what I did is necessarily the same as what other actors did in other movies. It’s a different process. It’s fictional, but it’s made from pieces of real life. It feels strange to be talked about in the same sentence as Eddie Redmayne. I don’t know if I belong in that position.

You’re going to be joining the “Boyhood” posse at the Dolby Theatre. Besides your onscreen parents, who will be next to you?

My dad’s going to be there in the balcony, and my mom’s going to be there. She’ll be sitting next to me. I mean, who else would I bring?