Life After Boyhood
Where is Coltrane now, and, where does he go from here?
To a certain demographic, Boyhood is everything—a verisimilitudinous, prismatic portrait of one person’s transformation from child to teen to man. Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, was an avatar. He was the optimistic child, the angsty teen, the confused young adult. But really Mason was Ellar, and Ellar was Mason. “It wasn’t much of a stretch to play Mason,” Coltrane admits. Time has passed, though. Two years, in fact, since Richard Linklater’s inimitable, groundbreaking work played in theaters around the world. So the question remains: Where is Coltrane now, and, where does he go from here?
When we spoke on the phone earlier this week, he was visiting his grandmother in Destin, Florida, with his father. The original plan to talk for twenty to twenty-five minutes was quickly jettisoned. We sat on the line for over an hour trying to figure out our lives. I know that sounds silly—maybe even too dramatic. But that’s how this dialogue between two people felt. In the background, you could hear birds chirping and the wind blowing, while Ellar Coltrane opened up about the “blessing and curse” of Boyhood’s success, his fear of people, and why enough is never enough. The truth: At age twenty-two, he's in transit. Maybe we all are, always. This is a conversation before he’s reached his final destination.
Ellar Coltrane: I thought I was going to be flying to California tomorrow, but that just kinda changed. Sam Fragoso: What happened? Coltrane: Oh, I was just gonna be going for this casting thing, and it’s gonna be next week instead. Which is good, because I get to hang out here for another couple of days. Fragoso: Have you been doing a lot of auditions? Coltrane: I’ve been up there to tape here and there, and I was gonna go to L.A. for like a modeling thing, but then I was just gonna stick around for a week and do a bunch of auditions. Because taping is one thing, but it’s definitely very different when I can just spend time there and, in person, audition. Other than that, I’ve been working on other projects. I made a short film, or a proof of concept, with some friends in Austin recently. I’ve been really enjoying that, after having a few great and satisfying, but less personal experiences, with like Barry and The Circle and everything, it’s been nice to kind of work with family. Fragoso: Have you found it hard to gain momentum working from Austin? Coltrane: Yeah, it is. I mean, I don’t know that I’ve wanted to gain momentum until now. At this point, I’m trying to work it out so I can go spend six months or even a year in L.A. I’ve got a good place to stay over there now. I’m kind of ready, you know? I got really lucky with Boyhood, and I’ve kind of been able to just not work that much for the past couple of years. I think I needed the break, and needed to catch up with my family. As far as making money, I definitely need to be in L.A., but there are lots of projects in Austin, just smaller stuff. That’s a lot of fun, too. I really enjoy working on super-small projects, and things that I can be intimately involved in the whole process. Fragoso: It’s a tough internal debate: 'To succumb to L.A.' It’s a bit morally bankrupt, but there’s also more work. Coltrane: I think it’s just one of those places where it’s not a good place to live forever, but if you can figure out how to keep yourself safe, and if you enjoy what you’re doing, then I think it can be worthwhile. My whole introduction to Los Angeles—and Hollywood as a place—was just promoting Boyhood. That was the first time I’d ever been there. Fragoso: What was that like? Coltrane: I mean, it was crazy. I was seeing one of the strangest parts of that city and of the industry—all these parties and press events, and the awards trail, which was an amazing experience, but… “morally bankrupt” is a good way of putting it. So I had a pretty weird and negative perception of the city at first. I’ve since made a bunch of friends there, filmmakers, and some cousins of mine just got a place, so it’s becoming more and more hospitable. I just grew up raised by a bunch of hippie musicians in Austin, Texas, and it’s pretty different from that world. Fragoso: You’re justifying it, which is what I’ve been doing, too. Part of this is also, like, there’s no alternative given the profession. Coltrane: Exactly, yeah, that’s how I feel too. It’s hard for me to get any other job. If I get a film part, I’m gonna take it, and there are very few other industries from which it’s OK to take three months off and then come back. I kind of need to be somewhere where I can be working more consistently. For a time, though, it’s never going to be a permanent thing. I bought a house in Austin about a year ago. Fragoso: At age twenty-one, you bought a house? Coltrane: I bought a house, man. I never expected that to happen. Fragoso: How did that happen? Coltrane: Man, I don’t know, I made a bunch of money—I made a bunch more money than I ever thought I would, certainly at this point in my life. Things with Boyhood were definitely a surprise, just how well everything went. And my mom kind of needed a home, and I have a little sister who just turned eleven this year, and so they live out there with me. It was definitely scary to buy a house at this point in my life. I think I’m starting to come to terms with it, starting to feel OK about it. But it’s also an investment. I kind of have to remind myself of that. I can always just sell the house if things really get bad. Fragoso: Is that part of your reluctance to come out west, because you have a home base with family? Coltrane: Definitely. Being with my family is very important to me. And that’s what the last couple of years have been. I think when everything blew up with Boyhood, and I had all these opportunities coming towards me, I could have moved to L.A. two years ago. I just wasn’t emotionally and psychologically… I mean, I did a lot of auditions around that period of time, because I was just shell-shocked from the whole press experience of Boyhood. I just wasn’t really on my game as far as acting. But I’ve been studying a lot and practicing. I’ve always seen myself as an actor, and seen it as acting, but also… it wasn’t that much of a stretch to play Mason. I don’t want to get typecast as myself. You either have to be really good at selling yourself, and hustling and working the industry, or you have to be a really good actor. I don’t think I’ll ever be really good at selling myself, so I’m just focusing on becoming a better actor. I saw a lot of other people in similar situations to me who took that opportunity and did move away and try to start a career at twenty-one, and it just scared me. People lose touch with their families and their roots and who they are, and just get lost in the industry out there. It was already a confusing time in life, so I just kind of instinctively ran back home and spent times with loved ones.
Fragoso: You mentioned feeling shell-shocked. Coltrane: I grew up very poor in Austin—there isn’t much of a hippie community anymore. When I was a kid, it was a pretty offbeat kind of place. I’m also shy, and I’ve always been kind of shy. To be suddenly thrust into this celebrity, and this world of schmoozing and wearing fancy clothes and doing interviews and going to awards shows, the very socially high-pressure situations... it was just hard for me, to figure out how to come out of my shell. Fragoso: Were you unhappy? Coltrane: Yeah, I was pretty unhappy. I wish that wasn’t the case, because looking back now, it was such a beautiful thing that happened. It was incredible, getting to spend all that time with Richard, and Ethan [Hawke], and Patricia [Arquette], and Lorelei [Linklater], and everyone. Now looking back, I miss it. I wish I could have that experience again, but with the experience I have now. I wasn’t able to enjoy it that much because I was so overwhelmed. Fragoso: But that’s where that 'too much of a good thing' saying comes from. Sure, it was a great experience, but it’s not natural to do twenty Q&As in a week, even if everyone around you is great. Coltrane: You’re answering the same questions a billion times, and it all becomes so disingenuous. I think that was what was hard about it, for all of us, but maybe me most of all because I’m the least experienced of all of them. Boyhood was just so personal to all of us that by its very nature it becomes impersonal when you’re talking about it all day every day for a year. It just becomes a product, a thing you’re selling. To be selling something that means so much to us and feels so vulnerable. It’s one thing if it’s just a movie, a script, a story you just took part in, and someone wrote, and it’s about people you don’t know, but there’s so much of all of us in that movie and so much of our lives on the screen. It was just scary. Fragoso: It’s interesting, and difficult, to see a vulnerable piece of art be put through a vulgar system that requires you to stand by it. It’s that whole art-versus-commerce conversation. But where does that conversation go? Coltrane: It’s a great big complicated system. It’s one tiny facet of our society, but it’s similar to how I feel about all of human society. Everybody knows it’s fucked and that we can’t keep doing it like this, but how do we stop, how do we do it in any other way, because all the money wants it to continue the way it is? But I think that’s the thing, you talk about a vulnerable piece of art going through this vulgar system: I was affected by my experience going through that system, but I hope that the industry has been affected by Boyhood and what it is. It’s surprising that Boyhood had the life that it did, and all the acclaim, because we didn’t expect anyone to care about this movie. It seems like maybe the industry is slightly more in the direction of artistic exploration. I think it feels like a new renaissance of film is starting to take place. I definitely want to be a part of that, because I think there’s a lot more that can be done with the medium of film than we’ve even begun to explore, especially in mainstream films. Fragoso: Your worldview on humans is like the train going off the rails and the engine is broken. Coltrane: And the conductor has lost his mind. Fragoso: Are you jumping off the train, or are you making peace with the train’s ultimate demise? Coltrane: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I’m very scared about humanity, scared of humanity. I’m very happy to just live out my life and spend time with loved ones, but it’s also, like, who knows what’s gonna happen in the next ten years? I’m not that worried about the ultimate demise of our society, or even our species. I feel like that’s just kind of what happens. Life dies eventually. And I think eventually, the planet Earth will be fine, but humans will die and that’s OK. But you know, I am scared about my basic freedom as an American, and being able to live the way I want to live and express myself openly. That’s definitely an area of concern—and I’ve certainly talked about abandoning ship, but that’s not easy either. Going back to the macro of the film industry, do I try to figure out how to play this game, and work from within, and get the opportunities I want artistically from this industry—an industry I have so many moral issues with, or do I just do it myself? I don’t know. You look at somebody like Cassavetes, who had a lot of mainstream success, and then didn’t like being told how to make his art, and then spent all of his money making his art exactly the way he wanted to, and then drank himself to death. That’s pretty heroic, but I don’t know that’s how I want to live my life. I’m hoping there’s some sort of middle ground. I think Richard [Linklater] has struck that balance pretty well. I don’t think it’s easy to do, he’s a really smart guy. Fragoso: He lives in Austin. Coltrane: He’s made it work from Austin. He built the community he needed. After everything with Boyhood, I was like, Noooo, if this is what this is, I want nothing to do with it. I’m just gonna go home and do what I was doing before. But I also can’t go do what I was doing before. And I love acting and I love telling stories, and just being in the process of it all, and being on set. It really makes me happy.
Fragoso: When you went home after all was said and done—you go to your bedroom, you close the door, sit on the bed. What are you thinking? Coltrane: Now what? That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past two years. There was this thing, this project that defines my life for more than half of my life, and then that was done, and then I had this whole crazy experience releasing it and sharing it with millions of people, and then you just go home. People told me that the calm after the storm is the hardest part, and I didn’t know what they meant by that, but it’s so true. All of that was very scary and overwhelming, and then to be back home and be like, What now? What do I do now? Do I go back to my day job? I could have moved to L.A., and could have tried starting a career, but I didn’t want to do that. What I decided to do was just build a home and build a strong foundation in my life, which is something I’ve never had before, a foundation and a somewhere where I feel like I belong. It’s different for everyone; some people need to run off and reinvent themselves, start a new life that’s separate from their upbringing and their family, and that seems to work really well for some people. To invent this person for themselves. For me, I definitely felt that to be able to do the things I want to do and create, and be the actor I want to be, I need a home. I need a foundation, and something to go back to—because I just start to lose it. If I stay home too long, I start to lose it, but if I stay away from home too long, I start to become something that I don’t want to be. Fragoso: What do you mean lose it? Coltrane: I just lose touch with myself and my intentions. Acting is a very sensual kind of meditative thing for me, or I want it to be, anyway. I guess it’s just… easy to lose touch, lose touch with what I’m trying to do. That’s the thing. Like I said, I grew up pretty poor, and I’ve always been fine with the way my life has been. And I was fine doing manual labor eight hours a day, and living in a house. I’m not trying to look for success in the traditional way. But if I lose sight of that, if I’m away and working for too long, I forget that I’m not really looking for money or even recognition necessarily. I’m trying to express myself, and express humanity, and trying to understand things. That’s what’s important to me. But being in an environment like Hollywood for too long, it’s pretty easy to lose sight of that, and start thinking more in terms of commercial success and that kind of thing. But also, commercial success can give me the opportunity to create the kind of things I’m talking about. So it’s a balance, and that’s what I’m trying to find. Fragoso: It also sounds like you’re contemplating that 'Is this it?' question, especially after the extreme 'success' of Boyhood. I never understood when people said, 'You’re gonna get to the top of the mountain and then wonder: Now what?' Almost as if we’re looking for another mountain. Coltrane: You think you have some goal, and then when you get there, you’re like, OH, what is this? Fragoso: You think there’s gonna be more—that this external validation will make you happier, but it never seems to works out that way. Coltrane: It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. I think in that way I’m kind of cursed, and lucky that I had about as high a level of success with a film as you can have. I mean, we didn’t win the Oscar, but we did it, we did the whole thing. Our film blew the fuck up, and we went everywhere and did everything, and went to all the awards shows, and did all of that, and, that’s, at least in the American film industry, that’s about as good as you can do, short of actually winning Best Picture. And because of that, there’s an illusion that so many people are shooting for. This illusive idea of success or recognition or whatever, and it’s so strange, for me to have that just out of that gate. That’s my first experience with the film industry, the almost absurd level of recognition. That’s what you’re saying, though. To have all of that doesn’t make me happy. Making the movie made me happy. It makes me happy so many people watched it, and so many people enjoyed it, and seemed to take something away from it. But that’s not ultimately what I’m in this for. You wanna share your art with people, but it’s not for recognition. If you’ve never experienced something like that before, it’s easy to tell yourself something in your head that having recognition is going to validate you, and make you happy, and make you more confident, and give you more power as an artist, which in a lot of ways maybe it does. I don’t necessarily have that illusion. I experienced that and saw it for what it is and realized that it’s just not my goal. If something like that ever happens to me again, it’ll be great and I think I’ll be able to enjoy it more. I’ll be more prepared and understand what it is in a more coherent way. It’s all a game, it’s really all a game. But I also just realize that it didn’t make me happy. Fragoso: What does? Coltrane: What makes me happy is breathing, and going outside, and swimming, and being with people that I love. Eating food. That’s fucking success if you ask me. I feel like it just comes back to society as a whole. We’re not bred to appreciate life, appreciate just basic existence, being alive at all. It’s like we kind of grow up, it’s always some goal, it’s always the future, something you’re working towards: success, marriage, and financial stability. There’s always this If you get there, if you reach this goal, then you’ll be happy. Then it’ll be OK, then you’ll be real, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy life. It’s not true. No matter what you achieve, if you can’t just enjoy taking a breath of air outside, no matter how much money you have or what situation your life is in… some of the happiest people I know are the most impoverished. Because it’s not about that for them. And I think any kind of artistic industry is just an extension of that. The idea of an artistic industry is a paradox. As an artist, you’re making art for yourself, you’re making art because it feels good, or at least most people. But then this whole industry, this whole financial system, that has been built around the creation of film—because it’s such an expensive art form—you can’t, I mean, you can just make a movie, but a lot of the movies people want to make, you do need money or support in some way. But it’s just such a reward-based system. Because, to make your next movie, you have to have this level of success, and this much money, and reach this amount of audience. Then, just obsession over the personal lives and identities of these artists and actors and people—I don’t know, I feel like we’re so distracted from what it actually is, and what movies actually are. You try to actually talk to people about movies and art and what they make you feel, and most people don’t really talk about that or think about that. It’s the whole system, it’s the whole game, it’s the big fun circus that you get to watch. Fragoso: The other part of that, though, are the performers in the circus who like the attention. That feeds off this sort of anonymous validation. Coltrane: Yeah, and I don’t know, it didn’t do it for me. [Laughs.] I’m getting to the point now, with people recognizing me in public, and I appreciate it, mostly. Sometimes people are super-weird, but for the most part, it does make me feel good now. It’s nice to meet people I wouldn’t normally meet because they recognize me, and get to have conversations, and those are the best scenarios. But, it’s very dualistic, I guess. There is certainly some part of me that craves that, that craves recognition and validation. I know I’m taking for granted everything I’ve been given with Boyhood, and all of this gratuitous recognition most people never have in their lives. But I feel like that state of mind is so damaging to artistic integrity, the state of mind that you have to be in—to be fawned over and doing a billion Q&As, the red carpets, and whatever, screaming fans, and signing autographs. It feels good in a certain way, and I was sort of conflicted and tortured over it, but I’m like that about everything. I’m a pretty conflicted and tortured person. It’s hard for me to enjoy anything. But you get caught up in that, and the thing that really scares me is when that becomes your entire approach to creating art, or your character, or whatever it is that you’re doing. When your anticipation of the success of the product of your efforts becomes an active part of your artistic process. Fragoso: The driving force. Coltrane: When it starts driving you, it detracts so much from real, genuine vulnerable expression of the things we can’t talk about. That’s why we make movies, because verbal language is so limited, and there’s so much going on in the human emotional complex that we don’t understand, and we can’t even fucking talk about them because we don’t have the words. To me, that’s why we make movies, and write poems, and make music, because we have all these things that we have no other way to communicate to each other, and we have no way to understand them, so we try to express these deep, scary things. But you’re not doing that when you’re just trying to make something that people are going to like, because a lot of the time the things that need to be talked about in art, people don’t like, and are uncomfortable and scary. I really respect artists that aren’t afraid to make things people don’t like, because sometimes that’s what needs to happen. But also, we all need money. I think that’s a lot of what I ran away from. I saw this image of myself forming in my mind, this image of myself as this person, this actor, this famous guy who has this certain respect or level of validation—and it’s false, it’s not me. I don’t want that to become what drives me to make art. I would rather not make art than just work for anonymous recognition, like you’re saying, because that’s not doing anybody doing any good. We have plenty of entertainment. Entertainment is great, I’m not saying everything has to be some kind of exploration of the human soul.
Fragoso: It’s tough because people say when you leave home, don’t change, but what kind of sad reality would that be if you didn’t change? What you mentioned was interesting about anticipating success, because often in people’s first project they’re young and scared and lonely, and that’s the only thing they have. But you can’t replicate that at thirty-two. It would be intellectually dishonest to even try to recreate that rawness. So the question then becomes: How do you produce something interesting within the new shifting realty you continue to create for yourself? Coltrane: That’s what I come to eventually. All of these experiences that I talked about that scared me for the safety of my soul, for lack of a better phrase, are a huge part of what I am now. I don’t know that I’m going to make a movie about Hollywood. I might, but it’s more about what I’ve learned now about humanity, and about our society, and about this industry that’s such a large part of our society, and about our culture. I’ve changed drastically, and I think maybe for the better. I think I’m more mature than before all of this happened. It’s always good to change, it’s just being aware that you are changing, and being aware of what you want to change into. One of the smartest things that Richard did over the course of filming Boyhood was that he really made an effort to keep, mostly me, Lorelei, and the other kids, disconnected from any kind of conception of this project as a product, as something that people were going to see and judge someday. He never talked about that. He never talked about how we would be perceived by anyone. It was always about what we felt, and what the story meant to us, and what the characters meant to us, and to him. Creating something for him, and for us, that we needed to. Exploring this part of our minds that we needed to explore. I just think that in the state of the industry at this point, it’s really hard to do that, to remain disconnected from the final product. He just wanted us to be able to get lost in the creative process. I hope I can do that, because that’s definitely when I feel the best. It’s when I’m lost in storytelling, but it gets harder and harder to really get lost.