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Best of 2014: How Richard Linklater cast his 'Boyhood' star

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Boyhood Review
Matt Lankes

Since debuting at January’s Sundance Film Festival, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has become one of the most critically adored films in recent memory. Audiences felt the same way, swooning at the story of a boy (Ellar Coltrane) and his complicated family as he ages from 6 to 18 years old. The experimental $4 million movie, filmed in Texas with little fanfare over a dozen years, has grossed more than $43 million around the world and become one of the favorites for Best Picture.

The experience has been surreal, to say the least, for 20-year-old Coltrane, whose life to this point is indirectly documented in the film. “People feel like he’s a family member,” says Linklater. “I’ve been on the street where people want to hug him; old ladies treat him like he’s their grandson. It’s kind of crazy for us to feel that connection and to feel that exuberance.”

EW chatted with Linklater, Coltrane, and Patricia Arquette to discuss how it all started. What did Linklater see in 6-year-old Coltrane that made him want to spend a decade with him?

Click here for more of EW.com’s Best of 2014 coverage.

In theory, most everything about the unprecedented challenge of making Boyhood was actually surmountable… if writer/director Richard Linklater could recruit the right like-minded professionals. Linklater, who’d just completed Waking Life and Tape for IFC Films in 2001, had an idea to make a movie about growing up. But rather than focus on a specific moment in a boy’s life, he wanted to tell a whole story stretched over 12 years. That required casting actors willing to take that trip with him, reconvening each year for a dozen years to update the drama. Linklater’s pal and Before Sunrise star Ethan Hawke was intrigued, and Patricia Arquette said yes as soon as she heard Linklater’s pitch. Having stars attached to play the parents allowed IFC to write a check to get the low-budget project off the ground. But what about the boy, Mason Jr., who would be the heart of the film? How could Linklater possibly cast the perfect 6-year-old who was also willing to commit the next 12 years of his life to a movie?

“I always joke, it must be like selecting the next Dalai Lama,” says Linklater. “You put out things like, ‘Are you The One?’ It felt like that. There were so many considerations. This was such a long-term commitment, and by definition, it’s such a volatile element—a young person who’s going to grow up. Who knows what you’re going to get?”

Linklater and associate producer Anne Walker-McBay began looking for Mason in their own Austin, Tex., backyard, scheduling open calls outside of the regular casting process without putting out word to too many agents. There may have been great candidates in Los Angeles or New York, but Linklater preferred that Mason live in or around Austin. “We’re low budget, so we couldn’t have flown him in from far away,” says Linklater. “It would’ve made him a tougher collaborator to not have him nearby [for the next 12 years]. Because I knew I wanted to be in his life a little more and really be a family member, and be able to call him up and go get lunch.”

“Rick had a lot of rules that he imposed on himself for that process that I don’t think were the same ones other people would have chosen,” says Arquette. “For one thing, he didn’t just want to find a kid on the street; he wanted a kid who’d already chosen to act.”

Ellar Coltrane—then Ellar Salmon—was a home-schooled 6-year-old from Austin who’d been in theater, a few commercials, and the indie, Lone Star State of Mind with Joshua Jackson. His father was a musician, his mother a dancer and painter. Growing up around them, he’d cultivated very sophisticated tastes for someone so young. He watched Miyazaki movies and listened to Pink Floyd and Nine Inch Nails. In fact, he was excited about auditioning for Linklater because he’d seen Waking Life and loved it. “Believe it or not, Waking Life was one of my favorites,” says Coltrane. “I don’t think I understood it as much as I do now, but it was a cool movie. I’ve always liked philosophy and stuff.”

The cattle-call audition was more of a playdate. After all, there was no script yet. Instead, Linklater met with each candidate and just talked to them about their interests and hobbies. “I interviewed them the way I would an adult, really,” says Linklater. “‘Hey, what are you doing these days?’ ‘What are you working on?’ ‘What gets you excited?’ ‘What are you listening to?’ With kids it’s a little different, but it was kind of wonderful.”

“Richard was this totally unassuming kind of guy,” says Coltrane. “He didn’t talk down to me despite the fact that I was 6 years old. He spoke to me as an equal, which I really appreciated. That was something that I remember always being kind of angry about as a child, is being talked to like a pet. Richard, even from the very beginning, was very respectful. Just trying to get to know me, figuring out if we play well together. It was very casual.”

For Linklater, Coltrane immediately stood out. He was local. His parents were artists, meaning that they might be more inclined to appreciate the 12-year project as a creative fulfilling endeavor for their child. He even had certain facial characteristics that made him look like he could be Hawke and Arquette’s child. But it was much more than just a practical checklist. “First and foremost was just him—the essence of the person—and he just seemed like the cool kid,” says Linklater. “A lot of child actors try too hard. They try to be cute or whatever, because that’s what’s worked for them. He was very real. He didn’t care what you thought about him, he was very passionate about music and stories and movies. Not too cool, but you know, a cool guy. He seemed like the better angel to follow, in the long term. I felt, that’s the more thoughtful, interesting guy. Because that’s who he was. He was kind of this ethereal, interesting kid.”

Linklater was up front with Coltrane and his parents about the unconventional, decade-spanning concept of the movie, and they didn’t flinch. “I understood as much as you can as a 6-year old,” says Coltrane. “But the 12 years is a pretty difficult thing to really grab your head around when you’re that young. It was kind of abstract, something taking place over that long of an amount of time.”

“You’re sort of casting the parents, too,” says Linklater. “So I thought as artists, they might see this as a fun thing for their kid to do every year—even if the movie never comes out. Maybe it’ll just be a good experience for the kid to do and maybe he’ll like it. And that is absolutely what happened.”

But Linklater didn’t hand Coltrane the role immediately. “As great as Ellar was, it was such a big decision, you know,” says Linklater.

There were several callbacks involving minor homework assignments, like bringing in his artwork to discuss. “Apparently that process was like seven or nine auditions, where Ellar would come in and they would talk about life,” says Arquette. “Ellar would bring in drawings that he did. ‘Oh, why’d you draw that?’ ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ So he just got to know him, and he just was who he was. He was an artistic, sweet kid, kind of a day-dreamer, but engaged in what he was interested in.”

One of Ellar’s drawings was of a tree full of monkeys, etched on the back of a flyer for an Austin band called Joe Rockhead. “I said, ‘Oh, I like that band,’ says Linklater. “He goes, ‘Yeah, my dad was in it.’ So you know, a mutual-admiration society. He liked Waking Life, I liked his dad’s band.”

Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, Linklater and the producers took a collective deep breath and settled on Coltrane. Child-labor laws prevented them for legally binding him to a 12-year commitment, so they did only what they could do—take it year by year and pray. “If the family maybe turned on the project or started questioning it, it could’ve been a problem down the way,” says Linklater. “There wasn’t a plan B. I never remember thinking in those terms. It was like we were all going to do it, or we weren’t. If someone fell out or we all looked at each and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t working and this isn’t fun, let’s bail,’ I would pay IFC back. But it went in the right direction. The film gained momentum year by year. It didn’t lose spirit, it gained it.”

It took more than 4,000 days to complete Boyhood—39 actual days of shooting spread out across 12 years. The spine of the adults’ story that Linklater envisioned in 2001—divorce, relocation, remarriage, etc.—flowered as Mason Jr. and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grew up before the camera’s eyes. Each year, Coltrane became more and more involved with the creative process; the Mason at the end of the film is very much intertwined with the actor’s personality. “I think that’s why he chose me ultimately,” says Coltrane. “We kind of looked at the world in a similar way, at least artistically, and kind of visually. It’s amazing that he saw that when I was 6.”

“A lot of casting, it’s just intuitive,” says Linklater. “It just seemed perfect. Kind of like your own life: Do you question who you are? You just are. [Laughs] You’re sort of stuck. You just kind of go, ‘This is it.’ And it was so fun. Year 1, scene 1, first thing, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s great. He’s perfect.'”