Perhaps best known for playing the title character in NBC's Medium (2005-2011), Patricia Arquette co-stars in Boyhood (out today), the passion project that director Richard Linklater filmed in brief bursts over a dozen years so audiences could watch all its characters, but especially the two young children at its core, mature and grow older. The film takes place in suburban Texas, and Arquette plays the protagonist's mother, a divorcee struggling to finish college while raising two children and balancing a love life, sometimes with rather frightening men.
Women and Hollywood spoke to Arquette about making the film over 12 years, and her return to network TV this fall.
W&H: When I was watching the movie, I felt that as much as it could be called Boyhood, it could also have been called ‘‘Motherhood.’’ Your character Olivia evolves just as much as her son over the course of the movie. Could you talk a little about how she changes and what seeing her grow meant to you as a performer?
PA: I think I’ve had a lot of examples in my life of women raising their kids and being the primary breadwinner and support system for their kids--somehow trying to better themselves and discover who they were as women, to accomplish something, and to make a better living for their whole family. So, Olivia goes back to school and earns a degree. There were weird parallels in the movie--both Ethan [Hawke] and Rick’s [Linklater’s] dad worked in the insurance business, and then my mom and Rick’s mom both went back to school, got their degrees, taught, and were in the psychological sciences. It was weird in that kind of way; there was a common language that we had for these characters.
W&H: But Olivia makes some really good choices for her career, and for the betterment of herself and her family, yet has a real struggle with the personal choices at the same time…
PA: I have so many different feelings about that. I agree with that, of course. I think, when you look at [the men she gets involved with] at the beginning, they really seem like great guys. They seem very attractive to her also because she’s been doing so much of this heavy-lifting alone, and I think when someone presents as a partner it’s very attractive when you’re really exhausted and needy for that. The other thing is the dad, who has the kids every other weekend. We don’t see his shitty relationships because they’re not happening around the kids, because he doesn’t have the kids. He has the freedom to have his relationships off-camera. I also think, on paper, the marriage to the professor looks like a great idea. He seems stable. He makes his own living. He’s a single dad. He has these wonderful children. It all seems like it would be a great base for her family, and for herself, but the truth is it’s not, because I think it takes a long time to get to know people.
W&H: Building on that, it’s really heart-breaking when these kids who call your character Mom just disappear after the relationship with the professor falls apart.
PA: I just said [to Rick], ‘‘I feel like she wouldn’t just abandon those kids.’’ But this is the rule of the law; you can’t just kidnap someone else’s kids. It’s crazy, it’s not necessarily always set up for the children’s best interests, but you can’t break the law. At the end, we had talked about having them at [main character] Mason’s graduation, and I don’t think Rick could track them down. He was like, that’s sort of poetic truth because in life you often do lose people along the way.
W&H: Were there any moments that you had a disagreement with the director about? Did you have other input into your character?
PA: We all had a lot of input about everything. Like in the last scene, my character has a really different perspective on her son going to college than I did with my son. For me, it was much more about pumping him up: ‘‘Are you nervous? Don’t be nervous. You’ve got this, you can do this. It’s going to be fine, don’t worry. Everyone’s nervous. Okay, great. I love you so much. You’ve got this…’’ And then I cried when I dropped him off, for nine hours. But I didn’t want him to see that. So, it was trickier to play her saying to him, ‘’I feel like I’m going to die. This is the end of my life. Is this all there is?’’ But the producer had said to her daughter, ‘‘this is the worst day of my life.’’ And Ethan’s mom had said something like, ‘‘I feel like the next thing is my funeral.’’ So, it’s based on real people. It wasn’t necessarily my perspective. It wasn’t always what I even thought the character would do, but it was this human amalgamation of a lot of different things. Now, if I’d had the script in advance, obviously I would have known she was going to be saying these things, and I wonder if it would have changed other choices earlier on. It was kind of an interesting organic process working on it this way.
W&H: And you got the script each year as you came to the set for the certain amount of time that you worked that year?
PA: Yeah, the first year he told me all of my character’s major changes. So, I did know that main architecture, but the specifics of what the scenes were and what exactly we were talking about would come a few weeks, sometimes a few months, before that year’s work.
W&H: Was there any point during the twelve years that you were thinking, ‘‘I don’t want to get back in the saddle again?"
PA: No, I loved going there. From the first second I ever heard about it, I loved it. The only time I ever wasn’t happy on this movie was finishing it.
W&H: It seems very special. Whenever I’ve told people about it, they’ve asked me whether it’s a documentary and I’ve had to tell them no, it’s a fiction film filmed over twelve years--and they find that amazing. Is that how the reaction has been generally?
PA: Yeah, people are pretty excited about the movie, and moved--deeply moved--by it. I think because it’s a very human movie, and it’s weird how few of them there are. I think maybe because all the choices that were made for all the characters were based on some human’s truth, there’s a resonance of human beings. Also, we forget we’re an organic species, so when you start seeing these changes going on rapidly [on screen] you’re reminded of how fast it goes. We’re all looking at the world like, ‘‘oh, when I get married,’’ or when whatever big event happens, but life is really the moments in between those big moments. We forget to experience those, or forget to appreciate them.
W&H: Was there anything about your character that surprised you along the way?
PA: There were just those choices that I had to figure out how to play. Because we didn’t have a script so far in advance, I had to figure out how to play them basically the night before. And my character was very different than me in a lot of ways.
W&H: So, you were on TV for a while (in Medium), and now you’re going back to TV in CSI Cyber. What made you want to get back into another TV series?
PA: There’s something I really like about network TV. You have this humongous audience, tens of millions of people, and you really can be in a little hut in Thailand; you really can be in the middle of an apartment in Dubai. There’s something about public entertainment that I always liked. I like smaller movies, and I like public entertainment. My great-grandparents were in vaudeville--very affordable entertainment for the masses--and there’s something I like about that structure. And you also get very fast in TV, and you have to trust the other actor in the room. There’s a different skill-set that you start to hone. The weird thing is, in the course of making this movie my daughter was born and my son went off to college; I had my own family at home; I had this satellite family on this movie that really felt like my family, and then I had a third family on Medium for seven years, with kids, and I felt like a lunatic businessman with three families!
W&H: Your sister made this documentary called Searching for Debra Winger about what happens to women in Hollywood as they age, and I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the parts that are available for women, and issues related to how Hollywood treats women?
PA: I think a lot of the stories that are financed are the male/female falling in love story, and a lot of the time that’s a younger story, or how it’s told is a younger story. I’m hoping that experiments like this, if it’s successful, will show the bankers--who are basically making the decisions at this point--that they can be a little more adventurous in the stories that they tell. I wanted to transition out of being a young ingénue as fast as I could anyway because I wanted to have a long career and I didn’t want to get stuck in that. Also, I didn’t want to look the way they wanted me to look because I didn’t want to lead with beauty. I didn’t feel like that was my responsibility as a woman, or the story I necessarily wanted to tell, or what was most interesting about being a woman.
W&H: I’m waiting for the next movie called ‘"Girlhood"! I thought that the daughter character was just as rich as the son, and I will look forward to us seeing how a young girl grows up on screen too.
PA: I also thought she was great. I thought they were great together because he was sort of daydream-y, and she much more a realist. There’s one point when the dad says, ‘‘come on Sam, remember all the fun we had: we went camping, we did this, we did that’’ and she says, ‘‘not really.’’ She was holding him more accountable for all the things he didn’t show up for, and all the times he wasn’t there. I think she’s a really strong female character.