Ellar Coltrane

It would be difficult to imagine an actor who invested any more in their breakout role or deferred the imagined gratification more substantially than did Ellar Coltrane. And much of what made that performance, as the Texas boy Mason in Richard Linklater’s novel family drama Boyhood (2014), so absorbing, so special, was Coltrane’s real-life coming of age, in all its tenderness, giddiness and awkward charm, up there, plain to see on the screen. Existential chicken-and-egg questions aside—as in, When you play a character for 12 years, where does the character end and you begin?—Coltrane has continued to grow offscreen and on, piling up a raft of intriguing film work to come. In April, he will appear alongside Tom Hanks, John Boyega, and Emma Watson in James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’s techno satire The Circle.

This past December, he got on the phone with the rising filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (writer and director of 2016’s revelatory family drama Krisha and the upcoming It Comes at Night) to talk about their native Texas and about redefining the romantic archetype of the artist.

TREY EDWARD SHULTS: It’s a pleasure to meet you, over the phone. Where are you at right now?

ELLAR COLTRANE: I am in Georgia right now, Savannah. I’m working on a movie. It’s called Misfortune. A friend of mine named Lucky McKee—he made a movie called The Woman [2011] and May [2003] and a few kind of horror movies—he just called me up last minute, and now I’m out here. So, quite an adventure.

SHULTS: That’s beautiful. How long are you there?

COLTRANE: Right about till Christmas I think.

SHULTS: Are you still living in Texas primarily?

COLTRANE: Yeah. I have a house there, and it’s where my family’s at, so that’s kind of home base, but I’m always traveling a lot.

SHULTS: I don’t want to just talk about Boyhood, but can we touch on Boyhood a little bit? How do you get involved with a 12-year movie like that, with Richard Linklater?

COLTRANE: It just kind of happened. I was doing some acting on and off. I was home-schooled, and one of the schoolish activities that I did was theater stuff. My aunt was doing some modeling, and I kind of stumbled in with her, and they were like, “Hey, you should start coming to auditions.” I was probably 5 when that happened. And maybe a little over a year later, I got the audition for Boyhood.

SHULTS: What was that audition like?

COLTRANE: The concept of 12 years is pretty difficult to grasp. Even now, it’s hard to fathom the next 12 years. But certainly when you haven’t even been alive that long, it’s pretty abstract.

SHULTS: Does watching the movie again feel like a huge chapter in your life? Or does it feel like a character?

COLTRANE: Both. It’s a character that is parts of myself and parts of other people—I was kind of guided by Richard and my other mentors to create this character across all of these years, kind of parallel with myself. So it’s this artistic expression, both mine and other people’s. But then it also reminds me of all of these different periods of my life, the way that a picture might or even a certain song or a certain smell or something. It just brings back all these sensory memories of my life that just sort of go with it. It’s concentrated that way. I hope that all characters are like that. I haven’t gotten a chance to see myself in a whole lot else, but I’ve been working on a lot of stuff. I guess it’s also the distance—a lot of what makes it so surreal is that I don’t necessarily remember the periods of time in which I was filming a lot of that stuff.

SHULTS: A role like Boyhood, like, obviously it’s personal. But going forward, do you only do stuff that you have a personal attachment to?

COLTRANE: That’s been tricky. My introduction to this art form was so personal and so intimate, in every way. After the unexpected explosion of the success with that film, it was hard for me to imagine giving myself to something that wasn’t like that—totally homegrown, intimate, soul-baring. But I also really want to act. There isn’t any other job that I want to do or maybe even can do. So I’m hoping that I can form that intimate connection with any character that I play. But on Boyhood, I was a kid; I was so much less self-conscious, and things just come a little more naturally when you’re younger. As I’ve become older and more self-conscious, I’m more aware of films and the film industry. I’m sure you’ve seen that, but the publicity, the public side of this world is pretty scary to me.

SHULTS: It’s so important to cut through the bullshit, especially in what we’re doing, acting or making movies. I want to cut through it and do stuff with people I love. I want to make stuff they care about, and I think navigating that is important.

COLTRANE: It’s a very powerful system, and as deeply flawed as it is, it is a very powerful platform for communicating with large amounts of other humans. I mean, I can’t even imagine with your … I think your film is even more personal than mine. I was profoundly affected by Krisha, man.

SHULTS: Thank you.

COLTRANE: I really didn’t know what to expect going in. I had never really even heard about it. I don’t know how it is for other people, people that didn’t also grow up in that part of the country and have family dynamics like that—I don’t know how it would feel to anyone else. But it definitely felt very accurate to me, and vulnerable. I was literally bawling pretty much the entire film.

SHULTS: [laughs] That’s amazing.

COLTRANE: It was real shit, man. And just like Boyhood turned out to be very real for a lot of people—showing a part of human interaction that maybe isn’t explored that much. There are just so many dark recesses of the human mind, and I guess I’m trying to learn how to turn every character into an exploration of some recess of our psyche. I can’t imagine that was easy.

SHULTS: No. Krisha‘s a weird one because it’s crazy personal. But I worked on that forever. I tried to make the feature in 2012 and I failed and turned it into a short film. And then I shot again in 2014. It turned into such a huge chapter of my life. But also just the creation of the film, working with family and friends, it just gets funky. And now I’m trying to do something that, in my mind, is just as personal, but not autobiographical in any sense. I’m trying to bring the emotion of that personal thing into this totally different story. But I want to do something a little lighter and less draining. [laughs]

COLTRANE: I understand that for sure, man. It’s nice to be able to dive into something without putting myself out there as much, to have this level of artifice of a character that someone else has created in an artificial world.

SHULTS: The cool thing is it seems like you’re excited and passionate—I assume you had to take a breather after Boyhood.

COLTRANE: Yeah, a good long one. And it’s good to kind of run and gun, so to speak. But it’s also like, when you do settle back down and take a moment and rediscover what you were doing before all of that, you definitely find new kinds of inspiration. Because, I feel like there’s so much art about lonely, dysfunctional people. [Shults laughs] I think we need art made by people who love themselves, people who are comfortable. We have this romantic archetype of tortured artists, and it’s definitely something I’ve subscribed to for a lot of my life. But I’m realizing now that it’s like, fuck, wouldn’t it be more powerful if I could actually be a functional person and make art? It doesn’t get done very often.

SHULTS: That’d be a beautiful thing.

COLTRANE: Like, I have this girlfriend in Austin now. I haven’t had a real girlfriend in years and years. And it’s this totally new, weird dynamic in my life, now that I’m super excited to come and work. I have this person that I miss, and that’s such a weird thing for me. But it’s totally fueling what I’m here doing. There’s a tendency to want to keep yourself miserable, so that you can draw from that. But it’s like, how can you maintain that relationship with the darkness without killing yourself, and have friendships and stuff? I don’t know.

SHULTS: And growing as a person is only going to transfer into your art as well. So being happy does not mean you’re not going to have interesting art. I don’t know, I’m fascinated by it.

COLTRANE: Yeah. It’s quite a thing. Where do you live these days?

SHULTS: My place is in South Florida. I always lived in Texas, until last year when I moved to Florida. It’s so funny. My girlfriend is from Florida. That’s why I moved there. But we met because before I made Krisha, I was dead broke, working for my parents. I built the fence in the backyard at the house in Krisha, and then my mom made me go to flight attendant’s school. And I got kicked out. I met my girlfriend, and we got kicked out together. I have awful long stories about it. But it was fun. And then, long story short, she got hired with another airline, I made the short film of Krisha that summer. And then I moved to South Florida, which is funny; it’s like a tropical Texas. A lot of Texas people wind up there.

COLTRANE: I went to Miami once briefly. That’s really the only place in Florida I’ve been. Miami’s a trip.

SHULTS: I’m like 30 minutes from Miami. I never go. It’s overwhelming. Traffic getting down there sucks. We live in Davie, Florida, which is sort of like redneck Florida. There’s a horse stable across from my apartment. But I dig it; it works. And right now I’m in New York for postproduction.

COLTRANE: I like New York a lot.

SHULTS: I do too, man. It’s just totally different vibes. Growing up in Texas, there are no seasons. You have to have a car. It’s a different world. And where I’m living now in Florida, our choices for delivery are bad Chinese or bad pizza. [laughs] And here there is everything you could ever want.

COLTRANE: It sounds like maybe we were raised in sort of similar environments. And people are such like busybodies in Texas. [laughs]

SHULTS: Oh, yeah.

COLTRANE: Everyone is all up in everybody else’s business and very dramatic, intensely emotional. And, I don’t know, people in New York just go about their business. Maybe living there for a long time, it would get lonely, but there’s something really nice about being able to go about your business and not feel like anybody is really paying attention to you or what you’re doing. Are you from, like, Central Texas, near Austin?

SHULTS: I grew up in Spring, which is the suburbs on the outskirts of Houston. But my parents are split. My dad lives in Austin, and he had a vintage clothing store on the drag. I would go back and forth between the two. Austin has been a part of me my whole life. Was it always Austin for you?

COLTRANE: Yeah. On my mom’s side of the family, I go back, like, eight generations in Austin. There’s a neighborhood street named after my mom’s family.


COLTRANE: I’ve got some pretty deep roots on that side. When I was a teenager, my mom remarried and moved out to a little suburb. So there are more similarities than I want to admit between my life and Mason’s life, but definitely a different dynamic. And this girl that I’ve been seeing recently, she grew up down the street from me. We never met until this year, but we’ve had very parallel lives in a lot of ways. There are so many nasty, beautiful stories riding around in the underbelly of Central Texas. It’s a part of America that is underexplored. Richard, and you now, are the few people who have dived in to the kinds of things that really take place in Central Texas. I want and try to find that, to be able to look at my own experiences with that kind of honesty.

SHULTS: Who are your big influences? The filmmakers you love?

COLTRANE: The Coen brothers, of course; they’re definitely up there. Charlie Kaufman, his mix of surrealism and seemingly drug-induced edginess with such heartfelt soul-baring and humor. And then Cassavetes, just as far as his integrity and emotional nudity. But he fucking drank himself to death at a very early age. So it’s interesting to look up to someone like that, because that’s not the path I want to go down.

SHULTS: Certainly not. Are you primarily a movie guy?

COLTRANE: Pretty much everything. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen as much theater as I wish.

SHULTS: Well, we grew up in Texas.

COLTRANE: Right. The thing I’m discovering now, though, is, man, there is an incredible theater scene in Austin.

SHULTS: Really?

COLTRANE: Like, my mom is part of La Fenice theater company, the Italian street theater with the vinyl masks and everything. She’s been doing that most of my life. And she just recently got an award from the B. Iden Payne Awards, which is the—I mean, the—theater awards in Central Texas. And, growing up, music was a huge part of my life … I just saw Radiohead play twice and that was a very deeply artistically inspiring experience.

SHULTS: I’ve still never seen them live. And they’re one of my favorite bands.

COLTRANE: Oh, man, you’ve got do it.

SHULTS: Did they do old or new stuff?

COLTRANE: It was mostly, like, old, deep tracks, a lot of the weirder stuff from OK Computer and Hail to the Thief. So that was really cool. But I’m inspired by anything. Not even just art, just anything that’s real and vulnerable. Have you ever read any David Foster Wallace?

SHULTS: I haven’t. I know I need to.

COLTRANE: That’s another thing you should definitely check out, man. Even his essays—he was such a head—fuck of a person that everything he did turned into this almost psychotic exploration of the recesses of the human mind and American culture. And that’s something that I really want to be able to do. Which is why I liked Krisha so much, because it is brutal, but there’s so much love and respect. And that’s hard to do.

SHULTS: I’m excited to show you the new movie I’m doing now. I hope that’s what comes through. It gets brutal, but there’s a lot of love in it. It’s about how fear can lead to us destroying ourselves, how something as simple as, like, fear will tear apart a community.

COLTRANE: I’m excited to see it. So many things tear us apart from each other. That’s the hardest thing, to fit with all the hatred and pain we’re embroiled in. I mean, we’re a very violent species, physically and emotionally.

SHULTS: And we just keep going in loops. We keep going in cycles. Is there anything else that we should discuss?

COLTRANE: The most immediate thing for me is this film I’m working on right now. Like I said, it came up super last minute. On the surface, it’s a thriller sort of thing. But the director is a close friend of mine. And the big actor in it is John Cusack, who I had never met before. And I have been learning so fucking much working with him. And that’s the beautiful thing about this. Going to school or studying is one thing, but I’m so grateful that I get to learn by just doing it.

SHULTS: The same thing for me, man. I’ve learned so much making this new movie. It just makes me excited just to keep working and keep learning new things and meeting new people and, like, I don’t know.

COLTRANE: Yeah. Life, it just gets better.