Without a question, Boyhood is the movie of the year… maybe even the decade. Over a two-hour time period director Richard Linklater compressed twelve years of on and off filming it took to complete the project. The cast physically ages on screen, and viewers re-live monumental American events throughout the decade that changed our national psyche. From 9/11, the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the 2008 economic collapse-there’s been a lot of negatives.
Boyhood captures our conflicted, collective pain gracefully: with respect to our service members, while also highlighting the consequneces of combat. Throughout one segment of the film, we meet a young veteran returning home from Iraq plagued with suppressed anxiety, and played by the exceptional Brad Hawkins. Hawkins’ role embodies both the outspoken courage and underlying fear many Americans harbored towards the Global War on Terror (GWOT in gov-speak). His character is also a psychological case study of a soldier transitioning from a military mindset into a civilian one, much like the protagonist of Ernest Hemmingway’s Soldier’s Home. Curious to learn more, I spoke to Hawkins by phone to discuss PTSD and what it’s like to make a movie spanning twelve years.
Are you surprised with the commercial success Boyhood has had?
All of us knew this would be something special and different, but we thought it would be a special $4 million, small, art-house independent movie. None of us knew it would blow up into what it’s become. It’s humbling what’s going on right now and it keeps growing and getting bigger and bigger and bigger. With the Golden Globe win on Sunday, it’s been nonstop wildfire. With the Oscar nomination this morning, now it’s real.
I think I read somewhere that the attitude many had going into it was that it was either going to be a great success or flop.
You have to think about that. If I come to you and go, “Hey, man I have an idea… we’re going to take twelve years to do something,” you’re going to go, “I don’t even know what that means.” It’s a foreign language to anyone because it’s never been done before. Looking back through the series of the movies and how close Ethan and Richard have been in creating movies, you can tell Ethan, as well as myself and the rest of the cast, really trusts Richard so much. We believe in his vision and whatever he’s passionate about that will take you to a good place. Whether it’s a small, cool indie film or a cult classic like Dazed and Confused, or you happen to end in the big machine that is Boyhood, we trusted Richard from the very beginning and followed him wherever he was going. That’s just the commitment you got from the cast and how much trust we all had in him.
What was it like working with him?
It seems so easy to just say “he’s fantastic” but he really is a visionary. I’ve never worked with a director like him ever in my career–not in television, not in film, not ever. He was just organic, salt of the earth, and mellow. He doesn’t yell, he’s not a screamer. He doesn’t say “this is the way it’s going to be and that’s the only way… this is my script and don’t mess up my lines.” He’s just not that guy. Everybody got to work on Boyhood and create the script and scenes together, collaborating with Rick. We were so nervous because there was no Boyhood script: it was in his head. The whole screenplay and where we were going from year to year was just in his head alone. So when we met up, we created these characters and lines of dialogue together the day before we shot the scenes. As an actor, that’s terrifying.
You literally all sat together and wrote it together?
I never knew what scene we were going to do. Whenever he called me once a year and I drove to Austin, he told me, “bring some ideas… bring your homework with you… what’s been happening to Jim this past year?” And so I’d show up and we’d create these moments and these lines and keep this looseness. We created all this together. What director lets you do that? What director lets you create this entire scene and character in the film? The trust he had in us paralleled the trust we had in him. And now we watch these scenes and everybody had a say of what is being shown on the screen. It’s a win for everyone. Everything that’s happening right now is a win for everybody involved.
Can you tell me a little bit about the process of checking in with one another?
I didn’t have Ellar’s [Coltane] or Ethan’s [Hawke] or Patricia’s [Arquette] cellphone numbers, so we didn’t speak to each other for an entire year. But then we’d meet up and it was almost like a homecoming. We’d get together. “Hi, how are? Where have you been? Okay…let’s get down to it. Where are we in the story? Okay we’re here.” And then Richard would drop us in, “Here is where we are in the storyline and here is where I think we need to go. Okay let’s fill in the gaps…. What’s happened in the past? Where are we right now? What’s the state of emotion on every person? Are you happy? Sad? Is there outside pressure? Is it your job? Finding a job? What’s the responsibility of raising your kids? Are you drinking? Are you not drinking? Is he experimenting with drugs?” We created those moments from year to year. And that was the coolest part of the whole thing… being able to create.
Was there any initial awkwardness of being so vulnerable with one another?
I think it was because it was such a small production. Any day there were maybe fifteen or twenty crewmembers who were all from Texas–if I’m not mistaken, everyone in front of the camera or behind it was from Texas, except for Patricia.
Richard was very adamant about making sure this was a Texas film. But we got over the awkwardness because it felt like a bunch of friends who loved to act getting together with a really cool buddy of ours who has this vision. And we’re getting together and improv-ing some scenes over a few days and afterwards we say our goodbyes and then see each other again in a year.
What is it like actually watching the movie and seeing yourself physically age on screen?
For me, and I was in my mid-to-late-30s, I filmed for three years. My hair was longer and I had a beard, so there were little nuances there, but when I watched the cast it was amazing to watch this little boy grow. All of a sudden he has longer hair and the next thing you knew he has his ear pierced and the next thing you know he has acne. Just watching these people grow up and grow older–you’re watching a time-lapse movie. I’ve never done that before. I’ve never seen anything that doesn’t require prosthetics or makeup to achieve the effect. Everything was as raw and as real as it could possibly be and we’re catching it on camera one year at a time. I loved it. I know some people in the cast didn’t like seeing themselves age on camera, but I think it’s so impressive we got to document twelve years of life. I think that’s very special.
What to you is the broader archetype in the American psyche your character in Boyhood represents?
What I wanted to do, and it’s very prevalent with movies out right now like American Sniper, is show the juxtaposition between myth and reality. I start off as this really nice guy in the film. I’m back in school in Patricia’s class, and they all want to know what it’s like overseas in Iraq, and I just tell a little anecdote about what it was like over there. I just wanted to create a character with Rick. We know he was a returning soldier, but how does that affect him short term and long term? I think we see that arc in there, if you’re watching it carefully enough, you see the shift. Everybody asks, “Why did you go from being nice to being mean?” It’s a deeper, under the surface arc that I wanted to create.
When people go off to war and they come back, they’re not all the way here. Once you experience that, I don’t think you come back the same person. I think you experience things and see things and hear things that are going to change in one way or the other. I’m sure if I were to even go spend ten years in Asia, I’d come back a different person just because of my experiences. You absorb your surroundings and when it’s all war you’re absorbing, I don’t think you’re the same person. I wanted to see that bubble up in the character and start to come out. Every year you see me get a little bit shorter with my comments or a little bit sharper with my comments towards Ellar, and finally it blows up on the patio; in that scene where I’ve been drinking a little too much and I’m a little bit too under pressure and a little bit too depressed and it comes out on him. I wanted to show that there is a part of returning home from a war situation that changes people.
How did you go about creating this character?
I’m not a soldier. I’m an actor who opened restaurants (Laughs). For me, I had to do a lot of homework. One of the guys on set, we used his story that I told during the dinner table scene word for word. It was his story on what happened with his unit when he was over [in Iraq]. I got to bring his story to life and I got to stand that up–that monologue was me telling his story. He still hits me up saying: “Thank you so much on behalf of our unit. Thank you for bringing us to life. Thank you for putting us on the screen so we mattered, so we made a difference and were relevant, and we’re known for what we did.” That’s just so gratifying and humbling. So I had to do a lot of homework on what that meant. I observed and echoed the same comments that it’s hard to come back. It’s hard to come back and be the same person. It’s hard to be here stateside and act like everything’s okay, because it’s not. Even the small things, just getting a job and having patience with people at home and work, sitting in traffic, things like that. My friends were like, “It’s the hardest thing to get used to being back because I’ve just seen and heard so many things that I can’t forget.
What is Boyhood’s universal appeal?
I think what got Patricia that Golden Globe and potentially that Oscar was that table scene, that scene every parent is cringing about, seeing their kid pack up their boxes and move off to their life and they’re out of the nest and are adults now. Her sitting at that small table by herself going, “This is it? I didn’t see it coming. I thought there would be more time. This is it for me. I don’t get to raise my kids anymore. They’re adults and moving on.” That’s really for the adult side of Boyhood. There’s the childhood side of it for Ellar’s character. But the adult side of it is, “These are the moments. Your kid is gone.” And that’s a huge moment. It’s exciting for the kids. But it’s terrifying for adults and parents who have raised these kids and now they’re gone. Where do you fit in, in their lives now?
I’ve never had the support of a team like I’ve had now. I leave tomorrow morning. I’m packing up all my clothes and my laptop and my guitar and I’m headed off to LA. I’ll be there indefinitely. It’s all about the award show, and the meetings. I want to meet with producers, directors, casting directors. I really want to see what projects are out there because I want to go to set every day. It’s what fulfills me and what I want to do and I just don’t do it nearly enough. Hopefully, this will give me the opportunity to meet with people and show them what else I can do. Hopefully, I’ll have a long career in this game.
So Boyhood opened up some of these doors?
It opened up all the doors. This is probably the biggest thing that will probably ever happen in my career. If this is all that happens, I am grateful.