When Patricia Arquette was 19, spirited, rebellious, and juggling auditions between waitressing and a job at Planned Parenthood, she learned that she was pregnant by her punk rock boyfriend, with whom she was living in Los Angeles.
They decided to have the baby, a boy, Enzo. A month after Enzo was born, Arquette and the father split up, leaving this struggling actress a single mother. That combination often augurs career doom, but for Arquette, intellectual restlessness coupled with her maternal instinct to, as she put it, “drag meat back for my young,” steeled something deep.
“I don’t think I would have had much of a career if I didn’t have my son,” Arquette, 46, says.
Having to support herself and her infant, she was also suddenly spending her days singing the ABC’s and watching Sesame Street.
“I was like, ‘I have so many grown-up feelings, I don’t know where to put them, and I need at outlet, now,’” she says.
Looking back, it seems inevitable that Arquette would find herself cast, indelibly, in Tony Scott’s 1993 cult classic, True Romance, as the freewheeling, wildly sexy Alabama Whitman, opposite Christian Slater. (Enzo appeared in the film as their toddler, playing on a beach.) The role propelled Arquette into a steady career of art house films, directed by the likes of David Lynch, Michel Gondry and David O Russell.
Young parenthood also helped Arquette land her most significant role in years, as the divorced Olivia, in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which follows a boy, Mason. (He is played by Ellar Coltrane, as Mason grows from ages 6 to 18.)
Following the quiet moments of life, and parents and children as they mature, the film has left audiences misty-eyed and generated awards chatter, particularly for Arquette, who is in the throes of her first Oscar campaign. She has already nabbed a slew of best supporting actress awards from critics as well as a Bafta last Sunday, a Golden Globe and a gong from the Screen Actors Guild.
“I liked her gutsiness in performances, and her realness,” Linklater says. “We talked about her as a young parent, a single parent, a married parent. I can’t imagine working with someone who didn’t really have kids.”
In her personal life, Arquette checked off all those boxes and a few more during the film’s production – marrying the actor Thomas Jane, having another child, getting divorced.
She also did something quietly revolutionary for a Hollywood actress: over the dozen years of Boyhood, she unapologetically and naturally aged on-screen, her body widening and her face adding wrinkles as she grew into middle age. “So vanity free,” Linklater says. “She never flinched.”
Indeed, rather than shying away from visibly aging, Arquette says it added an incentive to take the role. She had long been taken aback, she says, by expectations that she somehow stay frozen in time, eternally young, lithe and dewy.
“This idea of the world expecting you to remain an ingénue forever – it’s a very short shelf life if you’re going to commit to that as your career, and I knew that early,” Arquette says. “I was trying to get out of it for years.”
“I gotta get old, people, do you understand?” she continues. “I need space to grow and get old and be a human being. I don’t want to be trapped in your ingénue bubble. And I don’t agree with it either, by the way.”
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Appearing for the interview in a flowing dress with jangly bracelets and necklaces, and speaking in her dreamy, melodious, slightly Southern voice, Arquette gives off a quasi-Stevie Nicks vibe, coming across, as she does on screen, as deeply grounded yet ethereal, emanating palpable ease.
“She just lets the truth hang out,” says Ethan Hawke, who plays her ex-husband and Mason’s father in Boyhood. “She’s always been a real hero because of her unbelievable freedom and emotional authenticity. She’s carrying it into this midpoint in our lives, when fear strikes the heart of even the strongest.”
A fourth-generation actress – her great-grandfather was a vaudevillian, her grandfather and father were both actors – Arquette grew up in a hippie commune in Virginia and then Los Angeles. She is the middle child of five – Rosanna, Richmond, Alexis and David – all of whom became actors. Growing up poor, she and her siblings often amused themselves by re-enacting plays put on by her father’s theatre troupe.
After moving to California, Arquette became a street-smart tween, playing truant with her best friend to smoke cigarettes and, at 15, leaving home to move in with her sister Rosanna. She also fell in with a wild bunch of friends.
“Punkers and gang bangers and people who were dying left and right and going to prison,” Arquette says. “I seemed to just find my way into this kind of underbelly of the world.”
Arquette was drawn to the idea of being a midwife and also wanted to act but was gripped by painful shyness. So she resolved to devote her 18th year toward alleviating her performance anxiety by studying films, auditioning a lot and learning not to crumble after rejection.
“I wanted to be independent,” she says. “I wanted to be an interesting person. I wanted to be an adventurer. I wanted to be a brave person in the world.”
Having Enzo sharpened her focus. Her interest in her friends’ post-adolescent bar and club shenanigans evaporated, replaced by a grit that propelled her career. Enzo was still an infant when Arquette got her first big screen role, with Viggo Mortensen in The Indian Runner (1991), directed by Sean Penn. Then came the role of Alabama – a watershed moment.
“Our whole generation shook a little with her performance in True Romance,” Hawke says. “She was the sexiest, wildest, freest woman of our generation that we’d seen.”
A run of indie films followed, among them Lost Highway, Flirting With Disaster, Stigmata and Human Nature. Toward 2005, after realising she had begun losing roles to younger women (“How can I be too old if I’m playing opposite a guy who’s older than me?” she recalls wondering), she took the lead role as an investigative psychic in the TV drama Medium. The move surprised some of her art-house-movie peers but appealed to her populist leanings; the show would also last seven seasons and win her an Emmy.
“The idea of network TV is you could entertain old people at home, people living in a trailer court, people who don’t have money to go to movies and get a baby-sitter,” Arquette says. “There’s something very snobby about the way the film and theatre community used to look at television. I love small weird art movies, and I love free mass entertainment.”
Of course, by then, she had another weird art movie underway: Boyhood. She had been foremost in Linklater’s mind for the role, and she leapt at the chance.
“He says, ‘I’m making this movie, where I shoot a week a year for 12 years, and we follow this little boy from first grade to 12th grade,’” Arquette says. “And just everything in my body went, ‘oh my God, oh my God, this is the most exciting idea.’ My son was already older, and I had seen how fast his childhood had gone by.”
Filming started in 2002. Linklater had Arquette and Hawke pick names for their own characters, as well as for the children, Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, who is the director’s eldest daughter and plays Samantha, the boy’s sister.
As preparation, Arquette spent a weekend before filming started with the two kids, pottering around a house in Austin, Texas, doing art projects, making their meals, drawing their baths. An early scene shows the fruits of that intimacy, with both children snuggled against Arquette as she reads to them.
“Patricia is kind of a maternal force,” Coltrane says. “It’s pretty easy to pretend she’s your mum.”
Having grown to be a something of a family, coming together every week for a dozen years, the cast is revelling in the awards hype around Boyhood, because it brings them together again.
“I don’t miss them the way I’m going to miss them,” Arquette says.
In the meantime, she has returned to the television trenches, with a lead role coming this year in CSI: Cyber.
“I want to work in whatever way I want to work,” she says, “and I don’t want it dictated to me by any society.”
Linklater, for his part, sees her as a woman who has fully hit her stride.
“She really looked forward to settling into adulthood,” he says. “That’s where her spirit really is.”
© NYT 2015