A while back I got the chance to interview Patricia Arquette, an actress I’ve been following for thirty years (yes, thirty). Her work has been quietly impressing me all along, though no one else seemed to really be paying attention to it. The wildly different characters she’d portrayed in films like Beyond Rangoon, Flirting with Disaster, Lost Highway and True Romance revealed an artist who was not only fearless in her choices but much more than the sex siren she was most remembered for.
Arquette mostly resides in the collective unconsciousness as the sexual muse from Tony Scott/Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch’s fantasy worlds. When men talk about her they’ll always lead with those arresting, unstoppable images of Arquette from iconic films, when Arquette’s incarnation of sexuality entered the pantheon. She wore leopard print bras, lipstick and tasted like peaches in True Romance and captured the wistful longing of unrequited lust, bathed in white light and This Mortal Coil in Lost Highway.
What was Arquette to the movie fandom but luscious lips, a snaggle tooth and those infamous curves? To most of them, until Boyhood, she resided in the past, like Monroe or Veronica Lake – to remind us of what was. Not what is or what can be. That was until Boyhood. Now Arquette is free to emerge, finally, as the versatile actress she’s always been.
And indeed, it isn’t often blonde meets screen like Arquette has these many years, emerging in her own right from her famous siblings. Rather than clinging to that which made her famous, though, what has surprised me most about her, and continues to surprise, me is how willing she is to change as time changes her, as age continues to sculpt who she will become in the next thirty years.
I drove out of the valley, down the 101 towards Kanan Pass, a winding road that eventually crests, giving way to the wide blue expanse of the Pacific. I was meeting Arquette at a coffee shop called Coogie’s in the one strip mall in Malibu.
When I met her she was taking a call from her sister, she said, who had left something at her house. It had rained a few scarce drops and she was concerned her sister’s stuff would get wet.
“We need rain so badly,” she said as we took our seat outside. Just coffee with milk was what we ordered. Some people notice things, some people don’t. Arquette is one who does – she pays attention to everything and everyone that’s around her, focusing on a dog hungry for affection at the next table who kept diving at us as his owner tugged him back on his leash. “Aw, what a cutie.” She said. Her eyes glance around at people who walk by, the clouds billowing in the sky and occasionally down at her coffee.
Arquette, it must be said, is a stunner. She was a stunner when she started the business as kid and she’s a stunner now, even with her face still untouched by plastic surgery. Her face is a visible record of her experiences, kind and open. She’s admitted to never being comfortable being so pretty, and indeed, if you spend enough time with her you start listening to what she’s saying rather than thinking about how she looks.
Her eyes flicked up briefly to look at something behind me — she pointed out there was a chubby cheeked baby hanging in a sling. She smiled warmly, wistfully. I thought about an interview with her I’d read where she was joking with her now grown son about the potential for a grand-baby.
Arquette’s love for babies and children came young. When her sister Alexis was born she went around saying “my baby.” Mothering, she said, came naturally. Arquette is a passionate advocate, fiercely independent, rebellious by nature, a true badass in all respects — she’s one of the few that really gets how motherhood is a strength and not a weakness.
Even still, the mothers Arquette has played — in Flirting with Disaster, Beyond Rangoon and now, the most accomplished performance of her career, Boyhood, she is still playing characters outside herself. For instance, when her son went off to college she put on a brave face and sent him on his way – only after he left did she sob for two weeks. Her Boyhood character is a little more yearning for independence than that, probably because she finds a life during the twelve years the film takes place. Arquette is so strong willed, her evolution has been slightly different, but I suspect she would have no problem having her children stick around a while longer.
Arquette is the beating heart of Boyhood, the film’s center – so much so that with a few adjustments in editing it could be called Motherhood. Linklater being one of the few directors out there with enough reverence for mothers and women that he didn’t need to build a saintly version of one. He built a real one, with the help of an actress who was willing to do the work, dutifully, carrying that character with her for twelve years.
Arquette is active and political on Twitter, spent time in Haiti and helped out after Hurricane Sandy (see videos below), not to mention her involvement in charity work. She hails from volcano parents who loomed large and raised a big family. She talked about her mother dying of cancer and all of these people showing up who knew her. Arquette says she had no idea who they were but realized suddenly how many people her mother had impacted.
It was far from an easy childhood but that’s not something Arquette dwells on. She recognizes that there was pain. But she values the important things her parents left her with – creativity, vitality, courage, concern for your fellow man (or woman).
But I’d been following Arquette’s career since the 1980s. It wasn’t about True Romance (maybe a little about Lost Highway) but rather, the uncelebrated roles where she simply did not get the recognition she deserved. I always suspected this was because audiences refused to relinquish their definition of her as the blonde bombshell. No easy feat when someone embeds like that but if you’ve been paying attention these past thirty years you will discover a versatile actress who is not afraid to embrace her own evolution, hard to come by these days.
In Beyond Rangoon, Arquette plays a doctor whose husband and son were murdered. She journeys to Burma where she witnesses atrocious at the hands of a dictator. It not only eases her grief, which is immeasurable, but it ends up changing the course of her life. Unlike most “a woman finds herself” movies that came after Beyond Rangoon, this is the rare film that depicts a woman doing something valuable for the world, not just herself.
If you return to the film, take note of the scene where Arquette must rush back to the village to get medicine to save the life of U Aung Ko, the leader she is traveling with. In order to do that, though, she pretty much has to offer herself up for sexual favors. This is a brilliant, maddening scene where the trauma plays out on Arquette’s face – at once to convey to us what she is feeling at the time but also to keep that hidden so as not to betray it to her attacker.
I could not find the scene specifically but it takes place at 57:34 of this cap of the whole film.
In Flirting with Disaster, Arquette plays a grouchy mom/wife whose husband is seeking out his birth mother. She patiently waits around for him to actually grow up, all the while caring for their newborn, which doesn’t have a name yet. She anchors the film, becoming very much its center, much the way she does in Boyhood, while the other characters bob helplessly around her like disconnected satellites.
Another moment like this takes place during the James Gandolfini epic battle in True Romance. She’s just come into the hotel room and is wearing sunglasses. She is scared but has to hide her fear because she knows bluffing is her only hope. But once he removes the glasses, the truth is revealed in her eyes. It is a brilliant scene by a very talented, underrated actress.
And Arquette is both the lightness and the dark in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, a role she says she is probably the furthest from. Cast as a Lynch heroine, Arquette is both the blonde and the brunette (a repeating theme in the director’s work). The differences between the two are dramatic, even if the narrative is tough to follow. Back then reporters asked Arquette how comfortable she felt doing full frontal nudity after having children (or something to that effect) and I’ve never forgotten her answer – she said that this man was obsessed WITH HER, not an idealized version of her so she had nothing to hide from him, being the object of his desire. Looking back on those scenes it’s funny to think anyone would ask her such a question.
Despite her two most famous roles, Arquette doesn’t “lead” with her sexuality. She leads with thoughtfulness. On her mind is, well, everything imaginable from climate change to recent gang rape of two teenage girls in India who then hung themselves, the babies blown to bits in Gaza. She tells me that she’s had to have a news blackout for a few days because it was overwhelming her. A week or so later I did the same thing.
“Just for a little while,” she says. We sit with the silence of everything we know about the world in 2014. The future looks bleak. As mothers we are in charge of fixing things for our kids but how do we do that? All of this remains unspoken between us. There isn’t any need to state the obvious.
Boyhood is a film that is really about motherhood, or parenthood, more than it is about growing up. It’s a film about teachers – those who catch you in the middle of your swiftly forward motion, stop you, turn you in a different direction and set you off again. For twelve years Arquette reunited with the film crew to catch back up with her character, her single mother of two young kids trying to better her life – a fighter, a learner, a teacher and her own person on top of that. What we rarely see anymore: mothers who have actual feelings beyond those that are defined by their kids. Mothers in films now are support nets and nothing more. How easy for Linklater and Arquette to have gone in that direction but they didn’t. She’s a woman who had bad relationships, made mistakes, struggled financially, resented then ultimately forgave her husband.
The film could have been more critical of her for her choice in men, but in real life single mothers do things because they think it’s in the best interest of their children. I myself remember how great it felt when my mom hooked up with a man who bought us a lovely house out in Malibu when we were kids. What we went through, what he did her, how bad things got was in no way worth that, but I can see it from her point of view.
When you’re dead broke with a kid looking to you for the answers, for food and clothing and a decent house you can bring your friends home to your perspective can sometimes be skewed. I remember doing this to my own daughter — the good news was we finally lived in a house we could have her 1st grade birthday party in. The bad news was he was an abusive alcoholic. This is one of the things about Boyhood that rang so true to me and many who grew up in our generation, Linklater and Arquette’s generation. These were the days before helicopter parenting, more than a few lifetimes ago.
Arquette and Linklater were killing themselves doing Q&As all over town, knowing that a movie like this is best to see in a theater because it requires your full attention to feel its impact. After our interview, Arquette would be driving out to Hollywood to do a few more.
After all of that time working together, Arquette says they were like a family, with babies, marriages, divorces happening throughout. Their real lives running their course while their fictional lives were waiting to put on record what was happening in theirs.
Arquette’s work in Boyhood allows us the rare glimpse of what being a really good actress is about, being so good at it you start to believe she is that character. But spending time with her in person it’s clear that the real Patricia Arquette dwells in real life, not in fiction. “There are little pieces of each of them that stay with me,” she says. “I could pull them out if I wanted to.”
There are too few actresses with the kind of longevity Arquette has managed to sustain. She’s done it finding the good parts wherever they might be – on network television and in independent film. Twelve years captured on film, twelve years of character focus, of emotional work, and all the while making it seem as though it’s all happening in real time. It requires the skill and the focus of one of the best in the business.