Ellar Coltrane has been saying goodbye. The blue-eyed actor, model, and Austin native, whom moviegoers watched grow up over a twelve-year span in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, is moving to New Mexico after spending the last six years in the Hill Country hideaway of Wimberley. “I feel really strongly that it’s time for me to get out of Texas, but I don’t want to go too far,” Coltrane says by phone from the car, parked in the actor’s own boyhood neighborhood near Zilker Park. “It’s definitely a different place, but it’s only a day’s drive from home.”
Coltrane is 26 now, and continues to build a post-Boyhood identity. There’s been a steady if unspectacular run of film work: The Circle (2017); The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (2018); Summer Night (2019). The latest is Shoplifters of the World, an ode, of sorts, to the Smiths set in the wake of their much-lamented 1987 breakup. Coltrane plays Dean, a romantic Smiths fanatic who holds captive a burly heavy-metal DJ (Joe Manganiello, who also coproduced) at a Denver radio station, making him spin Smiths songs all night long. The poor DJ just wants to rock out to Ozzy Osbourne. Instead he’s coerced into Meat Is Murder.
The film isn’t all that’s new for Coltrane, who has recently started going public with their thoughts and feelings on gender, including their preference to be identified with singular “they/them” pronouns.
“I’m not really a man,” Coltrane says. “I like to work hard and do whatever men are supposed to do and have fun doing that, but there’s just something incredibly freeing and validating about kind of releasing myself from that archetype and from feeling like I need to be that all the time. There are definitely people who are men through and through, and that’s awesome, but for me the binary gender demarcation always has felt just kind of like … a charade, like this character that I have to play.”
Coltrane prefers to play their roles on the screen. They got their start in an unusual fashion with the Oscar-winning Boyhood, shooting a few days here, a few days there, from 2002 to 2013. Linklater cast Coltrane when Coltrane was six years old. Nobody has ever broken into the business in such an explosive yet slow-moving manner; it’s not hard to imagine the young actor saying, “Yeah, I’ve done acting; let’s try something else.” But Coltrane’s Boyhood experience was a blast—“I loved it from the beginning”—and they’ve found a way to stay busy in movies without becoming a creature of Hollywood, a process they hope to continue in the thriving industry cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. (New Mexico has long been known for its generous tax incentives for film production, one reason why the state is often used as a stand-in for other states, including Texas.)
“It’s like I’m leaving home for the first time,” Coltrane says. “I mean, I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never lived anywhere else. So I’m kind of having my bittersweet farewell.”
Meanwhile, Coltrane has been listening to a lot of Smiths. According to urban legend, in 1987 a Denver teen with a rifle, distraught with the band’s demise, headed over to radio station KRXY-FM with plans to force a Smiths take over of the airwaves. Did this actually happen? Did the teen make it inside the station? Depends on whom you ask. In any case, the story is the impetus for Shoplifters of the World, which, as Smiths fans already know, takes its name from the song “Shoplifters of the World Unite.”
Aside from Coltrane’s Dean, who stays busy with their hostage situation, the other four protagonists—Cleo (Helena Howard), Sheila (Elena Kampouris), Patrick (James Bloor), and Billy (Austin native Nick Krause)—spend the evening cruising from party to party, blasting the Smiths and mourning the band’s breakup, some of them dealing with their own identity issues. There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance between the thick nostalgia of the movie’s tone and the sardonic melancholy of the band; one can imagine Morrissey, the Pope of Mope, shaking his head at some of the more piffling moments, especially those involving a steady stream of tidy self-discoveries made while party-hopping. But the soundtrack runneth over with gold, including a climactic needle drop of “How Soon Is Now,” and the archival video footage of the band discussing its greatness feels right given their infamous sense of self-importance.
Coltrane enjoyed taking a deep dive into the Smiths and their music. But it was the film’s take on gender roles which spoke to them loudest; Morrissey has taken credit for mainstreaming issues of gender fluidity. (Though in recent years, he’s also angered many fans by embracing the far right English political party For Britain.)
“I think the film is a really nice portrayal of the spectrum of what a man is,” Coltrane says. “There’s this kind of absurdity of Dean being the pretty boy, but having the power in the situation because of the gun and having that dominance against this big tough guy. But then they work through that and they’re able to find compassion for one another.”
Shoplifters of the World, which premieres on March 26 in theaters and on-demand, probably isn’t the movie for which Coltrane will be remembered. Right now that’s still Boyhood, and of course it’s impossible to know what lies ahead. But this moment still represents a compelling crossroads for them, between places on the map and within the soul. Next stop: New Mexico, and a new start.