Interview: Ellar Coltrane on becoming a fan of the Smiths and deconstructing masculinity in ‘Shoplifters of the World

Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood, The Good Lord Bird) discusses becoming a Smiths fan, deconstructing masculinity in film and more in their latest film, Shoplifters of the World!

Shoplifters of the World is the latest feature film by director Stephen Kijak, whose previous work includes documentaries on musicians like Scott Walker, The Rolling Stones, The Backstreet Boys and the iconic Japanese rock group X Japan. With Shoplifters, Kijak has crafted a narrative feature film combining his visible adoration for music, the cultures that form around it and the crucial imprint they leave on us all throughout our lives.

In the Summer of 1987, four friends, reeling from the sudden break-up of the iconic British band The Smiths, embark on a night out of partying to mourn their musical loss. At the same time, an impassioned Smiths fan takes a local radio DJ hostage at gunpoint and forces him to play nothing but Smiths tracks. With the radio station playing as the soundtrack to their night, the friends go on a wild journey of self-discovery that will transform them forever.

Featuring an incredible soundtrack – including 20 songs from The Smiths – Shoplifters of the World is a glorious ode to the craziness of the ‘80s and the power of music to change people’s lives.

We had the pleasure of speaking to Ellar Coltrane, who exploded onto the scene as the lead in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood alongside Ethan Hawke, and recently reunited with Hawke for Showtime’s series The Good Lord Bird.

I’m fascinated by the mythology of the events that inspired Shoplifters of the World. Although my research into the story of a Smiths fan holding a radio station hostage revealed it’s been embellished over the decades, it clearly appeals to people as a tale. Had you heard the story before the script for Shoplifters came your way?

Ellar: Yeah, no, I had never heard about the crazed Smiths fan. I wasn’t very familiar with The Smiths going into the project, but I immediately found a lot to relate to with the character of Dean. Once I got the part, it just kind of expanded from there. I learned a lot more about the music, the culture, and the urban legends that Morrissey kind of perpetuates.

That’s interesting, because I was going to ask if The Smiths was the immediate appeal of this role for you or if that came later. Of course, The Smiths mean a lot to many people, but the specific subject matter isn’t always what drives an actor towards a role. How much did you try to immerse yourself into the culture around The Smiths?

Ellar: That was most of the work for me. Like I said, I instantly felt connected to the character of Dean, and it was very natural to understand what he was going through and where he was coming from, regardless of the particular circumstances or environment.

And so from there, it was submerging myself in the music and just learning; watching videos and concerts, researching the culture and fashion and everything around it. You know, I was very rapidly able to turn myself into a Smiths fan. Even though I’d heard their music, and I liked their music, it wasn’t anything I’d really been obsessed with. And I certainly wasn’t tapped into the nature of the subculture and just how meaningful it all was for so many people – and still is. 

But I was able to draw so many parallels with my own life and my own experiences growing up. The themes of isolation, alienation and depression, and this kind of flamboyant expression of masculinity and sexuality that Morrissey kind of created. There was just so much for me to relate to, and yeah, it was a process, but it felt natural to put myself in the position of a Smiths fan. 

I’m in the same boat of not necessarily being a Smiths fan, but I think you’re right. Every generation has their own art or artists that really taps into whatever experiences they’re going through at a particular point in your life, and throughout your life that’ll be such an important touchstone for that era of your life. It’s nice for films to be able to capture that coming-of-age pop culture parallel, regardless of whatever the culture happens to be.

Ella: Yeah, absolutely. And speaking to that, one of my favourites elements of the film is the clash between Dean and Mickey and the bridging of the gaps between these two seemingly very different cultures: the Smiths and new age, emo or whatever you’d want to call it, and this tough metal-head vibe. They’re able to find that commonality and discover that hey, these people also feel alienated and sad and don’t know how to express themselves. It just manifests in these really different ways.

There’s something really beautiful about bridging that gap and realising that there are very different modes of expression, but we’re engaging in them for the same reasons.

I feel like that’s happening a hell of a lot these days, even within mainstream music. You have these subgenres like Hyperpop, which is so much about challenging ideas of identity and gender expression and sexuality. No matter what, people are going to find some kind of common ground through art, regardless of what form that takes.

Ellar: I mean, we’re seeing it reflected so clearly now. In the film, there’s this meeting between emos and metal-heads, to be rudimentary; but now we have that reflected in music, like deeply sensual and emotional and introspective metal that’s been my favourite kind of music recently. 

There’s this band Thou who’s my favourite band, and they just put out a collaboration album with Emma Ruth Rundle that’s just so beautiful.

I think that was my favourite album of 2020!

Ellar: Oh my gosh. I don’t know a lot of people who know about them. But that album, I was just listening to it today.

That makes me so happy, because it’s an album that seems to have fallen under a lot of people’s radars. But I think it’s absolutely incredible.

Ellar: It’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful.

I love living in a time where music as an art form is constantly changing so much. It’s no longer just the major camps of the punk people, the pop people, the classic rock people – the lines between genres have just about vanished completely in a lot of ways. People are just making what kind of music they like without worrying where it fits, and it’s great that that manifests in the groups of people associated with that music.

Ellar: Yeah, and such a broad and diverse spectrum of expression and identity that’s celebrated in a way that’s really, really cool.

I’m so interested in the specific projects that you’ve been choosing in recent years. You’ve been doing TV work, and plenty of films – what in particular do you think has been drawing your attention when it comes to choosing roles? Is there a general thread that you’re aware of that you enjoy exploring?

Ellar: It kind of comes back to a similar place of this kind of marriage of violence and compassion, and the deconstruction of masculinity – toxic masculinity and masculine violence and the way that the edginess of a rogue man has been so glorified in our media for so long. 

I find that the characters and the narratives that I find the most exciting for myself are characters that break down what it really means to be masculine, and where this violence comes from. The compassion and the vulnerability is inherent within that, even if a person is tough and scary and dangerous. I think it’s really powerful to explore the vulnerable and hurt and compassionate sides of a character like that.

So what’s on the horizon for you right now?

Ellar: As far as film work, not a lot. I’m playing it real safe with the pandemic right now, because options are limited. I’m really just working on life stuff. I’m making a big move right now and just trying to get things together, but I’m moving to New Mexico soon. So I’ll be a little closer to the film industry there, so we’ll see. I don’t really have a concrete answer right now, or any projects locked down at the moment. But we’ll see how things unfold, and I’ll definitely be working again before too long.

It’s not exactly an ideal time to be making major, long-term plans, is it?

Ellar: I do have a short film coming out that I star in, which is very much on the same line of these vulnerable characters. I play Lee Harvey Oswald, and the film is called El Phantasma. It’s just a short, about 15 minutes. Hopefully it’ll be playing festivals soon.

But yeah, I’m also just very excited for Shoplifters of the World to come out. This project has been a part of my life for many, many years now. I mean, we shot it two years ago, and I was attached to it for quite a while before that. So it’s been building up for a long time, and it’s really cool to see it flourish.

SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD will be in Theaters, On Demand and Digital on March 26, 2021.

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