March 16, 2015 12:00 PM

After two decades working in Hollywood, Patricia Arquette has heard her fair share of sexist criticism. But for the 46-year-old actress, striving for anything other than a standard she long ago set for herself has never been on the agenda. “When I was a teenager, someone told me, ‘If you fix your teeth, you could be in Playboy,’ ” the actress recalls, sitting down to an interview on the set of her new CBS series, CSI: Cyber, in Studio City, Calif. “I said, ‘Why would I want to be in Playboy?’ I didn’t want to look ‘perfect.’ I didn’t want to have to be some girl in a magazine. I didn’t want to have to change myself to be attractive.”

Arquette has certainly never been willing to compromise her beliefs for the sake of fame. And with her hot new TV show – and an awards-season sweep that ended with an Academy Award for her performance in Boyhood – it wouldn’t appear necessary. After accepting her Oscar Feb. 22, the actress gave a rousing – if slightly surprising – speech calling for equal pay for women. While her call for gender equality brought stars like Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez to their feet, backstage comments calling on “gay people and people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for [women] now” became the topic of heated debates. An unapologetic Arquette took to Twitter Feb. 23 to defend her point: “Guess which women are the most negatively effected in wage inequality? Women of color,” she said. Her famous family had her back too. “I was completely impressed. We’re really just so proud of her,” said her brother, actor David Arquette. “She did it like a trooper.”

Whether or not she’s a trooper, Arquette has always considered herself a bit of a radical. Growing up on a hippie commune in Virginia in a family of actors (siblings Rosanna, 55; Richmond, 51; Alexis, 45; and David, 43, all followed their dad, Lewis, in the business), Arquette learned to be a free spirit. “My mom wouldn’t let us have Barbies,” she says. “She never wore makeup, my mom and dad never talked about beauty, weight or body image or anything like that. They really raised me in a household that minimized its importance.” When Arquette decided to pursue acting, like her father, who had seen moderate success in commercials and small TV roles, “they were really bummed out,” she admits.

Arquette was just 19 when she got pregnant with her son Enzo, now 26, with her then-boyfriend, musician Paul Rossi. “My son and I grew up together. I was a 20-year-old mom!” she says. Though she continued working, scoring roles like the love-struck Alabama in True Romance, motherhood “was always a big priority in my life,” she says. “I loved being a mom. I love all those little moments in his childhood. They have gone so fast. I built my career with him.”

As Arquette hit her stride professionally, she had another child – daughter Harlow, now 12, with actor Thomas Jane – and eventually became a household name starring in the TV series Medium in 2005. But she struggled in her personal life, going through two high-profile divorces, first from Nicolas Cage in 2001, and later from Jane in 2011. Poetically, Arquette was able to draw upon her own experience for her role in Boyhood as a divorced mom struggling to raise two children while putting herself through school. “When you’re a kid, you think, ‘I can’t wait to have my own independence, to have my own apartment,’ ” she says. “But it can be really rough being an adult, and sometimes it just feels relentless.”

The actress tried to shelter her kids from the industry as best she could. “I don’t watch my movies at home, I don’t talk about my work with my kids, there’s not any posters of myself up on the wall,” says Arquette, who is currently dating artist Eric White. But her new TV role – and awards-season accolades – make that a little more difficult. Enzo and Harlow have expressed an interest in acting (see box), and Harlow was one of Mom’s Oscar dates. “It [was] a really special moment in my life that I didn’t see coming at all, and however you can get your kid to give you a thumbs-up is really great,” she said.

Arquette’s given Harlow plenty of reasons to be proud – not to mention reassurance to viewers that, yes, Hollywood actresses do age. Boyhood had an unprecedented 12-year shooting schedule, and the march of time can be seen in the cast as the film progresses. Luckily, Arquette long ago learned to accept herself at any age. “As an actor, you often bump into your younger self. You’ll be changing a channel and be like, ‘Oh, Nightmare on Elm Street; I was 18…. Look how young I look,” she recalls. “But to see it all strung together was powerful and intense.”

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