Hollywood's youngest superstar isn't in it for the glory, the fame, or even the women—he's in it to make truckloads of money.
-By Peter Rubin
-Photographs by Steven Klein
If you ever have reason to meet Shia LaBeouf, you should be prepared to be addressed as "boss." Or "bro," or "man," or "baby," or possibly "son," depending on how much you know about hip-hop. "Hey, boss," LaBeouf says to the guy behind the counter at a Santa Monica restaurant one afternoon in late May, "is it cool if we just get a couple of coffees and sit outside?"
It's hard to tell whether the waiter recognizes him. LaBeouf is doing reshoots for this month's Eagle Eye, directed by D.J. Caruso—it's a highbrow thriller about two Americans framed as political assassins by a terrorist cell—so he has a little more scruff than usual, and with his cap pulled down far enough he could be any underemployed L.A. actor getting his caffeine fix. He's wearing skinnyish black jeans, a threadbare Emerson, Lake & Palmer T-shirt, and beat-up brown Nike Cortezes. His girlish eyelashes, cheeks, and mouth are obscured by the beard and the cap, which makes him look older than he does in the YouTube video that made the rounds in the spring—the one of him drunkenly calling his friend a "faggot" and begging to be slapped in the face. But LaBeouf's swagger—the "boss"ing and "man"ing—suggests fresh confidence, the kind that comes from having recently had your name attached to two blockbuster franchises. It also suggests some defensiveness. That "faggot" video, plus a misdemeanor arrest and a few other glancing blows this year to his still-developing image, has made him zip himself up a little tighter. While once he publicly joked about his regrettable movie choices, like Dumber and Dumberer, and break-danced with abandon for Craig Kilborn, LaBeouf is more inhibited now, more likely to use terms like role model.
LaBeouf in the trailer for Eagle Eye, due in theaters September 26, 2008
Since his first major part, in Disney's 2003 sleeper hit Holes, LaBeouf, 22, has been in some very big movies. Last summer's Transformers grossed $700 million worldwide, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may whip-crack past that. He's also been in some smaller movies that outperformed expectations—last year's teen thriller Disturbia made more than five times its $20 million budget at the box office. But he hasn't really been the focal point of a big movie—until now. Much as Disturbia recalled Rear Window, Eagle Eye, in which LaBeouf stars opposite Michelle Monaghan, brings North by Northwest into the age of the Patriot Act. LaBeouf, who cold-called his first agent at the age of 12 and promptly nailed an audition with a Disney casting director, leans heavily on his swagger to downplay the pressure of doing a movie with a $100 million-plus budget that is executive-produced by Steven Spielberg—who has reportedly called him a young Tom Hanks. "I never chose to do this because there was meaning in it or I was talented or gave a shit about acting," LaBeouf says. "I got into this because I was broke."
Working actors are generally either enigmas or exhibitionists. Usually the good ones are the former and the bad ones the latter. But if you want to propel yourself from noteworthiness to superstardom, you have no choice but to sacrifice some of your mystery for relatability. George Clooney did this with his ring-a-ding-ding boys' club; Tom Cruise does it by styling himself the village elder of Hollywood—Mr. Propriety. Demigods of the public imagination onscreen and in life, these actors are insulated from the damage that a few lackluster films—or even a box-office bomb—can do. "There's a form of selling out," LaBeouf says. "It's necessary. You have to become edible for people in Texas. You have to become edible for the Christian right, for mass audiences." Right now, he's doing that two ways: by joining up with two tent-pole franchises—Transformers and Indy—and by micromanaging his own palatability. Being a 22-year-old kid, though, he sometimes runs into image-management problems.
Over a three-month period in the past year, LaBeouf got into a series of entanglements with the law. Last November, he walked into a Chicago Walgreens to buy cigarettes, had a drunken argument with a security guard, and was arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave the store. In February, he was cited for smoking a cigarette on public property in Burbank, California. A few weeks later an arrest warrant was issued when he failed to appear in court for that charge. "I don't ever remember getting arrested sober. I was always arrested drunk," he says. "It's when I'm drinking that I don't have the wherewithal to be able to realize the position of my life. There's too much at stake for me to throw it away. I enjoy what I'm able to give my family. I enjoy the people that I'm able to wake up and work with. And I don't want to throw away what I've worked so hard for 12 years to achieve, based on an argument that takes place in 20 minutes." By the time LaBeouf lit out on the Indiana Jones promotional tour in the spring, the mini-scandals were regularly being used by reporters as segues into questions about his upbringing.
LaBeouf on his childhood fascination with the Indiana Jones franchise
An only child, LaBeouf grew up poor in Echo Park, then a working-class Latino neighborhood in L.A. "None of my friends were ever as broke as I was," he says. "That's not some dramatic spinning of a tale—my uncle was going to adopt me at one point because my parents couldn't afford to have me anymore. They had too much pride to go on welfare or food stamps."
Whether it's a dramatic spinning of a tale is beside the point; LaBeouf's childhood has become his chosen mythology. Before the milk for his coffee has arrived, he's run through the highlights in an uninterrupted stream: His parents sold snow cones and hot dogs in a park near their apartment while LaBeouf, in a clown costume, japed for customers; as a 12-year-old, he did X-rated stand-up in Pasadena comedy clubs; his mother, Shayna Saide, is an American-born Russian-Jewish ballerina whose mother ran with Allen Ginsberg; her mother played piano on Lucky Luciano's gambling boat. LaBeouf says his father, a Vietnam vet named Jeffrey LaBeouf, had a heroin problem. And that in addition to being a commedia dell'arte—trained mime, he was a weed dealer who grew his crop on the sides of freeways. And that he's credited with bringing the sinsemilla seed to Hawaii, giving a continent of thankful stoners the Thai stick. The lore cascades out of LaBeouf in unsolicited torrents—and free of taboos. "It's just my family was raised differently," he says. "It was never 'Drugs!' It was never like that for my family, which helped me because I never had a curiosity, it was never closed off. It was always out in the open and it was always explained to me. I'm so grateful for that. It's why I never tried anything beyond marijuana or drinking. I mean, I know that I personally can't do any of it. And so I don't."
"Every actor chooses their story at the beginning," he says. "There's this weird dichotomy of having to appear human yet be a mysterious entity in order to continue doing your craft. I need something to talk about, and then you don't have to get into deep, personal introspection."
LaBeouf has been shaping his public persona since he emerged from a Disney-kid adolescence—starring on the children's show Even Stevens and in a succession of PG movies like Holes—to be the saving grace of the second season of the HBO reality series Project Greenlight (and the film it spawned, The Battle of Shaker Heights). While fans and reviewers skewered the movie and its directing team, LaBeouf was praised as not only the film's best performer but the sanest and most well-adjusted person on the show. "Project Greenlight did a lot for me," he says. "It taught me that the performance doesn't end until you go home."
It also got him psychologically prepared for the public scrutiny that began when he moved from ensemble roles (in Shaker Heights and the 2006 coming-of-age drama A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) to comic-sidekick ones (I, Robot; Constantine) to top billing in aggressively promoted summer action movies. LaBeouf developed a physical response to the attention, too: running. In another much-seen YouTube clip from the past year, he leaves a New Year's party in New York and, confronted by paparazzi, turns and sprints down the block. "You know where they're going to be," he says. "Once they're at your house and you know they're following you, you have the choice: Should I run or should I take them to the car wash and create the image of the normal guy?"
LaBeouf fleeing from paparazzi after a New Year's party on January 1, 2008
Depending on whom you talk to, the jury is still out on Shia LaBeouf's talent. Spielberg has been borderline fawning in his assessment. D.J. Caruso says, "Shia's ability to connect with everyone is rooted in honesty. It's not that he's the Everyman, it's that he believes he's in that situation, and so the audience believes he's in that situation." But moviegoers jaded by years of having semi-competent Next Big Things jammed down their throats have been skeptical. Transformers and Indiana Jones only gave the "He's no Emile Hirsch" camp more to sneer at. It's clear where his sights are set. Ever since he worked on Holes with Jon Voight, who took a shine to him, LaBeouf has been a devout student of acting. Every day, he spends a chunk of time online reading about movies, including the ones he's in. "Every comment," he says. "Every message board." And not just at the Shia-is-awesome sites frequented by tween girls—at the mean ones, too: Ain't It Cool News, CHUD, the kinds of places film fanatics go to rant about how LaBeouf's presence in the fourth installment of Indiana Jones was an affront to the franchise. "It's only recently that I became a part of their lexicon," he says. "Shia LaDouche or LaBeef and all this shit. And I understand where they're coming from. If I was a fan freak sitting at my house and I worked at Auto Zone, and some twentysomething young buck had a meteoric rise and was in every movie I ever wanted to watch, I'd hate him immediately."
Besides, LaBeouf was a fan freak once—of hip-hop even more than movies. "If you wanted to be friends with the people I was hanging out with," he says, "that was like one of the necessities." He's since shelved that dimension of himself—the part obsessed with hip-hop culture—in the interest of pleasing Texas and the Christian right. "When I was 16," he says, "I looked at my life and said, 'Really? You're a rapper/Disney Channel actor?' Akon has more street cred, you know? I used to wear baggy pants all the time, but these skinny jeans"—he grabs the fabric—"make it as though I can be whatever the fuck I want to be today. There's things you have to give up, even though you may feel comfortable. You get rid of your velour suits and your Lugz boots, and you start transitioning."
LaBeouf break dancing and freestyle rapping on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn
The script rarely gets away from LaBeouf. It got away from him in Chicago last November, when a late-night nicotine jones ended in that trespassing charge. ("It was two hotheads," he says, "one completely in the wrong, one who wasn't enjoying his job that night, going at it about minuscule bullshit.") And the glee with which the mainstream news media, itching for a YOUNG ACTOR FLAMES OUT headline, seized on it led to the end of one of his and his father's longtime bonding rituals. "We would drink together and smoke together," LaBeouf says, "and it's just a bad deal. It's not something that is conducive to being a role model—no iconic actors that I know of have problems like that. And I don't know how to do it like a gentleman. I don't know how to have one drink."
If it sounds like an actor struggling to stay in character, it may be. "I mean, look, you get arrested, it's out of control. There's nothing 'in control' about the situation," he says. "It's not as though things happen to me and I don't say, never again." But LaBeouf concedes that sticking to the straight-and-narrow is easier said than done. "I can never say never, because of where I'm at in my life and the vices that I've let go of," he says. "But even when I was drinking, I never missed call times, ever."
So now it's no more alcohol—just Parliament Lights. And women. LaBeouf deems his female situation "extraordinary," though he refuses to discuss recent rumors tying him to Rihanna and the model Lauren Hastings. "I'm enjoying myself," he says. "But I'm not great with women, dude. I'm not a closer. I can chat all night long, but I'm not the guy who goes, 'Okay, back to my room.' I've never been that way—it's not my presence, I just can't do it. But it's not been a priority of mine for a while. That aspect of my life is always going to be there. This"—his self-described "meteoric rise"—"is not always going to be here." Besides Eagle Eye, LaBeouf has an ensemble picture, New York, I Love You, in the can for release this fall, and he's tied up with shooting Transformers 2 until late October. After that, it's hard to say. Caruso is interested in adapting the comic book Y: The Last Man, but LaBeouf isn't convinced that it's the best move for him: "I can't be the blockbuster dude forever, you know?"