A photo shoot with Shia LaBeouf is a live-wire experience. With his curly locks slicked back, in Nikes and tattered pants, the 30-year-old actor refuses hair-and-makeup, as he blasts songs on his iPhone, singing along to Nina Simone’s “If You Pray Right (Heaven Belongs to You).” He’s friendly, but firm about what he won’t do, and he bristles when a Variety photographer suggests that he step inside an ancient-looking wine cellar. “No,” LaBeouf says, pointing to the bottles of alcohol. “That sh-t almost f–ked up my life.”
Over the last five years, LaBeouf has been embroiled in a bizarre off-screen drama of his own making — one that nearly derailed his career. He’s been dogged by several alcohol-related arrests, a public firing from the 2013 Broadway play “Orphans,” and even accusations of plagiarism surrounding a short film he directed that same year. But the biggest scandal came in 2014: Drunk on whiskey, he created such a ruckus while watching a Broadway performance of “Cabaret” that police officers hauled him off to jail.
Asked if he was worried at the time that the incident would hurt him professionally, LaBeouf answers honestly: “I had people tell me it was going to,” he says. “People I respected — dudes I wanted to work with — just looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Life’s too short for this sh-t.’ I’m still earning my way back. I’m happy working.”
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In an interview with Variety in Prague, where he’s shooting a new drama about John McEnroe, LaBeouf speaks candidly about his ups and downs, and how he has been working hard to put his life in order. He says he hasn’t had a drink in almost a year, and he’s been to AA meetings (though he doesn’t call himself an addict). “You don’t touch it,” he says. “Alcohol or any of that sh-t will send you haywire. I can’t f–k with none of it. I’ve got to keep my head low.”
Despite all he’s been through, LaBeouf appears to have turned a corner and reached a creative peak. He’s receiving the best reviews of his career for “American Honey,” which screens at the Toronto Film Festival this week after receiving a strong debut at Cannes in May. In the movie, which opens in theaters on Sept. 30 via A24, LaBeouf stars as the leader of a gang of nomad thieves and misfit kids selling magazine subscriptions on a cross-country road trip.
“American Honey” director Andrea Arnold, who generally works with unknown actors, brushed off warnings not to cast LaBeouf in her low-budget film. Drawn to his earlier performance in “Transformers,” she met the actor for the first time several years ago in a café near her home outside London. The next time she saw him was in New York, on the morning after his “Cabaret” arrest, coming from jail and carrying his shoelaces in his hands. “I can never forget his face,” Arnold says. “He was hurting. He was very quiet.”
For “American Honey,” Arnold never gave LaBeouf a script, just a black-and-white picture of a forest for inspiration. He would get a page of dialogue in the morning before each shooting day. He prepared for the movie by spending two weeks with a real-life “magazine crew” that he knew from AA. “I was the only white dude in that group,” he says, adding, “They f–k each other. They rob people. They sell magazines. When I got to Andrea’s set and saw what the dynamics were, it made sense to me.”
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But there wasn’t much of a “set.” To shoot her $3.5 million movie, Arnold constructed a seven-week road trip that started in Muskogee, Okla., and spanned a handful of states. She shot in chronological order, and the cast’s relationships (and sleeping arrangements, in cheap motels) mirrored those of the characters they played. “We bonded hard,” LaBeouf recalls. “You do whatever is required for it to be true, for it to be honest. I had to run this group, sort of like a pimp.”
Every city brought a new adventure. “One of the things we’d do as a group, we’d all go to the f-cking tattoo shop,” LaBeouf says. He got inked with 12 tattoos while making the film, which drove his director crazy, because she didn’t want her star showing up looking different in every scene. The memories of “American Honey” are now forever engraved on LaBeouf’s arms, neck, and both of his knees, which feature matching portraits of Missy Elliott.
“I don’t love Missy Elliott like I wanna get two Missy Elliott tattoos,” LaBeouf says. “But you’re in a tattoo parlor, and” — he shrugs — “peer pressure.”
“American Honey” offers another milestone for the actor. It’s a performance that started generating Oscar buzz out of Cannes. But he scoffs at the awards chatter. “Nah, dude, not me,” says LaBeouf, who still hasn’t been invited into the Academy, despite having appeared in 30 movies. “The Oscars are about politics. I gotta earn my way back. It’s not about who is the best. I’m not that guy for a long time — for a long, long time.” He looks down. “I’m good with that, though. Sometimes that sh-t is a curse.”
Watch the ‘American Honey’ trailer:
The highs and lows of LaBeouf’s personal and professional life have been heavily chronicled in the press. Discovered at 14 as the plucky brother on the Disney Channel’s “Even Stevens,” LaBeouf quickly became a young it-list leading man in films like “The Battle of Shaker Heights,” “Holes,” and “Disturbia,” drawing comparisons to Tom Hanks.
But after starring in mega-blockbusters like the “Transformers” franchise and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” he reinvented his public persona and veered off the rails. His unconventional antics included a stunt as a performance artist in which he wore a paper bag over his head at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.
“People I respected just looked me in the eyes and said, ‘life’s too short for this shit.’ I’m still earning my way back.”
LaBeouf agrees that if he were an actress with the same TMZ rap sheet, his career would probably be over. “It’s a double standard, for sure,” he says. “Women require grace for longevity. I don’t think men require grace. You can be Mickey Rourke.” Or, for that matter, Shia LaBeouf.
LaBeouf says he’s on much better footing today. The career trajectory he was on as an A-list leading man doesn’t really exist anymore. Instead, he has joined a generation of actors — including James Franco, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Kristen Stewart — who have bypassed studio movies for indies. LaBeouf’s recent filmography is a patchwork of edgy titles such as Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” and “Vol. 2, ” Dito Montiel’s “Man Down,” and Janus Metz Pedersen’s “Borg vs. McEnroe,” which he’s currently filming in Prague. “MacEnroe is Mozart, man,” says LaBeouf, who studied the tennis star’s footage and interviewed his old coaches.
LaBeouf has also found a way to express another side of himself, through performance-art projects such as #IAmSorry, in which he invited strangers into a room to interact with him, while he wore that paper bag over his head. In last winter’s #AllMyMovies, he binge-watched his own movies for three days at the Angelika Film Center, capturing his reactions on a live internet feed.
LaBeouf acknowledges that his past has led him to his current career. “I don’t think I’d be working with the directors I’ve been working with if I had not f–ked up a bit,” he says. “They wanted a f–king fireball. They wanted a loose cannon. I’m learning how to distill my ‘crazy’ into something manageable, that I can shape and deliver on the day.” He says he didn’t have the tools to do that before. “I was an open wound bleeding on everything.”
He also claims to have gotten his personal life in order. (He’s engaged to British actress and model Mia Goth, with whom he wants to star in a play.) He describes the toll alcohol had taken on him. “I got a Napoleonic complex,” he says. “I start drinking and I feel smaller than I am, and I get louder than I should. It’s just not for me, dude.”
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In person, LaBeouf at times seems as if he’s contradicting himself. He speaks in a deeper-than-expected voice, which sounds like he’s channeling Joaquin Phoenix. Although he doesn’t do interviews often, he reveals that he went back and reread his old profiles to see how far he’s come. He used to describe himself as a method actor. “The word is getting embarrassing,” he says. “You don’t hear about female method actors. The whole thing has turned into weird, false masculinity sh-t.”
LaBeouf, who reads about six scripts a year, admits that he’s no longer on Hollywood’s wish list for major blockbusters. After “Fury” in 2014, director David Ayer approached him for “Suicide Squad,” for a role that eventually went to Scott Eastwood. “The character was different initially,” LaBeouf says. “Then Will [Smith] came in, and the script changed a bit. That character and Tom [Hardy’s] character [later played by Joel Kinnaman] got written down to build Will up.” LaBeouf says the studio vetoed his casting. “I don’t think Warner Bros. wanted me. I went in to meet, and they were like, ‘Nah, you’re crazy. You’re a good actor, but not this one.’ It was a big investment for them.”
He’s not sure if he wants to do blockbusters again, but he’d be open to reuniting with his “Transformers” director Michael Bay. “Mike is an artist,” LaBeouf says. “People don’t realize how dope that dude is. He’s got to get a little ballsier with his moves — he’s trying to toe the line and be James Cameron, but James Camerons are dying. I don’t know what he’s chasing, but that version of director is dead. If Mike is to sustain, he’s got to get f–king weird.”
To understand how LaBeouf has gotten to where he’s at, it’s important to know where he came from. Unlike most Disney stars, his childhood had a dark edge. “We didn’t have nothing,” says LaBeouf, who was raised by a single mom in Echo Park. “So I would steal Pokémon video games and Tamagotchis.” The first time he was arrested, in grade school, was for swiping a pair of Nikes from a Ross department store. During “Even Stevens,” LaBeouf stayed with his dad at a hotel in Burbank, and he’d ride to work on the back of his motorcycle.
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“There were drugs everywhere — marijuana, cocaine, heroin,” he says of his father’s friends. “[My dad] gave me my first joint when I was probably 11 or 12.” As a result of his upbringing, LaBeouf never felt like he fit in with Disney. “They would invite the Hilary Duffs and Miley Cyruses to go to the Jonas Brothers concert, and I’d be there with my friends. But we were outsiders. It felt distant.”
At 15, he emancipated himself from his mom, got his GED, and became a full-time actor. He dabbled in some indies, like 2006’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” where he portrays a younger version of a man played by Robert Downey Jr. He only got the role when he sent the director, Montiel, a series of three audition tapes. “Each one was more terrifying than the next,” says Montiel, who cast him.
LaBeouf eventually followed Disney with a lucrative partnership with Steven Spielberg on several projects at DreamWorks–including “Disturbia,” “Transformers” and “Eagle Eye”–as well as Paramount’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” He thought it would be a dream come true, but he had a hard time. “I grew up with this idea, if you got to Spielberg, that’s where it is,” says LaBeouf, who originally wanted roles like Macaulay Culkin’s in the “Home Alone” movies. “I’m not talking about fame, and I’m not talking about money.”
He thought Spielberg would be his ticket to a big-screen legacy. “You get there, and you realize you’re not meeting the Spielberg you dream of,” LaBeouf says. “You’re meeting a different Spielberg, who is in a different stage in his career. He’s less a director than he is a f–king company.” (Spielberg declined to comment.)
“This was a very distilled, constructed kind of crazy. It freed me up.”
LaBeouf felt like there was no room to grow as an actor, and that he was stuck. “Spielberg’s sets are very different,” he says. “Everything has been so meticulously planned. You got to get this line out in 37 seconds. You do that for five years, you start to feel like not knowing what you’re doing for a living.”
When LaBeouf completed the recent art project of re-watching his old films, he purposefully got up and left during the second “Transformers,” which was executive produced by Spielberg. “I don’t like the movies that I made with Spielberg,” he says. “The only movie that I liked that we made together was ‘Transformers’ one.”
LaBeouf says he felt the most disappointed by the reception for 2008’s “Crystal Skull.” He doesn’t consider the sequel a success, despite its worldwide gross of nearly $800 million. “I prepped for a year and a half,” LaBeouf says. “And then the movie comes out, and it’s your fault. That sh-t hurt bad.”
Spielberg once told him not to read his own press, but it didn’t seem like practical advice. “There’s no way to not do that,” LaBeouf says. “For me to not read that means I need to not take part in society.” It was easier for actors before the Internet. “The generation previous to mine didn’t have the immediate response,” he says. “If you were Mark Hamill, you could lie to yourself. You could find the pockets of joy, and turn a blind eye to the sh-t over there.”
He kept seeing anonymous comments online from people complaining that between “Transformers,” “Wall Street 2,” and “Crystal Skull,” he had destroyed the ’80s. Whenever a fan asked him for a selfie, he’d replay those thoughts in his head. “I didn’t like going in public, because I had to face my failures constantly,” he says.
It was around this time that he started drinking heavily. “Part of it was posturing,” LaBeouf says. “I never knew how to drink. I never liked to drink, but I knew you had to drink. It was a weird post-modern fascination with the f–k-ups. When I met Robert Downey Jr., I was like, ‘Man, you got all this f–king texture. How do I do this? How do I build texture?’”
He managed to find peace by discovering his inner artist. He started by experimenting with scripts and directing. But he was widely criticized for a 2013 short film that plagiarized from a work by cartoonist Daniel Clowes. “It’s straight theft, dude,” LaBeouf admits. “I just took the dude’s idea and made a movie. I truly f–ked up and apologized.”
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The plagiarism crisis was unfolding when LaBeouf was on the set of Ayer’s “Fury,” and the director told him to take control of his own narrative. Ayer was the one who suggested that LaBeouf tweet out meta-ironic, plagiarized apologies from Kanye West and Tiger Woods, among others, to let the public know he was in on the joke. “The guy was getting beat up,” Ayer says. “I was, like, ‘Lean into it, go on the journey, and have it be about that.’”
That became the germ for LaBeouf’s reinvented public persona — the performance artist who is operating on a different level. Soon after, while off from shooting “Fury,” LaBeouf connected with two conceptual artists, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, who gave him the idea to wear a paper bag emblazoned with the phase “I Am Not Famous Anymore” over his head at the premiere of “Nymphomaniac” at the Berlin Film Festival. For the record, LaBeouf says he cleared the stunt with von Trier and the festival beforehand, but the press proclaimed him to be on the verge of a breakdown.
“The media ran with it,” LaBeouf says. “You always hear Merle Haggard songs: He’s 50, missing the times he’s crazy when he was young. This was a very distilled, constructed kind of crazy. It freed me up.”
LaBeouf’s most recent performance-art project, #TakeMeAnywhere, consisted of a 30-day hitchhiking trip on which fans could pick up him and take him wherever they wanted. “It’s just a really wild journey,” he says, as he talks about bunking with a Mormon family in Utah, and coming downstairs for grandma’s breakfast. There was also an episode where a Bernie Sanders supporter asked him to fire a gun in a speeding car on the freeway, but LaBeouf won’t say if he pulled the trigger. “I don’t want to f–k my project by putting out some salacious headline like, ‘They’re Firing Guns Out the Window,’” he says.
LaBeouf says that his latest adventure gave him the chance to feel what he’s been chasing — human connection. “You float with people,” he says. “You’ve got to stay malleable.”