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Issued: 2018-03-13

The actor sets out to save his career—and his soul.

Shia LaBeouf is nervous about this story—“I have so much fear about this thing,” he confesses to me when we first meet—and it drives him to do what he’s always done when faced with something he cannot fully control: Prepare. Obsessively. For the past two months, he’s conducted practice interviews over the phone with his therapist, anticipating all of the possible scenarios, workshopping his responses to my questions. It’s been a long time since Vanity Fair put him on the cover of its August 2007 issue, wearing a spacesuit over a suit-suit (it looks as awkward as it sounds), and heralded him at age twenty-one as “the Next Tom Hanks.” More than a decade on, LaBeouf’s arc is less a stratospheric ascent than a misguided rocket wobbling across the sky, strewing wreckage.

Yes, LaBeouf is the guy who was handed a golden ticket and promptly lit it on fire. But too often we forget that everyone screws up on their path toward becoming an adult; and that few do so under the gaze of the public eye; and that by embracing the kind of capital-A Acting LaBeouf aims to do, we nourish the same spark from which his bad behavior stems. Tom Hardy, who worked with LaBeouf on 2012’s Lawless, points to the paradox central to their work. “A performer is asked to do two things,” he tells me. “To be disciplined and accountable, communicative and a pleasure to work with. And then, within a split second, they’re asked to be a psychopath. Authentically. It takes a very strong human being to sustain a genuine sense of well-being through that baptism of fire.” Then: “Drama is not known to attract stable types.”

LaBeouf invites me to dinner at a family-friendly joint in Sherman Oaks, the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood where he’s lived for nearly a decade. We are about ten miles southwest of Tujunga, where he lived from ages five to thirteen, when he became a full-time actor. He picked this spot because, as I learn, it’s a safe space, turf where he feels secure. He usually comes here with his wife, the actress and model Mia Goth, or his mother, Shayna, with whom he speaks daily.

When I arrive, I see LaBeouf through the window. He is alone at a four-top, his eyes trained forward, unmoving. As I approach him, he stands to greet me. His outfit is Valley Dad: well-fitted if unassuming khakis and a sweatshirt.

LaBeouf is here to discuss his new movie, Borg vs. McEnroe (April 13), though, as he says, “I’m a terrible used-car salesman.” To wit: “I have no interest in tennis. Zero. I only hate it more since having done this film. It’s an elitist sport.” As his voice tap-dances up and down the lower register, he speaks honestly and without hesitation. He plays John McEnroe, the tennis savant whose reputation as a powder keg often overshadowed his prodigious talent, with entropic physicality—fiery eyes, a fast smile, loose limbs ball-socketed to his trunk—but also with restraint: a born fighter who’s striving for self-control.

Unlike McEnroe’s outbursts, which became crowd-pleasing shtick, LaBeouf’s have left his offscreen reputation tattered. “McEnroe was a master at his rage,” he says. “I’m a buffoon. My public outbursts are failures. They’re not strategic. They’re a struggling motherfucker showing his ass in front of the world.” And since LaBeouf, more than anyone else, did the ripping, he knows it’s now on him to do the mending. “I’ve got to look at my failures in the face for a while,” he says. “I need to take ownership of my shit and clean up my side of the street a bit before I can go out there and work again, so I’m trying to stay creative and learn from my mistakes. I’ve been falling forward for a long time. Most of my life. The truth is, in my desperation, I lost the plot.” He pauses, then, as if to head off any potential awkwardness, says, “I know this is uncomfortable for you to bring up, bro. I get it. Just get to it.”

With LaBeouf, thirty-one, there’s not just one “it”; there is a truckload that has turned him into a walking meme. In the last year alone, he was stalked by Internet trolls; sued for $5 million by an L.A. bartender for a shouting match in a bowling alley; and arrested in Savannah for public intoxication. Footage of his booze-fueled, racially charged breakdown was leaked to the shame-generating machine that is TMZ, and he was sent to court-ordered rehab for ten weeks, starting last fall.

Given our hunger for celebrity schadenfreude, for which LaBeouf is manna, it’s easy to look past his electric talent and focus instead on his small mountain of baggage. But the genius is still there, still vibrant. I ask him if he thinks he’s performed the type of one-for-the-ages barn burner that even his fiercest critics would admit he, at his best, is capable of. He takes a sip of coffee—he’s now sober—looks out the window, and says, “Nah, not yet.” The real question is much tougher to answer: If LaBeouf’s instability informs his acting, will damping the one dim the other?

He says he is eager to be understood, but he also questions my intentions in a way that is less defensive than, well, on the offensive. “I know you have a job to do,” he says, leaning across the table, locking eyes. I ask what that is. “To continue this narrative that I’m a piece of shit.”

“I’ve got to look at my failures in the face for a while. The truth is, in my desperation, I lost the plot.”

By the time that Vanity Fair cover came out, LaBeouf had already transcended lousy odds. The onetime star of Disney Channel’s Even Stevens had backflipped over the chasm into which most child actors tumble and landed at the feet of Steven Spielberg. The Hollywood kingpin had handpicked LaBeouf to be the face of the Transformers franchise, helmed by Michael Bay, and to play the son of—and potential successor to—Harrison Ford in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. By 2010, and for the second year in a row, Forbes deemed him Best Actor for the Buck. For every dollar he earned, the studio got an average of eighty-one dollars in return. He was bankable.

Audiences liked him as much as the studio execs did: He was funny, quick- witted, not distractingly handsome, and had a yes-ma’am charm that played well with the right target audiences. And the kid could act. If you take stock of Hollywood’s pileup of blockbuster blunders, the first Transformers holds up, and LaBeouf is one of its biggest selling points. Hardy says, “Shia has the ability to land scene after scene that builds a reality from utter fantasy. We know the robots aren’t really there. They just aren’t. When I watch Shia, they are.”

As Tom Hardy says, “Shia has the ability to land scene after scene that builds a reality from utter fantasy.”

LaBeouf’s rise was all the more remarkable when you consider his less-than-Rockwellian childhood. His father, Jeffrey, grew up in San Francisco, trained as a commedia dell’arte clown, and once opened for the Doobie Brothers. He also served three tours in Vietnam and, once home, struggled for years with heroin addiction. Shayna, whom LaBeouf calls “my everything,” was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and ran a head shop in the East Village before moving to California. To make money, she began selling barrettes, purses, and pins at a trade fair that moved up and down the coast. It was while she was in Los Angeles, peddling her wares at Echo Park, that she met Jeffrey, who was a born-again Christian teaching karate classes. They conceived their only child in a sleeping bag in the back of Jeffrey’s van. The boy’s name reflects his ethnicity—Jewish (from Shayna) and Cajun (from Jeffrey)—and loosely translates into “Thank God for the beef.”

The family lived in an apartment across from Echo Park, and Jeffrey would head there each day, a tricked-out hotel cart in tow, to sell hot dogs and snow cones and to perform as a clown. LaBeouf’s first acting experience was with his mom and dad, all three in costume, hawking wieners. Too often, Shayna and Jeffrey could get into massive fights. “They loved each other the most when they were creating together,” he says. “When they stopped creating, shit fell apart.” His parents separated when LaBeouf was three.

By the time LaBeouf was nine, things got worse. Their landlord, sick of all the sewing machines Shayna kept in their apartment, had kicked them out. They’d found a place in Tujunga, the biker-gang capital of the San Fernando Valley. Before Jeffrey left for a stint in rehab, he asked Dave, a biker who lived next door, to keep an eye on LaBeouf and his mother.

It didn’t help. One day, LaBeouf overheard a man raping his mother. “I froze,” he tells me, pausing. “The man ran out, and my mom ran after him. Dave came running over. I remember he had a crossbow.” By then, the rapist had fled. During a counseling session at the sheriff’s office, LaBeouf listened as his mother recounted her attacker’s appearance. “It was the first time I ever heard the word pubic,” he says. “That’s how she described his facial hair. The next day at school, I told some kid that his hair looked like pubic hair, and I remember getting in trouble. They never found the guy.

“When I got to rehab last year,” LaBeouf continues, “they said I had PTSD.” He says he now understands that the violence toward his mother that he witnessed, that he could not prevent, is the reason for his defensiveness, his own hair trigger for violence. “The first time I got arrested with a real charge, it stemmed from the same shit. Some guy bumped into my mother’s car with his car in a parking lot, and my head went right to ‘You need to avenge your mother!’ So I went after the dude with a knife.” (He didn’t use it.) It’s also why LaBeouf bought a gun as soon as he was able to; to this day, he sleeps with it. “I’ve always thought somebody was coming in. My whole life.”

Around the time of his mother’s attack, LaBeouf, then ten, went on a surf trip with Jeffrey to Malibu, where he met a kid about his age wearing the type of expensive outfit he could not afford. “I said, ‘What do you do?’” LaBeouf recalls. “He said he was an actor. That’s where it really started.” The kid told him he would never get past the first step: landing a modeling agent. “I was a weird- looking fucker,” LaBeouf says. Undeterred, he got crafty. “I looked up talent agents in the yellow pages. I put on this front like I was my own manager,” complete with a British lilt. One agent wasn’t fooled, but she was charmed, and LaBeouf was signed. He quickly began booking spots on ER, The X-Files, Freaks and Geeks, and Suddenly Susan.

His big break came in 2000: LaBeouf, then thirteen, landed the lead on Even Stevens. The show was a blast—“like going to Chuck E. Cheese,” he says. He was praised for his performance, which earned him a Daytime Emmy. To be closer to the set, he moved out of his mother’s place and for the next three years lived in a forty-dollar-a-night motel with Jeffrey, who’d completed rehab and become his son’s on-set guardian. LaBeouf says, “I was going to the Alano Club”—a twelve-step program—“with my dad. That was my daycare center. Then I’d go to work. That was my whole life.”

LaBeouf tells me that as part of his treatment last year, he underwent prolonged-exposure therapy, which is a fancy name for the counterintuitive process of poking at a wound until it stops bleeding. “You keep talking about it. You keep bringing it up, acting it out, thinking about its smell. Every which way you can get to it. And a lot of my shit has to do with my relationship with my dad,” he says. “That dude is my gasoline.” Whenever a scene required LaBeouf to conjure intense emotion, Jeffrey would stand next to the camera, just off set, so that LaBeouf could see him, focus on him. “I could work myself up into a frenzy,” he says. “He’s the whole reason I became an actor.”

LaBeouf poked at that paternal wound with a pen. Despite claiming not to be a good writer, he turned his thoughts into a screenplay, a full one, which he finished while still in rehab. The Black List, a site that tracks the most promising unproduced scripts in Hollywood, describes its plot as follows: “A child actor and his law-breaking, alcohol-abusing father attempt to mend their contentious relationship over the course of a decade.” LaBeouf listed a coauthor, Otis Lort, which he now admits is a pseudonym. He claims it’s of Cajun origin, but some cursory linguistic analysis suggests it is a combination of German and Danish that translates into “Wealthy Turd.” The film’s working title is the nickname Jeffrey has called his son for as long as LaBeouf can remember: Honey Boy.

The next day, LaBeouf tells me to meet him at Descanso Gardens, a tranquil refuge from the hustle of L.A. halfway between Echo Park and Tujunga. I arrive earlier than I did for dinner, but he still beats me to the mark. He’s seated on a bench at the entrance, tickets for both of us in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, waiting for our scene to begin.

After dispensing with pleasantries, he once again questions my intentions. “I went to sleep last night thinking that this is going to be some boo-hoo piece: ‘Oh, here he is not trying to own his shit. He’s trying to put it on his father....’ My dad handed me a lot, and his legacy was an emotional one. And it wasn’t scarring. He handed me texture. My dad blessed me that way.” He’s wearing a shirt that brings him talismanic comfort, a blue oxford button- down from the set of a movie he made at the tail end of his adolescence, and it reminds him of the family created on set. He bought his hat, emblazoned with the Bavarian coat of arms, on a trip to Germany, and to make it his own, scribbled on it with marker.


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