He’s So Money

Written by Siobhan on July 11 2022

Action-hero wonder boy Shia LaBeouf has put aside childish things—the late-night car wrecks, the weaving around Hollywood nightspots for the pleasure of TMZ—and gotten serious about his career. You might even say a little obsessive. Hence, his intense turn as a stock-possessed trader in this month’s Wall Street sequel. And what should a guy like that wear? Clean, trim suits like these that no one would ever mistake for Gordon Gekko’s

When Shia LaBeouf flipped his Ford F-150 at the intersection of La Brea and Fountain, the last thing on his mind was the price of soybeans. That was in 2008, before he discovered soybean futures and the redemptive powers of free-market capitalism, when Shia LaBeouf was just your regular 22-year-old Spielberg-anointed former child actor who graduated from prepubescent Disney Channel comedies to blowing up robots and making out with Megan Fox for a living. Then he wrecked his truck—at 3 A.M., with someone else’s girlfriend in the passenger seat—and nearly screwed it all up. The cops smelled alcohol on his breath, and the snickering blogs smelled fresh-faced Hollywood flameout. It’s all so familiar, as pat and predictable as anything this town is capable of churning out. So you can be forgiven for not giving a shit about that old Shia LaBeouf, because the old Shia LaBeouf didn’t really give a shit about himself, either. “I don’t know that I respected myself then,” he says of life before the crash. “I wasn’t really appreciating things.”

The standard rich-and-famous contract comes with many fine provisions—power, money, girls—but not much in the way of perspective. After the accident, Shia was in a dark lonely place. He was spotted wandering around his neighborhood wearing a paper bag over his head and a plastic bag wrapped around the hand he’d mangled in the wreck. “Until recently, time off has been a very dangerous period for me,” he says. “Because it’s like, my God, I can have anything? Really?”

What he has now is a chili-cheese dog and a story to tell. We’re somewhere in Sherman Oaks, in the Valley, sitting on wooden bleachers outside a hot-dog shack called the Infield. He’s dressed to go unnoticed, in a denim jacket, T-shirt, and Transformers cap pulled low over sleepy eyes.

“I’m not some AA angel preaching bullshit,” he says, “but I have changed.”

When he regained consciousness the morning after the crash, Shia found his father and Jon Voight (whom he’d grown close to on the set of his first movie, Holes) sitting by his hospital bed. “You’re hooked up onto this heroin bag,” he says, “and you’ve got Jon Voight _Coming Home_ing it in the room, arguing about John McCain with your father, who’s tripping out. I had two weeks before I had to get back to work on Transformers 2. Two weeks of sitting in that hospital room thinking: Fuck. I’d be watching the news, and they’d play my car crash, and every once in a while Kim Kardashian’s sister would jump on TV and preach to me from the red carpet about how to live my fucking life. And I’m so upset, man. I’m so angry. Because this accident was not caused by me. I got hit. I had a green. This fucker ran a red light. And he flipped my truck, and he shoveled it on my hand. And my fingers are in the street…”

Your fingers are in the—?

“They’re in the street, they’re off, they’re under the truck door, man. This is fake, dude,” he says, lifting his newly reconstructed hand. “This is hip bone and the skin that was left over. Let me show you.”

He peels off a bandage that looks like a beer cozy made for a fake finger and bangs it hard against the bench. His middle finger looks and feels like a bent twig wrapped in tight rubber, and it sounds like a pencil drummed against a school desk. Shia’s ring finger has a long dark scar running down the length of it.

“The thing is, all the bad things that have happened to me have been self-inflicted,” Shia says. He drops some French fries, retrieves them from the filthy hot-dog-stand floor, eats them, continues to talk.

“Nobody’s caused me harm. It’s always been me in destruction-derby mode. Yes, I was drinking, and yes, I said no to the Breathalyzer—though I never got charged with drunk driving. Bad luck, bad thinking, bad actions, bad situation. But it’s something that had to happen to me.”

Unlike his hand, his Ford couldn’t be salvaged, but he held on to the truck’s door that had crushed his fingers. It’s now mounted at his dad’s house as a memento mori.

He says it stands as a reminder. “It’s the wow-how-quick-it-disappears door. It’s the wake-up door.”

But wake up and do…what exactly?

For a while he was at loose ends, lost, and losing his mind little by little. He’d been a working actor for more than a decade. He’d survived his what-does-it-all-mean brush with mortality. What he needed now was something to care about. So when Oliver Stone called, Shia figured he’d found not just a challenging role but a lifeline.

“I knew the meeting had to be about Wall Street,” Shia explains. “So I go down to the Schwab office in Encino. I can’t drive, so I walk three miles down that way—” He uses a chili-cheese dog, his second, to point west on Ventura. He showed up without an appointment, told the receptionist he needed to prepare himself for the Wall Street sequel, and asked to see someone who could teach him everything he needed to know about finance—which was everything—and as soon as possible, please.

They sent him to financial consultant Osman Khan. “Brilliant guy,” Shia says. Some time later, Shia got his hands on a prep handbook for the Series 7 exam that, he says, “became my bible.”

That afternoon, he gave Khan twenty grand to open an account, and he’s been trading ever since. “It’s still my favorite hobby,” Shia says. “I trade in my bors now. I’m up early for the markets. I’m real-time all day long.” He loves the game and the thrill and the nerves of the market; and the market, it seems, loves him right back. As of the morning of our lunch, Shia says his online Schwab Active Trading account had grown to close to $450,000.*

Shia’s call to capitalism came just when he was looking for something to throw himself into. He didn’t need a job. Jobs he’d had since age 11, when he started doing stand-up in comedy clubs to burn energy and earn a little cash. At 14 he landed a gig on the Disney show Even Stevens and was supporting his family before he was shaving. He charmed his way through such disparate stuff as Will Smith’s I, Robot and the Project Greenlight-incubated The Battle of Shaker Heights. Then Steven Spielberg bestowed on him career-making roles in DreamWorks’ Disturbia and Michael Bay’s billion-dollar Transformers franchise, and finally the part of sidekick/son of Indiana Jones himself. Somehow Shia had glided over the awkward years and made that rare smooth transition from likable dork to bankable Everydude. In Oliver Stone, he found a director who could take him on, engage him psychologically, and push him to the place he felt he needed to go.

To inhabit the role of Jake Moore, the hedge-fund trader engaged to Gordon Gekko’s daughter and the upstart at the center of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Shia moved to New York with his Series 7 textbook in his backpack. “I cleared my life to make this movie,” he says now. “My past life did not follow me to New York. I created a whole new existence.” He shaved, bought a suit, embedded himself on trading floors, and talked to everyone he could. His tutors in this new world were power players like James Chanos, the billionaire short-seller who called the Enron collapse; John Paulson, who made billions on the subprime-mortgage crash; and Nouriel Roubini, the NYU economist affectionately known as Dr. Doom. Much has changed since the Wall Street of the first movie. The stakes, as the world has been so rudely reminded, are exponentially higher now. There’s a new breed of greed, representing far more money than Gordon Gekko ever dreamed of wringing out of poor BlueStar Airlines.

The Street, or what was left of it, was ready for its sequel.

John Thomas financial is a brokerage firm you’ve probably never heard of. Tommy Belesis, the company’s dapper and gregarious CEO, looks like Lex Luthor in pinstripes and runs a high-energy ship of 300 traders. There’s a life-imitating-the-’80s quality to Belesis’s work environment. “We have 43,000 square feet,” he says. “You walk in here, and there are guys in three-piece suits, no-facial-hair policy, everyone looking professional, on the phones from six in the morning until ten at night—a real trading floor similar to what it was when they did the first Wall Street.” Belesis figures he has hired and trained close to a thousand traders over the years. He claims that Shia is a natural. “I’d absolutely hire him and seat him right next to me,” he says. “He’d be a top trader. ”

Shia knew that learning the business was the only way to make himself credible. “The most important thing with these guys is confidence,” he says. “And as an actor, when you’re going heads-up with the biggest dudes around, then the only way for me to get that self-confidence was to become more astute than anybody else on-set.”

“He went beyond the pale, so to speak,” Stone says of his star’s will to learn. “Most actors sort of let it go after they start shooting, but even on his off days he would go back to the trading firms. It was a treat to have that young energy there, that hunger to make movies.”

“I’d never seen anything like this shit,” Shia says of the trading floors, the money, the personalities involved. “I thought my life was pretty wild. I’m Richie Rich. I land in New York, secretly thinking I’m like the coolest guy in the world. I’ve been on the cover of GQ! But then I met these guys, and it’s humbling. It’s the most sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll atmosphere that exists on the planet. I was hanging out with some wild human beings.” At some of the firms where he did research, he found himself remarkably close to the action. “I was sitting right next to guys on a Tuesday, trading a million dollars, and on Friday they got arrested for wild things.”

If there are trading desks in lower Manhattan manned by aging dudes who modeled their careers after Wall Street, then for three months of shooting last summer the same territory was occupied by a troupe of seasoned actors trying to will themselves into the hearts and minds of actual Wall Street players. Between takes Shia and Oliver debated the value of gold. Shia and Josh Brolin, who plays sinister hedge-fund manager Bretton James, traded tips and insults and daily PL reports. “Every night on top of rehearsals and script work, on top of my personal trading, I’ve got Brolin talking mad trash via text, psychological shit. We’d pop off at each other all the time. He would say, ‘What the fuck do you know? You were in Transformers.’ ”

The goal wasn’t to turn actors into day traders but to bypass easy stereotypes—the cutthroat capitalists, the greed-is-good Gekkos—and, by close examination, create a fuller, more compelling portrait of a broken system. For all his reputation as a stoker of controversy, over the years Oliver Stone has shown extraordinary skill in putting a granular, emotional, human face on charged moments of history. Which helps explain why Shia hasn’t fallen in line with the current vogue for populist rage against the financial sector and its excesses. “It’s easy to villainize these guys with the big paychecks,” he says. “But they’re not all bad. I’m a pretty left-wing character, and I come from whatever collar is lower than blue. But meeting these guys really opened my mind a lot. I’ve never seen people with more drive and determination in my life.”

“He is a doctor of human manipulation,” Shia says of Oliver Stone. He means it as a compliment.

What’s required of an actor on an Oliver Stone set isn’t quite acting, at least not as it’s commonly understood. Rather, the point is to let Oliver Stone push and shape and needle you by whatever means necessary so that he can capture on-camera the emotions, the human show, he’s looking for.

“One of the first things you do with Oliver,” Shia says, “is you start talking about your personal life. You give it all to him at the beginning, and then he has these strings with which he can fuck with you. He regurgitates this stuff at inopportune moments. He will just come up and whisper a phrase in your ear, sing a song, mention something about your dad, and—pow!—it puts you in a different world.”

“We’d be on the street, and Oliver would just say, ‘Go to that bar, get fucked-up, and come back.’ I’d walk over, get smashed, and go back to work. He would really fuck with me when I was smashed. I get aggressive when I’m smashed, and he’d film that. He would just open you up completely, make you fucking naked—and then call, ‘Action.’ ”

Michael Douglas arrived on-set already opened up by real-life trauma. His firstborn son, Cameron, had been arrested for trafficking cocaine and crystal meth and faces a long prison term. “Michael Douglas was an open wound on the set,” Shia says. “That dude is in pain. He was emotional putty on the set. A struggling man. We filmed a struggling man.”

This time around, Douglas’s character, Gekko, finds himself less a master of the universe than a stranger, fresh from prison and shunned by his daughter, Winnie, played by the British actress Carey Mulligan, whom Shia is now dating.

Stone and Douglas wrestled all the time on-set, says Shia. “That is their process. They fucking go at it like rams, all day long, every day. They know that they feed off each other in a way that they don’t get with anybody else they work with, but they fucking hate each other.”

The reason it all works, Shia figures, what allows these people to operate together at this collectively heightened, emotionally raw state for such a period of time, is the confidence that the director is not going home until he gets his version of the truth. “That does something to your mind,” Shia says. “I’ve never been so confident in my life, coming out of the darkest moment in my life. I’ve experienced things I’ve never seen on a set before. Finishing a scene and having the entire crew clap. We were making Godfather II out there. That takes a director with unwavering discipline, the balls and the wherewithal to shut everybody the fuck up and go after a vision. To micromanage everybody’s insanity to accomplish one goal.”

“Did you talk to Oliver?” Shia asks, almost shyly. “What did he say?”

He said you had a “nuclear energy,” I tell him.

“You feel that nuclear energy right now?” He squints at me with a halfhearted, goofy hard-guy look. “Shia’s in that tender, beautiful moment,” Stone told me, “where he’s growing out of the home and into his own life. He’s a complicated individual. There’s a lot of clay there to work with. He’s not simple. You pay a price if you go to work at 13. There are things you can use that are just rich, including sadness and pain.”

Back in Sherman Oaks, Shia is debating the wisdom of a fourth hot dog but decides against it. “When the oil starts to seep out of the cheese,” he explains, “I’m out.”

We walk across the street to the Up in Smoke Hookah Lounge, mostly because it is there and empty. Shia is training for a marathon and prepping for the physical stress of a third Transformers, which will begin shooting in a couple of months. He’s up to fifteen miles and has given up cigarettes, but some grape-plum hookah smoke doesn’t strike him as a problem. I ask him if he and Stone hit it off from the start.

“There’s a testing period,” Shia says.

What’s he looking for?

“A man.”

For Shia the question now is where to point that electric energy next, what to do with his postcrash wisdom. Though he’s careful to avoid saying anything disparaging about the prospect of filming another Transformers, it’s clear that it’s something of a comedown after the all-in psychological engagement of Wall Street.

Transformers is my last corporate obligation,” he says. The experience of filming the two movies could hardly be more different. “With Mike [Transformers director Michael Bay] it’s like a Groundlings improv ercise in the middle of a volcano.” He’s looking forward to it, but he’s apprehensive about returning to a role that he says is more athlete than actor. After that—who knows? “I’m not going to work for money, because I’m rich, so there’s no point. Now I just get to have fun. I get to make movies that I’m really hungry to make.”

One project he was hungry to do—one that he thought was set but then fell apart—is The Promised Land, which was reportedly to star Shia and Ryan Gosling and was to be directed by The Road director John Hillcoat. Nick Cave wrote the script, which, as Shia puts it, “is about a bunch of drunks and illicit liquor dealing—GoodFellas in the woods.”

Shia’s disappointment over the unraveling of the project led to a break with his agents at William Morris Endeavor, and for a while he announced he’d go agentless. He eventually came in from the cold and signed on with CAA. Still, he says, he refuses to make the rounds of studio meetings where shit scripts are peddled as gold and good ones go unmade. He recalls a pitch meeting at Paramount. “I’m there with my manager and the head of the studio, the head of production, heads of marketing. It’s a business meeting, and the proposed idea is something called Fuck Buddies. You could lose your mind.”

He goes to fewer pitch meetings these days. Instead, he and Emile Hirsch are reading plays in Emile’s living room, looking for a theater project to try. He’s happier and feeling saner than he was a year ago, and this is due in part to his comfortable relationship with Carey Mulligan, though he’d prefer not to talk about it if he can. “I never really had anything in my life that was off-limits,” he says, visibly trying to control his natural inclination to share, to think out loud, to let his voice run free. “But with this, just out of respect, I just don’t want to fuck around. She’s an unbelievably thought-provoking actress, the most talented actress I’ve ever met in my life, by leaps and bounds. Neither one of us are fame whores. It works out. It’s not like we’re the premiere couple; we’re not the red-carpet king and queen.”

The hookah guy refills the pipe and leans in to mention that there’s a black BMW SUV parked across the street, inside of which is a guy taking pictures of the back of Shia’s head.

Part of Shia’s new trouble-avoidance plan means breaking ties with the old anti-Hollywood crew he used to run with. “My war stories are crazy, man,” Shia says. “We’d just go to house parties and get in brawls. That was my crowd, this Valley Armenian gang-ridden Toonerville-Mexican-Mafia thing. But there’s no way I could hang out with the same people and sustain this path. I’m not willing to trade in feeding my family for fuck-around time with Joey the head case.”

Not that he’s gone soft. I mention that the photographer is still parked across the street, lurking, snapping photos. “Should we go over and do the rest of the interview in his car?” Shia suggests.

So we do; we run across traffic on Ventura, and before the photographer can pull away we slip into the backseat of the BMW. He’s a lumpy, awkward man with gigantic camera lenses filling the car. He works for a British outfit called Splash and admits that he’d been following Carey Mulligan all day. “Your girlfriend went to the gym this morning, and I was hoping she’d show up here.” So much for the sanctity of their private lives.

“You ever feel like a weirdo?” Shia asks, riled but doing his best to stay calm, like someone struggling to remember his mantra.

Shia says he needed something drastic, the violent shake-up of a car accident, to deliver him to a mellower place.

“I don’t think I would have got here otherwise,” he says of the wreck and the work that followed. “You have to be a genius to learn from other people’s mistakes, and I’m not one of those guys. I’m just not one of those guys.”

*Naturally, we were skeptical of this, but we’re far too principled to ask Osman Khan to fax us Shia’s account statement. Still, the anecdotal evidence is compelling. When I mentioned to a casting-agent friend in New York that I was profiling Shia for the magazine, she announced, unprompted: “I’ve never met him, but I love Shia. His manager is a friend of mine and called me to tell me Shia was hot on a stock and we had to buy it now. Then he called back when Shia said to sell. I made $10,000 on that stock. I love that kid.” Here are a few of Shia’s recommendations: Buy Apple before it splits, and grow some balls and short gold at 120. After our interview, he texted me: “Oil will rally rest of year. Look at IOC. IOC’s momentum is major, and it will surprise to the upside.”

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