The (Hot-Dog-Vending, Knife-Fighting, Break-Dancing, Spielberg-Wooing) Adventures of Young Shia LaBeouf

Written by Siobhan on June 24 2022

Shia LaBeouf may be on the verge of superstardom, but as Kevin Conley discovers, that doesn’t mean he’s stopped painting toilet seats.

Shia LaBeouf, who in a couple of huge weekends last year transformed from a likably quickwitted teen actor best known for his work on the Disney Channel into a likably quickwitted 21yearold action hero and franchise star, jumps into the back of his new Ford F150 and reaches for his rifle. This isn’t a movie set. It has taken us exactly thirty-six minutes to get from first hello to here, a gun club parking lot thirty miles north of Los Angeles, and that’s a real shotgun he’s hefting. It seems like a good idea, for many reasons, to watch his every move. Which is how I spot the rest of the equipment scattered around his flatbed.

“Dude, why do you have five toilet seats?”

LaBeouf sets down his gun and launches into one of his trademark bursts of highmetabolic enthusiasm “Me and my friends, as an art project, we decided, you know What canvas has not been really, like, messed with So we started this toiletseat collection.”

Apparently, while other twentysomething Hollywood types busy themselves with checking in to and out of rehab, LaBeouf and his entourage—the same gang of friends he’s had since his boyhood in Echo Park, a largely workingclass Latino neighborhood that’s home to Dodger Stadium—spend their weekends whittling toilet seats and spraypainting them with sayings like pooperazzi and high end for your rear end.

Sport shooting hadn’t been my idea, nor was it some studio scheme to show the tough side of the boy in the blockbuster. LaBeouf insisted on it He’s taken up the pursuit recently, and as we wait for a ride from the parking lot up to the range, he explains the appeal. “Believe it or not, it’s a good date,” he says. “I bring girls up here sometimes; it’s kind of—it’s very invigorating for them.”

LaBeouf owns just one gun, but he practically lusts over the collection owned by his Hollywood—and sportshooting—mentor, Steven Spielberg. “He has the most ridiculous collection,” LaBeouf says. “He’s got a gun for every movie he’s made. He buys old Perazzi guns, Italian—beautiful, beautiful guns—and gets them engraved. It takes like a year. He’s got the Jaws gun; he’s got E.T. He let me shoot with the Jurassic Park gun. He just got his Saving Private Ryan back from the engraver’s.”

It couldn’t have been easy for Spielberg to hand over a $60,000 collector’s edition Perazzi—the same make Vice President Cheney was using when he mistook a friend’s face for a quail—to a young actor. But then again, why not The man who invented blockbusters has been handing him everything else lately. It started two years ago, when the director D. J. Caruso sent LaBeouf’s Disturbia audition tape over to DreamWorks to get Spielberg’s approval to cast him. Spielberg immediately okayed LaBeouf for the film—but he must have also seen something more, because LaBeouf was quickly signed up to play the lead in Transformers and this month’s_ Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull._ It was a huge gamble on a relative unknown, but Spielberg wasn’t worried. “When I first saw Shia, I was amazed at how someone so young could be so unselfconscious,” he says. “In a sense, it’s not always what an actor says that impresses me. It’s how they listen. He seems closer to audiences in his ability to be himself.”

Over the course of their collaborations (which continue this fall with Caruso’s Eagle Eye and next summer’s Transformers 2), Spielberg and LaBeouf have grown close.

“One time Steven told me to come to his house ready to go skeet shooting,” says LaBeouf. “I get there and stick my head in to ask if he’s ready—and this is classic Spielberg—he says, ‘Nope, Shia. I’m trapped!’ ” LaBeouf then starts playing both parts—concerned protégé and faraway mentor

“You’re trapped Steven, what are you talking about”

“I’m trapped back here. Follow my voice.”

“Where are you”

“Over here… Here… Here!”

LaBeouf kept following the calls until he got to the director’s office. And there was the master himself shoes off, socks on, dressed in shooting gear, but sitting behind a computer, stuck on the fifteenth level of a firstperson shooter called BioShock.

“This is like months to get to this level, and he can’t get past this one little mysterious spider god, and he’s losing his mind. He’s like, ‘I can’t do it, Shia! I can’t do it.’ ”

LaBeouf, who got into acting at age 12 partly because he wanted to make enough money to buy himself a Sega Genesis, had found himself a soul mate.

And Spielberg, for his part, had clearly settled on a new favorite onscreen avatar.

Ever since his first starring role, as Stanley Yelnats in the 2003 sleeper hit Holes, directors have been calling LaBeouf the Next Tom Hanks. Part of this is standard Hollywood hype—that’s what you say when your star is more funny than handsome. But there is something to the comparison Both actors win over audiences not through Shakespearean talent or leadingman looks but with a kind of appealing smartassness—a mix of wit and ease and confidence that may be even more important to big boxoffice results than good looks or character acting. Caruso says the first time he saw LaBeouf read, he felt like he was watching a young John Cusack. “He wasn’t attractive,” he says. “But the more time you spent with him, he became attractive. It happens with his wit, intuition, and timing. Ninetynine percent of the time, everything he does just happens naturally.”

LaBeouf says that his role models are the “stand and deliver” types, guys like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, who don’t feel the need to “change it up every time or come up with the mannerism that makes each character different. You just feel the performance, and you care immensely, because it’s coming from an honest place.” He can be very modest about his looks and talent, but it’s clear he has a canny sense of his place in the business. “The [Ryan] Goslings of the world are incredible to watch,” he says. “But they make character pieces. It’s not that I’m not interested in making those, it’s just that I really enjoy watching movies like the ones I’m making, where there’s a lot happening—bigensemble, orchestral types of movies and not just a solo act.”

Part of this easygoing showmanship comes from LaBeouf’s teenage years in Echo Park, where despite being nearly the only white kid for miles, he blended in. He picked up freestyle rapping. He was, he says, “a major dozens player” at a mostly black school. Just so he could hang out with his friends, he learned how to breakdance. “It was sort of your greeting card,” he says. “Like, yeah, I’m white, but I have soul.”

The rest derives from what you might call family tradition Shia’s forebears include a long line of counterculture roughnecks and artistes manqués. His maternal grandfather—from whom Shia takes his name—was a comedian and Mafia barber on New York’s Lower East Side, and his dad’s parents were a Cajun Green Beret who drank himself to death and a beatnik lesbian who hung out with Ginsberg. This starcrossed tradition continued with his parents Mom, a Jewish Earth Mama who sold handmade jewelry at local fairs; Dad, a Willie Nelson lookalike who was also a Vietnam vet, convicted felon, and commedia dell’arte clown. Pop was the sort who grew pot along the Santa Monica Freeway and thought of karate as a great way to meet the ladies.

Shia proved to be exactly the sort of naturalborn hustler that this oddball family needed. While he was still a toddler, the LaBeoufs started something called the Snow Cone Family Circus, whose business plan was based on the notion that their Latin neighbors in Echo Park really dug hot dogs and clowns. All three LaBeoufs would dress in greasepaint and motley and run around the park improvising slapstick routines, trying to get some of the riches of the late Reagan era to trickle down their way.

When LaBeouf was 9 or so, his father disappeared for a few years, an interlude during which Shia fashioned an openmike standup act at local nightclubs, swearing and talking about his first erection. His mom also enrolled him in the Big Brother program, and he got paired with a stuntman, who took him to film sets. “I didn’t know anything about being humble then,” he says. “I told the stunt guys, ‘I’m going to be a big star.’ And they all laughed at me.” At 11 he picked an agent’s phone number out of the Yellow Pages and told her all about the phenomenal Shia LaBeouf. (“He’s big in England.”) The woman, Teresa Dahlquist (his agent to this day), knew it was bullshit but signed him up anyway She paid for his rent and his head shots and eventually landed him on the Disney Channel for a show called Even Stevens.

As a working minor, Shia required adult supervision onset; he hired his father (who had reappeared), and the two commuted back and forth to the lot on a Harley. “Disney wouldn’t pay for my room and board, so me and my pop stayed in this $60anight hotel, called the Motel Vista, for three years,” LaBeouf says. The setup was, in part, a scheme to help his father stay clean. They went to his AA meetings together, played cards, and slept in the same room. “That’s where me and my dad became best friends,” he says. LaBeouf pitched this unusual arrangement to Disney, who bought the rights to the story, but the project (RentADad) has never moved out of development—perhaps because the material may not be best suited to the family-oriented studio. “Wild shit happens in a motel when you live there,” he says. “I remember my dad would get in fights with a pimp who had his prostitute next door. And he was trying to taser the guy because he wouldn’t pay one of his prostitutes. My dad was a hothead back then, a biker guy.”

Despite (or because of) all the hardships of his boyhood and his parents’ divorce, today LaBeouf is incredibly tight with his mother and father. His dad still bunks with him during the winters (he summers in a tepee in Montana); he bought his mom a house a tenminute drive from his own. “They don’t work,” he says. “I take care of them, and they get to create art for the rest of their days.” And ultimately he’s grateful, crediting his casual intimacy with the camera to his sometimes rocky upbringing “It always felt safer working. I never get in trouble. Like, from the early days, when my parents were selling hot dogs Once we were in clown makeup, they couldn’t fight. Every time that makeup would come on, you knew that you were going to have a good time, because they had to sell these hot dogs, and nobody wants to buy a hot dog from the fighting clowns.”

Somewhere between the first and the second shooting stations, LaBeouf interrupts himself to mention, wistfully, how many of his favorite actors maintain an air of mystery.

“So what parts of your life are you keeping to yourself” I ask, playing along. “Usually you seem so, you know, uncensored.”

He thinks for a minute and then looks up with a eureka! grin. “I used to shit on myself until I was 12 years old. I didn’t stop until I got a job.”

“Are you serious”

“I promise you. We could call my mother right now. You got your cell phone”

LaBeouf puts her on speaker

“Hello, Ma”

“Yes, honey”

“Hey, Ma, you’ll never believe what I’m talking about right now.”

“Where are you at”

“Well, I’m at the range, but I’m talking to Kevin, and we were deciding how to be the most uncensored. Like, what’s the one thing I never told nobody And I was telling him how I used to shit on myself. You remember that, Ma”

“You shared that secret, huh”

“Tell him what I did with the boxes, Ma.”

“Well, I don’t know. The times you did it, Shia, you thought you were going to get away with it. But you’d always get busted. The boxes would fall down on my head from the towel rack, or I’d find them under the bed.”

“Ma, Ma, tell him about the karate class at the YMCA.”

“Oh yeah. Karate class was very sweet, because you were all strong in your karate suit, and then all of a sudden a little brown ball would fall out of your clothes on the floor.”

“Ma, Ma, you remember when I was doing those kicking exrcises in the gi [karate uniform] You remember what happened with the kick that I did My last kick in karate class”

“What the piece that flew.”

“Yeah, the piece that flew and hit the wall. Remember that piece?”

“You guys have a good day.”

“I love you. Bye, Ma.”

LaBeouf has filled out lately. The skinny moptop teenager who appeared in last summer’s hits is gone; this summer, with his fanny pack full of shotgun shells and his chin full of truckstop scruff, he looks like the new guy the contractor sent in to rough up some drywall. When LaBeouf shoulders his shotgun, it’s impossible not to notice a badass knot of forearm muscles—the kind you don’t pick up at the gym. “Well, I’m like fifteen, twenty pounds lighter than I was doing Indy 4,” he says when I ask about his new bulk. “I’ve never worked so hard for anything in my life, prepwise. I did four months of sword fighting and bike training. And I spent insane amounts of time on the switchblade.”

Everyone involved with the production of Indy 4 is contractually obliged to maintain a press blackout regarding the movie’s plot points, but ever since he was cast, rumors have persisted that LaBeouf’s character, Mutt Williams, is the long-lost son of Indy and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen’s character in Raiders of the Lost Ark). When I ask LaBeouf about the nature of the relationship between his character—who looks like a classic greaser in the trailer, complete with the white T-shirt and black leather coat—and Indy, all he says is that it’s very Red River, which is a rather subtle hint. In that movie, the young Montgomery Clift plays a character named Matt who, at the end of a difficult cattle drive, comes to blows with his adoptive father, played by John Wayne.

After casting, Spielberg gave LaBeouf a handful of DVDs—_Red River _and other troubled youth classics such as Blackboard Jungle, The Wild One, and Rebel Without a Cause—and told him, simply, “Go find Mutt.” The script mentioned a switchblade; LaBeouf showed up flipping the thing like a street tough. “It was just a prop,” he says. “But the more I played with it, the better I got and the more it would wind up in the movie.” He did the whole Transformers press tour with a switchblade in his pocket. “It was like my Tetris. I remember walking into the Letterman show with my switchblade in my pocket. So the security guy with the wand says, ‘What do you got in there’ And I pull out my switchblade and say, ‘I’m doing a movie right now. I’m practicing.’ And the guy says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ So I did Letterman with a switchblade in my pocket. In case he started getting on me, I’d have something to say.”

On LaBeouf’s first day on the Indy 4 set, Spielberg felt the need to test him with a shooting schedule of heavy action around the Yale campus, with the young Mutt on a vintage Harley Softail and Harrison Ford right behind him, hanging on to his waist. LaBeouf thought they were just doing a few easy maneuvers until he saw two big trucks backing toward them. For his ‘welcome to the club’ moment, he had to drive his Harley at thirty miles an hour straight into a five-foot space between the trucks as Ford argued with one of the drivers and the passage got smaller and smaller. When only inches remained between his handlebars and the two trucks, he was supposed to come to a jolting stop and let the trucks smash together. “As they collide in front of me, I stop my bike and cruise around the other side of the thing and jet off. This is my first shot.”

That kind of willingness to dive right in earned LaBeouf the respect of another stand and deliver icon. “He was unafraid, unabashed,” says Ford. “And so straightforward to work with. There was never what I suppose you could call ‘acting shit.’ We never took time out to correct ‘acting.’ For me he’s the best sort of actor to work with.” Spielberg goes further “Shia has the appetite and natural ability to play a myriad of characters. I’m not sure what he cannot do.”

As we walk from station to station, LaBeouf smokes Parliaments. He calls it his one vice—not because he thinks he doesn’t have more but because it’s the one he uses to help him ward off others that he’s seen firsthand. Back in the ’90s, when his dad went missing for a couple of key years, the elder LaBeouf spent some time shaking a heroin habit in a VA hospital. The son doesn’t need rehab to know what it’s like to stare down addiction.

Even so, LaBeouf does seem to have inherited a wee delinquent streak. At 19, after a neighbor in his Studio City apartment complex insulted his mother and rear-ended her car, he got a knife, brought a friend for backup, and went to the guy’s apartment, where he wound up getting jumped by the guy and six of his friends. Last November he repeatedly mouthed off to a security guard in a Chicago Walgreens and got himself arrested for trespassing. (The charge was later dropped.) This spring he added to his criminal history an arrest for smoking in Burbank. “They had just implemented a law that you couldn’t smoke anywhere in Burbank,” he says. “And I didn’t hear about this law, because I was shooting. The guy gives me a ticket. Then the court date came up two days after I had gotten back from shooting, and I just forgot about it. The news went everywhere like I was on a crime spree. And it killed me. It broke my heart, because I really try not to be that guy. ”

But a missed court date is nothing compared with the story Shia tells about the craziest thing he’s done to get into a role. For A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, a film based on the director Dito Montiel’s memoirs of his rough boyhood in mid’80s Queens, Montiel sent LaBeouf and his costars, Channing Tatum and Peter Tambakis, to New York with one direction Go be friends. “We knew what Dito wanted,” he says. “And we were walking around the Upper East Side in this rebel mindset, trying to be like street kids.

“Channing was supposed to be the head honcho in the movie, so he goes, ‘All right, you see that bookstore Somebody throw a rock. Let’s break in and steal a SpiderMan bookmark.’ And Peter and me look at each other like, ‘Dude, what Are you fucking kidding me’ ”

Tatum, however, was devoted to his craft. (“He’s like, ‘Really Okay, fine. Fuck.’ “) He kicked the plateglass window, and the security system kicked in at the same time that the sirens started wailing in the background. “He grabs the bookmarks and jets,” says LaBeouf. “So now you got these little actor kids running down the street in New York, freaking out.” (A rep for Tatum would only say that Shia’s version of the story was “inaccurate.”)

“Meanwhile, we’re staying in Sting’s apartment. He’s producing the movie—we couldn’t take the shit back to Sting’s apartment. So I huddle in some trash cans under one of those stairwells that go below street level. Channing’s under a car. Peter’s down the street in another trash can. Cop cars are flying by, and there’s private security cars that roam for hours. I’m getting text messages from Channing Don’t get up. Stay right there. This is the first week knowing each other. We bonded.”

The only thing they haven’t cleaned up in New York roving gangs of Method actors.

This sort of preparation would be impossible for LaBeouf today. He’s too well-known Somebody’d have a camera phone, and their little scene study group would be up on TMZ by lunch hour. He already has paparazzi on the corner near his house and is working out his coping strategies. “I figure I could make a little sports contest. Like, if I beat you at this pushup contest, maybe you’ll leave me alone today. I don’t know. It might be douchey, I guess.”

His principal strategy for maintaining his sanity is to stick with his old friends. L.A. is his hometown, and, he notes, the paparazzi “don’t hang out in Echo Park.” He and his buddies spend a lot of time just going around “We go to comedy clubs, hang out in people’s houses, and watch games. We’re sports fanatics. Occasionally—I think occasionally—for a friend’s birthday, we’ll go to a strip club. It’s not like we’re terrorizing the town, you know”

His friends are also vigilant on his behalf, cutting him no slack, for instance, when a rumor began that he’d started seeing Rihanna. “My friends were like, ‘Are you serious, bro Are you fuckin’ kidding me Why didn’t you tell me about that’ I was like, ‘I really don’t know her like that.’ For weeks they were singing that ‘Umbrella’ song everywhere I walked. And those are my people.” For reasons like these, he claims to be putting romance low on his to-do list for now.

Even set romances

“Oh, I’ve been in love with every woman I’ve ever worked with,” he admits. By this point, we’re sitting on a bench outside the gun club having another smoke. As he sees my mind racing through the list of costars—Megan Fox, Sarah Roemer, Michelle Monaghan—he repeats the assertion for emphasis. “But some aren’t available. And then there’s the three-month attention span that actors have, you know I don’t know if it’s mutual, but I really don’t care. They have to kiss me when ‘action’ gets called, anyway, so I’ll get what I want.”

And then he lets loose a big, bulletproof laugh—young, infectious, beyond prosecution, just as much sinner as saint—the kind that might make you wonder who wouldn’t buy a hot dog from this kid?

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