I’ve been a runner my whole life, running from myself. Whether to movies or drinking and drugging or fucking calamity or whatever it is, I’ve always been running. Shia LaBeouf
You may know 28-year-old Shia LaBeouf from his series of light-on-their-feet, live-wire, wise-mouth characters beginning with his first big role as Louis Stevens in the Disney Channel series Even Stevens, for which he won a Daytime Emmy in 2003. Hungry to break through, cocky, part daredevil, and the rest know-it-all, a kid whose spray of bravado and narcissism gets in the way of his talent—this description of LaBeouf’s early characters, from Young Dito in 2006’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints to Kale in the Steven Spielberg-executive-produced thriller Disturbia (2007), from Sam Witwicky in the toy-to-screen blockbuster series Transformers to the aptly named penguin surfer Cody Maverick in 2007’s computer-animated film Surf’s Up, could stand in for the actor’s own. If you don’t know the latter film, it poses this question: Does the devotion to craft and, finally, fearlessness that sent Cody up on the sky-high waves time and again excuse the willfulness and need to conduct his life on land as if he were still on the water? Well, that same stubbornness in recognizing boundaries seems consonant with LaBeouf’s public conduct of late—behavior that includes his 2013 dustup with Alec Baldwin during rehearsals for the play Orphans, from which LaBeouf was later ousted, and continues through his recent arrest in New York City for criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, and harassment, after disturbing a Broadway performance of Cabaret. In 2013, when it turned out that the plot of LaBeouf’s short film HowardCantour.com (2012) had been purloined from graphic novelist Daniel Clowes’s 2007 comic Justin M. Damiano, the actor-director responded with a series of tweet apologies that also appeared to be shoplifted. And it has been damned difficult to gauge the talented actor’s behavior ever since.
Real-life conduct aside, LaBeouf, a Los Angeles native, has been working steadily as an actor since he was 12 years old. And even as he fled the Transformers series and the avalanche of money that would have continued to come with it, opting instead for a series of more character-driven films that included Lawless (2012) and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, LaBeouf’s wiliness and ability continued to shine.
When I sat down with him this past September in New York, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d been more interested in feeding his mystique than answering my questions—for instance, that working with Lars von Trier furthered the assumption that anyone out to make sense of LaBeouf was best to view him through a lens of ironic detachment. Instead, the actor’s eagerness to explain himself was a source of continual surprise. Rather than pretentiously discursive, he was intent and thoughtful. His focus was evident and translated into an impressive sense of impact, with the same kind of raw emotion he brings to his newest film, writer-director David Ayer’s World War II action melodrama Fury, in which LaBeouf wrestles with remorse while serving as part of a tank squadron under the command of Brad Pitt’s character, Don “Wardaddy” Collier.
ELVIS MITCHELL: Going all the way back to 2003’s The Battle of Shaker Heights, I could see your excitement about the material.
SHIA LaBEOUF: I was just joyful to have a trade. At that point, meeting Ben Affleck and Matt Damon was like, “Wow.” I’d worked with Jon Voight on Holes , and he was a hero for my father. But Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were heroes from my generation. It was a level that I didn’t think I would ever attain. We were still living in this “Holy shit, this is really happening to us” kind of thing. And it wasn’t just a solo thing, like I’d jaunted off on my own. My mom was a fabric salesman, my dad was a drug dealer, among other things, and they both quit their trades to become sort of like carnie folk and do this thing with me. So it was big for all of us when Project Greenlight [the HBO reality show, the second season of which documented the embattled making of Shaker Heights] happened. My mother was so impressed with Ben Affleck being at the premiere. Ben is a really charming dude. He was the first guy who really took me off to the side and made me feel like I could do it.
MITCHELL: What did he say to you?
LaBEOUF: “Keep your head on straight, kid, and don’t let all this get to you.” He knew that I had cameras in my face and that there were expectations to perform. I think that’s always been my issue. I’m prone to theatrics in my life. When you’re in front of a film crew, the worst thing that an actor can be is boring, and that flows over into my life. Ben saw that I turned reality up to 11. I was a wild man at that wrap party. I was still very edgy and remained so for a long time—and that was sort of my appeal to a lot of directors and casting agents. Ben saw that and was trying to curb it before it became an issue. He was unsuccessful. [both laugh] Spielberg was the next guy to try—I remember him saying to me, “Tom Cruise never picks his nose in public.” And all I thought was, “I don’t want to be Tom Cruise.” It was this gut reaction. And Steven was a hero in my house. I remember when I was 3, taking baths with my mom, her petting my head and going, “One day you’re going to meet Steven Spielberg.” And then it happened. He made that comment to me right around the time Vanity Fair put out a piece with me in a spacesuit saying I was the next Tom Hanks. And though I respect both Hanks and Cruise, it just didn’t appeal to my sensibilities. They’re both great actors. But I just didn’t feel like we were cut from the same fabric. My upbringing was darker. The guys who I looked up to were far darker. So I rejected that label hard.
MITCHELL: Who were the guys you looked up to?
LaBEOUF: Gary Oldman, Sean Penn, Joaquin Phoenix—guys who dealt with material that had more intrinsic value. This can be a very debilitating job for an actor. Sometimes you don’t have any say about your creative process. And when I watched the movies of the guys I admired, it felt like they had put a spin on it. They were working on things that appealed to a certain kind of mythos. Whereas I think Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks came with something more heroic about them. Even in the comics I used to read, I didn’t like Superman, I liked Venom. I was raised on The Simpsons, Bebe’s Kids, and South Park. I was raised with irony. And when I watch Sean Penn or Johnny Depp, guys who skew toward irony, it’s far more appealing to me.
MITCHELL: You might be the first white person I’ve ever heard mention Bebe’s Kids.
I’m willing to do anything and everything. It’s not good for my personal life. But neither is being bad. I’d rather be anything but bad. SHIA LABEOUF
LaBEOUF: I fucking love Bebe’s Kids, man. [laughs]
MITCHELL: Is there a performance, say, of Gary Oldman’s that you loved? Sid & Nancy ?
LaBEOUF: Oh, God, yeah, Sid & Nancy. I know he says that he doesn’t like that performance, but it’s fucking great no matter what he says. I saw that when I was young, with my dad, who was similar to that character. And Ray [Winstone]’s early shit, like Scum , where he’s an inmate at a youth detention center. Those are the types of dudes who I looked up to. I didn’t like Jackie Chan; I was attracted to Steven Seagal, the wounded heroes. My dad used to take me to drive-in theaters to watch Seagal movies. I liked Mickey Rourke films. The guys who I looked up to were guys that my dad looked up to. I looked up to my dad. And he doesn’t have a Tom Cruise or a Tom Hanks kind of sensibility. He’s in the Mongols biker gang. He’s cut from a different kind of fabric, a different sensibility, a Vietnam veteran who came home disgruntled. When I met Steven [Spielberg], he wanted to take what he liked about me and lighten it. He wanted me to laugh more. And while he was right, I didn’t feel it. When I was working with Steven, I was 17 to 23. I listened to Tupac and Biggie. My life was just different. I grew up in Echo Park before it was a cool place to be. I had been kicked out of every school I’d been to before I met Steven. And that’s not me aggrandizing my antihero, because I’m really trying to work on my good-guy now. But I’ve seen the wisdom of Steven’s words later in my life.
MITCHELL: Sean Penn has never become the lighter, laughing guy.
LaBEOUF: No. Or Mel Gibson. And I still love both those motherfuckers so much. They’re still my favorite dudes.
MITCHELL: There is an undercurrent of anger in everything that Gibson does.
LaBEOUF: Which I get. The way that I know how to break when I’m not connected to the material is my own life. The only thing my father gave me that was of any value to me is pain. The only time my dad will ever talk to me is when I need him at work. He knows to pick up the Skype phone call, and he knows what I’m looking for. It’s not to say “Hey, Dad.” We manipulate each other. We service each other. I use him when I go to work. It’s not a real conversation; it’s just an excuse to rev up. He’s the marionette puppeteer. My dad is the key to most of my base emotions. My greatest and my worst memories are with my father, all my major trauma and major celebration came from him. It’s a negative gift. And I’m not ready to let go of it, because anger has a lot of power. You look at Mel Gibson, you go, “He knows that there’s a lot of magic in that rage that he has.” I’ve been scared for a long time to let go of the anger that I have. I use it. But lately I’m starting to come off of that theory and find that looking at pictures of a three-legged dog can take me to the same place.
MITCHELL: You talk about growing up in a certain kind of chaos, and it seems like part of your process is keeping that kind of thing around you, because there’s comfort in that.
LaBEOUF: I’m an insecure person to begin with, but the only thing I’ve ever been good at is harnessing the negative in my life. The thing with my dad and the Skype call, that’s a technique. We have an unspoken agreement, a secret. We can’t really tell each other that we’re manipulating each other, but we both know it. And I love my dad. I’d love to be closer to my dad. But we’ve got something going on between us that’s really valuable to me right now—more valuable to me than having a father. And I financially support his whole lifestyle. I pay him to be my marionette puppeteer.
MITCHELL: When was the first time you realized your father was a kind of touchstone?
LaBEOUF: I must have been 10 years old, making a movie called The Christmas Path . I had this scene with Dee Wallace, and I’m supposed to break because I miss my father. We did it once and I couldn’t get there. I felt like I’d failed everyone and I ran over to the director and I said, “Can I bring my dad up here?” This is when he was still parent on set, and I brought my dad in and placed him right on the dolly. Right before we filmed, I looked at him and my dad mouthed, “You can do it, honey boy.” He was really supportive, and still is. He broke me and it worked. Ever since then it’s been my way of working. I try to make everything as real as possible. If it feels real to me, then I can go home happy. And there’s no pain worse than being bad. So I’m willing to do anything and everything. It’s not good for my personal life. But neither is being bad. I’d rather be anything but bad.
MITCHELL: What do you do to turn off from this stuff?
LaBEOUF: I don’t, that’s the thing. I’m trying to find a way to have some control over my actions, my behavior, my ideas, my thoughts, my path in life. But it’s very new for me. There hasn’t been much off time. And when your emotional state is based on whatever you’ve committed to for the next six, seven months of your life, you have to be careful about what you say yes to. There’s a fucking price to some movies. Some movies you don’t get back what you give.
MITCHELL: Do you pick a piece of material to see how it will set you off?
LaBEOUF: I haven’t really been picky—choosey about my career until the last five years. For a long time I was just treated like, “Place Actor A here.” It could have been anyone. Only from Lawless on have I been able to make conscious choices on projects that affect me on a very cathartic level.
MITCHELL: I would almost say that until Lawless, people thought of you as a comedian—you played guys who thought they were smarter than they actually were, and got in trouble because of it.
LaBEOUF: That’s where I felt I was in my life. I’m still there. What I’m going to work on next is a very cathartic thing—it’s therapy—a movie called Man Down. Gary Oldman is going to play my therapist, which is the craziest part of the whole thing.
MITCHELL: [laughs] Had you met him before this?
LaBEOUF: Yeah, we really like each other. He worked on Lawless for a few days and we really bonded. It was like meeting Superman. And he knew how much I looked up to him. I’m pretty blunt about it. In those three days, he couldn’t get away from me. I thought, “This man will never want to work with me again. I’ve bombarded him.” But then this Man Down thing came up and he was really into it.
MITCHELL: In a lot of ways, Gary’s circumstances, the anger he talks about in the beginning of his career, must have connected with you.
LaBEOUF: He had a really wild-ass upbringing with his dad, which isn’t necessarily what Nil by Mouth [Oldman’s 1997 film, which he dedicated to his father] was—there are scenes based on his life with his father, but I think that’s been misconstrued, it wasn’t Nil by Mouth verbatim. And, yeah, I can identify. But he’s an immersive actor. Everything that he’s in, he’s committed, totally. That’s the beauty of Gary.
MITCHELL: Fury is the first time you’ve ever played a man of faith. His religion is what gets him through this, his devotion to his God.
They put people in a fucking home for doing what we do for a living. You have to abandon yourself to delusion. If you’re going to work in that way, you have to work with people who can referee you. You need a lion tamer who you respect. SHIA LABEOUF
LaBEOUF: I found God doing Fury. I became a Christian man, and not in a fucking bullshit way—in a very real way. I could have just said the prayers that were on the page. But it was a real thing that really saved me. And you can’t identify unless you’re really going through it. It’s a full-blown exchange of heart, a surrender of control. And while there’s beauty to that, acting is all about control. So that was a wild thing to navigate. I had good people around me who helped me. Brad [Pitt] was really instrumental in guiding my head through this. Brad comes from a hyper-religious, very deeply Christian, Bible Belt life, and he rejected it and moved toward an unnamed spirituality. He looked at religion like the people’s opium, almost like a Marxist view on religion. Whereas [Fury writer-director] David [Ayers] is a full subscriber to Christianity. But these two diametrically opposed positions both lead to the same spot, and I really looked up to both men. It was nice to have conversations with Brad about the family he came from and what he was using to get through the day. People don’t know this about Brad: He’s a very thoughtful actor. That’s not a motherfucker who just shows up and does the job. He puts a lot in, so you get a lot out. He’s hard on himself, very hard. I think every great artist is bipolar to some degree. To be great you have to have self-criticism, which, in that moment, becomes some sort of bipolar thing. You go from “That was fucking great” to “I’m fucking shit.” And Brad has a bipolar element to the way he deals with his work. We have a lot of similarities that way.
MITCHELL: If we look at these last five movies, including Nymphomaniac, Charlie Countryman , The Company You Keep , Lawless, and now Fury, these guys that you play are all suffering. They are looking for something.
LaBEOUF: I’m going through it myself. I’ve been going through an existential crisis. If you look at my behavior, it’s been motivated by a certain discourse. Metamodernism has influenced a lot of my action in the public in this last year and a half—the idea of diametrically opposed ideas happening all at once: the irony and the sincerity, birth and death, the immediacy and the obsolescence.
MITCHELL: Isn’t metamodernism, though, basically saying that irony doesn’t mean anything?
LaBEOUF: No, it’s definitely not. You have both modernist commitment and postmodern detachment—sincerity with a wink. It is all things. It’s a feeling that comes after deconstruction: the ripping apart, or the going to shit of a society, the environmental crisis, the financial crisis, the existential crisis. Metamodernism is the feeling that comes after that.
MITCHELL: The world after 9/11.
LaBEOUF: Totally. When the ship is sinking and you’re forced to choose sides, the new solution is to jump from island to island to island. You don’t have to pick one. It’s a new sensibility. It’s been a new way for me to articulate myself. My work is an exploration. I don’t see a big difference between method acting and performance art. My work in my film and my work in my life have influenced who I’ve become. Life imitates art. And so a lot of my choices, these characters that I’ve been playing, have actually built a person, they’ve raised me. So I’ve just been more careful about my choices. I’ve taken control back. After calamity comes hope. And I do feel a deep hopefulness in my life and in my work. Whereas originally I was a very cynical dude, I was very postmodern. The way I dealt with the crises in my life, I was very cynical. My apologies [for plagiarizing Daniel Clowes’s Justin M. Damiano] on Twitter were stolen from other people’s apologies as a wink, a very ironic way of apologizing. I was running with a philosophy to back the play of bad action. I took [Clowes’s] work and tried to adapt it into a film out of insecurity, a fear of my own ideas. I thought, “Well, I have a right to do it because this postmodernist, Kenneth Goldsmith idea of uncreative writing says so.” I ran with that and found that it put me in a fucking corner. But that existential crisis forced me, like all tumultuousness does, to find new ideas. My ideas on authorship haven’t changed—in terms of my idea that the author is dead—but what has changed is my hopefulness for what the author can become. When you look at Wikipedia, it is a community-driven authorship, that’s where the future is going.
MITCHELL: There’s a line in the epigraph that begins Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, “Illusion only is sacred, truth profane.”
LaBEOUF: I believe that. That applies not just to my work, but to my life. My favorite actors come with a myth. I don’t know much about Daniel Day-Lewis. I don’t know much about Joaquin Phoenix. But there’s a mythos that they’ve created, and it’s part of their work.
MITCHELL: One of the early things you did was live in metamodernism, on Project Greenlight, where your screen performance in Shaker Heights was seen alongside your “performance” in reality, such as it was.
LaBEOUF: Yeah, totally. When I read the manifesto, I realized how much it applied to me. I’ve always had a yearning to be a part of social change. You look at the way media affected people in the ’80s; they just absorbed it. We’re a part of the media now. It’s a two-way street. You look at CNN and it’s cellphone footage from some civilian who gave you the news. The “#IAMSORRY” exhibit that I did in L.A. [a collaboration with Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö, in which LaBeouf sat in the Stephen Cohen Gallery with a paper bag on his head and visitors were invited to choose from a selection of “implements” and sit across from him] was about looking for the empathy of the internet, looking for the humanity of the networks. And if you’re a guy being shit on by the world—when you’re reading millions of tweets accusing you of megalomania and narcissism and sickness—it’s hard to have hope. I was like, “Whoa, fuck, I’m a villain.” I was broken, and I used that. That piece was an exploration, almost like a test for myself. I didn’t know if the trolls were going to come up and shoot me in the fucking head, but we put pliers on the table …
MITCHELL: How’d you choose the objects that people had a chance to handle when they faced you in the gallery?
LaBEOUF: I identified with them. The liquor had a big part of my life, the cologne was a big part of my life—they were all symbolically attached to my soul. The Indiana Jones [whip]. I didn’t just walk onto an Indiana Jones set not knowing what I was a part of. And when that movie didn’t fulfill the expectations, I was fucking broken, man. So when somebody comes in with the Indiana Jones whip, and it was giggle, giggle, giggle, and my face is in a fucking bag and I’m broken, [the question is] “Are you a human being? I am no longer an actor now, I’m a broken man. And this shit is real right here. What happens to you?” It’s wild when that connection happens. That’s what we’re lacking in this world, really. We all want to be a part of a community. This is why we have so much divorce in this country. No one man or woman can be 50 people to another person. And what we’re doing to fulfill that is we’re creating a family of ghosts on the internet. You’re better off buying a fucking motorcycle and joining the Hells Angels than joining Twitter and finding your community there, but this is what we do. So maybe if the people that type the spam on the internet show up at the door, when they’re right in front of you, and it’s person to person, left eye to left eye, there can be a soul connection. Something changes. I watched it happen for six days. And it was powerful.
MITCHELL: Performance art is really more of a command than an invitation. Once somebody enters that space with you, they’ve got to connect with you. You’ve broken the fourth wall.
LaBEOUF: And using my persona. Really I’m gaining control over myself again. I’ve given up so much control over myself to this industry. I felt like a slave who wasn’t allowed to read. That’s extreme, but it really is that debilitating when you have no say over it anymore. A lot of my actions in the public—and not all of them, because there have been some straight-up mistakes, like grabbing Alan Cumming’s ass and getting arrested in New York at Cabaret.
I’m a dude who loves delusion. It’s why I love being an actor—I never have to actually look at myself or be faced with my shit or take responsibility. SHIA LABEOUF
MITCHELL: Was that about you walking into a theater and turning it into a performance space?
LaBEOUF: I was reading about [pioneering performance artist] Allan Kaprow happenings, and performance art of the ’60s and ’70s. So I thought, “All right, I know a little about that.” We’re all involved here. It’s not just you on your stage. We’re all in here and we’re all part of this. I was wrong. The New York crowd didn’t see it the same way, and I totally understand that. So I see the error of my ways. But that moment actually saved my life, forced me to look at myself. And when you’re in a cell with a fucking mask on your face and a lead jacket, you can really see that some of your life choices were skewed wrong. And for some people it does take that. I still am a very stubborn, hardheaded person who is theatrical by nature.
MITCHELL: Well, hearing you say this makes me wonder why you’re not doing theater.
LaBEOUF: I’ve thought about it. I rehearsed Orphans for three years with [Al] Pacino and Emile Hirsch and was so down to do it when [Alec] Baldwin, [Daniel] Sullivan, and Tom [Sturridge] jumped in. That’s a heartbreak I still have not been able to recover from. I have since made amends with Baldwin, Sullivan, and Sturridge, and Ben Foster, who I never had a problem with—I love that motherfucker. Baldwin and I butted heads hard. I came in method. I was sleeping in the park. I’d wake up, walk to rehearsal. I was so scared to do the play that I had memorized it before ever coming to rehearsal. And my whole goal was to intimidate the fuck out of Baldwin. That was the role. That was my job as an actor. And it wasn’t going to be fake. I wanted him to be scared. So I went about doing that for three weeks of rehearsal, to the point that, in the end, it was unsustainable. I’ve made peace with Baldwin. He was the first dude to hit me up after I got out of court. He sent me an e-mail. It’s really beautiful. I was crying on an airplane. And I hadn’t talked to him since I got fired. I stayed in New York for a month. I was following him home. I was completely broken, and still in [character]. I didn’t know what to do. I started boxing. I was trying to take my mind off the play, but I couldn’t do it. So I would follow him from rehearsal to his home. I needed to have closure. I saw the first show, watched from the front row. And after the show, I got up and clapped for him. And I’m crying, they’re crying. And Ben was the bridge. He came up to me and shook my hand from the stage, man. And that’s all I needed. Because I always felt like I’m not good enough. I’ve felt that way my whole life. And I was so desperate to be good in that play that I overdid it. It became competitive in the wrong way. “Not only am I good enough, I’m better than you think I am.” And then that became an aggressive thing. Fight rehearsals turned into fights. And it is unsustainable. You can’t put your fist through a door. I was prepared to break my hand in that show. I was going to do the show that I had in my head every single night. And every rehearsal we did for three weeks, we had to get a new door. [Orphans playwright Lyle] Kessler was with it, and Sullivan was with it, but the producers and the backers, they weren’t having it. And only in retrospect could I find peace with that. But at the time, I was out of my mind.
MITCHELL: How much of that competitiveness, that insecurity, is you feeling as though you have to be as real as possible?
LaBEOUF: It’s everything. Because I don’t think I’m a good actor. I think I’m a shit actor. And so a lot of it is overcompensation. I remember going on [Late Show With] David Letterman, and [he and Baldwin are] friends, and Letterman was asking me questions, like, “Tom Hanks said … television is for writers, film is for directors, stage is for actors. So why did you get fired?” I’m sitting there, and I’ve got this insecurity that I’m not a good actor. And now I’m facing the world and I’ve got Letterman about to eat me up. I almost wanted to cry, man. I didn’t know what to say.
MITCHELL: Orphans is another really tough piece about somebody who’s in emotional disarray. Between that and the last five things, could you see any light at the end of the tunnel?
LaBEOUF: Coming out of Transformers—and I have to speak very carefully here—but when you’re working on something that doesn’t have a whole lot of intrinsic value, and all the men that you looked up to your whole life, and even your contemporaries, are involved in projects that have intrinsic value—I felt like I was being blamed for everything wrong with every movie I’d ever been a part of. Which may well have been the case. But what winds up happening is you become resentful, you become angry. And that anger eats you up, and it breaks you down and it infiltrates your life, and it’s really hard to find joy. And then you’ve got everybody around you going, “How could you not feel joy? Look at all the blessings. Look at all this money that you have. Look at all these opportunities that you have.” And you can’t be grateful because these aren’t things you ever got into this motherfucker for.
MITCHELL: If we look at the Sean Penn archetype, from Jeff Spicoli to Harvey Milk, it is the guy who never gets a chance to be what he wants to be. And for you, going from being in these machine movies, to being in these movies where you’re really feeling too much, that was a big jump to take.
LaBEOUF: Huge. That’s partly what I’ve been doing for the last year, trying to reinvent myself, in very calculated behavior, and sometimes in very uncalculated behavior.
MITCHELL: What would be an instance of the uncalculated behavior?
LaBEOUF: Well, like, grabbing Alan Cumming’s ass and being a drunken buffoon in New York. But the way it gets construed in the media, I have no control over.
MITCHELL: But you’re trying to exert some control over that by some of the performances, to make it into a dialogue instead of a monologue.
The only thing my father gave me that was of any value to me is pain. SHIA LaBEOUF
LaBEOUF: It’s a two-way street. It’s not even art, this, we have a discourse. It’s much more of a social experiment than it is art. I don’t know where it’s headed or what the endgame is, but I know I’m learning a lot about myself and about my community in doing it. And it’s completely cathartic. I’m fulfilled by it in the same way I’d love to be fulfilled by the films that I’m making. I believe in the healing power of cinema. It’s spiritual for me. It’s not just a fucking job. This is my therapy. Movies make your soul grow. And I’d love to be in one movie that does that. That’s really what I’ve been chasing. And you can’t get there unless you give a lot. Since the 14th century there’s been this martyrdom in art, Jesus on a cross, the Apostles being boiled in oil. But that also exists in cinema—martyrdom. Theater is about dying, about doing it so that other people don’t have to. I’m showing up with a set of problems, and I hope that they die when I’m done. Fury had to do with machismo, with this small-man complex, why I was getting in fights in bars all the time—there was this machismo element from being this kid who never had a fucking father to be around to protect him. So I’d always be super-aggressive with men. Fury did a lot for me in that regard. It calmed that down for me.
MITCHELL: Todd Phillips, like you, also grew up without a dad. Todd Phillips, Dan Clowes, and David Ayer all deal with masculinity one way or another. For Dan, it’s these guys who have no power and are trying to stand up. For David, it’s these men who are tested through violence. And in Todd’s work, it’s these distorted versions of male bonding that always go wrong.
LaBEOUF: David’s situation with his father, man, that’s one of the heaviest. When you look at his films, when you look at this sacrifice …
MITCHELL: Three generations of service …
LaBEOUF: That dude has a lot of depth and more pain than anybody I’ve ever met. The fact that he can even smile for ten seconds in a year is baffling to me. That dude is a miracle. The first thing David said to me was, “I want you to know that what’s being offered to you is not just a film, this is a life changer. We’re going to push it all the way to the edge. I want you to make this movie like you’ll never make another movie. You’re going to die on this set.” The next day I joined the National Guard and became a chaplain’s assistant, shipped out to the middle of nowhere. I lived there for a month and a half, became a medic, went to gunner school, spent all my time with this chaplain, and found God. I came back, linked up with David, went to London, and we spent a lot of time being together, camping out, rehearsing it like a play, sharing shit with each other. I’ve never experienced unconditional love from another man. And war is the only place in society where men are allowed to unconditionally love each other. And what we experienced on the set was unconditional love. It was a family. David built a family and he was Pops, for all of us. He and Brad. David is the fucking best dude I’ve ever worked for. He’s not the observer; he’s going through it with you. It’s real. There’s no rehearsed fight scenes. You’re getting punched in the face for real. There is no room for actors. It was like becoming Christian—you subject yourself to everything that’s coming. You relinquish everything. That’s the cost of working on that movie, and the reward is heavy. I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. I attribute that to the dudes I was around. It didn’t have fuck all to do with me. There is not a moment in that movie that I had any control over. It’s David using me like a guitar.
MITCHELL: It sounds like this is the first time you’ve ever had real trust in a director?
LaBEOUF: In men. I’ve had directors who I’ve respected, but they’re not in control of shit. You could give me your notes, I roger that, but I’m going to do what I do. I’ve been a stubborn actor. David, though, was in complete control. He was like the marionette puppeteer. He was like my father. It’s very hard for a person who’s been abandoned by his father to trust a man. It’s why I have an affinity for Todd. I trust them. We have similar backstories. Similar pain.
MITCHELL: Did you get the same thing when you were in the gallery doing the performances?
LaBEOUF: Totally. Because you’re not in control. You give yourself over to the process. The process is in control. I picked up this method thing watching Tom Hardy go through his machinations on Lawless. I was like, “That’s how you do it, okay.” I took a lot of notes from him. And it wound up getting me into some trouble. Because he was more of an evolved man when he started fucking around like this. He had been through his pain and had cathartic experiences and was able to manage his life. I was trying to do shit that was 20 steps ahead, trying to rush the process. And you can’t fast-forward experience. I’m not a very intelligent person, and you’ve got to be a fucking genius to learn from other people’s mistakes, because you’ve got to be a very smart man to learn from your own. Hardy is a far more evolved artist. I was trying to operate on his level, and it’s not always a diplomatic situation—the director and I had a really hard time making Charlie Countryman. It was a wrestle in the mud, and he had no control over me.
you can’t fast-forward experience. I’m not a very intelligent person, and you’ve got to be a fucking genius to learn from other people’s mistakes, because you’ve got to be a very smart man to learn from your own. Shia LaBEOUF
MITCHELL: Is that why you ended up dosing yourself with LSD, so you could feel what that guy was feeling in the movie?
LaBEOUF: Totally. I didn’t have with Fredrik [Bond, director of Charlie Countryman] what I have with David. Right after that acid trip, I was choking him—my trainer had to pull me off him. He almost walked off that movie. He wanted to break for lunch while I was tripping on drugs. I was like, “We can’t break for lunch, I’m on fucking drugs.” And that turned into madness. That’s what I mean by a lack of control caused by irrational commitment. I wasn’t evolved enough as a human being to be able to control my commitment. And because I was so scared of being a bad actor, there was no limit to the commitment. They put people in a fucking home for doing what we do for a living. You have to abandon yourself to delusion. If you’re going to work in that way, you have to work with people who can referee you. You need a lion tamer who you respect. I live in a conditional liberty as an actor. I’m not ever really free if I’m doing it right. I’m not good with liberty.
MITCHELL: Was it like that with Oliver Stone, too?
LaBEOUF: Oliver was a manipulator. Oliver had beaten me into submission. Oliver had made me feel so stupid. He would play up my blue-collar nature. I think he felt that I was an imbecile and talked down to me the whole time so that I looked up to him like a scholar. My respect for him far surpassed his work. I looked up to him like a wizard. He was fucking Gilgamesh the Great for me. He never looked me in my eyes. He always looked in my eyelids, above my eyes, so I could never connect, so I was always yearning. Then you walk away from that and you do feel like a fucking idiot. And that winds up influencing your life choices. Even Michael Douglas was challenged by working with Oliver. I respect Oliver’s command, but I don’t know if I like his empathy. David is a commander, he’s General Patton, but he’s got the biggest fucking heart. He used to box with us, but you could also go up to him and talk about Bukowski’s “The Bluebird.” He’d be in Logan Lerman’s face all the time with decapitation videos, just mind-fucking that kid. What I saw David do to Logan is what I experienced from Oliver. You’re going to get bullied for six months. And I think that’s what Oliver was after. The trader world was a war zone for Oliver, and he wanted to bully me in the same way that David bullied Logan. But I don’t think I gave him my best me. I just wasn’t prepared for Oliver when I met him.
MITCHELL: I keep thinking of all these people you connect to—you mentioned Tupac and Biggie—and the way they try to become men is a big thing for you.
LaBEOUF: Well, how do you become an adult? My paths to adulthood looked like you either commit a felony, you impregnate a woman, or you go to war. These are the things that make a man. That’s a skewed idea, but it is what I was raised on. I think it has to do with America lacking a puberty ceremony. Every other great society has had a puberty ceremony. Jews still have it—in a way, it’s more nostalgia now—with bar mitzvahs, which I think does some good for very young men. It didn’t do shit for me; it was a performance for my grandmother who was dying and couldn’t have a grandchild who wasn’t bar mitzvah-ed. The only other puberty ceremony you have as an American male is to get your driver’s license when you’re 16. Or going to college. And that’s something I’m still envious of. I always wanted to go to college. I’ve applied three times, you know?
MITCHELL: Do you still want to?
LaBEOUF: Oh, badly, desperately.
MITCHELL: Why did you not? Could you not take the time off?
MITCHELL: In this second cycle of movies that you’ve done, since you’ve been in control of your life, each of these characters goes through some kind of passage. I figure that, on some level, that’s what appeals to you in these movies.
LaBEOUF: And it is what about me appeals to the filmmakers making these movies. As you can see, I’m a very open person. What they need on screen is there, but I don’t look back on this career path. I don’t have that kind of awareness or give a shit, really. I’ve got a goldfish brain; I have a six-month attention span. My attention span goes, droop, and it opens back up and I have to start over again. You’re only as good as your last thing, and I’m only thinking about the next thing. I’ve been a runner my whole life, running from myself. Whether to movies or drinking and drugging or fucking calamity or whatever it is, I’ve always been running. I’m a dude who loves delusion. It’s why I love being an actor—I never have to actually look at myself or be faced with my shit or take responsibility. So it’s been an eye-opening thing to have to look at myself, at my life, and have these reflective moments. So these last five movies, I do see the pattern that you’re talking about, but I think it has much more to do with universal control than it has to do with my methodical approach to my career. I’d be lying if I said it’s the fucking plan. It hasn’t been that. I’ve been blessed with a shit life. [laughs]
ELVIS MITCHELL IS INTERVIEW‘S SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT. HE IS BASED IN LOS ANGELES.