Shia LaBeouf has been talking, a lot. The press engines have been roaring with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen en route to a gargantuan opening weekend this Friday. But LaBeouf isn’t serving up the usual pabulum about having fun on the set.
“I seem to like to kiss trouble on the forehead and then try to back away,” he told the British paper, The Guardian. “I didn’t have the most grounded childhood,” he told Playboy. “I don’t handle fame well,” he told Parade, where his dark musings stood out starkly against the usual mild gossip and other kitsch. “I have no answers to anything,” he said. “Why am I an alcoholic? I haven’t a damn clue! What is life about? I don’t know.”
“It’s appealing to his generation, his fanbase,” says one studio chief. “To girls, that’s like, ‘Oh, he’s the bad boy.’ To guys, they’re like, ‘That looks cool.’ ”
At 23, LaBeouf has a refreshingly direct take on the challenges of celebrity and the mysteries of stardom. But he’s too young to exercise discretion and too old to have it imposed upon him. His behavior—including the drinking and several brushes with the law—would alarm any colleague in a normal environment. Hollywood is not that.
Normal may be a nebulous concept but clearly LaBeouf has spent very little time anywhere near it. By his account, he was brought up in Los Angeles by a drug-dealer father and a frequently nude, goddess-worshiping mother. In Playboy, LaBeouf described watching his father shoot heroin and smoking pot with his parents on holidays.
In the Guardian, he painted this picture of his start in show business as a 10-year-old stand-up: "My act was like, 'Yeah, I walked in from school on my mom and dad screwing today ... and you go from there, building up such a disgustingly accurate description that the audience would start thinking it was insane what they were listening to—this little kid... who can only legally perform if all the alcoholic drinks are taken off the tables."
LaBeouf is shrewd enough to recognize that in Hollywood, he is a commodity and a valuable one. In tight times, word is that LaBeouf is getting $8 million for Fox’s Wall Street sequel and a hefty $17 million for the third Transformers. “I gather he’s surviving despite his relationship with alcohol,” observes a producer who’s worked with him on a very successful film. “But that can only happen for so long.”
Still, this producer seemed surprised when I asked whether he’d plunge into another project with LaBeouf. “Of course,” he replied. “I have no evidence that he doesn’t show up for the set. [So] it’s not my job, it’s the insurance company’s job. It’s when they get so bad that they can’t do work any longer then it’s a problem.”
I canvassed a number of high-level players—studio bosses and talent representatives, all of whom have high-stakes business with LaBeouf. Each had his own reason for dismissing LeBeouf’s comments. More than one reiterated the point that as long as he shows up for work, they’re satisfied. “I have my own kids,” one said. Another said, “He’s about to be in the biggest movie of the summer. His audience isn’t going to read [those interviews].”
Several made the obvious point that this kind of behavior is hardly new—although one added a twist. “Hollywood’s full of legendary actors who are alcoholics,” he said. “Some of them die young, some of them don’t. Shia drinks too much but where you get into problems is abusing cocaine or heroin or pills. He’s been very careful about that.... So yes, it’s a danger.” But alcohol is “not a gateway to other things.”
One studio chief said the actor may just be exaggerating, building his legend. “Part of it is that rebellious youthful swagger,” he said. “It’s appealing to his generation, his fanbase. To girls, that’s like, 'Oh, he’s the bad boy.’ To guys, they’re like, 'That looks cool.’ ”
But LaBeouf has had several brushes with the law, including a 2007 arrest when he was trespassing at Walgreen’s while he was “wasted out of my mind.” He told Playboy he’d sucked down a whisky and three beers on the night last summer when he wrecked his truck and permanently damaged his hand. That was during the filming of Transformers 2 but director Michael Bay asserted at the time that LaBeouf was not drunk. The accident apparently wasn’t his fault—which sounds like a matter of luck. But his license was suspended because he declined a Breathalyzer test.
Meanwhile, the young star seems to be ingesting a stew of Hollywood advice. He told Playboy that Steven Spielberg—who was an early champion of LaBeouf and has worked with the actor on several films—keeps tabs on him periodically in part because “he’s checking on his investment” but also “as a friend, as a concerned adult.” Harrison Ford, who seemingly passed the Indiana Jones whip to LaBeouf in the fourth installment of that lucrative franchise, told him to “muscle up and get through it,” whatever that means. And LaBeouf says Harvey Weinstein once approached him at an event and said, “Don’t forget to be young, man.” LaBeouf took that to mean “you can beat yourself up all you want, but it’s OK.”
More than one source suggested that what LaBeouf really just needs media training. Not so says his publicist, Melissa Kates. "Shia has always approached publicity from an extremely candid perspective,” she said in a statement. “He is very comfortable with who he is and unlike many of his peers, he does not feel the need to edit or censor himself."
And what about his sobriety?
Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.