My first conversation today with Shia LaBeouf was a little one-sided, to put it mildly. My second conversation with the controversial Transformers actor was a lot more interesting.
In case you haven’t been on the Internet for the past few hours, let me fill you in on the latest in Shia-sanity. Starting this morning at 11:00 AM PT, LaBeouf ensconced himself in a tiny, empty art gallery at the corner of Beverly and Fuller in Los Angeles—directly across the street from the offices of BuzzFeed. The windows were glazed, with black letters affixed to them: #IAMSORRY Shia LaBeouf. The location suggested a work of art; the hashtag and seemingly strategic proximity to one of the world’s most successful viral content factories suggested an Internet stunt. It was a little bit of both.
This gallery weirdness seemed like something that had been brewing for weeks. At a press conference Monday for Lars von Trier’s Nyphomaniac at the Berlin Film Festival, the 27-year-old actor was asked what it was like to do a movie with explicit sex scenes. LaBeouf, in a dirty baseball hat and missing one of his bottom teeth, answered by quoting a French soccer player: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” He then walked out of the room.
That wasn’t all. LaBeouf showed up to the premiere of the film with a paper bag over his head. “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” (a phrase he’s tweeted every day for weeks) was written on the bag in sharpie.
Last year, LaBeouf was accused of plagiarizing Daniel Clowes’s graphic novella Jusin M. Damiano for the short film HowardCantour.com. Initially, he claimed that he “got lost in the creative process and neglected to follow proper accreditation.” Then he was accused of plagiarizing his apologies.
In January, LaBeouf said his plagiarism was really a hoax—a work of performance art that he would be chronicling with the hashtag #stopcreating. On January 10 he retired from public life.
Which brings us to Beverly and Fuller. After waiting in line while four other people were shown into the gallery by a bouncer, one at a time, it was finally my turn to enter. The light was low. The room was empty. A young, arty woman stood behind a small plywood table. On it were artifacts from LaBeouf’s career: a whip (Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull), a transformer (Transformers), and so on. There was a wrench, too, and some Hershey’s Kisses. There was even a book by Clowes himself—and a bowl full of hateful tweets inspired by LaBeouf’s plagiarism scandal.
I asked the woman if I could take a picture of the table. She said no and pointed to a “no photography” sign on the wall. I selected an object—a bottle of Brut cologne—and was ushered into a second smaller room.
I found Shia LaBeouf sitting at another small plywood table. Or at least I assumed it was Shia LaBeouf. He was wearing his Berlin Film Festival get-up: tuxedo, bow-tie, and the paper bag over his head with I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE scrawled across the front. He had two little cross tattoos on his hand.
I offered him the cologne. He didn’t move. I asked if I should sit down at the table with him. He didn’t respond. I decided to take a seat and ask him some questions.
“What are you sorry for?” Nothing. “Are you really even sorry?” Nothing. “Is this art?” Nothing. “If you’re not famous, why am I here?” Nothing. It was just me and a guy in formal wear with a paper bag over his head sitting there silently. Through his eyeholes, I could see LaBeouf’s eyes moving around—staring at me. I could hear him breathing under the bag. I stood to go, and offered him my hand.
He shook it.
As I walked back to my car, I thought about that handshake. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Can I go back in there?” I asked. The bouncer was surprised to see me again. “Sure,” he said, hesitating. “OK.”
This time I took the bowl of angry tweets. I placed it on the table in front of LaBeouf.
“I have two more questions for you,” I said.
“Are you really Shia LaBeouf?”
The bag moved. I thought he was smiling. Then I looked at his eyes. They were red and watery.
“Can you give me a sign that you’re really Shia LaBeouf?”
And that’s when it happened: LaBeouf reached up and took the bag off his head. He looked miserable. I’m pretty sure he had been crying.
We sat there silently for a few seconds, staring at each other. And then I asked my second question.
“Can I take your picture?”
“I know I’m not allowed to, so I’d like to get your permission.”
“OK, I’m gonna to take it. You can stop me if you don’t want me to.”
So I raised my iPhone and snapped a photo of LaBeouf’s famous, unmasked face.
I don’t know how I feel about Shia LaBeouf. My guess is that he’s an actual plagiarist who’s trying to turn the whole scandal to his advantage by transforming it into “art.” I think he’s been an actor his entire life, and he’s desperate for attention, and that desperation is a little unseemly. He might also be mentally unstable.
But I’ll be honest: in the moment after I took that picture, I actually felt something real. Something strange and complex. Something like sympathy. I was alone at last with a celebrity. As a journalist writing a quick post for The Daily Beast, my job was to objectify him—and I did. Did he want to be photographed? Probably. Was he truly sad about the situation? (Even though he's an actor?) I think he was. Either way, there was more going on in those few seconds than in a lot of contemporary art. LaBeouf’s look-at-me Internet penance ritual had become an actual moment between actual people.
As I got up to go, I thanked LaBeouf for the experience. “That was something else,” I said. I offered him my hand. He shook it for a second time.