Shia LaBeouf, the talented and uninhibited young actor, had a rough 2014. You know the drill: plagiarism accusations, bizarre apologies—including appearing at the Berlin Film Festival premiere of Nymphomaniac with a brown paper bag over his head displaying the statement “I Am Not Famous Anymore,” culminating with his bizarrely compelling LA performance art project #IAMSORRY, an Abramovic-like installation where individuals could sit in a room alone with a tuxedoed LaBeouf and do as they pleased. One woman allegedly took it to the extreme, sexually assaulting the actor while her boyfriend waited on the other side of the door.
Around this time, LaBeouf’s old pal Dito Montiel, who’d directed the actor to a stunning performance in his underrated 2006 coming of age saga A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, came to him with a new project: Man Down, which made its world premiere at the 2015 Venice Film Festival.
“[Dito] came to my house when I was at a really low place and offered it to me like therapy, like, ‘Hey, here’s a healing process where we can jump into this together and get well,’” LaBeouf recalled at the film’s press conference, adding, “With where I was at and the way he presented it to me, it didn’t feel like we were going to go make another movie. It felt like we were gonna grow up.”
And LaBeouf delivers a thrilling, visceral performance in Man Down. He plays Gabriel, a small-town family man with a wife (Kate Mara) and young son (Charlie Shotwell). His best mate (Jai Courtney) convinces him to join the Marines and fight in Afghanistan, so he leaves his family behind to train before entering hell on earth—or so he thought. When he returns home from his tour, he discovers that America has been destroyed by an unknown epidemic, and is reduced to a vast, desolate wasteland. There, Gabe must find his wife and son before it’s too late.
“This is definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever worked on, emotionally, which is why I had to do it with [Dito],” said LaBeouf of reuniting with his Saints director. “I needed a friend, otherwise you can’t get this vulnerable.”
When asked what the darkest point he had to go to was while making the movie, the incredibly candid 29-year-old actor replied, “Suicidal, and… you know… you try your hardest, you know? You jump onto some other train of thought, or some other passion, or fall in love with another creative process and find yourself somewhere else.”
He added, “All the stuff under the table was really hard. All the stuff with Charlie [his onscreen son] was really hard for both of us, and I love that kid like my son, full-blown. All the love in this movie is real, so that’s not a magic trick or anything, it’s the real deal. It’s really hard to crush the people that you love, for whatever end. That stuff was really hard because you love them but you have to break them, which sucks.”
The role, too—that of a Marine battling PTSD in a post-apocalyptic hellscape—had a personal resonance for LaBeouf, who grew up with a troubled father who was a Vietnam War veteran turned drug addict. Once, during Shia’s childhood, his father pulled a gun on him during a Vietnam flashback.
LaBeouf said that the father-son scenes in Man Down reminded him of his own childhood. “The stuff with Charlie—all the Kramer vs. Kramer scenes, I like to call them, the makin’ pancakes kinda thing—all that applied to me,” said LaBeouf. “Gabriel is my Dad, and also the Dad I always wanted. He’s both. He’s the dream Dad that I always wanted, and also at times the other guy, too.”
The actor, who’s clocked in several fascinating, daring performances of late, including as a bootlegger in Lawless, a randy businessman in Nymphomaniac, a WWII soldier in Fury, and a father struggling to relate to his daughter in Sia’s “Elastic Heart” music video, said he’d learned a lot since his blockbuster days, and is now interested in developing strong, reliable working relationships with filmmakers.
“I wasn’t sitting at home and reading scripts when this showed up,” he said. “I’m wanting to work with friends. I want to work with people I have a connection with. I think for a while I was chasing the ‘10 List’—the ‘10 directors you want to work with.’ That didn’t fare well for me. I do much better with loving, familial environments where you feel like you can fail and the dude will get you on the other side.”