Shia LaBeouf had run out of fucks to give.
Last July while doing his promotional rounds for Transformers: Dark of the Moon—the (dreadful) third installment in director Michael Bay’s vacuous orgy of twisted metal—the actor gave some serious blue steel on the cover of the August issue of Details, bearing the headline, “Hollywood’s Last Bad Boy.”
In the accompanying interview, LaBeouf defended a bar fight he got into in February that landed him in handcuffs (“My bullshit meter is tuned very sensitive”); confessed to seeing Megan Fox—who was dating her future husband, Brian Austin Green, at the time—during the making of 2007’s Transformers and “philandering around” with his Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen co-star, Isabel Lucas, then reportedly involved with Entourage’s Adrian Grenier; and crapped on his poorly received films, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (“trying to play nice”) and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (“None of us had any clue what we were doing”).
It was a publicist’s worst nightmare.
Up until that point, however, LaBeouf’s film résumé lacked the street cred of his “bad boy” idols Warren Beatty and Sean Penn. Thanks to starring roles as a Marty McFly-ish, wise-cracking teen in the Transformers films, and the debacle that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, he was viewed as not only a slave to the big, dumb Hollywood blockbuster but also a bit of a man-child who hadn’t quite relinquished his child-star past.
What a difference a year makes.
At 26, LaBeouf, whose dimples are now obscured by a bushy beard, declared he’s “done” with banal studio fare in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, adding “[The Hollywood studios] give you the money, then get on a plane and come to the set and stick a finger up your ass and chase you around for five months.”
He also made headlines when he confessed to going method for his role in the upcoming indie crime caper The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, by dropping acid, as well as revealing he’ll have unsimulated (read: real) sex onscreen in Lars von Trier’s psychosexual drama, Nymphomaniac. And if that wasn’t enough, he also went full frontal in a bizarre music video for the Icelandic band Sigur Rós.
Lawless, a Prohibition-era western written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, marks the first chapter in LaBeouf’s career about-face.
To prep for his role as a gun-slinging bootlegger in the film, LaBeouf packed on 40 pounds and guzzled moonshine. His fierce dedication to the role freaked out his onscreen love interest, Mia Wasikowska, so much that she almost left the film, according to Fox News. But it paid off. The role of Jack Bondurant, the callow younger brother of two bootlegging badasses—played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke—is perfectly tailored to LaBeouf’s strengths. On the outside Jack is pure braggadocio; inside, he’s a bullied, scared-shitless young man in way over his head, and LaBeouf delivers his most nuanced, emotionally fragile performance in years.
LaBeouf’s finest performances—as a confused young boy at odds with his bullish father in the coming-of-age drama A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and a fatherless, naive young man in Lawless—are also, to a degree, examples of art imitating life.
Born in Los Angeles, LaBeouf was raised primarily by his mother, a dancer-turned-jewelry designer. His father, meanwhile, was a Vietnam War veteran who spent the majority of LaBeouf’s childhood addicted to heroin, and subjected him to verbal abuse. According to the Orange County Register, his father introduced him to marijuana when he was 10, and once pointed a gun at a young Shia in a Vietnam War flashback. His parents eventually divorced, with LaBeouf later crediting financial pressures as the reason for the split.
“Like Hemingway said, you can’t write anything if you’ve never been shot at or been gorged by a bull, you know?” he later told Parade. “So I look back at that stuff and I’m grateful. It’s like scars. You become proud of them.”
In order to help support himself and his parents, LaBeouf began performing at stand-up comedy clubs at the age of 10, and, after posing as his own manager over the phone, persuaded an agent to represent him. After a few bit parts in TV shows, he got his big break when he was cast as Louis Stevens, a Dennis the Menace-type, in the Disney Channel’s TV series Even Stevens. He’d win a Daytime Emmy for the role.
Hollywood soon came calling.
LaBeouf made his film debut as the lead in the 2003 family drama Holes, which was a critical and commercial success, grossing $71 million worldwide against a $20 million budget. He’d later be typecast as a mouthy sidekick in some schlocky Hollywood fare, including Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle; I, Robot; and Constantine. The criminally underrated 2006 drama A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints brought LaBeouf a sliver of indie cred, but only managed to earn $2 million at the box office. In 2007, he was immediately vaulted to the Hollywood A-list, with starring roles as a young boy who suspects his neighbor of murder in the thriller Disturbia, and as Sam Witwicky, a dorky high-school kid who is thrust into the middle of an alien robot war in Transformers, with the latter grossing more than $700 million worldwide.
After Transformers, LaBeouf starred in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While it was a box-office hit, the film wasn’t well received by critics, including LaBeouf, who later told the Los Angeles Times that he and Spielberg “dropped the ball” on the film, adding, “You can blame it on the writer and you can blame it on Steven.” He’d later apologize for the comments. Two more Transformers films followed—each even more awful than the last—as well as a terribly miscast role as a hotshot trader in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
With his Hollywood phase squarely in his rear view, LaBeouf will next play a young reporter opposite Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon in a Redford-directed drama, The Company You Keep, which will premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and will start shooting the racy von Trier film, Nymphomaniac, shortly thereafter.