At 20, Shia LaBeouf (it's pronounced Shy-ah LaBuff) is already an accomplished actor with a lengthy résumé. After several years of childhood roles in small films and one-shot TV appearances on shows such as The X-Files and Touched By An Angel, LaBeouf garnered some attention—and an "outstanding performance" Emmy—via a three-season stint as the co-lead of the Disney family sitcom Even Stevens. That led to a starring role in Disney's terrific 2003 film Holes, where LaBeouf first worked with future mentor Jon Voight. Since then, LaBeouf has done steady, standout work alternating sidekicky roles in special-effects-driven, big-budget movies—Constantine; I, Robot; Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle—with prominent or starring roles in smaller, more personal films, like A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, the Project Greenlight-produced film The Battle Of Shaker Heights, and Bobby. The pattern continues in 2007—LaBeouf can currently be seen starring in Disturbia, a claustrophobic, teen-centric modernization of Rear Window, and this summer, he'll appear again as the human star of Michael Bay's $150 million monster Transformers. Now touring in support of Disturbia, LaBeouf recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss his career, his book-learning, Michael Bay's hard-ass ways, and the Shia LaBeouf character he created for interviews like this one.
The A.V. Club: All your biographies-in-brief make the start of your career sound incredibly simple: pretend to be an adult, call an agent, do a stand-up routine, get a job, become a star. Presumably it didn't seem that easy at the time.
Shia LaBeouf: No, no, no. Everybody's got their route and their challenges, but I've never focused on any of the negative shit, so it's not like I needed to elaborate on what happened. When people ask me about my story, I just go through the positive stuff: the tent-pole moments, the big landmark checkpoints. As far as that goes, me getting an agent was an insane story, it was an insane situation. Even Stevens, that was an insane situation. When you live this insane thing, I guess it's not insane anymore. So I guess at this point, looking back, it does seem like this soundbite, writer-friendly fucking bio. It wasn't like that when I was living through it, because I didn't know what the outcome would be. The result was never intact when I was going through this stuff. If I had known that I was going to get an agent when I was on that phone, it would have been a different phone call. But I didn't, and that probably why I got an agent.
It's not been easy, but considering a story like Dustin Hoffman's, where he got his first role when he was 30, I'm fortunate. But there's more roles now, more films now, more opportunity now. Especially for young actors. I was talking to John Turturro, who's a really good friend from Transformers. He said when he was my age, he had to go to school. He's like, "Why would you want to go to school? It made sense for me to go to school, 'cause when I was your age, there was no work. But it makes no sense for you to go to school, because everything you'd study, you're working on." I still want to go to school regardless, but these days, it's a different marketplace from what it was in the '70s and '80s. Really, the children-boom thing has just recently happened.
AVC: You were accepted to Yale in 2003. Is going there still part of your plan for the future?
SL: When I get a chance, I'm going to go, but even Yale says, "You got opportunities right now, college doesn't make too much sense."
AVC: What do you want to major in?
AVC: What do you want to do with it?
SL: Be a better actor. There's something about studying body language and non-spoken emotion—I know the innate response. But to really study it like a science would be fun.
AVC: Do you have any formal acting training?
SL: I knew nothing about craft at all until I met Jon Voight, who gave me, like, 25 books and a bunch of movies and DVDs and tapes. I've gone back and read through Sanford Meisner, and the Michael Caine book on acting [Acting In Film], and Stanislavsky, and Lee Strasberg, and Larry Moss, all these different versions of craft. [Voight] wasn't a fan of acting teachers, so it was like, literature was the easier way to stomach it. 'Cause if you're trying to learn how to act from a class, you're analyzing the teachers' movements and their intricacies, and it becomes like a pantomime of you wanting to be them, and that's wrong. Literature is an easier way to study acting, because then you can take any kind of spin. It's your own imagination, and your own version of it. That was all Voight. He introduced me to movies that I never would have watched. I was 14 when I met him, so Elephant Man wasn't in my lexicon of film. Papillon and Kramer Vs. Kramer—Dustin Hoffman's career became the shit to me, you know? I'm going back and watching how magical Jon Voight is in Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home. It became like, "These are my superheroes." I didn't have that before him.
AVC: Were you aware as you started taking on more adult roles how rare and difficult it normally is for child actors to become respected adult actors?
SL: Yeah, because they fall into traps. They become types. The cutesy type, the funny type, the dark type. Any time you're a type, your career's over. It's not been effortless for me; I've had bumps in the road, you know? I was in Dumb And Dumberer. It's not been a flawless thing so far. But all in all, I'm proud of it. Most proud of it because of the diversity. Because the genres are different. My last year was Bobby, and Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. Now this year, it's Disturbia, Surf's Up, and Transformers.
AVC: That's a pretty wide range.
SL: Yeah, so the range is what I'm… and then execution of the range is important always. The choices have been interesting, and I think the fact that I'm not a star, I'm not a celebrity, I've kind of been under the radar, has kept it easier for me to maintain a career.
AVC: Are you at the point where you're picking your roles? Are you actively looking for diversity?
SL: Oh yeah, there's a little bit of both. Again, I, Robot wasn't something I was going to… Will Smith called me. That led into my role in Constantine, because it was produced by Akiva Goldsman, I, Robot's writer. Those weren't movies I auditioned for. So it's a little bit of both. It's all over the place. For Guide, Dito [Montiel, Guide's writer-director] didn't want me for the movie. He thought I was this Disney kid, and he wouldn't let me audition. So when I got an audition, I fucked his office up, I put a hole through the wall, I went as crazy as I could. Violently angry, so that I wasn't that image he had of me. Some things, you have to earn, because you have a stigma attached. After I did Bobby, people started offering me drug-addict roles. It's always whatever your last film was. After Disturbia comes out, it'll be a bunch of thrillers. It's the ebb and flow of a film career. Some things, you have to go in and earn. Sometimes you don't get it. There's like five or six of us that go for the same roles all of the time. It's very competitive.
AVC: What's the role you most wanted that you didn't get?
SL: There's a couple of them. There was this movie called House Of D. [Writer-director] David Duchovny, we sat down, we went through it, we rehearsed. I was doing the movie. But I was stuck on I, Robot, and couldn't get off the set. And they gave it to somebody else. Robin Williams [who co-starred in House Of D] was always my dude, he's king, he's fucking Batman to me. So that hurt me bad, especially at that time, 'cause I was stuck in Vancouver, shooting two scenes in a eight-month shoot on the beginning of this movie. So there were months and months when I wasn't doing anything. And all I wanted to do was be with Robin Williams. So that was painful. That was the worst of all of them. This Jesse James movie with Brad Pitt [The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford], I wanted that really bad, and it came down to me and Casey Affleck, but he's older and works better with that whole situation. I was too young to play the role to begin with. But you go to the first audition, and you know you're not going to get it, you're too young. Second audition, you're still too young, third audition, you're like, "Huh, wait a second here…" Fourth audition, fifth audition, you start going, "Okay, I want this shit now." Sixth audition, you don't get it, and it's tough. There's always things like that.
AVC: Were you aware of a certain picture or a certain project where you felt like you made the transition from child actor to adult actor?
SL: Guide and Bobby were big for me. Just 'cause it was a different audience and a different… They're both quality films. They got reviewed very well. They were a lot of fun on the festival circuit. The movie before Guide was my transitional movie—The Greatest Game Ever Played. Before that was Constantine, so it wasn't like anyone was looking at me after Constantine like, "Oh, that's the next guy." I was still like a childish funny sidekick type. That was what was available to me at the time, and at the time, it was the right choice. Looking back it, maybe not, but at the time, it was. And then Greatest Game came about, and Bill Paxton started in on me, like "Stand and deliver, watch some Steve McQueen, become a man, start manning up. Stand a different way, watch your posture." Things like that, which I'd never thought about. "Don't blink, blinking is for liars." Things like had never even gone through my mind. Bill's a good ol' boy, Bill's a Texan, Bill's a cowboy, Bill's a soldier. That rubbed off. That was probably my transition, in Greatest Game. The year following was like, solidification somewhat. Though I'm still in the middle of the transition. I'm still in man-boy mode. And that won't go away for a while. But it's a fun time to be in, because it's very rare that people get to work through this time. It's rare to see a John Cusack in Say Anything. It's rare that you'd find an actor right in the cusp of the child-to adult transition, just got through puberty, just getting into a different way of life. There's few movies like that, and few roles like that, so it's going to be tough to pick and choose. I guess the goal is good people, work with good people.
AVC: Did you come off Transformers onto Disturbia?
SL: No, I was training for Transformers throughout Disturbia. So, Disturbia, every day I would show up, and it'd be like, workouts, then work. So 17-hour days—we'd have an hourlong workout, then go into filming for 16 hours. Which was nuts, but it created the stamina, it prepared me for what was coming. Then when Disturbia was done, I had two days off before Transformers started.
AVC: What was it like going straight from a small film with a lot of intense acting to a big-budget special-effects-driven film?
SL: It's two different art forms. Two different directors. D.J. Caruso and Michael Bay are like night and day. It's two different worlds. Not that either one is better than the other one, you know? One is General Patton, and that's the way he has to be, with a set that big and a crew that big, and things that immense. And the other one is like a family man. Fatherly. But can "family man" and "fatherly" get you on a roof and blow the roof up? No. And can General Patton get you to be having scenes with your father passing away? It's just two different art forms, two different worlds, two completely different movies. Which was the goal.
AVC: You've described Michael Bay as "a fucking hard-ass." How so?
SL: You need that guy. 'Cause he's an adrenaline junkie. And nobody else can do that movie like Michael Bay. You need him to be stern and strong and look at things nonchalantly. "Yeah, we're going to blow the Orpheum Theatre up. Don't worry about it." That guy's a hard-ass. That's a hard-ass to me. It's like he's been through so much in his personal life and his movie-making that nothing is too big for Mike. And you need that guy on set, because that guy makes you feel safe. That guy gets you pumped. You show up and you see Mike for breakfast, and it's like, "You ready to go? You ready to go all day? You better be." And that type of shit just fuels you, you're hyped up and amped and ready to go. He's walking adrenaline. And he goes forever, Mike never sits down. He knows everyone's job, no megaphone, screaming at the top of his lungs, he's a one-man crew. He's got an incredible crew, but Mike knows everyone's job. He's a hard-ass, and he'll tell you that.
AVC: How did doing a scene in Disturbia, where you were doing entire scenes in a room by yourself with no one to play off, compare with doing a green-screen shot scene in Transformers, where you were playing to things that weren't there?
SL: It's all imaginary, it's when you start going back to craft. You start reading through Strasberg again. You start going through the craft and the imagery. Things like that are helpful—if I hadn't met Jon Voight, this would have been a really tough situation. He was there on Transformers, going through the same paces, and it was me, him, and Turturro. My 10-list. So I watched them do it. For Disturbia, we were on a soundstage staring at a wall, with DJ narrating the scene. And then on Transformers, we were doing the same type of thing, just with more movement and more action and more… just more. There's a subtlety that DJ is fishing for. Mike isn't searching for that. Mike will let you get it, and Mike will put it in a movie, but he's not searching for it. It's two different goals.
AVC: You're a very candid interview. You often speak openly in a way that a lot of Hollywood actors won't. Have you had people trying to rein you in?
SL: Sure, sure. Picture this whole room full of reiner-inners. That's what their job is, and of course I understand that. And there's an aspect to me that sort of wants to do the same. Because if you don't rein it in, you start losing mystery. Sometimes perception is almost more important than the skill level of an actor. And if you give too much away, you have nothing to take for yourself and put onscreen. If people feel like they know you too well, they won't be able to indentify with the character you're trying to portray. Or they'll feel that you're just playing yourself, and then you just become a personality actor. And that's the death of any actor. So this [Gestures at himself.] is a representative. This is far too important a conversation, it's far too important, for me to be real with you. It's just too important to my career. Too important to the things that I love. So this right here is just this representative I've created, and I can talk all day in this character, this is just another form of acting. It's closer to what I am, but what I am is too much for any kind of selling of a project. There's too much money riding on this interview going well for me to be completely candid. So it's just a creation.
AVC: But even the fact that you're able to talk about that makes you candid.
SL: Right. Well, I don't know, I know where I'm at right now, it's been pretty successful so far, and this is just what I've been doing. I think it would be strange for me to start shutting down. I don't think I'd enjoy it as much.
AVC: You're very aware of your image, the Hollywood process, the pitfalls for actors, and the directions your career could go. Where did all that come from? More books, more mentoring, just observation of the people around you?
SL: It's out of all of it. If your whole life since you're 10 is this, you've got 10 years of study. Voight is a big influence on me. I can't stop saying his name because he really is my mentor, he's been huge in my life. But when you start working with people like Jeff Bridges, Turturro, and Anthony Hopkins, and you see the goal, and it's tangible, and you can touch it, and he's right there, and you're next to him… You start studying it hard, and you study their careers and watch their evolution. And then you start seeing people who you don't really want to be, and you watch their evolution. It's different textures, and you pick one. And it's routes, you know? I could do something like sell out and make a Disney album—The Hanukkah Shia LaBeouf Special, or The Kwanzaa CD—and make a lot of money, and have a huge house and a big bed and never be able to sleep in it, because I'd hate myself. It's just what you want. Respect is more important to me than the finance of it, even though I did Transformers. You do something like that so you can do a Half Nelson and people in Japan will see it. There's a Tom Hanks element that I'm after, but with Michael Caine's longevity. If you can mix Hilary Duff and Gary Oldman into the same actor, that's my goal. I know it's strange to think about, but that's the goal.
AVC: Do you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?
SL: Never wanted to do anything else ever in my life. But I'm 20, and there's so many possibilities. It would be insane for me to say, "Yeah this is definitely it, I'm never doing anything else." I'm 20 years old. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know anything about life. So I don't know. I may be a train conductor in 10 years. I have no idea. And that's the joy of this all. It's fun right now, and I love it right now, but I don't know where I'm going to be tomorrow, 'cause I'm not psychic. But I know that over the last 10 years, this has been the only joy, this has been—it's strange to say, 'cause the thinking is off. But this is more important than my hobbies, my family, my love, my friends. It's the most important thing in the world to me.