LOS ANGELES — Shia LaBeouf learned how to play with others on action-movie sets, which may help explain why he’s often ready for a fight. One scrape last October during the filming of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center pitted the young actor against director Michael Bay over a song.
With military and NASA personnel watching, Bay and his leading man were shooting an emotional sequence from the script’s third act on a shuttle launchpad at Cape Canaveral. To put himself in a somber frame of mind, LaBeouf plugged his iPod into some speakers and started playing a wistful ballad, Feist’s “Brandy Alexander.”
“Yeah, it’s a little feminine, but it touches me,” LaBeouf says, starting to pepper his recollection with more expletives than are allowed in the PG-13 film. “I feel something when I hear it. ... But Mike doesn’t want to listen to ‘Brandy Alexander’ under the rocket with 50 military dudes around.”
Bay unplugged the actor’s iPod, LaBeouf says, and replaced it with his own, cueing up the propulsive, orchestral “The Dark Knight” score. “I take him aside, I’m like, ‘Mike, this is the most important moment in the movie for me. The crux of my whole character, my whole arc. That doesn’t work for me, dude.’ ... Now it’s two dudes ready to kill each other. ... Spit’s flying.” According to LaBeouf, Bay left the set with the NASA/military entourage, and his director of photography finished shooting the sequence without him. (Bay declined to be interviewed for this piece.)
After working on three “Transformers” movies together, the 25-year-old actor says, Bay is “sort of my big brother. ...We’re both very game, very passionate people. Sometimes it’s not actor-director. Sometimes it’s two dudes yelling over explosions. Sometimes it doesn’t sound like the friendliest conversation. But we love each other.”
LaBeouf is relating the story from a divey Middle Eastern restaurant in a Hollywood strip mall, a Lionel Richie song playing in the background as a waiter delivers his usual order — “my chicken thing with those crispy deals” and some steaming Turkish coffee. “I come here for the decor,” LaBeouf says, gesturing at the mostly empty eatery’s eight Formica tables. “There’s candleholders. It’s opulence.”
Lean, shaggy-haired and smart alecky sometimes to the point of self-destruction, LaBeouf has little in common with the beefy, well-behaved heroes of many summer popcorn movies. On a good day, his off-screen candor merely gives some studio executives heartburn; on a bad day, it lands him in a bar fight. But he insists that he’s finally starting to grow up.
LaBeouf, raised in L.A.‘s Echo Park neighborhood, the only child of a Vietnam veteran and ballerina, is the first artist in his family to make it. He has been steadily employed since age 13, when he was cast as the wisecracking star of the Disney Channel tween sitcom “Even Stevens,” and today his multimillion-dollar paydays support both parents in separate homes. (LaBeouf says his father, a onetime heroin addict, is now clean — “My parents are retired basically. He’s painting again. She likes nature.”)
LaBeouf was handpicked by executive producer Steven Spielberg to be the human face of the “Transformers” franchise, which so far has grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide; the third installment reaches theaters on 3-D screens Tuesday night, and opens wide on Wednesday. He was also the young heart of Spielberg’s 2008 Indiana Jones reboot, “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” fulfilling the kind of relatable adventurer role Richard Dreyfuss did in 1970s Spielberg movies such as “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“That’s a gift and a curse,” LaBeouf says, of being Spielberg’s 21st century hero. “Steven introduced me to the world in a way. The man has been incredible to me. But the work that I’ve done with him, the character variation is not heavy. It’s sort of all in the same vein. ... I’ve gotta anchor these movies that are in these outrageous worlds, and I have to be as tangible as possible. ... I have no problem with that, but I don’t want to be there forever.”
Inspired by a line of Hasbro toys from the 1980s, the “Transformers” movies depict warring bands of giant, sentient robots from the planet Cybertron that can shape-shift into cars and other vehicles. LaBeouf plays Sam Witwicky, a reluctant soldier in the war between the benevolent Autobots and the evil Decepticons.
In the latest film, Sam has graduated from college and has a new love interest, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). The Autobots, meanwhile, have learned of a Cybertronian spacecraft on the moon, and they’re racing against the Decepticons to find it.
Critics love to hate the “Transformers” films, but that hasn’t kept audiences away. The second movie, “Revenge of the Fallen,” was rushed into production with a ragged script due to the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike and earned an abysmal 20 percent “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, yet still became the second-highest-grossing film in the U.S. in 2009.
“This movie’s very different, more physicality, darker premise, more story line, clearer thought,” LaBeouf says of “Dark of the Moon.” “I feel very confident in it. The last hour ... is the greatest action sequence of Mike’s career, which would put it on the same level as the greatest action ever made. ...The second movie we were making on the fly, and it was too convoluted.”
Like the character he plays, LaBeouf has developed since being handed his first blockbuster. “He’s grown as a person, as an actor,” says “Transformers” producer Ian Bryce. “He’s a man now.”
In 2009 and 2010, LaBeouf topped Forbes magazine’s list of Hollywood’s “Best Actors for the Buck.” According to the business journal’s calculations, LaBeouf’s movies earned an average of $81 of profit for every $1 a studio spent on the actor in 2010, and $160 for every $1 spent in 2009. LaBeouf has proved to be a good bargain for studios thanks to not only franchise films but also one-off thrillers like “Disturbia” and “Eagle Eye.”
But since 2006’s gritty adolescent story “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” LaBeouf hasn’t played a lead role in an independent movie. That will change soon with “The Wettest County in the World,” director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s book about a family of Depression-era bootleggers. LaBeouf is the youngest, most ambitious of three violent brothers — his siblings are played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke.
“When you’re a racehorse and you’ve got 20 trainers, all the trainers want the racehorse to run a certain way,” LaBeouf says. “What does the racehorse want to do? ‘Wettest’ is the first time they’ve ever asked the racehorse. I’ve been running for a team of people for a long time and I don’t take any of it back. ... I’ve learned a great deal about a certain type of filmmaking. But I have ambitions toward another type of filmmaking that I haven’t been allowed to engage in yet.”
Moving ahead, LaBeouf says, he’s trying to be more selective when it comes to picking parts. “I like to work. I like going to camp,” LaBeouf says. “I’ve usually had something else to jump into, or I’ve got a start date. I’m trying to find a way to eat up time without being destructive, ‘cause that’s my go-to, it seems. I have a hard time with free time.”
In 2007, LaBeouf was arrested for refusing to leave a Chicago Walgreens (the store owner later dropped the charges). In 2008, he crashed his pickup truck, declining to take a Breathalyzer test at the scene of the accident and crushing his hand enough in the accident to require multiple surgeries. (The L.A. County district attorney’s office did not file charges due to insufficient evidence, but LaBeouf’s driver’s license was suspended for a year for his “refusing to take a chemical test.”)
In February, police handcuffed the actor after he got in a fight in a Los Angeles bar. He was there with a group of his friends when another patron recognized him, LaBeouf says (again, no charges were filed in the incident).
“He was just being demonstrative, antagonizing me in front of a crowd of 50 or 60,” LaBeouf says of his adversary at the bar. “My mother said it was below your dignity to engage in it. But there’s something in a 24-year-old mind where you’re in front of a lot of people you respect and love and you’re getting ready to ship off and go do a movie about the most violent brothers in Georgia who sell moonshine and you’re sort of rooting for a certain mentality and somebody approaches you and you’re in the wrong thinking and you’re drunk. I have no excuses. I’m not happy with it, but I don’t think it’s a calamity.”
The same impulsiveness that inspired LaBeouf to ball his fists that night has also driven him to say some professionally reckless things, including telling reporters at the Cannes International Film Festival last year that he was unhappy with the fourth “Indiana Jones” movie.
LaBeouf says he has been warned by people he respects — including Spielberg — to watch his words in public and smooth some of his rough edges.
“The way Steven described it to me was, ‘When Tom Cruise walks outside his house, he doesn’t pick his nose. From the minute he leaves his door to the minute he comes back home, he doesn’t pick his nose.’ Now that’s a certain way to live your life that I have no ambitions toward.”
Not that Mr. Chicken-Thing-and-Crispy-Deals isn’t polishing himself a bit, with the encouragement of his girlfriend, a Vietnamese-American stylist he met at a karaoke club in Echo Park.
“Pâte? A cheese plate? That’s a very 25-year-old deal,” he says. “I can get down with some fig jelly and some cheese on a cracker. ... She’s having me try different things. I was scared of fish, ‘cause of my upbringing, being Jewish. Gefilte can ruin your entire seafood life.”
After “Wettest County,” which the Weinstein Co. plans to release, LaBeouf says he isn’t sure what he’ll do next.
“There’s this coming-of-age thing that’s happening within me. I’ve come from family-fare, pop-culture, Steven Spielberg-safe, made-for-a-generalized-populace (projects), and I have these yearnings to do different things. Which way is this boy gonna go? I have no idea. ... I’m just reading and being patient now for the first time.”