From plagiarism to performance art, Shia LaBeouf‘s recent stunts fall somewhere on the wide spectrum between “acting” and “acting out.” While wearing a paper bag over his head to a film premiere and apologizing via copied tweets and skywriting might seem like a desperate plea for attention, it could all be seen as a multi-pronged plan to seize his public persona from the control of the public.
And who better to comment on such a topic than James Franco?
The filmmaker — who also wrote a New York Times piece on the significance of the “selfie” photo in December — has spoken openly about the demands of continuing to act for a public audience, long after a film has wrapped, through interviews, appearances and even social media. He often cites the “one for you, one for me” model of pursuing film projects, and also exercises his ownership through post-graduate degrees, art ventures and writings — experimental novels and raunchy essays alike.
“As an actor and artist I’m inclined to take an empathetic view of his conduct,” wrote Franco of LeBeouf in a New York Times op-ed, published Wednesday. “This behavior could be a sign of many things, from a nervous breakdown to mere youthful recklessness. For Mr. LaBeouf’s sake I hope it is nothing serious. Indeed I hope — and, yes, I know that this idea has pretentious or just plain ridiculous overtones — that his actions are intended as a piece of performance art, one in which a young man in a very public profession tries to reclaim his public persona.”
LaBeouf’s bizarre behavior began when he found himself in the middle of a plagiarism controversy in December, as graphic novelist Daniel Clowes accused him of borrowing shamelessly from his 2007 comic, Justin M. Damiano, for the short film Howard Cantour. He then commissioned an apology to the artist via skywriting on New Year’s Day and tweeted other famous apologies from the likes of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, artist Shepard Fairey and golfer Tiger Woods, to name a few, and was criticized for copying once again. Of LeBeouf’s lifted regrets, Franco asked: “Was that clever or pathological?”
After storming out of a press conference for the film, the actor then attended the red-carpet premiere of Nymphomaniac with a paper bag over his head that read “I am not famous anymore” written in black paint — an accessory he also wore at his #IAmSorry art installation in L.A. the following week. During THR’s visit, LaBeouf never broke eye contact during the one-on-one but responded with total silence to a series of questions. His only reaction came at the very end, in the form of a nodded acknowledgment after being thanked for his participation.
Franco noted that LaBeouf’s backlash toward acting is reminiscent of his own strategies — citing his General Hospital role — as well as those of Marlon Brando, who turned down a best actor Oscar in 1973, among other things. He also pointed to Joaquin Phoenix’s 2010 film I’m Still Here as another example, and admitted that playing with the press is part of the performance. “Believe me, this game of peek-a-boo can be very addictive.”
Franco defended the former child star in the op-ed’s final sentences: “I think Mr. LaBeouf’s project, if it is a project, is a worthy one. I just hope that he is careful not to use up all the good will he has gained as an actor in order to show us that he is an artist.”
Franco has often explained his distaste for fame and how he has turned to other mediums’ proprietary expression.
“As an actor in mainstream film, I’m asked to be part of a bigger machine: I’m usually asked to help tell a larger narrative, and I’m not supposed to, generally speaking, break the fourth wall — I’m supposed to seamlessly fit into that world,” he noted last year at an event at the Strand Bookstore in NYC. “That means I’m servicing other people’s projects — that’s fine, I accept that. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that, especially when you act in good movies. But that meant that there was another voice, another side of me that needed an outlet, a space to say all the things that I wasn’t able to say with these performances.”
Among other projects, Franco will make his Broadway debut this spring in Of Mice and Men, opposite Chris O’Dowd.