'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Shia LaBeouf ('Honey Boy' & 'The Peanut Butter Falcon')

Shia LaBeouf The Peanut Butter Falcon - Getty - H 2019
Dave Benett/WireImage

"I don't think you were wrong for thinking I was a dick," Shia LaBeouf says as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast. I had just told the 33-year-old that Alma Har'el's Honey Boy — a film that he wrote about his traumatic upbringing as a child actor, and in which he plays his abusive father — not only impressed me, but left me feeling guilty for making dismissive assumptions about him in recent years as he repeatedly wound up in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons. He emphasizes, "I think context is really important. And I think what Honey Boy does is it contextualizes who I was publicly, and kind of plays on it. And I'm grateful it's effective."

Honey Boy, which premiered in January at Sundance, has played the fall film fest circuit and will be released by Amazon on Nov. 8. It is one of two LaBeouf projects currently garnering widespread acclaim. The other is The Peanut Butter Falcon, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s $6.2 million indie that premiered in March at SXSW, was released by Roadside Attractions on Aug. 23 and has grossed $20 million in the U.S., making it the top platform release of the year so far. It was while working on Peanut Butter Falcon that LaBeouf hit a personal low point that led to the beginnings of Honey Boy. Collectively, they represent one of the great comebacks in Hollywood.

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.

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LaBeouf was born in Los Angeles to a fabric salesman mother and a "a drug-dealing clown" father who split up when he was just 5 years old. He was, by then, already a performer, having started dressing up as a clown himself at the age of 3 in order to help his parents sell hot dogs and snow cones. By 10, LaBeouf was performing "really foul" stand-up at a comedy club in Pasadena, which led to a gig warming up the audience and later performing skits on The Tonight Show. At 11, he met a child actor who had cool surfing gear and said he only attended school three hours per day. "I was really attracted to that," chuckles LaBeouf, who, shortly thereafter, rang up an agent posing as his own manager and pitching himself to be her client. She saw through his charade, but liked his "chutzpah" and "hustle," signed him, bought him headshots, paid his way into SAG and let him stay at her house. LaBeouf started going out on auditions, then acting in student films and ultimately appearing in episodes of TV shows like E.R. and The X-Files.

LaBeouf's first big break was being chosen over 2,600 other boys to star on Disney Channel's Even Stevens, which he did for three years, winning a Daytime Emmy in 2003. It is this period — when, in order to be closer to set, he moved into a motel with his domineering father, who was paid by Disney to serve as his on-set guardian — that is chronicled in Honey Boy. "Everything that's in the film happened," LaBeouf insists. The film depicts his father as a rage-prone Vietnam vet, registered sex offender and habitual ne'er-do-well who makes his son's life miserable, but also provokes in him the emotional response necessary to act well enough to earn the sort of praise LaBeouf coveted.

"I became addicted to that kudos," LaBeouf acknowledges. "It kind of fueled my way of working for a long time — just pining your own pain, and holding on to it, and not really ever dealing with it or questioning it, but just keeping it in a little bottle that you can pop the top on whenever it's needed, when the switch needs to be flipped."

There is actually one thing that applies to Honey Boy's young LaBeouf — named 'Otis' — that did not apply to the real one. "I wasn't looking to change what I had," LaBeouf says, whereas Otis hopes that his father will learn to treat him better. "I was looking to make money." He elaborates, "In a very simple way, to me, having money meant having a family. The more money I had, the more I could have my family around. That's just how I equated it. My dad wasn't around for a lot of my life because he was chasing cash. And my mother wasn't around because she was chasing cash. And I just looked at capitalism as the reason my family didn't work out and the reason their marriage failed. I looked at it as an economic thing. They loved each other deeply, and all of their fighting came from money, and so I just thought, 'Well, if we had money, there'd be no fighting and I'd have a family. This is what created this hustle in me.'"

Even Stevens ended after three seasons, at which point LaBeouf began landing film work. On his first movie project, Andy Davis' Holes (2003), Oscar winner Jon Voight became a valued mentor. The first time LaBeouf was part of a commercial success was when he starred in D.J. Caruso's Hitchcockian drama Disturbia (2007), which opened atop the box office and stayed there for three weeks. Steven Spielberg, who was an executive producer on the film, was impressed by LaBeouf's performance as he watched the dailies, and wanted the actor to read for Michael Bay's $150 million Transformers.

LaBeouf met with Bay's casting agent, then with Bay, then with a DreamWorks talent rep and then with Spielberg himself, which he recalls as "terrifying." But Spielberg offered his nod of approval, and so LaBeouf starred in Transformers (2007); then as Indiana Jones' son in the Spielberg-directed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); and then in the Spielberg-produced Eagle Eye (2008). All three led the box office on their opening weekend, and LaBeouf became one of Hollywood's most bankable young stars. 

But LaBeouf feels that the success of those projects, and two Transformers sequels, is entirely attributable to people other than him, particularly the Spielberg and Bay brands. "I don't think there was any acting going on," he says. "This was, like, personality. There was no acting going on for the huge front half of my career. This was all just my personality exhibited on a camera." He adds, "It's the ordinary kid in the extraordinary situation over and over and over again. And that's actually what I was — I was an ordinary kid, for real, in an extraordinary situation, for real."

After Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), LaBeouf's era of big films for major studios ended — a mutual parting of ways. By this point, LaBeouf was more interested in making gritty, character-driven indies into which he could pour body and soul into — which he did on 2012’s Lawless (he drank a lot of moonshine to prepare to play a bootlegger), 2013's Charlie Countryman (he dropped acid to feel like his character who did the same), 2013’s Nymphomaniac (he auditioned with a sex tape) and 2014’s Fury (he sliced two scars into his face).

LaBeouf reflects, "I was trying to earn my father. I was trying to shake off Disney. I was trying to shake off blockbusters. And I was trying to work with people who fucked with me." It was around this time that he started earning a reputation offscreen as a troubled guy, getting fired from one Broadway show, drunkenly disrupting another, engaging in a wide variety of performance art that struck many as bizarre, and the list goes on.

Through it all, LaBeouf continued to give standout performances in 2015’s Man Down, 2016’s American Honey (for which he received a Spirit Award nomination) and 2017’s Borg vs. McEnroe. But in 2017, while in Savannah, Georgia, filming The Peanut Butter Falcon — the story of an unlikely friendship that develops between two young men on the run, one of whom has Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) — LaBeouf's life came crashing down around him. He was, he admits, "drunk out of my mind and not rational at all" when he had an altercation with an undercover police officer who refused to give him a cigarette. He was arrested and, while in custody, made comments that were leaked to TMZ, which gave the appearance that LaBeouf was racist. The judge allowed him to finish the film before facing sentencing, and when he returned to the set the next day, having vowed to never drink again, LaBeouf felt "a kind of shame, deep shame" because, he explains, "I'm feeling like people on set think I'm a racist, believe I'm a racist, and I'm feeling all of that and don't want to be alive, basically." In short, he says, "This was my bottom."

Gottsagen, with his innocence and faith, sustained LaBeouf for the rest of the shoot: "The best I could muster at the time was to look at Google maps of Zack's address of his house in Florida, and I would pray to the GPS coordinates above Zack's house, because I knew that Zack believed in God for real, and believed in me. And so I would pray to his God, and that's what got me through a lot." As soon as production wrapped, LaBeouf reported to court-ordered rehab in Connecticut for an open-ended stay — the alternative, the judge told him, was to go to jail for seven years. "It was the first time I was told I had PTSD," he says. "I had just thought I was an alcoholic." Part of his treatment was having to write down what he had been through in his life. And, he says, "The stuff that's in Honey Boy comes out of these exposure therapy sessions." (Some 15 years ago, LaBeouf wrote a treatment called Rent-a-Dad, which was, he says, "Honey Boy, but with a whole different angle — it was like a sitcom." It never came to fruition.)

Three weeks into the sessions, LaBeouf decided to start getting his writing transcribed and sending it to a dear friend who had a number of shared experiences — Israeli filmmaker Alma Har'el. LaBeouf and Har'el had previously collaborated in 2012 on a haunting, poetic music video for Icelandic band Sigur Ros' melody "Fjögur Píanó."

"Being a capitalist, being an artist, being an actor desperate to not give my craft away," LaBeouf says, he hoped it "could be a route towards creativity again." Har'el told him that it should be a narrative feature, and that she wanted to help make that happen — if he also agreed to play his father. He did. ("Only in playing my father did I empathize with him," he explains. "It wasn't empathetic on the page.") After LaBeouf got out of rehab, he and Har'el finessed the script until he was ready to take it to Costa Rica to read it to his father, whom he had not seen in seven years, and get him to sign off on its depiction of their life together. His father complied, but, LaBeouf says, "He didn't believe that I could pull it off." However, his father has since seen the film and, LaBeouf says with a hint of a smile, "He knows that I see him," adding, "He's calmed. And I've calmed."