Shia LaBeouf Talks Disturbia

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“I’m not a star, I’m an actor,” 20-year-old Shia LaBeouf says so earnestly, hell, you almost believe him. Then you remember how he gnawed on every scene with Keanu Reeves in Constantine and that golly-gee “ain’t he cute as a button, ladies?” nature that came across in The Battle of Shaker Heights and Holes. Then you remember one Jay Leno interview where he kept the late-night talk show host on his toes (“How’s your marriage?” LaBeouf asked after being playfully grilled about his girlfriend). And then you remember this guy’s actually got the chops to survive in the biz. It’s not that you disagree with what he says about the acting part, it’s his resistance to call himself a “star” that makes you do a Tex Avery-esque spit-take.

At the end of 2007, we’ll have to get back to him on that and see how he feels about his place in the fame food chain then.

He’s wearing two shoes this year, one being the sturdy unassuming action hero who befriends the Autobots in Michael Bay’s supreme destructo adaptation of Transformers; the other an emotionally tattered, insubordinate young Jimmy Stewart-type who learns the creepy cat next door is really a homicidal maniac in D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia (opening April 13). If anyone needs convincing that this former Disney Channel spawn (see: “Even Stevens”) radiates star clout, just do an interview with him. You’re clobbered by his self-assurance just as quickly as your struck friendly by his expressive caterpillar eyebrows and innocuous maturing looks which, on the day we catch up to him, is lightly sandblasted by a shade of incoming stubble on the tip of his chin.

Peer through a window into LaBeouf’s past and you would find this Los Angeles native grew up fast, presumably resulting in how well he carries himself today. Mom pulled the load growing up and dad was a drug dealer – now cleaned up, happily painting and back in Shia’s life after some time in the hospital kicking his heroine addiction when his son was younger. “I got to grow up in a situation where drugs were demonic,” reveals LaBeouf. “To watch your dad go through heroine withdrawals is something that would stray you from doing any of that. It started with him smoking cigarettes and weed and it all led into that. He also grew up in a different time. Hollywood was a different time and the world was a different time where they’d literally line up coke lines at the craft service table for grips.”

“He didn’t come back [into my life] until ‘Even Stevens’ happened,” the actor continues. “He needed a job and I needed a parent in my life, so this was his occupation. ‘Hey, dad, come be a dad again, here’s $800 a week.’ That’s how we started and created a rapport. You’re with somebody for three years every day, I had never had an everyday dad like that. The money kept him around and after that came this relationship. But for the first year I can imagine he was there for an occupation, but after that we created the relationship. This business has been more about giving me the roles and the people I meet, but it gave me stability in my family.”

In Disturbia – also starring Aaron Yoo (Rocket Science), Sarah Roemer (The Grudge 2), Carrie-Anne Moss (the “Matrix” trilogy) and David Morse (The Green Mile) – it’s the disruption of the family unit, moreover the loss of a father, that places LaBeouf’s character, Kale, under 90-days house arrest after he coldcocks a Spanish teacher. The actor says his approach to Kale came inspired from a mall-bought rebellion. “For somebody who comes from the suburbs, their rebellion is all bought at Hot Topic. For a kid who lives in Thousand Oaks, they bought their CBGB’s shirt from there along with their spiked belt and their Converse and they like the Ramones because that’s the thing to like. Like certain actors have never seen Sidney Poitier’s work, they’ll say ‘Oh yeah, ‘Blackboard Jungle,’ that’s my favorite movie ever!’ but they’ve never seen it, but it’s the cool thing to say. I think for teenagers, kids in suburbs, they’re trying to perpetuate this toughness, ‘I’m a rebel, I don’t belong here, I’m a cutter, I have a Clash poster.’ [D.J. and I] had fun with that.”

Regarding the nature of the script, penned by Christopher Landon (Blood and Chocolate) and Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye), LaBeouf responded to this Dreamworks thriller’s cross-genre mating, seeing it as a refreshing take on a genre that’s usually “one-note, they usually have one tone. The way this was pitched to me is – we’re going to take ‘Straw Dogs’ and the ‘Rear Window’ element and then we’re going to take ‘Say Anything’ and we’re going to throw it in a hat. The possibilities were endless and knowing [Steven] Spielberg was involved and that D.J. could make a movie like ‘The Salton Sea’ and now he’s making a movie for a different age group, I knew it wasn’t going to be trash. I knew it was going to be something interesting.”

Less interested in how a celebrity-type like Martha Stewart spent her similar home imprisonment, LaBeouf got on the horn with real people who had lived under house arrest. During his conversations, he learned much about the human condition under bittersweet duress. “There are certain small things that you wouldn’t have thought [about people under house arrest],” LaBeouf explains. “Like the fact that they only watch reality shows. There’s a big statement in that. They don’t watch any false representations of life, they watch documentaries. It’s tough being under house arrest, like dangling meat in front of a dog, everything’s available but none of it’s available. I remember one person saying, ‘I don’t watch sitcoms, my life’s already f–ked enough.’ And then they go through this OCD thing where all the red sh*t has to be in one corner, all the blue shit has to be in another corner or they start cleaning everything and then they destroy everything and rebuild it.”

Establishing the spatial relationship with his on-screen house came through very long hours on the set (“With 15-hour days I practically lived there.”) and assistance from director Caruso. The windows Kale witnesses the outside world from were designated characteristics to guide LaBeouf’s performance. “The house was wild because there was the David Fincher window, the ‘Say Anything’ window, then you’d have to transition because you’re all over the place. You’d be laughing one minute and then go into the humor and then into the horror and the transition could be strange. I come out of the bathroom having taken a sh*t, or something, and then transition to my dad’s room, which is right there, so you have to go from taking a sh*t to being in this reflective look back at the father that you lost, all in five seconds. The transitions were tough because you’d have to find the timing and you don’t want to make the transitions so long that the movie starts dragging. You’ve got so many different genres you want to pull off, different emotions you want to give the audience that it’s the hardest thing.”

A less trying task was pulling off his convincing rivalry with co-star, and psychopath antagonist, David Morse. “He didn’t talk to me for two months. The only time we started talking was during the fight scenes and the only reason we’d talk is because he’d say, ‘Duck, I’m going to swing now.’ This is how intimidating he was – he slams my head into the table and he picks it up. In the third or fourth take he’s got one of his fingers going this way, the other going that way,” LaBeouf gravely describes pointing to his index and pinking fingers. “This finger is broken, this finger is broken and he looks at his hand and goes, ‘I’m good to go again, how about you?’ And we’d go again. He never complained, he never flinched, he was never like, ‘Oh, f–k, my fingers are broken!'”

With a pair of projects arriving this year, LaBeouf looks back on his experiences in Disturbia and Transformers and notes the vast, and welcome, difference between the casual nature of one helmer and the reportedly tyrannical nature of the other. “D.J. is inclusive so you feel like you’re on a team, you don’t feel like you’re getting direction from one person, you’re getting input from seventy professionals,” he says. “It’s a very safe environment, you feel like you can never make a mistake. You’d just play. Michael Bay is somebody who gives you the type of freedom that can be very scary for an actor. People say he’s not an actor’s director because he doesn’t spend a lot of time on it, but I think he’s an actor’s director because he allows you the freedom to do your own thing. He’s not passing judgments because he’s thinking about the f–kin’ helicopter that’s falling, or the building that’s dropping or the 40-story robot. There’s so much to think about on a film like that, he’s gotta be General Patton. I wouldn’t necessarily want a D.J. on a film like ‘Transformers,’ I don’t know if I’d want that inclusiveness. I don’t know if I’d want all of these opinions when my hair is on fire.”