He's just letting it all hang out
If there's one word that sums up Shia LaBeouf, it's 'intense'. A compulsive talker, the 25-year-old star of the Transformers franchise chatters away like he's in therapy. Everything from his poverty-stricken childhood to his relationship with his father comes under analysis, LaBeouf barely making eye contact as he chews over each topic. As tightly coiled as the hairs on his head, there's nothing robotic about him. If he was schooled in the art of Hollywood PR, he didn't pay much attention.
In just five short years he's gone from former Disney Channel star to one of the most in-demand actors on the planet. His is a very modern career, founded on blockbusters and sequels. More specifically, LaBeouf is a star born out of the Transformers franchise, and he's soon to return to multiplexes worldwide reprising his role of the likeable college kid Sam Witwicky in the third instalment of the series, Dark of the Moon. Meanwhile there's talk that his role in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - playing the archaeologist-explorer's greaser son, Mutt Williams - may well head a possible fifth instalment, if Harrison Ford steps aside.
Yet he's not afraid of publicly going on record and criticising the films that have made him a multi-millionaire. 'I wasn't impressed with what we did,' he noted of Transformers sequel Revenge of the Fallen. 'There were some really wild stunts in it, but the heart was gone.' Perhaps even more shockingly, he took on Spielberg and Indy part four: 'He's done so much great work that there's no need for him to feel vulnerable about one film. But when you drop the ball you drop the ball.' It's like he swallows a truth serum every time he meets the press - and it's no different when we meet.
Almost the moment he sits down, the top pocket of his white shirt sagging with the bulge of a cigarette packet, he's off. The topic of money comes up - and I ask if his parents ever advised him. 'I come from outrageous poverty,' he shoots back. 'My parents never had money. How do you give people advice on something you don't have? Or don't understand or never had? I come from deep, deep, deep poverty. I lived in the 'hood in Los Angeles, Echo Park, when it wasn't a gentrified artist community.'
The only child of Shayna, a dancer and ballerina turned clothing and jewellery designer, and Jeffrey, a Vietnam veteran who skated through various jobs, LaBeouf admits that for a long time, he 'blamed money for ripping my family apart'. They would make ends meet however they could, even all dressing up as clowns and selling hot dogs in the local park. His mother sold brooches at fairs, while his father traded in something less legal. 'My dad was a drug-dealer, out of necessity,' LaBeouf says, referring to his father's stint selling marijuana. 'He had no other skills that would garner him a wage.'
LaBeouf admits he blamed money - or the lack of it - for his parents' divorce, when he was young. 'I felt like had they had more time, they would be together instead of having to go out and fend. But that was inaccurate. That was a young person trying to figure out 'Why is this happening? Is it me? Did I do something?'' Aged just 10, he put himself on a path to try and put things right - developing stand-up comedy routines (which explains his rapid-fire speech patterns) and performing in clubs. He won himself an agent instead.
Having accompanied his father to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he then saw him enter rehab for heroin addiction. By the time he emerged, clean, LaBeouf had won a role on Even Stevens, a show on the Disney Channel. 'I needed a parent on set. My mother had a job she couldn't leave. So the only parent available was my father. And had I not been able to supplement his income, and sort of rent a dad, I wouldn't have had one. My relationship with my father started at work.'
Making US$8,000 a week, LaBeouf was easily able to support his parents. Yet it's clear his father's inadequacies have left him searching for a surrogate figure - which was where film directors came in. 'I would die for these men,' he says. 'I love them - deeply, truly. I have love affairs with my directors. Passionate love affairs.' Actors have been equally important, stretching back to his first movie Holes, when he was 14. 'I met a man named Jon Voight, who also had vacancies in his family life, like I did. I was looking for a father at the time. He was looking for a son. We buddied up. He used to take me to his house and I'd sit there and we'd have movie marathons.'
He seems to have made less-lasting relationships with the women in his life. He dated his Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps co-star Carey Mulligan for a year before it fell apart, and he's not afraid to give his former Transformers co-star Megan Fox a going over. 'I think Megan is serviceable. I don't think she's a great actress. I think she's a good actress. She could be ... there's possibilities. She has pains she could draw from if she is allowed to. She just hasn't been allowed to chew on any meat. Nobody's given her the opportunity to. But she's got a lot of pain, that girl.'
Having left the franchise, Fox's replacement in Dark of the Moon is British model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley who, according to LaBeouf, 'will bring a new perspective on things' - as far as one can in a Michael Bay movie, of course. LaBeouf is, at least for now, acting like a cheerleader for the film, which sees a time-travelling plot co-opt the 1969 Nasa moon landing. 'This is, and I'm not just BS-ing you ... it's the best movie we've made of the three by far,' he says. 'The script is the best script we've had. It's the fruition of the rhythm we've created out of five years working together.'
Claiming this will be the last Transformers he makes ('I'm never going to do it again'), LaBeouf is next up in John Hillcoat's bootlegging drama The Wettest County In The World. Penned by singer Nick Cave, it's an interesting choice for an actor whose father suffered from alcoholism. Meanwhile, LaBeouf has - just about - managed to keep a lid on his own problems. There's been the odd bar brawl, an arrest for criminal trespassing and one for misdemeanour drunk driving.
Maybe this is what makes LaBeouf shine. He's just a regular kid trying to keep it together. Aside from tickets to games featuring his beloved baseball team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, he finds it difficult to splash out on himself. 'I couldn't spend all the money I have - in a lifetime, in two lifetimes,' he says.
Then there's his fanbase. 'I've never had the Robert Pattinson fan-worship. I'm not an Adonis. I'm a guy-next-door-Joe-Schmoe. I think that's why I've been popular.' Will it last? It may depend on whether Hollywood can tolerate an actor as outspoken as he.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon opens on June 29