August 15th, 2003 | Published in Online Press
Shia LaBeouf doesn’t really know the rules of this game. He just likes to close his eyes, reach back, and swing really, really hard. Whoosh! The little yellow ball soars toward the pristine circle of green…then tragically veers off into a thicket of bushes. ”Okay, how about this rule?” he hollers over his shoulder as he trudges to the trees. ”If your ball gets knocked into the woods, you’re allowed to kick it out with your foot if you need to.” He laughs. ”Otherwise we’ll be here all day.” Nine holes of golf soon turns into an afternoon soccer match.
Sporting a trucker hat that crushes his dark curls, an oversize Cleveland Cavaliers basketball jersey, and potato-sack-cut pants, 17-year-old Shia LaBeouf (Shia rhymes with ”hiya”; the full name translated from Yiddish and French, he says, is ”Thank God for the beef”) stands out among the khaki-clad golfers who putter about the Studio City course on this 90-degree-plus July day. ”Did you know Hilary Duff is making a TV special out of her 16th birthday?” he muses in his raspy pubescent alto. ”Why would you want to do that? Seriously, somebody needs to do an intervention on that Hilary.”
Okay, so we won’t find LaBeouf at Lizzie McGuire’s birthday bash, but he’s popping up pretty much everywhere else. In June alone, he appeared on the Disney Channel for a TV movie based on his tween series, ”Even Stevens”; as a special-ed mascot in ”Dumb & Dumberer”; and as a Bosley protégé in ”Charlie’s Angels 2.” He’s also on HBO each Sunday in a two-for-one indie movie/reality series, ”Project Greenlight”’s ”Battle of Shaker Heights” (due out Aug. 22). ”Unlike his other stuff, this movie features a kid on his own, a kid with real dramatic moments. It’s awesome for Shia because he gets to show that side of it,” says Chris Moore, executive producer of the show and movie. Which means, career-wise, there will be life after facial hair.
Not that the quirky, self-described ”Jewish Disco Screech” is taking anything for granted, even though his turn as goofball younger brother Louis on ”Even Stevens” was a hit for the Disney Channel — and LaBeouf (he earned an Emmy). ”When we finished ‘Even Stevens’ [last year], I was like, what am I going to do next?” recalls LaBeouf. ”I was scared out of my mind because I had been living on this set, creating and being free with the same people for three years. It was my family, you know?” Then he heard about some movie called ”Holes.” ”It was based on a book, that’s all I knew about it.”
Not just any book, but the multimillion best-seller by Louis Sachar, which featured a hapless hero named Stanley Yelnats. ”Casting Stanley Yelnats was crucial,” says director Andrew Davis. ”I need[ed] a cross between Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, and Gene Wilder in a kid’s body. We looked at Shia and knew he was the right kid.” The $30 million comedy about a kids’ correctional facility made an impressive $67 million pile, and positioned LaBeouf as the next Frankie Muniz — or even bigger: ”I used to see him at premieres and stuff and it would always be like he was looking down on me,” says LaBeouf. ”And then it turned into we’re equal, and then it turned into ‘Oh Frankie? I know that guy.”’
LaBeouf’s life story is like ”8 Mile” as directed by Terry Gilliam. LaBeouf says that his 55-year-old father, Jeffrey, a stand-up comic, rodeo clown, and Tiny Tim wannabe, danced with chickens as an opening act for the Doobie Brothers and that the job soon evolved into a full-time gig rolling joints for the band. (Dad, who sometimes visits his son on set, currently lives in a tepee on a $10,000 plot of land Shia bought near the Mojave Desert. He couldn’t be reached for comment.) Earth mama Shayna, who’s been 36 as long as Shia can remember, is a former ballerina-turned-hippie craftswoman. She and Jeffrey separated when Shia was 10. ”I truly remember those days, because it was the hardest s— in my life.” As a way of coping, Shia performed for his fractured family. ”I would act like my pops [and] walk out with a beer in my hand and go, ‘All right, everybody, shut the hell up, I’m gonna watch a Western.’ And even though it was tense in my house, everybody was laughing.”
At age 11, LaBeouf says, he decided to pursue acting but was discouraged when told that the only way to break in was by modeling. ”I looked like a young-ass Garry Shandling,” he says. ”What was I going to model for, Shalom Pretzels?” Determined, he cracked open the yellow pages and selected his agent, Teresa Valente, who signed him on and lent the family money for head shots. Soon after, he joined an improv group and began doing stand-up at the Icehouse in Pasadena, shocking adult audiences with his off-color humor. ”I was a chubby little a–hole,” says LaBeouf. ”I used to ask questions to the audience, then take the microphone away and tell them to shut up. It was outrageous.” Two weeks after signing with his agent, he landed a commercial and bit TV parts. By age 13, he was cast in ”Even Stevens.”
As his devoted organizational guru, Shayna describes her son in near Zenlike terms, her orchestra of clanging jewelry chiming in accord: ”Shia’s Shia. Shia’s himself. So whoever he’s gonna be, he’s gonna be.” For now, that seems to mean living a life that doesn’t exactly mimic Hilary Duff’s. While kids do crowd him at shopping malls, he and his mom still live in their battered two-bedroom bungalow in a sketchy Los Angeles suburb. ”Security” chez LaBeouf means a handmade front door secured by a fist-size padlock, and a guard mutt named Rex. (The system seems to work — at least from the inside. The day after our interview, LaBeouf had a meeting with a screenwriter at Sizzler. Unable to unlock the front door, he razor-cut his bedroom-window screen, climbed out with his skateboard, and cruised to the restaurant.)
LaBeouf says he lives so modestly because he’s ”broke,” having ”only $20,000 in the bank right now.” But when you start to parse this story (as well as others he recounts), you realize LaBeouf may be having some fun with the facts. He describes his wages on ”Even Stevens” as ”food stamps and corn biscuits” (read: about $8,000 per episode) and claims he earned only $25,000 for ”Holes.” ”I’m in that weird medium where I’m rich and I know it. But I don’t see it yet,” he laments. (His agent says 30 percent of what LaBeouf earned from ”Even Stevens” was funneled into a trust that he can tap when he’s 18.) Both his mother and his agent refute LaBeouf’s poverty act. ”He is not poor! Why would he say such a thing?” wonders Valente. Then there’s the issue of his real age: LaBeouf says he’s 17 but then explains that his parents separated in 1992 when he was 10. (You do the math.) According to his rep, he just has his time line confused.
Ten days after playing golf, LaBeouf is in Vancouver to shoot ”I, Robot” with Will Smith. He’s clinched a movie deal with New Line that, he is happy to report, has ”made me a f—ing millionaire!” And for LaBeouf, busy is good — and a safety net. ”That young-actor trait?” he says. ”I’m that guy. The only way I’m not going to be a pothead or a crackhead is if I keep working and keep my s— stable.” And keep making up his own rules.