Drop your preconceived notions, rub your eyes for a moment and then take a second look at Shia LaBeouf. You’ll find a cinema-savvy 20-year-old who has engineered a stunning career reinvention in barely four years, going from cartoony tween star to award-worthy leading man in such wide-ranging films as “I, Robot” and “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.”
Now, with a voyeuristic thriller (“Disturbia”) and a summer blockbuster (“Transformers”) about to tag-team the box office, LaBeouf is ready to leave his kid-friendly days behind him for good. We caught up with him recently for a candid conversation about drama, Disney and Hilary Duff.
MTV: Just four years ago, you were coming off the Disney comedy series “Even Stevens,” and very few people over age 18 were aware of your existence. A lot of people saw you as the male Hilary Duff. Did you ever look at it that way?
Shia LaBeouf: No, I went a whole different route. I never came out with a music thing, even though [Disney will] push you that way.
MTV: How did that differ from the way you felt?
LaBeouf: I didn’t just want to be a churn-’em-out guy. I never really felt like I fit in there. From the moment I got there, all my friends were [making fun of me], like, “Dude, you’re at the Disney Channel!” It was kind of embarrassing.
MTV: A lot of people come out of that Disney factory — some worthwhile, some not so much.
LaBeouf: Yeah, a lot of good people come out of the Disney Channel: Ryan Gosling, Kurt Russell. The Disney people know how to find talent and cultivate it. I was green when I went on that show, so it was big for me.
MTV: Take us back to 2003. You’re 16 years old, you’re a Disney star and you want to be a respected leading man. What was the plan?
LaBeouf: The plan was to do something completely bipolar. We wanted to go in opposite directions, which was hard. So I did [the] “Project Greenlight” [movie, “The Battle of Shaker Heights”], and I did “Holes.” The “Greenlight” thing was big for me because I was in the Miramax world, which is a subsidiary of Disney, but a darker dimension. I got to curse and people got to meet me for the first time. People realized I wasn’t going to be coming out with a Kwanzaa album.
MTV: Once people knew you wouldn’t be singing pop songs like Britney, Hilary and Christina, you could focus on your acting?
LaBeouf: [He sings a little, jokingly.] Yeah, that was a big thing for me. I think the biggest thing for me was doing “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” The director didn’t want me. He said, “Oh, that’s the Disney kid? I don’t want to go that route.” Those were the big milestone moments for me in my career. Now I can mix the pop and the art a little.
MTV: As an actor, how important is integrity to you?
LaBeouf: It’s huge, but so is balance. You want to make a “Half Nelson” [which starred Ryan Gosling] but know that people in Japan will go see it. That’s why Tom Hanks is in such a beautiful position — he’s able to do it all. People grew up with him and trust him, yet he could play a [bad guy] and be completely believable. Whereas somebody like Drew Barrymore has a tougher shot at that, because people trust her so much and her personality is cherished. That’s a level you want to stay away from.
MTV: Do you still think that core Disney fanbase is with you?
LaBeouf: I feel like the “Even Stevens” folks grew up with me. I was 12, 13, 14 on that show, and they were 12, 13, 14, watching me. The things I’m interested in now, hopefully they will be too. I’m just a regular dude, and I feel like I know my generation pretty well.
MTV: So what will your generation find in “Disturbia”?
LaBeouf: [I want to] introduce those people to [co-star] David Morse. I don’t even know if the kids who watched “Even Stevens” would know who David Morse is, but he is one of the greatest character actors we have. There’s a pride in that for me. [I want them] to watch a D.J. Caruso movie, and then maybe they’ll go back and watch “The Salton Sea.”
MTV: It seems sometimes like you care a lot more about “the cinema” than some of your peers.
LaBeouf: Jon Voight always stressed to me that there is a responsibility that comes with being an artist. It’s not just, ’You create art, you get paid, it’s all about you.’ These are a sign of the times; these are cultural pictures.
MTV: You wear T-shirts of bands like the Clash and the Ramones in “Disturbia.” What kind of music are you into in real life?
LaBeouf: I’m all over the place. I’ll listen to Justin Timberlake, I’ll listen to Neil Young, I’ll listen to Frank Sinatra, I’ll listen to Deep Purple.
MTV: What’s the next step? Would you like to someday do a full-fledged, Harrison Ford-type action movie?
LaBeouf: That’s “Transformers.”
MTV: But are you the star?
LaBeouf: No. I remember George Clooney saying, when he did “The Perfect Storm,” that [he] wasn’t the star — it was the wave. People are there to see Optimus Prime transform (see “Michael Bay Divulges ’Transformers’ Details — And Word Of ’Bad Boys III’ “ ). I’m just there. As long as they don’t say, “He’s terrible,” I’m all right.
MTV: Will “Indiana Jones 4” be your next step as an action star?
LaBeouf: Who knows? It’s a rumor (see “Shia LaBeouf Denies ’Indiana Jones 4’ Casting, Says Indy Should Have A Daughter” ).
MTV: Would you like it to be?
LaBeouf: Sure — anybody would. It’d be better to be in that than in “Juwanna Mann 2” or “Kangaroo Jack 7.” It’s a great rumor; I’m blessed to have someone talking like that. But I haven’t been presented with the idea. I haven’t been approached. If [Steven Spielberg] approaches me, I would tell you. Believe me — I’m a loudmouth.
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