I really like interviewing Shia LaBeouf, and not just because he named CHUD.com one of his top five websites in a People Magazine interview. There’s an attitude that LeBeouf has that I really like; some journalists I’ve spoken to say it feels coached to them, but I counter that what they’re sensing is the guy’s self-awareness. He’s projecting an image of himself, but who isn’t? And that projection isn’t all-encompassing – you can see the outlines of who he really is behind and through that projection. Also, he swears a lot, just like me.
The first time I spoke to him was at the Toronto Film Festival press junket for The Greatest Game Ever Played, and he was an angry young man, fired up about his burgeoning film career, even taking shots at people like Robert DeNiro. Now he’s at a weird place in his own career – Disturbia is the sleeper smash of the summer, chugging along and making much more money than anyone could have ever imagined. That’s a LaBeouf movie, through and through, unlike his next two projects, Transformers and Indiana Jones IV. But both of those films will put him in front of a much wider audience than he’s ever had before – being the centerpiece of two major tentpole pictures two years in a row represents a major step up in Shia’s career. This interview was done on the set of Transformers, last August, when nobody knew how Disturbia would hit and Indy IV was still a vaporfilm, so we couldn’t have known to ask him about his career taking off in such a major way. Shia, if you’re reading this, make sure your publicist gets us a one on one with for Transformers, because I’m dying to know what the view is like from the cusp, where you’re at. At the very least tell Spielberg I hope there's no hard feelings that we leaked the Indy IV plot last week.
The commercials and trailers that have been hitting the past couple of weeks really put the stuff we saw being shot in focus. We were on set for either the climax of the film or something very much like it – most of the Transformers were there, as were the army and Sector Seven (the military robot fighters), as well as Shia and Megan Fox, the unbelievable beauty who plays his love interest. Shia and Megan were in the middle of all the chaos as Decepticon green gas blanketed the street, leading to a civilian stampede. From where I was standing, Transformers looked more like a disaster movie than anything else. I can’t complain about that.
Who do you play in the film?
I play Sam Witwicky, aka Spike.
And what’s Spike’s role in all this?
He's a liaison between the robots, at least in our script; he’s the liaison between the government and the robots. It's too outlandish for the government to cling on to, this idea of these aliens. They're too close-minded to latch onto that so they use me as a liaison between the idea of what these things could be and what they actually are.
[The Autobots] make first contact with me. My great, great grandfather, Captain Archibald Witwicky, made first contact with Megatron in the 1800's and had – I don't know if I can give all of this away.
Okay, he had language and maps burned into his glasses through a laser, and the glasses were passed on down through his lineage and they wind up with me and me trying to sell them on eBay as well as his other items, his compass and his sextant and other things that a 19th century seaman would use. They come after me to retrieve these glasses which have the directions to the where Energon Cube is at.
You've done some action in movies before, but with this one are you doing more action than you've ever done before?
Yeah, it's never been like this for me especially not with Michael Bay. Michael Bay is the fastest, most intense director that I've ever worked with. The explosions are right here. They're not CGI. The other day they had me on top of one of these buildings, one handed with a wire here and a wire there and a cube here having to move around. It was insane. But that's stuff that you usually CGI that Michael doesn't CGI. He likes seeing the immediate. He likes being able to go in his trailer and go, 'You're never going to believe what I just shot.' Rather than having to wait for the CGI having to be put into the green screen he likes to see it immediately. So things like explosions and that stuff are all very real.
Was that the hairiest thing that you've had to do?
No. I can't even list what we've had to do. I've never had to do anything like this. When we did Constantine and I Robot, it was very minimal. Of course there was insane action like with a shotgun and you're shooting demons, but these demons weren't there. They were ridiculous men in green suits with cod pieces. It wasn't what this is which is that you actually have a Bumblebee or it'll be a pole, but you'll see Megatron and he's really there and they really built it. And it's just all very real. My job is very easy here in terms of it just being very reactionary as opposed to me having to conjure up these fantasies of what I think it would be. It's there.
Did you play with these toys as a kid?
Yeah. For me it wasn't a comic book. It wasn't even the toys. It was the movie. Transformers: The Movie, that was my shit. It was that and like Yogi Bear. That's what I grew up on, those were my movies and I would watch them over and over and over again. I mean, I must've seen Transformers: The Movie seventy times before this was even thought of.
What's it like then for you to be in this now?
Well, when you see Transformers: The Movie, Spike was only like in two or three scenes and then you find out that he's even more apparent in the comic book and other than the robots he's the only other character that goes back. So it's very rewarding for me to be here, and it's also a humungous thing for my career as you can imagine. So on a number of levels it's very fulfilling to be doing this, and again it's a completely different film. My goal at the beginning of doing this was to be as diversified as possible and this fits a part of filmmaking that I have never been a part of, nor would I have ever thought that I would get to be involved in this way. This is always the thing that like Ben Affleck has that job or Josh Hartnett has that job, and not some Gary Shandling look alike. It's not something that you would assume. I just didn't assume that I would be sitting with Megatron and Turturro. It's just not a thought that you could ever conjure up.
I talked to you in Toronto and you said that you wanted to do some more kind of gritty stuff. Are you taking this in order to kind of leverage that?
I have two indies coming out. We did time at Sundance. A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints is coming out soon [note from Devin: it was out and is now on DVD. It’s great. Read my review and buy it here]. I have Bobby coming out which is an independent and has now transformed into this mega-pic, but I fulfilled my independent goal. The whole goal of this thing is to find that balance. You want to create a pop film, but not sell out to make a shit pop film. There are shit pop films and then there are popular films. This is not a shit pop film. This is a popular film with a following. This isn't fucking Freaky Friday. There is a huge difference. The difference for me at least is that if I'm not going to enjoy the script I'm definitely not going to enjoy the ride for three months. It's three months of your life and I'm very impatient. I could definitely be in school and be enjoying that side of my life. There is a reason that I take time out to come and do this. It's not that I have to work because I'm financially in trouble. It's not that for me. I do movies that I want to do. Disturbia which is another popular film that is based on Hitchcock and it's stuff that I'm interested in.
And how do you feel about being in harm's way with these stunts?
It's exciting. Yesterday they blew a helicopter up right over my head. You don't get to do that at home.
Do your parents have concerns?
Yeah, of course. I brought my mom to set [Laughs].
What appealed to you about the Transformers movie when you saw it?
Are you talking about the cartoon? It was the same reason that you guys are into it. The thought of having something like an alien life form being able to take the form of this and transform just became more real for me than lets say E.T., which was this magical figure that came down to earth and you've never seen anything like it. Whereas the Transformers were real, they were real to me. It was like if you had an imagination you could sit there and look at a car and go, 'Yeah.' You could conjure up ways that it could transform. It was just more real than fantasy for me. I never got into things like – well, and it's the same thing with Constantine. You do stuff that you love like Neil Gaiman, Vertigo [comics], that's my world. Transformers is that other side for me. It's more popular, but it's realistic to me. I really think that there is a possibility that you could do some of this shit that we're doing. Some of it is real and it's not like this fantasy, this alien life form that comes down here. It doesn't feel like that to me. It feels like it could really happen.
Correct. It's more tangible. There's the word.
Seeing as you're a part of the demographic, did anyone come to you and ask whether you thought this was cool or not and maybe get your input?
No. I mean, everyone has their job and holds down the fort. I mean, Michael Bay is very, very – he knows what he's doing. It's not like he comes here and is thinking of shots. The man knows specifically what he's going to do. You used to hear old stories about like Kubrick who used to draw everything and create, and Michael works in the same way in the sense that he has these visual FX shots that he created a year ago. It's the actual shot in animation form rather than Kubrick who used to draw it out. He used to do these long hand forms of his films whereas Michael has already filmed the movie in digital and he's got all these FX shots of shit that's already been conjured. So in that respect it's there. It's not ever in question and my opinion means nothing as far as that goes, but Michael is very prepared. I've worked with some pretty dope directors too. Michael is very freeing. Like, 'This dialogue sucks.' He takes the page out and throws it away and he'll let you just roll with it. He ad libs more than any director that I've ever worked for. His ad libbing – he literally hires people based on whether or not they can ad lib. In the auditions it was, 'Okay, put the script down and just go for twenty minutes. Just go with this.' I remember when we auditioned with Megan [Fox], seventy percent of our audition was just, 'Go. Riff. Where you can go? How can you keep it on the storyline without going into some weird place that's not helping us.' That's the way that Mike works. So people will say that he's not an actor's director and all of this garbage, and I don't know about that. It depends on what kind of direction you want. If you want someone to be there and be on you and be the Woody Allen – cough here, breathe here, sneeze here – and be that director he's not that. He's the director that's going to let you just go and so in a sense that is an actor's director if you have that freedom.
What message do you have to the fans out there?
I mean, this is nuts. How do you describe what we're doing. I've never seen anything like it. We're staying true to a lot of them, but again, you can't make Megatron a gun because if you make Megatron a gun then he has to have an orange cap. You can't make a movie with a gun transforming when you have kids out there killing each other. You can't publicize the gun like we used to in the '80's where Megatron was a gun. If you were to make Megatron a gun now you would have to put the stupid orange cap on him and that would ruin Megatron. That would make him look like Herby The Love Bug or some dumb shit. So there are things that you have to do like making him a plane or that you have to change something.