In Which Molly Rides That Long Train Into the Land of Young Indiana Jones and His Jewish Flavored Posse
Friday, July 6, 2007 at 11:32AM
Will in CELEBS

Harsh Beginnings

by Molly Lambert

"Shia is within everyone's reach," says Spielberg. "He's every mother's son, every father's spitting image, every young kid's best pal and every girl's possible dream."


Shia and his longtime girlfriend. They broke up because he was getting so much work. These pictures with the numbers on them are from his MySpace or something. Maybe from hers. I got them from here, which is the only gossip site worth reading.

LaBeouf's father was a professional clown. When Shia was 2 years old, the family put together a street act to raise cash. "Latins are into clowns," says Shia. "We were the only white family around, so we figured we could do the look-at-us thing and dance around like a bunch of idiots." LaBeouf's father stole a maid's cart from a Best Western, decorated it with paint and streamers, stocked it with hot dogs and shaved ice and took his family to the park in clown costumes to perform. "I hated selling hot dogs. I hated dressing up in clown," LaBeouf says. "But the minute somebody would buy into my thing and buy a hot dog from my family because of my shtick, my parents would look at me like, 'All right, man.' Besides performing, I've never had that validation from anything else I've ever done in my life."

There’s an LA Weekly cover story on Christian Bale this week where he discusses his transition from child into adult actor. He too was cast as the linchpin of a Spielberg movie, the considerably heavier “Empire of the Sun,” and fascinatingly enough, his mother was also a clown!

I don’t know if Christian Bale is really the greatest actor of our generation. I agree he’s versatile and good and all, but I definitely don’t find him dreamy the way the author of this article’s wife apparently does, as the author brings up a few too many times. I think it’s weird how many actors start as child actors. It gives lay to the idea familiarity breeds affection.

The authenticity that helps him ground those fantastic tales was earned through some harsh beginnings. LaBeouf grew up in Los Angeles' Echo Park, a mainly Latino working-class neighborhood, the only child of a drug-addicted Vietnam-vet father and a hippie-ballerina mother with a bum knee. "My family's lineage is five generations of artists who never made it," LaBeouf says. His first name, which rhymes with hi-ya, was the name of his maternal grandfather, a Catskills comic. His last name, pronounced La-Buff, is a name shared with his paternal grandmother, a Beatnik poet.

All of this makes me think about All The Real Girls, the David Gordon Green movie where Patricia Clarkson, as the protagonist’s mother, is a clown. Is there anything sadder than clowns? Is that why "Tears Of A Clown" is the saddest song ever written, or is because Smokey Robinson’s gorgeous falsetto voice sounds so vulnerable? Nothing like contrasting heartbreak with circus music to make it hurt the very hardest. In other David Gordon Green news, he just directed Pineapple Express, which won’t be released until August of next year. It’s written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who also wrote Superbad, this fall’s soon to be teen comedy blockbuster. Seth Rogen you know, of course, from This Recording counter-jammer Knocked Up. I read the script for Pineapple Express and have heard from people who’ve seen it that it’s hilarious. Hooray for the Judd Apatow harkened new golden age of comedy!

From an early age, LaBeouf was exposed to adult pastimes. With his dad he watched Steve McQueen movies and went to Rolling Stones concerts and AA meetings, where, at age 10, he learned to smoke and play cards. He met a kid whose surfboard he really liked. “He was on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman,” LaBeouf says. “He had all the stuff I wanted, materially. When you’re in school, if you’ve got the new Filas on, no one’s gonna punch you that day.” The key to new Filas, LaBeouf figured, was to get paid to clown around.

LaBeouf honed his chops on the actually not terrible Disney Channel show Even Stevens, about an upper middle class Jewish brother and sister in Sacramento. Christy Carlson Romano, who played the sister, was good too. She’s like a funnier less severe Anne Hathaway. He gained star traction the traditional way, by entering the Disney child actor slave factory at a young age, like every celebrity we now have. I’m talking about Gosling, Aguilera, Lohan, Spears, Timberlake and now, LaBeouf. LaBeouf is America’s new cute Jewish everyman, fulfilling a thirst America has not had quenched since the peak years of Elliott Gould.

“Don’t be scared old man, I got you!”

He talked his way into a stand-up gig at a comedy club in Pasadena, Calif. "My thing was the 50-year-old mouth on the 10-year-old body," LaBeouf says. He took to the stage in overalls, with a bowl haircut, and "the first words out of my mouth would be 'Listen, assholes,'" he says. "Sometimes I would bomb. I'd talk about personal stuff and instead of laughing, people would look at me like, 'Oh, man, I'm so sorry.'" The potty-mouthed-preteen act only took him so far, so at age 11 LaBeouf found an agent. In the phone book. "I called up and did my 5-min. routine," he says. "Agents are used to the parents pimping. They're not used to the kid pimping. They liked the fact that I tried." LaBeouf's agent, who still works on his team, paid for head shots, drove him to auditions and paid his family's rent. At the time, LaBeouf's father was in a VA hospital going through withdrawal. "It pissed me off that he wasn't around," says LaBeouf. "We weren't strong enough to talk bluntly about what was really happening.

Daddy issues, Jewish entertainer syndrome, and drugged out hippie clowns for parents? Shia makes Lindsay Lohan’s traditional Long Island family dramas look tame as hell. Is Shia really the Jewish Harrison Ford Spielberg has been looking for? Sorry Eric Bana, but if Seth Rogen’s character (and Jonah Hill’s for that matter) in Knocked Up are getting laid, it’s because of Shia LaBeouf, not Eric Bana. Here’s a picture to make Alex pale with rage.

Over the next few years, LaBeouf bounced from big studio projects like I, Robot and Constantine to indie resume builders like Bobby and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. His parents divorced; he made room for his dad at his place. And he began to draw on his complicated relationship with his parents in his work. In the coming-of-age drama Guide, LaBeouf's character struggles to connect with his emotionally distant father, played by Chazz Palminteri. Before filming a confrontation scene between the characters, LaBeouf called his dad from the Queens, N.Y., set and asked him to sing a James Taylor song. "Oh, Mexico, never really been, but I'd sure like to go," LaBeouf sings. "Every time he sings it, I just go nuts. That was one of the songs he would sing all the time when he called me from the VA hospital, not remembering he had sung it before. He'd be like, 'Shia, I got a new song.' That was the worst time in my life as far as our family goes."

LaBeouf is especially great in Holes, the Disney movie adapted from a book by Louis Sachar, author of the classic Sideways Stories From Wayside School. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s really worth renting. It’s like The Great Escape, starring a cast of multiracial tweenage males, each with a colorful nickname and personality quirk as prisoners at a desert camp where they have to dig holes in the sand. It’s terrific. Also I’d like to thank this recording for introducing me to Blitzen Trapper, my new favorite band I’d never heard of before. See, even I, the encyclopedia of musical and cultural minutae rendered irrelevant by the internet, find out about new things every day.

The affable LaBeouf, it appears, has plenty of bureaucrat in him. "This is just a bigger hot dog that I'm selling," he says, of acting. "It's the same type of thing. You get dressed up. You do your clown. And if somebody buys a hot dog, then I get Steven Spielberg goin', 'O.K., kid' instead of my pop now." LaBeouf has a tattoo on his right wrist that reads 1986-2004. "My childhood," he explains. "I've been working since I was 10; 2004 is when I decided I became an adult. It was a personal decision." When it's pointed out to LaBeouf that the AA meetings and agent hounding of his youth might suggest he attained adulthood earlier, he shrugs. "But I'm living in a child's world now," LaBeouf says. "A dream world. I go to sleep at night, and I feel like I just dreamed the whole day."

Do you hear that scrappy can-do attitude? Shia LaBeouf is here to bring back the sweetness to America. He is here to herald the post-Bush Green Age we are trying to enter before dark energy destroys the universe and the Decepticons finally win.

Molly Lambert is the senior contributor to this recording.

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