Shia LaBeouf is graduating from the big-budget blockbusters that made his name and picking more risky roles. He tells Shereen Low why he’s intent on pursuing passion projects from now on.
SHIA LaBeouf is shifting.After carving out a career in the Transformers films, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, the 26-year-old is enjoying a run of indie flicks.
The first is Lawless, a Prohibition-era drama which premiered at Cannes in May, where it was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or award.
LaBeouf, who has made jokes about the Transformers films being “rubbish” and will not be returning for the fourth instalment, was the first actor to join the cast of Lawless three years ago, after the Australian director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave, better known for his musical projects with The Bad Seeds and Grinderman.
“I was the first person in,” he declares proudly.
“That’s my squad – if I could work with them for the rest of my life, I would. I’d seen all of John’s work and I loved it, and I really wanted to work with him because I think he’s one of the very best.”
The deal was agreed over burgers. “He took me to Hamburger Hamlet and said let’s make Goodfellas in the woods. And I was like, ‘Word! Let’s do that’,” LaBeouf recalls.
Despite two years of setbacks and near-starts, the actor remained committed to the project, even when his star status rose with the Transformers series.
Actually, the timing ended up having advantages, he now thinks.
“Lawless is closer to my own sensibility but I’ve been working on things that you can’t say ‘no’ to, because they’re incredible opportunities, and help to make films like this possible,” LaBeouf explains.
“Had Transformers not been a success then I don’t think Lawless would have happened. So every step is linked and I don’t regret any of it.”
Californian-born LaBeouf plays youngest brother Jack Bondurant, alongside Tom Hardy and newcomer Jason Clarke as elder siblings Forrest and Howard, in Hillcoat’s big-screen adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s true-to-life novel The Wettest County In The World.
“I hadn’t been given a lot of opportunity to make a film like this. This is a boy becoming a man in many ways,” he says.
“He has his first drink of moonshine, his first kiss. Jack finds an appetite for violence and this gangster life and it’s like he’s transformed from a teddy bear into a rock star and outlaw.
“It’s the most tangible, rooted character I’ve ever been able to play in my life. When you work on something that is character-driven, everyone is hyper focused on the little details, like the way you move your finger. It’s just a completely different way of working and I loved it.”
It was LaBeouf who took it upon himself to get Hardy on board. The pair became friends after LaBeouf sent the British actor a fan email about his performance in crime biopic Bronson, and they later forwarded scripts to each other. LaBeouf sent Bondurant’s novel and Cave’s screenplay to Hardy, who loved them both.
“I love him, he’s incredible. I look at Hardy like a hero, he’s one of the best actors around,” he says.
In fact, for LeBeouf, it was a dream cast all round.
“When you have actors of the calibre of Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce in there, it does something for your confidence levels,” he says.
While LaBeouf evidently relished the role, he didn’t enjoy having to put on weight and train for around two months to tone up.
“I had to gain 40 pounds. That was probably the most physically arduous. It’s something to get used to,” he admits.
However, the regular training sessions did ensure that LaBeouf, Hardy and Clarke were able to bond like brothers.
“We all worked out pretty hard. We were always in the gym, that was like our community. Our brotherhood started in the gym,” he recalls.
LaBeouf reveals that a fight scene with Guy Pearce, who plays Special Agent Charley Rakes, turned out to be quite spontaneous.
“The fight scene I did with Guy was really organic, it happened really fast,” he recalls. “That’s the way John Hillcoat does his violence. It’s messy, dirty and realistic.”
Fans who are used to seeing LaBeouf in boy-next-door roles – Sam Witwicky, Indiana Jones’s Henry “Mutt Williams” Jones III or Wall Street’s trader Jake Moore – may well be shocked by his new direction.
Having stripped bare for Sigur Ros’s music video Fjogur Piano as part of The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment, he will next star in Lars von Trier’s erotic drama Nymphomaniac, for which he may have to shoot real sex scenes.
“There’s a disclaimer at the top of the script that basically says we’re doing it for real. Everything that is illegal, we’ll shoot in blurred images. Other than that, everything is happening. I’m so terrified,” he says.
Before that though, the actor’s upcoming films are slightly more tame: Robert Redford’s thriller The Company You Keep and Fredrik Bond’s action romcom, The Necessary Death Of Charlie Countryman.
Seeing Redford in action has even inspired LaBeouf to consider directing.
“To be there with Robert Redford, watching him work was very special.To watch an actor direct himself was inspirational and I’ve always been interested to see how that works,” he says. “There’s always that thing in your mind – ‘When I get ugly and they won’t let me do this any more, is there a future for me as a filmmaker?’ Because I love life on set so much.”
l Lawless is in cinemas on Friday, September 7.