Shia LaBeouf thought he was finished, then he wrote ‘Honey Boy’

In his most critically acclaimed film, made with Israeli-born director Alma Har’el, Jewish actor portrays his father, who raised him while recovering from drug addiction

Alma Har'el, left, and Shia LaBeouf arrive at the LA Premiere of "Honey Boy" at the ArcLight Hollywood on November 5, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
Alma Har'el, left, and Shia LaBeouf arrive at the LA Premiere of "Honey Boy" at the ArcLight Hollywood on November 5, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — While in court-mandated rehab following his viral-videoed, racist-ranting 2017 arrest for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, Shia LaBeouf put his childhood reflections into screenplay format. That’s just what he knew. An actor since he was 10, LaBeouf’s life had been a series of screenplays. Some better than others. Few as raw and intimate as what he wrote.

It was intended as a therapeutic exercise to trace the roots of LaBeouf’s alcoholism (which led to that 2017 incident) and his diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. He wrote about himself and his father. He hadn’t spoken to him in seven years. His dad, Jeffrey LaBeouf, had served in Vietnam and been a rodeo clown. While LaBeouf was a fast-rising child actor, he was his son’s paid chaperone. He was aggressively supportive, riddled with jealousy and, according to the film, occasionally abusive.

LaBeouf sent his pages to his friend, Israeli-born director Alma Har’el. She at once responded that they had to turn it into a movie.

“I thought she was out of her mind,” says LaBeouf, who is Jewish. “I didn’t think we could get funding. I didn’t think anybody was trying to make movies with me anymore. I was going to join the Peace Corps.”

Instead, Har’el found the funding and they made “Honey Boy” with an added wrinkle, urged on by Har’el: LaBeouf plays his father. It’s the most critically acclaimed film of LaBeouf’s career.

For even an actor known for performance-art stunts (remember the paper bag over his head ) and public displays of painful self-examination (LaBeouf once sat for a marathon of all his movies at New York’s Angelika Film Center, an experience he compares to flipping through your high school yearbook with strangers), “Honey Boy” is something else.

The film, which Amazon Studios opens in theaters this weekend, is radically autobiographical for such a well-known movie star. As therapy writ large, it’s a striking exercise in empathy in which LaBeouf wrestles and ultimately comes to peace with his father. LaBeouf considers it an act of exorcism and liberation.

“There’s something freeing about this experience and also going a little bit crazy,” says LaBeouf. “Going a little bit crazy, I wish that on everyone. There’s something very freeing about going a little bit crazy. Crazy is freedom.”

Har’el first met LaBeouf after the actor, while rummaging in the Bob Dylan section of Los Angeles’ Amoeba Records, came across her dreamy quasi-documentary portrait of three residents living in a ghost town on the shores of the Salton Sea, “Bombay Beach.” LaBeouf executive produced her next film, 2016’s “LoveTrue.” In those and “Honey Boy,” Har’el has made a habit of bending gender and identity, capturing and deconstructing what she calls “the performance of self.”

Har’el thought LaBeouf’s first act, before they made the movie, should be to go talk to his father, who lives in Costa Rica. He did, read him the script and got his blessing, “both legally and spiritually” says Har’el.

“We’re done fighting with each other,” says LaBeouf. “I missed him terribly. We missed each other. Way more than I want to be right, I want my dad.”

Their divisions, he says, came in part from politics but more deeply grew out of the period depicted in “Honey Boy,” when LaBeouf was starring on the Disney Channel show “Even Stevens.” To be closer to set, he lived for a time in a motel with his father. (LaBeouf’s parents are divorced.)

Then a drug addict in recovery, LaBeouf’s father (portrayed in the film as a former sex offender) was in many ways ill-suited as a parent. LaBeouf’s performance is a tender portrait of a damaged man who damaged his son, but who still gave him much. By placing himself in his father’s shoes, LaBeouf could see their life together through his dad’s perspective.

Shia LaBeouf accepts the Hollywood breakthrough screenwriter award for “Honey Boy” at the 23rd annual Hollywood Film Awards on November 3, 2019, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

“My dad is a fighter, a survivor. He’s some kind of cockroach,” says LaBeouf. “It’s unbelievable how he’s able to stay afloat. I can’t believe he’s still alive. He’s a street poet. He’s cowboy culture. He’s Americana. He’s a soldier. He’s an artist. He’s a comedian. He’s a lover. He’s a beautiful man.”

Getting into character, LaBeouf, says began with finding his father’s voice — a nasal sound, because years of cocaine damaged his nose, but not a nebbish one. LaBeouf also went to unusual lengths to depict his dad’s physicality.

“My dad was very proud of his manhood,” he says. “Throughout the course of the movie I had this big dildo in my pants. It changed the way I moved and the way I sat.”

Regardless of props, dealing with a swaggering masculinity was part of the process, says the actor.

“I’ve had an aversion from alpha males for most of my life, which comes from my father,” says LaBeouf, himself an intense presence. “In doing this, I can sort of hold space for that energy and realize where it comes from. It’s quite sweet when you think about that overt alpha male energy. It comes from fear.”

In the film, Noah Jupe plays young Shia (“Otis” in the movie) and Lucas Hedges plays him more present day, including inside rehab. Hedges had never known LaBeouf before and he grants that, given the unusual circumstance of the production, “I don’t think the two of us ever figured out how to act with each other.”

Hedges said he was drawn to the movie by the courage of LaBeouf’s undertaking. He had endless questions for LaBeouf.

“There was no question that I was ever like, ‘Oh, I know him now.’ There were so many things that were contradictory,” says Hedges. “But there was no line. It was like he wanted and relished the opportunity to share. He shares his whole life with the world — his deepest fears, his deepest dreams, his deepest insecurities.”

This photo from October 5, 2019, shows, from left, director Alma Har’el, actor Lucas Hedges and actor Shia LaBeouf posing for a portrait to promote their film “Honey Boy” during the London Film Festival. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

LaBeouf was in the middle of filming another movie when he was arrested in 2017: “Peanut Butter Falcon,” which has been one of the year’s most successful indie releases. Making that film, especially spending time with his co-star Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, was also part of LaBeouf’s rehabilitation.

But while “Honey Boy” was obviously therapeutic for LaBeouf, Har’el emphasizes no movie can vanquish such demons.

“Being an adult child of an alcoholic or being anybody that suffered from childhood trauma at a young age had their wires crossed when it comes to love and pain. It’s a lifelong journey,” says Har’el, whose father also struggles with alcoholism. “This film, you could say it’s therapeutic but really what it was is a very big opportunity to go into that room where all the trauma happened and see it from a different perspective.”

Har’el, LaBeouf says, is “by far” the best director he’s ever worked with. When she finished the film, he sent a link to his father and set up a web cam so he could watch him watching the movie.

“We just cried for like 90 minutes,” says LaBeouf. “And giggled and laughed.”

At a ceremony earlier this week, LaBeouf accepted a screenwriting award for “Honey Boy.” He thanked his parents but also the Savannah, Georgia, police officer who arrested him for “changing my life.” The next day, LaBeouf said, the policeman called him to invite him fishing.

LaBeouf wasn’t eager to talk about the arrest again. He’s said it all before, he says. Some memories obviously still sting. But after “Honey Boy,” he grants, it’s hard to draw a line.

“That’s the thing about getting naked in front of the world,” says LaBeouf. “There’s nothing too personal anymore.”

Most Popular
read more: