Taken from the Winter 2014 issue of Dazed:
It’s a Saturday morning at the end of September and I’m still in bed, laptop booted up before I’ve even had a conscious thought, when a notification tells me I have an email from Shia LaBeouf. Initially, I don’t react. I’ve been followed on Twitter by numerous LaBeouf parodies lately, having written about the ex-Transformers actor’s recent work in the realm of performance art. The notion of him being a flesh and blood person with any impact on my life is so strangely distant that the reality of his invasion of my Macbook – my inner sanctum – barely registers.
The email reads: “Hello – I’m Shia. If you have any interest, we could start a dialogue. If not, no harm no foul. I like your point of view.” Suddenly, it becomes very real. A dialogue opens up and accelerates.
LaBeouf tells me about the “existential crisis” he underwent after being caught plagiarising graphic novelist Daniel Clowes for a short film, Howard Cantour.com, that aired at Cannes in 2013. He tells me about his search for more challenging projects like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and David Ayer’s wartime drama Fury, as well as his newfound affinity with metamodernism (a school of thought somewhere between the irony of postmodernism and the sincerity that came before). I tell LaBeouf my feelings on Fury; I ask him for running tips, for reading recommendations. He holds nothing back: he tells me about his relationship with his father, and traumatic experiences. He tells me about his faith. I tell him a bit about mine. We talk for two weeks.
At one point, LaBeouf says that he – as an only child – longed for the kind of family he saw in Home Alone; that online connections cannot replace physical presence, that he approaches social media as a game like Tetris. I’m tipsy on a train when I read this email; I pay £4 for an hour of wi-fi because I can’t wait to reply. I write, “But I’m not a ghost... there’s one of us on either side of the exchange. There’s scope for interpretation and response. That’s more variables than Tetris, no? It’s human.”
He writes back super fast. “I actually totally agree with you, it’s all about finding the humanity of the networks... Fuck Tetris. We make new games together.”
We arrange to meet in London when LaBeouf is in town for the premiere of Fury. Rather than a regular interview, LaBeouf suggests that we keep all of our words online, and meet in person without speaking. It’s mid-October when we come face to face in his hotel room, both of us with GoPros strapped to our heads, for an hour. The pull of a digital connection follows us into the room, yet morphs into something entirely different.
Below is an abridged version of our two-week dialogue. Watch the film of our meeting below, and head to the website he made with collaborators Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner to read the unedited transcript of our email correspondence in a special format designed by the artists. It’s less an interview, more a metamodernist encounter, with the truth somewhere between online and off. We make new games together.
What kinds of connections did you form with people during #IAMSORRY? (An event in February, in which LaBeouf silently met members of the public one by one for five days in an LA gallery.)
Shia LaBeouf: Almost everyone who came in had preconceived notions of what they were going to experience, and as soon as Nastja Rönkkö brought them through the curtain, everything changed. I went from being a celebrity or object to a fellow human. I was genuinely remorseful. It wasn’t manipulation, I was heartbroken. People I’ve never met before came in and loved on me and with me. Some would hold my hand and cry with me, some would tell me to ‘figure it out’ or to ‘be a man’. I’ve never experienced love like that; empathy, humanity.
Still, there were others who came in with an agenda they couldn’t let go of. Some folks would come in, take my bag off, pop off a selfie and bounce. That felt terrible.
Did any experiences stand out to you as particularly moving or unsettling?
Shia LaBeouf: One woman who came with her boyfriend, who was outside the door when this happened, whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me… There were hundreds of people in line when she walked out with dishevelled hair and smudged lipstick. It was no good, not just for me but her man as well. On top of that my girl was in line to see me, because it was Valentine’s Day and I was living in the gallery for the duration of the event – we were separated for five days, no communication. So it really hurt her as well, as I guess the news of it travelled through the line. When she came in she asked for an explanation, and I couldn’t speak, so we both sat with this unexplained trauma silently. It was painful.
“(During the events in February) one woman whipped my legs for ten minutes and then stripped my clothing and proceeded to rape me” – Shia LaBeouf
Marina Abramović has said of Rhythm 0 that she was "ready to die" in the performance; did or do you feel the same?
Shia LaBeouf: I would half agree with Abramović's sentiment. I once felt to learn from tragic experience is as much happiness as one can aspire to. I’ve since learned there is a happiness past that: being ready to die for it is is only one part, being ready to live for it is the other.
What is the meaning of life, Shia?
Shia LaBeouf: :)
We are all mostly in a state of mind that is constantly hovering, constantly browsing, checking, updating shit. There is no purpose or sense to it, no commitment. The meaning of life I think is to find your purpose, sensibility and commitment, and help others achieve the same. We all need to heal through interaction.
Is it true you had your tooth removed, cut your face and didn’t wash while shooting Fury?
Shia LaBeouf: Fury is the most meat I’ve ever had to chew on. David (Ayer, director) told us right from the gate: ‘I need you to give me everything.’ So the day after I got the job, I joined the US National Guard. I was baptised – accepted Christ in my heart – tattooed my surrender and became a chaplain’s assistant to Captain Yates for the 41st Infantry. I spent a month living on a forward operating base. Then I linked up with my cast and went to Fort Irwin. I pulled my tooth out, knifed my face up and spent days watching horses die. I didn’t bathe for four months. I met some tankers who told me that was just the way it was out there – some guys had the same pair of socks on for three years.
When you say you ‘tattooed your surrender’, are you referring to the cross on your left hand (see image below)? What do you think of when you look at it?
Shia LaBeouf: That’s one, yeah. I think of a badass, naked in the desert on a white horse, wearing a white cape dipped in blood, holding a sword, charging into the fight with a thousand men behind him. I think of a fierce, wild, romantic man.
One of the film’s overriding themes is ‘becoming a man’. Did you bring any of your own ideas about masculinity to the role?
Shia LaBeouf: I always had a fucked-up view on masculinity. My father was a gun nut like Hemingway. He was also a junkie and a bully, mainly to prove he wasn’t effeminate, even though he was a painter and a poet, a mime and a storyteller. Every primitive culture has a puberty ceremony where children become men. Jews still have it, but it’s all religious nostalgia. For the most part, super-modern or industrialised societies don’t have them any more. We only have the harrowing journey – war in particular. If a man comes back from war, everyone agrees: ‘Here is a man.’ My dad told me that when he got back from Vietnam, his family agreed: ‘By golly – you look like a man, Jeff.’ I think the withholding of a puberty ceremony from young men in our society is a scheme which has been cunningly devised to make young men go to war. It creates an eagerness to fight; it’s an aggression that stems out of insecurity.
Could you pinpoint the start of your metamodernist journey?
Shia LaBeouf: It started as a genuine existential crisis. I made a short film with another person’s (Daniel Clowes’) ideas, took it to Cannes and never properly accredited him. I was in hot water looking for ideas to back my play. I found Kenneth Goldsmith and made contact beginning of January - I ran with that concept for a while, which led very quickly to a dead end in that it didn’t truly match my sensibilities. Not all of them anyway. I am a deeply ironic, cynical person. I was raised on The Simpsons and South Park, it’s my default setting. Which is why "uncreative writing” and Goldsmith felt right. What was missing however was the hopeful, the sublime, the fantasy, God? Not the hallelujah God, but something. I think these things are true of my generation: we want to change things, we want to have hope, we just don’t know how or where to look.
I found Luke (Turner) through the networks, made contact in the middle of January. He started schooling me on metamodernism. I had read some Artaud and Brecht and found a lot of what he was talking about was already in personal application on set. I am immersive in my craft. I saw the stuff we were orchestrating with Nastja (Säde Rönkkö) in the same light. I don’t see a huge difference in the work we do and the work I do - like a car crash or a birthday party. They’re both incredibly immersive, open and intimate.
“What started as an actual full blown existential crisis is now a full blown existential exploration” – Shia LaBeouf
I’m finding my self through the networks and exploring the multiplicity of personas. The public me, the private me. I’m exploring. What started as an actual full blown existential crisis is now a full blown existential exploration.
I like how you’ve basically been practicing metamodernism since before you had the words or the theory. How long have you been method acting for?
Shia LaBeouf: “Method” came after working on Lawless with Tom Hardy, who basically said “you don’t lose anything by studying some.” I always had reservations on the notion of studying, I always thought acting had to do with instinct, but I was wrong. The more I read, the more I found how limited I was with the instincts I trusted so much.
I think the method thing attributed to me has more to do with my commitment level. I make the leap, I don’t question the authenticity. That’s an Allan Kaprow thing – the “illusion” is that I’m making it up. I go there - all the way out there. You find the truth out there. I take things to the edge and off. I’m constantly jumping off cliffs and developing my wings on the way down, in life and art. It’s a gamble, a deep spiritual gamble. You are who you choose to be.
Some said the event plagiarised Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present. How would you respond to that?
Shia LaBeouf: We didn’t create the piece with any reference to hers. Her piece was The Artist Is Present, in ours the artist was absent. I was gone. My piece was about a remorseful human being, the artist was irrelevant. It had to do with forgiveness, not romantic genius.
Could you tell me a little bit about the skywriting and the ideas behind it? (LaBeouf hired a team of skywriters to spell out “#STOPCREATING” over the LA skyline in January this year, and a month later writing #STARTCREATING, again in the skies)
Shia LaBeouf: The #STOPCREATING part was triggered by a legal notice I received from Daniel Clowes’ lawyer which included the words “he must cease all efforts to create”, and tied in with (American poet) Kenneth Goldsmith’s uncreative writing mantra. It was an over-the-top ironic move. I didn’t want to surrender to that cynical sentiment that Goldsmith pushes. Putting a hashtag five miles wide in the sky tapped directly into the creative spirit of the networks, and that is what #STARTCREATING was all about. It generated a feedback loop of creativity through Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr.
Did your announcement on the Nymphomaniac red carpet (LaBeouf wore a paper bag on his head bearing the legend “I am not famous any more”) come from a real desire to withdraw from public life?
Shia LaBeouf: Yeah, the 80s and 90s fucked us; our culture became a product to be sold, and anyone in a tabloid is a product – an object. American culture is just about blowjobs and golf. I wanted to take back ownership. Fuck the money, that was never the impetus. I wanted purpose.
Do you feel like you‘ve taken back ownership of yourself now?
Shia LaBeouf: I’m in a nice position in that I don’t think the studios look to me to sell a film anymore. So the work I wind up doing has little or nothing to do with my public persona and everything to do with my performance. Persona acting has little to nothing to do with ability and everything to do with charisma and ticket sales... After five years of that your dreams die. So in a sense I went on strike. I rebelled.
What I’ve found most interesting about your work is that your public persona has been part of it – the metamodernist performances have become indistinguishable from the performance of being a celebrity.
Shia LaBeouf: It’s not just me, though, it’s all of us. It’s societal. There is a huge push from the internet to find the true self, the one-self, and it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between our private and professional selves. This is true for everyone, not just celebrities. I think it’s okay to say ‘I am not who I am,’ both as a celebrity and as a person raised on web 2.0. I think it’s honest to say that. There’s beauty in people who reinvent themselves. Actors live a thousand lives, as do hackers... The personality can play around forever. Peter Pan shit.
“American culture is just about blowjobs and golf. I wanted to take back ownership. Fuck the money, that was never the impetus. I wanted purpose” – Shia LaBeouf
I wanted to ask you about James Franco's article on you from February. He wrote that you were engaging in an "addictive" game of "peek-a-boo" with the press. Did you have any thoughts on the article, or on the occasionally recurring comparison of you to Joaquin Phoenix? (I mean, I guess it's the beards?)
Shia LaBeouf: I quite like Franco. I think he errs on the postmodern side, but I like his work ethic. I think he, like most of the art world, didn’t want to get caught in a hoax or to be made to look a fool. I didn’t take any offence and I don’t think he projected any. I dont like the “art” term either to be honest, I like “project,” “projects” or “works" - don’t separate the artist from the audience. I like the Walt Whitman approach.
Joaquin is the best we have. I’m flattered by it. Even if it's just the beards, I’ll take it.
What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever been given?
Shia LaBeouf: “Stop fucking around” – Mom
Do you read critics?
Shia LaBeouf: You never learn anything from critics. But I do scan them, as well as comments on Twitter. It’s a lot of publicly articulated resentment. I think we (my critics and I) suffer from the same problem – we never got attention from the people who really mattered, so we seek a substitute, the applause of strangers. It’s a desperate attempt to be heard, to achieve an impact. It’s a vulnerability we share – I wanted people to be kind to me. I assumed being skilled at my craft would fulfil that; that being well known for something I love would substitute the void of my father.
What are your ambitions?
Shia LaBeouf: I have more to contribute. I want to be the best.
Shia LaBeouf: Everything. I’m an American.
Go to thecampaignbook.com/interview to read the unedited email chain in a format designed by Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner.