The actor discusses finding collective joy at Slauson Rec. Theater Company, therapy with Brockhampton, and the party he’s throwing with Jaden Smith and YG
Shia LaBeouf is a cat who’s had his nine lives, but when I speak to him on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, he appears more alive than ever.
The 33-year-old actor has lived out multiple creative detours and existential crises in the public eye, deconstructed his own celebrity and put it back together again, been hailed the “King of Fashion”, moved from starring in “pop culture, base-level bullshit” like Transformers to working on critically-acclaimed arthouse films like 2016’s American Honey and the upcoming Honey Boy, a cathartic film to be released later this year in which LaBeouf, playing his own father, explores his own experiences as a child star and the son of an alcoholic.
LaBeouf was born poor in Echo Park, LA, the product of a broken home, but the latest in a long generation of performers. His father was a mime and a clown, his mother a ballerina-turned-visual artist who worked several jobs just to keep a roof over their heads. Despite deviations on his journey, LaBeouf was born to perform, but after a time feeling detached from the world and its people, he’s desperate to share acting with a community, and make theatre a “vital artform” once more.
Ten months ago, LaBeouf co-founded Slauson Rec. Theater Company in downtown LA, a democratic, free-of-charge performing arts programme that opens its doors to anybody who wants to come through to a class, irrespective of whether they have any training or experience. All they need is “a story that they’re willing to share”. Slauson Rec. is a communal initiative that LaBeouf says has made him happier than he’s ever been in his life, although he admits that it’s still rooted in “selfishness” and “chasing that high”.
This Saturday June 29, Slauson Rec. is throwing a fundraiser called “Sacred Spectacle” at Hudson Loft, featuring a star studded lineup of artists who “fuck with the vision”, including Jaden Smith, YG, Kamaiyah, and Vic Mensa.
I rang LaBeouf to find out all about Slauson Rec. and where he’s at now.
Slauson Rec. has been open ten months now – what have you learned?
Shia LaBeouf: It’s extraordinary joy, I’m experiencing an extraordinary amount of joy. Joy in the craft and all that, joy in the process, but in the sharing of it. It’s less fleeting when you can show up and see the difference on another person’s face. It’s really something special.
I mean look, this isn’t straight altruism and charity work at all. It started in selfishness, it remains in selfishness. This shit is super selfish, it’s not like I’m fucking out here helping the kids, that’s not what’s going on. Yes, we have kids in my class – the youngest is 11, the oldest is 70. It really runs the gamut.
I’m trying to allow myself some kind of happily-ever-after scenario. That’s really what I’m out here doing so I find that when I’m able to – how do I say this without sounding cheesy – take joy in the flourishing of other people, especially when it happens through a shared struggle, which is what these workshops are, then it strengthens me. That solidarity, it’s giving me power, so I’m experiencing this collective joy that is helping me to generate myself, you know?
I’m in the happiest period in my life in general. A big reason I was such a fucking alcoholic is that when I’m fully absorbed, or lost in something, or immersed in something bigger than myself, it’s a high. So I drank because it allowed me this freedom for a time from this constant chatter, this self-monitoring of my daily life, right? This fucking anxious self-scrutiny, this non-stop chatter, and I lose that in these workshops when I’m caught up in the work that we’re making as a group. It is a high. I’m chasing a high.
You've been on such a journey. It’s nice to hear you talk about being really happy.
Shia LaBeouf: Yes, extraordinarily!
Is there a moment from Slauson Rec. that you consider the most special?
Shia LaBeouf: It’s hard to rank them as it’s not like we have a leadership. In your first emails you sent me you said “it feels quite paternal” and I thought... actually, this isn’t that at all, this is the great equaliser I needed in my life. This is the fucking jam session and in a jam session, there is leaders for a time. So you walk in and yes, everybody’s looking to you like the Transformers kid who has the most experience. That’s really what they know you as, that’s how you get people in the room right? I don’t knock on doors and they go, “oh yeah I know you from Nymphomaniac”, they know me from popcorn, pop culture, base level bullshit. It’s my calling card to getting people in the room – now once we get in the room, that leadership dissipates because it must. There can’t be this dictatorial situation like on a film set where there’s a director and there’s writers and there’s actors.
I am not the director or the father or the parent or the leader, I’m a facilitator in a room full of moment makers and we don’t have leaders or teachers or directors or writers, we have this language that we’ve all built over the last ten months of shared intimacy, and a set of rules. So I would say the great a-ha moment was when we all came to a conclusion on you know, what those five rules would be, because it felt like utopia could be real. We realised that we have a language and a way to speak to one another through movement, and we have a way to build, but now we need this set of rules.
One, be around, you gotta be there. So if you miss a class or you’re late quite often, then you gotta sit on the periphery and you can’t be a part of the players circle, which is the epicentre. Two, pull everything out of each other, everything, all the good and the bad. Three, make moments that lead to other moments. Four is a big one, which is where the a-ha moment happened because we were having problems where we’d be creating something and analysing it at the same time which had us bogged down for months in constant analysis and no forward momentum. So we broke our analysing and our creation process into two separate sessions, and things started to move more fluidly. Five, break all the rules, which is a John Cage thing from his time at the Black Mountain College, and where we get our logo from.
There is a maxim on the Slauson Rec. website which says “Make moments. Make meaning. Make it sacred.” How much of that maxim is applying to you individually as you seem to move away from the Hollywood machine into the world of more authored, tender, indie films – things you really seem to want to do.
Shia LaBeouf: I wanted to fulfil this dream that me and Bobby had (Bobby Soto co-founder of Slauson Rec.) who made a movie (with LaBeouf) called The Tax Collector. I also wanted to get away from the sort of, this narcissistic you know, like... there is like a half-assed joy that comes with film making because even if you do a great performance, it’s sort of a narcissistic gratification. It’s still you in the midst of this constant monitoring of your own behaviour, making the right impression, this constant self-display, this calculating, this self, you know this constant self-obsession.
But you must still think acting is really good though? You know, you’re doing a lot of it and you must – even though all those things sound negative – you must still think it’s a beautiful thing?
Shia LaBeouf: It’s my favourite thing that I ever walked into, man, but I was going about it like golf. I was going about it like it’s you and the ball, right? I wasn’t going about it like it was a communal art form. Which it is! And that’s a fucking eureka moment for me that has only come quite recently, in that I used to be quite self-obsessed. I still am self-obsessed, I can’t get away from it, it’s my default setting and especially as an actor, there’s a certain level of narcissism that’s required for the art form but I find that my better shit comes from the communal, when it’s a jam session.
So like if I were to look at American Honey, for instance. I’m walking in as the actor but at a certain point, you have to get lost in the world. You have to give over to the world because you’re not dealing with other actors, you’re dealing with reality. You’re dealing with a truth that’s better than your performance and you have to give way to that truth. You have to give way to it in order to be able to harmonise with it and that is the goal of being on a set, to build harmony. It’s like music.
To get to that intimacy, you have to lose yourself to it, that person on the other side of it has to believe that you’re not just fucking Mr Transformers coming in for the next three months. They have to believe you’re fully involved in it so when I started losing myself to the process, really losing myself to the person on the other side of the process and making a jam session out of it as opposed to Mr Fucking Method which was not serving me, both in performance and in life.
When it became an immersive thing, when it became more of a communal thing, my performances got better and my life started to reflect that. So I wanted to birth this theatre both as a way to share this thing that I love with other people who don’t have it but also as a way to be able to have a way to get to that sustained communal joy every fucking week.
You’re not playing golf any more.
Shia LaBeouf: Exactly! It’s become more of a...yeah, it’s a team sport.
“I used to be quite self-obsessed. I still am self-obsessed, I can’t get away from it, it’s my default setting and especially as an actor, there’s a certain level of narcissism that’s required for the art form but I find that my better shit comes from the communal, when it’s a jam session” – Shia LaBeouf
Let’s talk about the Sacred Spectacle party which is happening on Saturday. You’re bringing a lot of people together – how did artists like Jaden Smith and YG get involved?
Shia LaBeouf: These people are doing this straight up out of the love of the vision, and not getting paid, and flying in off tour, and making time in their schedule, and they’re doing it for a number of reasons. They’re doing it because, one, they fuck with me and would read my email to begin with, and two, because they fuck with the vision of what we’re trying to build down there. My email was really simple. My email was basically making and seeing creators a way for me to feel less alone and I want to share that with other people. I want to make this really loud and I need your help. And these people didn’t take much time to consider it.
What do you want people to feel when they come away from Sacred Spectacle?
Shia LaBeouf: Closer to each other. That’s it. We’re trying to build a theatre for people who don’t fuck with theatre, we’re trying to build a theatre of hostility, of party, of fucking hang out, of grief, we’re trying to build a place where the stories of the outsiders can find a place to have a vehicle but also be relevant. We want people to line up for theatre like it’s vital.
There was a time in theatre where – and even if you go to the theatre now – you were to go look at the way theatres are built, there’s these wings in the sides behind grills and I always wondered what the fuck those were for. I just thought, ‘oh this is an aesthetic choice’ but it’s not, the reality is at the turn of the century when theatre was vital, when it was an art form that was held up by society as vital, it was not the thing to do to go out in public if you were a widow, for a year after your husband had died. So there was no place for a woman whose husband had just died where she could interact and get closer to another person.
Basically it was uncouth for her to go out in the public sphere whatsoever, so the architects built these wings in the theatre behind grills where women who were widows could come and interact with the public in a way that was healing, galvanising and brought them closer to other people. What we’re trying to do is build that new grill in the theatre for people who are considered uncouth in the theatre now.
If you were to look at the theatregoers that are going to the theatre now, it is not necessarily the same people who were going to music festivals. Music festivals are considered vital for a number of reasons, but mostly because they’re large spectacles of collaboration where motherfuckers can dance together and lose themselves to the spectacle and by doing so, heal themselves and their loneliness which is like the last fucking taboo subject, is loneliness.
Do you think we’re all born lonely? Are human beings lonely – are we all together on this big rock and are we all individually kind of lonely?
Shia LaBeouf: Before postmodernism, God mattered, God was the galvaniser, God was the music festival, it was necessary right? It was the spectacle that people felt a part of. We all want to be a part of groups. No one person is going to be everything to another person. It’s why marriages are failing like a motherfucker, because people get married and then they expect that other person to be their everything, to be everything. There is no fucking way that that can be. The way we’ve been able to survive is we’ve had huge groups – 50, 70, 80 people. What’s happened is that those groups have gotten more isolated and smaller and now you wind up with you know, three people in a house and a whole bunch of bullshit and drama and joylessness and if there is joy, it’s always fleeting. Or it’s not even joy, it’s just contentment which is different and that’s because there’s no solidarity with the rest of humanity. And that solidarity actually is where the joy comes from. That’s joy, being completely lost in each other, being fully absorbed in each other. That’s the drug that I’m talking about, that’s that high.
That’s become harder to get at, you know? There used to be a time when we were both younger, when you could just walk up to anybody and go, ‘hey’ – four or five years old – ‘wanna be my buddy?’ You couldn’t do that to kids now, people would think you’re fucking crazy. Go out in the street right now and go to a coffee shop and walk up to a random person and say, ‘hey want to be my friend?’ That motherfucker will look at you like you are batshit crazy. Like that‘s the craziest shit you‘ll have ever said. Yet if you go back to that little kid in you, that little kid that used to run up the stairs on all fours, that naivety, that naivety of being able to go up to a person and say, “hey wanna be my friend”? It’s been taken away from us because of the specialised fucking job that we are forced to, this...
Everybody playing golf.
Shia LaBeouf: Everyone’s playing golf, yeah. Yeah exactly man. Everyone’s playing golf. Younger people, they’re all facing the generation that’s in control, which is the older generation that has already opted in to these routines of life. The world has already done its fucking dirty trick on them. They’ve already had to conform because they have to survive so they’re in the midst of this rancid oppression of the specialised fucking grind mode, day to day 9-5 survival shit that stifles not only creativity, but that communal joy that we’re talking about.
You come from a generation of performers. Your dad was a mime and an artist, your mum was a ballerina and a visual artist. Is you reconnecting with theatre, a more traditional artform, is that you reconnecting with your family, or the idea of it, or even those memories at all?
Shia LaBeouf: Yes! I come from drama dude. I come from fucking joylessness, I come from three people in a fucking room trying to be everything to each other. And we just couldn’t do it.
We just can’t because it’s fucking impossible and we weren’t part of groups, I wasn’t part of groups. So yes, me building this theatre is me being part of a group. Me running therapy at the Brockhampton houses, that’s me being part of a group. I find that I am happier the more groups that I join. My advice to my family or anybody else who’s in the midst of joylessness, is join as many fucking groups as you can. Even if those groups are stupid, even if it’s fucking rollerskating on Wednesdays, even if it’s pottery or lanyards, or cleaning up trash or whatever the fuck it is, join as many groups as possible.
My mother and father never joined groups, they isolated (themselves). They were in the midst of the grind. Until I got on Even Stevens and became a part of a group, because I was the only white kid in my school I was getting beat up all the time. My dad was in a biker gang so my dad was part of a group, but it was a really toxic group. Then he went to jail and his dudes would still show up at my house, and me and my mother weren’t a part of their group, it was just a bunch of strangers in your house. Once you’re part of a biker family your house becomes a communal house, meaning they show up on Christmas with twelve dudes and tell you they’re going to be there until September and it’s just like that.
That sounds awful.
Shia LaBeouf: Yeah but also it filled my house with a certain amount of life. Though we weren’t part of that group, I did get to see the group from afar, I got to see them getting down. I got to see the joy in them, though I wasn’t a part of it.
You saw you wanted a different version of that somewhere else.
Shia LaBeouf: Yes! Yes and so what we’ve been building, it is that! It’s the group I’ve always been chasing and the group that I do feel occasionally on a film set, but even on a film set, there’s the above the line separation from below the line separation where the PA doesn’t feel like they’re in the midst of the party like the fucking director does, right?
The runner doesn’t feel the same level of community because they don’t have the same amount of say and that person can’t be considered happy or free if they’re not participating. If they’re just running around picking up milkshakes but they’re not participating in the fucking creation part and they don’t have a share of the power then they can’t be happy. It’s impossible.
“I come from fucking joylessness, I come from three people in a fucking room trying to be everything to each other. And we just couldn’t do it” – Shia LaBeouf
Let’s talk about your therapy sessions with Brockhampton. You touched on it earlier and Kevin Abstract spoke about it earlier this week – how are you benefitting from that?
Shia LaBeouf: What they have is quite special. Brockhampton started on a Kanye West fan forum. That’s how it started, it was a bunch of dudes who loved Kanye West, who would write on this fan forum every day for years and then they said, we should meet up and they actualised this group. And they started having meetups, once, twice a year where they would all meet up and talk shit about what they loved and didn’t.
So basically the Brockhampton kids came to me and said ‘Ay come make videos with us’ and then I saw all their videos and I thought, you’re just fucking spectacular, I’m not going to do better than this. I don’t want to take part in it because I can’t do better than what you’re already doing, but I want to be in Brockhampton even though I can’t. I don’t want to rap and I don’t want to be a part of the group but I want to be a part of the group. So I said well what do we have in common? And what we found that we all have in common is that we’re all a little bit lonely and so I’m in the midst of heavy therapy, and I’m in the midst of like a whole bunch of like self-reflection because I’m coming out of fucking walking in mud. I also found that though they haven’t been in the same amount of trouble, they’re also walking through mud and so basically Ian (stage name Kevin Abstract) was like “hey man, what do you think about like us all getting together and talking shit like we used to in the early days of Brockhampton where we all had these meetups? And I said, “aw man, you know, I can‘t on Fridays because I’m in therapy” and then he giggled and was like “yo it’s perfect, we should just have like fucking group therapy you know” and so that’s what it’s become.
Then he sent me a flyer that him and HK made, and on the flyer it had Allen Iverson holding a bunch of roses in a small little image and then on the top it had this big huge Helvetica font that said, Friday Therapy. When I got that flyer I thought, oh my goodness, this is fucking brilliant and so I went over there and it’s about half full of artists and half full of people who are just friends of artists, regular people, it’s quite a varied eclectic group but all round the same age, and we sit in this man’s kitchen and we go around in a circle, sort of like a 12-step meeting and we don’t talk about solution, we don’t try to solve each other’s problems but we do listen to each other deeply. It goes on for like four or five hours because the group will sometimes be 40 or 50 people in the room.
He’s (Kevin Abstract) just putting out his Arizona Baby album and a big theme in that album is empathy. All his posters that were all over Los Angeles, they had his face on them, and underneath it it said teach me empathy. So really I think these groups started as a way for really Ian to teach himself how to be empathetic to other people and so he spends a lot of his time listening. He actually speaks less than most people in the room until quite recently, like the last couple of weeks, he’s been opening up. But for the first month of this shit, he was just listening. So another group that I became a part of which has been serving me is these Friday Therapy sessions, which aren’t actually therapy but they’re like, message boards actualised. We’re physicalising the thing that is so attractive to us all about social media which is that instant connection and that knowledge that I’m going to walk into this room and there’s going to be 40 people who are going to talk to me. No matter what I look like or what I sound like or what I did last week or what I’m wearing or how I feel, I am going to be able to have 40 people talk to me and share with me and open up to me and connect with me and it brings us closer together and it does have a healing effect.
Life is always a journey but speaking to you, it seems as though you’re somewhere really positive. You’ve been through a lot in your life – Honey Boy is a film about the agony of growing up but making it out alive. Where do you feel like you’re at now?
Shia LaBeouf: My life is colourful, it has its ups and downs you know, but what I do have in my life now is friends.
Did you not feel like you had friends? Is Hollywood a place where it’s hard to have friends?
Shia LaBeouf: Yeah for a long time I didn’t have any friends. None, yeah.
And how did that make you feel?
Shia LaBeouf: Oh well, not having friends is really corrosive to the soul. It destroys you, yeah. And you know, I was the type that made my lover everything, you know? I would look to that person to be my every single person. Which is just fucking crazy.
Why do you think you did that?
Shia LaBeouf: Because I was scared to reach out. I was scared to... I was so scared to walk up to other people and say, “hey do you wanna be my friend?” Because the world has done a trick on them.
So you looked to lovers to save you?
Shia LaBeouf: Not to save me, but to be my every friend. I looked to my lovers to be 60 people. And that’s just not possible, you know, you actually need 60 people to be 60 people. You can’t ask of a person to be every single person in your life, no-one can provide that to you. Even the greatest lovers that have ever existed in life cannot be everything to another person, and so what I would do is I would fall in love and then I would create a nest, and then I would never leave the nest. And that’s just the kind of loving that I knew, that’s sort of what I was raised on. I’m a child of a broken home and that’s what my examples were. Both of my parents don’t have a whole lot of friends.
But you and your parents are friends now, right?
Shia LaBeouf: Oh definitely. Yeah definitely, but they’re not my every friend. They’re mom and pop, but they’re not 60 (people). Basically I’ve stopped asking so much of people. I’ve actually just asked people to be my friend and I’ve just asked more people that same thing.
What would you say to a kid who felt like you did, or felt lonely, or felt like they didn’t have any friends? What would you say to them?
Shia LaBeouf: Join as many groups as possible. Join all the dumb groups, all the wise groups, all the stupid groups. Join as many groups as you possibly can.
I know that you already told me that Slauson Rec. isn’t anything parental to you, but I think you’d be a good dad. You spoke about how that idea of a nuclear family can be joyless, but is having a child something you want? Do you think about that?
Shia LaBeouf: More than I want to build a family, I want to be a part of a tribe. If a kid comes my way in my life, I hope that my life is full. When I close my eyes and think about what I want my house to look like and what I want it to feel like...have you ever seen Home Alone?
Shia LaBeouf: OK so that Christmas scene before they go to the airport where motherfuckers are running all over the place, who’s got the pizza? This guy’s running down the stairs and that girl’s running across the thing and the bathroom’s full and nobody can get nowhere and there’s fucking 70 people running around the house. I’d like to bring a kid into that and until my house is full like that I don’t think I want to have a kid yet because I don’t want to bring a kid into anything joyless.
I love that scene too.
Shia LaBeouf: We all do, we all do.
What can you tell us about the play that you’re previewing at Slauson. Can you give us a kind of taste about what it’s going to be about, what people can expect?
Shia LaBeouf: It’s about the birth of a new human. We have 12 people on the cast – it’s the birth of a new human and the death of the old.
Is there anyone at Slauson that you feel like could stun audiences like Sasha Lane did in American Honey?
Shia LaBeouf: Yes.
Can you tell me anything more about that person?
Shia LaBeouf: No because then I’d get into trouble and have to deal with it on Saturday. But yes there is, there’s some spectacular motherfuckers in this room.