Four years ago, Shia LaBeouf came to Cannes as a Hollywood star seeking critical respect, and left having set in motion a whole new career as a prankster performance artist. Nobody knew that at the time, though, since LaBeouf was on the Croisette simply to show a short film he'd directed, Howardcantour.com, about a film blogger with an inflated sense of self-importance. Reviewing the film out of Cannes, I wrote then that "LaBeouf would know something about the gulf between critical acclaim and blockbuster business — he's made three Transformers movies, after all. But his short isn't an attempt to slag on critics, not really: Instead, he tries to empathize with the sort of man who might earn a living taking potshots at the actor."
LaBeouf swiped those exact words several months later when Howardcantour.com premiered on Short of the Week, repurposing my writing as his own director's statement. It was hardly the most audacious bit of recycling he'd done in this instance, though: Eagle-eyed online viewers soon realized that the short itself was ripped off from a Daniel Clowes comic, and once people began accusing LaBeouf of creative plagiarism, he claimed that his theft was intended all along to be performance art, doubling down hard on that idea in the years to come. Whether he was crying in a Los Angeles gallery or grimacing through a self-retrospective in New York, LaBeouf came to be better known for his art antics than his acting. People continued to wonder what he would do next, but only because self-immolation felt like the most natural endpoint.
Imagine my surprise, then, when LaBeouf turned up at Cannes earlier today as a clean-cut, well-dressed, polite performer for hire. He's here to promote Andrea Arnold's American Honey, where he stars as Jake, the ringleader of a ragtag young crew that crisscrosses the country selling magazine subscriptions — mostly to finance an endless road trip of drinking, flirting, and screwing. In the film, LaBeouf wears a rat tail and, frequently, little else, but at the press conference, his hair was cut short and combed, while his crisp white dress shirt was buttoned all the way up.
Could this be the same actor whose best-known appearance at a film-festival press conference involved muttering about sardines and then wearing a paper bag over his head? Earlier today, LaBeouf smiled, looked reporters in the eye, and offered encouraging fist-bumps to his costars, many of whom had never acted before and had certainly never come to the Croisette. When I asked him about his character’s big scene dancing in a K-Mart to “We Found Love” — the powerhouse song from LaBeouf’s former fling Rihanna — he was sheepish and self-deprecating: It was shot on his very first day, LaBeouf said, and whether Arnold had intended it or not, the dance sequence cut his ego down to size in front of the other actors. “On that first day, everybody’s alpha-male-ing around the set, and she’s like ‘Hey, I need you to body roll to Rihanna right now,’” he said. “A little awkward.”
He wasn’t precious about his process, either: LaBeouf spent a week embedded with a magazine-selling crew in order to prep for his character, but when a journalist prompted him to talk about how these young people’s hardscrabble existence may have changed him — the sort of anecdote that can be catnip for an actor to divulge — LaBeouf didn’t take the bait. “This is not new information,” he said gently. “It’s not like I discovered it. In Bakersfield, where my father was for a stint, the only thing there is a prison. And everybody works in the prison.”
Another reporter mentioned an upcoming project where LaBeouf will play hothead tennis player John McEnroe, the sort of casting that could be considered on the nose: Like McEnroe, the sometimes-arrested LaBeouf has a history of flying off the handle and veering outside the lines. Instead, he simply shrugged his shoulders and related that character to his American Honey lead: “Jake is me, and so is McEnroe. That’s it,” he said. “I understand these people. I sympathize, I get it. I turn things up, I turn things down, [but] it’s me.”
Can Shia find his way back from the performance-art wilds, a la Joaquin Phoenix, and reestablish a big-studio career? Does he still want to? It isn't clear, but today's press conference was at least an encouraging step when it comes to sense of self: LaBeouf has often plunged so deeply into his roles that it unnerves his fellow costars, so to finally see him so put-together off-screen perhaps suggests that he's found a way to reconcile work and life. There's a charming sentence in the press notes for American Honey that refers to LaBeouf's nonprofessional costars as "spirited debutantes who may or may not decide to pursue the acting profession." Even LaBeouf, who's been acting since he was a child, seems to have been at that crossroads as of late. I wonder if he's finally decided which way to go.