LaBeouf con­fronts his own fa­ther by be­ing him

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Mark Olsen

It seems pretty com­pli­cated, but also kind of not.

Here’s what’s not com­pli­cated — Shia LaBeouf wrote and co-starred in the raw, emo­tional movie “Honey Boy.” Di­rected by Alma Har’el, mak­ing her fic­tion fea­ture de­but, the movie won a spe­cial jury award for vi­sion and craft when it pre­miered this year at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val. The pic­ture opened Fri­day to strong re­views and earned $288,824 in four lo­ca­tions for one of the high­est per-screen av­er­ages of the year.

Now for the com­pli­cated part — LaBeouf plays a role based on his own fa­ther, a for­mer rodeo clown who saw his son shoot to star­dom as a child ac­tor. Noah Jupe plays Otis Lort, the “Honey Boy” ver­sion of young Shia, while Lu­cas Hedges plays a slightly older Otis af­ter he has be­come an ac­tion star and bounces into re­hab fol­low­ing a few brushes with the law. The com­plex, dys­func­tional dy­namic be­tween fa­ther and son forms the film’s core.

LaBeouf — a teenage star on the Dis­ney Chan­nel se­ries “Even Stevens” be­fore rock­et­ing to even greater fame with the “Trans­form­ers” fran­chise — started writ­ing the script while in court-or­dered re­hab af­ter his 2017 ar­rest in Ge­or­gia. Di­ag­nosed with PTSD, LaBeouf con­fronted the trau­mas in­flicted on him by his fa­ther and his ca­reer in the screen­play for “Honey Boy.”

As he be­gan writ­ing, he did not in­tend to ap­pear in the movie as his fa­ther or any­one else. Sit­ting for an in­ter­view with Har’el, Hedges and Jupe dur­ing the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in Septem­ber, LaBeouf said he thought at the time that it was “game over” for his act­ing ca­reer.

From re­hab, he sent pages to Har’el. LaBeouf and the film­maker had grown close af­ter he emailed her out of the blue upon see­ing her 2011 doc­u­men­tary “Bom­bay Beach” on DVD. The pair sub­se­quently col­lab­o­rated on a mu­sic video for the group Sigur Ros, and LaBeouf ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced Har’el’s se­cond doc, 2016’s “LoveTrue.”

“I thought this is the part that he’s been pre­par­ing for his whole life when I read it,” Ha’rel said of the “Honey Boy” script. “The char­ac­ter kind of jumped out of the page and re­ally hit me hard. It just seemed like some­thing that has to be on-screen and not stay in the ther­apy room.

“And it just kind of hit me that he has to do the dad and how strik­ing and how hard that would be. I’m al­ways happy to hear that I’m wrong, but I’ve never seen any­body do that. I’ve never seen any­body play their fa­ther, who caused them so much of the trauma that they were deal­ing with, at the same time that they wrote it. So it just seemed like some­thing that we would prob­a­bly be able to do to­gether, and it was re­ally kind of scary in many ways to step into it, but Shia went for it.”

Adding to the dar­ing, in­side-out feel­ing of LaBeouf ’s screen­play and un­spar­ing per­for­mance were the com­pli­ca­tions of Jupe and Hedges try­ing to tai­lor their per­for­mances to cred­i­bly seem like the same per­son at dif­fer­ent ages, both per­formed op­po­site the very real per­son their char­ac­ter was fic­tion­al­iz­ing.

“I thought be­fore we started it’s a bit weird to be play­ing the per­son who’s ac­tu­ally right next to you, a younger ver­sion of them,” said Jupe, whose other cred­its in­clude “A Quiet Place” and “Ford v Fer­rari.” “But once we got there, Shia was very open to play­ing around and wasn’t at all stuck in a steady story.

“I guess maybe it was weirder with me and Lu­cas play­ing the same char­ac­ter. We hung out a lot and we kind of grew this char­ac­ter to­gether, which Alma re­ally helped us with. You spend this much time, both [of us] learn­ing about this char­ac­ter and talk­ing about it. And by the first week, it wasn’t weird at all any­more. It just felt like we were work­ing and grow­ing and build­ing this char­ac­ter to­gether as a team.”

Hedges, an Os­car nom­i­nee for “Manch­ester by the Sea,” said that although he and Jupe did try to come up with some phys­i­cal el­e­ments they would both bring to the char­ac­ter, “Mostly, it was just sort of cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the gen­uine con­nec­tion me and Noah feel to­wards each other and specif­i­cally, I think I’ve al­ways wanted to feel like an older brother. And most of the kids grow­ing up that I wanted to feel like an older brother to had no in­ter­est in feel­ing like a younger brother. So I think one of the things that I love about Noah is the fact that I think he gen­uinely loves me too.”

“De­bat­able,” Jupe play­fully in­ter­jected.

For Har’el, Jupe and Hedges, a big part of their chal­lenge was how much the char­ac­ter of Otis should mimic LaBeouf di­rectly and how much he should be his own per­son. While shoot­ing, Hedges would some­times wear LaBeouf ’s ac­tual clothes.

“We had a lot of chal­lenges with that, ‘How much do we stay loyal to Shia?’” said Har’el. “Shia as a per­son has so many peo­ple that think they know him or that have a view of him, so many pho­tos or mo­ments in his life have be­come like cul­tural memes.

“I was re­ally aware that the film has to ex­ist on a dif­fer­ent level when it comes to the archetype of the son and fa­ther that goes be­yond Shia’s bio. And it was re­ally im­por­tant for all of us to kind of com­mu­ni­cate with that and not ig­nore it, but also that you can kind of wink at it some­times. And we would re­ally look at things as ref­er­ences and de­cide what to cel­e­brate and what to laugh about and what to ig­nore.”

For LaBeouf, the process of shoot­ing the movie was some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent from the rest of his col­lab­o­ra­tors, as he de­scribed many scenes as feel­ing like “flash­backs” to mo­ments from his own life. Which made the ac­tual shoot­ing of the movie an iso­lat­ing process.

“I was very lonely shoot­ing,” said LaBeouf. “I even re­mem­ber some points where I would try to con­nect with ei­ther [Noah or Lu­cas], but then they would stay in it [be­tween takes] and sort of leave me be. Noah’s a lit­tle bit bet­ter about it, cause he was need­ier, cause that’s just who he was at the time in the screen­play. But I re­mem­ber com­ing up to Lu­cas at times and not hav­ing a way in. Which freaked me out. And also gave me this long­ing that my fa­ther had to­wards me. So in the same way that Noah had had this long­ing to­wards me that was gen­uine and we would play with it, I also had a long­ing to­wards Lu­cas that was gen­uine.”

For Har’el, the mak­ing of the film has meant not only a ful­fill­ing pro­fes­sional col­lab­o­ra­tion with LaBeouf but also an op­por­tu­nity to see her friend grow and make gen­uine per­sonal break­throughs.

“He is just the best part­ner ever to have on an artis­tic process. He knows what he wants to do and then he re­ally lets you do your thing,” she said. “So he never came to the edit­ing room or was mi­cro­manag­ing us. And he came and saw the cut at the end and when he left he was like, ‘We did it. I think they’re go­ing to let us put our head in a guil­lo­tine again.’ And that re­ally hit me when he said that.

“He re­ally grew up liv­ing with the feel­ing that he has to be given per­mis­sion [to take cre­ative risks], and my big­gest wish was he will have the free­dom walk­ing out of this feel­ing like he doesn’t need to wait for any­body to al­low him to do it. Break­ing the lone­li­ness of just be­ing an ac­tor wait­ing for ap­proval has been re­ally life-chang­ing.”

LaBeouf ’s fa­ther watched the film on a com­puter link while LaBeouf watched his fa­ther via video. Asked about the ex­pe­ri­ence of show­ing the movie to his fa­ther, LaBeouf said, “It’s just the ul­ti­mate. It’s the pin­na­cle of my life. It’s ma­jor.”

LaBeouf sent clips of their con­ver­sa­tion to Har’el. “It’s amaz­ing how you’re say­ing the thing you wanted the most was to make him look good,” Har’el re­called to LaBeouf.

“And to not have ev­ery­one else look at my fa­ther dif­fer­ent, but to have my fa­ther view my fa­ther dif­fer­ent,” LaBeouf added.

“And he does view him­self dif­fer­ent,” he said, at­tempt­ing to sum­ma­rize what the ex­pe­ri­ence of mak­ing “Honey Boy” has meant.

“And I’ve got­ten lighter, but he’s got­ten lighter, it’s light­ened the load for both of us. And the idea that he knows that I view him this way. There were things I couldn’t ac­tu­ally ar­tic­u­late to him, that it had to come through this weird muddy route.

“And now he knows how I feel about him, be­cause ‘I love you’ didn’t mean any­thing to a per­son who doesn’t love them­selves.

“My fa­ther doesn’t love my fa­ther, or didn’t then, so to hear your son say it to you didn’t mat­ter to him. He couldn’t ac­cept it. But as an artist, which my fa­ther is, to go and build this sculp­ture for a per­son and go, ‘Hey, man, I re­ally love you.’ It’s like, ‘He can re­ally feel it.’ ”


Shia LaBeouf wrote and stars in “Honey Boy.”

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