LaBeouf knows he engenders hostility in certain quarters, a sense that he could stand to be taken down a peg. "This is not to be comparing myself to DiCaprio, but I remember the hatred for him when every girl I liked wanted to . . ." He pauses. "It's not extraordinary envy, like Robert Pattinson fan-worship shit, but I do feel animosity from men. They feel like they want to challenge me. 'I just fucked up Shia LaBeouf!' It's a story you can tell, and I guess you're cool for it."
The classic Hollywood myth begins with a young innocent, full of hope, arriving with visions of fame. Act 2 finds the naïf successful but exploited, before falling prey to temptation and winding up disgraced and penniless in the final reel. It's not strictly a myth, either: The celebrity weeklies are packed with case studies. What's not always well understood when LaBeouf douses a paparazzo in coffee or gets cited for failure to appear is that he's actually playing the myth in reverse. Hollywood hasn't been his downfall but his salvation. "I'm usually a cynical fuck," he says, "but I'm always hopeful when it comes to movies."
"We lived in this pink apartment building right over there," LaBeouf says as he slips on a pair of Wayfarers, steps out onto Sunset, and points at a nearby hill. It's a gorgeous afternoon, and we amble toward Echo Park, northwest of downtown Los Angeles. We slide by the Angelus church, where LaBeouf was baptized (he also had a bar mitzvah). He singles out the block of Glendale Boulevard where he was conceived—in a parked van in 1985—and we walk the looping path in the park where he and his parents made rent by dressing up as clowns and selling cups of shaved ice. The area has changed. "It wasn't this SoHo-y, gentrified hipster shit," he says, spitting on the ground.
Echo Park was mostly poor then, black and Latino. LaBeouf's mom, Shayna, was Jewish, a dancer from New York City who made and sold handicrafts. His father, Jeffrey, was a Cajun Vietnam vet with a longstanding drug problem, a collection of lowlife biker buddies, and some unusual moneymaking schemes, including growing pot along the 110 Freeway and selling it around the neighborhood. His parents were together only intermittently, and the clown-family routine remains one of LaBeouf's happiest childhood memories. "It was the one time they would always stop fighting," he says. "Who wants to buy a snow cone from some fighting clown family?"
Still, under the greasepaint and floppy hat, LaBeouf was a mess. His dad often disappeared and spent years in a VA hospital trying to kick heroin. "I fucking hated him for it—choosing the hospital over me," LaBeouf says. One of the few white kids in his neighborhood, he felt isolated and strange. "I felt like shit about myself," he remembers, sitting on a bench and firing up a cigarette. "I was basically alone. That does something to you." After one therapist suggested that he take out his anger on a stuffed animal, he chose a big teddy bear and throttled it in a rage every day after school.
Not surprisingly, LaBeouf soon "got kicked out of every school I ever went to" for fighting. "You weren't fighting because you were a tough guy," he explains. "You were fighting because a dude comes up and punches you in the chest—so either you hit him back or not only is he going to punch you every day but all his friends are going to beat the shit out of you. You fight out of fucking survival." He drops his cigarette and mashes it out. "I still have that in me, which gets me into trouble."