What followed was a series of stints in various reformatories, behavioral academies, and religious retreats, including one Christian camp where he was required to wash the feet of his fellow campers after a strenuous hike, just like the apostles.

Gradually, LaBeouf developed another survival mechanism: a sense of humor. He was a funny kid, practicing comedy routines and hitting open-mic nights at local clubs. LaBeouf knew he had to "make a move," he says, if he was going to have a decent future. He began calling casting agents, posing as a talent manager and suggesting that they take a look at his brilliant young "client." No doubt they were wise to the hustle, but at least one was intrigued enough to get the 13-year-old smartass an audition with the Disney Channel. LaBeouf arrived with a prepared monologue—a Lenny Bruce routine—and left with a starring role. "They didn't hire me because I was a good-looking dude," he says. "They hired me because I had no fear, no respect for authority, and no respect for boundaries."

On Even Stevens, LaBeouf's performances were mostly improvised and aimed more at amusing the crew than at entertaining the kids at home. The gig provided him with a ready-made family as well as a way to reconnect with his estranged dad: The law requires that child actors have an adult guardian on set, a job LaBeouf was suddenly in a position to pay his father to do. "I basically rented my dad back. We developed a relationship based on this commerce."

Jeffrey LaBeouf was still dealing drugs, and the two of them lived in a cheap motel. An actress on the show accused Jeffrey of sexual harassment; another time, he attacked a high-level Disney executive, who was gay, after the man gave Shia a congratulatory hug. Jeffrey, who has always been homophobic, Shia says, grabbed the man by the lapels and practically put him through a wall. "He goes, 'Are you trying to talk to my boy, you chicken hawk?'" recalls LaBeouf, who makes it clear he doesn't share his father's prejudice. "You can't do that to the executives."

• • •

If there's one thing that Shia LaBeouf shares with his father, it's a propensity for stirring up trouble. There was that time he rolled his truck while "philandering around," as he says, with his Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen costar Isabel Lucas (then in a relationship with Entourage's Adrien Grenier). "It was sort of disastrous," LaBeouf says. "Neither one of us, I think, were in love. Just sort of experimenting or whatever." Technically the accident—in which LaBeouf's car flipped three times, pinning his arm and leaving his hand mangled—was the other driver's fault. But LaBeouf admits he'd had "three or four" beers a few hours before getting behind the wheel.

Then there was the time he pulled his knife on a guy who'd gotten into a traffic beef with his mom, and the well-documented altercation with a security guard in a Chicago Walgreens. The misadventures that didn't make the papers, he says, are legion—including the day a few years back when he and Megan Fox were at a Taco Bell and the cashier made a rude comment to her and LaBeouf wound up going behind the register and whaling on the guy.

As L.A.'s paparazzi have found in recent years, stalking LaBeouf should carry hazard pay. When one photographer aimed a long lens at the window of LaBeouf's house, the actor burst outside, grabbed several thousand dollars' worth of equipment from the shooter's car, and held on to it until the cops showed up. "I'm a little territorial and defensive," he says. "I don't like having my space invaded. I'm a fucking human being who pays his taxes. And I don't respond in a really sweetheart way. I mean, maybe I should develop that, but even as I say that, I have this cheerleader in the back of my head that's like, 'No, man, don't conform!'"