Whether it's a dramatic spinning of a tale is beside the point; LaBeouf's childhood has become his chosen mythology. Before the milk for his coffee has arrived, he's run through the highlights in an uninterrupted stream: His parents sold snow cones and hot dogs in a park near their apartment while LaBeouf, in a clown costume, japed for customers; as a 12-year-old, he did X-rated stand-up in Pasadena comedy clubs; his mother, Shayna Saide, is an American-born Russian-Jewish ballerina whose mother ran with Allen Ginsberg; her mother played piano on Lucky Luciano's gambling boat. LaBeouf says his father, a Vietnam vet named Jeffrey LaBeouf, had a heroin problem. And that in addition to being a commedia dell'arte trained mime, he was a weed dealer who grew his crop on the sides of freeways. And that he's credited with bringing the sinsemilla seed to Hawaii, giving a continent of thankful stoners the Thai stick. The lore cascades out of LaBeouf in unsolicited torrents and free of taboos. "It's just my family was raised differently," he says. "It was never 'Drugs!' It was never like that for my family, which helped me because I never had a curiosity, it was never closed off. It was always out in the open and it was always explained to me. I'm so grateful for that. It's why I never tried anything beyond marijuana or drinking. I mean, I know that I personally can't do any of it. And so I don't."

"Every actor chooses their story at the beginning," he says. "There's this weird dichotomy of having to appear human yet be a mysterious entity in order to continue doing your craft. I need something to talk about, and then you don't have to get into deep, personal introspection."

LaBeouf has been shaping his public persona since he emerged from a Disney-kid adolescence starring on the children's show Even Stevens and in a succession of PG movies like Holes to be the saving grace of the second season of the HBO reality series Project Greenlight (and the film it spawned, The Battle of Shaker Heights). While fans and reviewers skewered the movie and its directing team, LaBeouf was praised as not only the film's best performer but the sanest and most well-adjusted person on the show. "Project Greenlight did a lot for me," he says. "It taught me that the performance doesn't end until you go home."

It also got him psychologically prepared for the public scrutiny that began when he moved from ensemble roles (in Shaker Heights and the 2006 coming-of-age drama A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) to comic-sidekick ones (I, Robot; Constantine) to top billing in aggressively promoted summer action movies. LaBeouf developed a physical response to the attention, too: running. In another much-seen YouTube clip from the past year, he leaves a New Year's party in New York and, confronted by paparazzi, turns and sprints down the block. "You know where they're going to be," he says. "Once they're at your house and you know they're following you, you have the choice: Should I run or should I take them to the car wash and create the image of the normal guy?"