LaBeouf fleeing from paparazzi after a New Year's party on January 1, 2008

Depending on whom you talk to, the jury is still out on Shia LaBeouf's talent. Spielberg has been borderline fawning in his assessment. D.J. Caruso says, "Shia's ability to connect with everyone is rooted in honesty. It's not that he's the Everyman, it's that he believes he's in that situation, and so the audience believes he's in that situation." But moviegoers jaded by years of having semi-competent Next Big Things jammed down their throats have been skeptical. Transformers and Indiana Jones only gave the "He's no Emile Hirsch" camp more to sneer at. It's clear where his sights are set. Ever since he worked on Holes with Jon Voight, who took a shine to him, LaBeouf has been a devout student of acting. Every day, he spends a chunk of time online reading about movies, including the ones he's in. "Every comment," he says. "Every message board." And not just at the Shia-is-awesome sites frequented by tween girls at the mean ones, too: Ain't It Cool News, CHUD, the kinds of places film fanatics go to rant about how LaBeouf's presence in the fourth installment of Indiana Jones was an affront to the franchise. "It's only recently that I became a part of their lexicon," he says. "Shia LaDouche or LaBeef and all this shit. And I understand where they're coming from. If I was a fan freak sitting at my house and I worked at Auto Zone, and some twentysomething young buck had a meteoric rise and was in every movie I ever wanted to watch, I'd hate him immediately."

Besides, LaBeouf was a fan freak once of hip-hop even more than movies. "If you wanted to be friends with the people I was hanging out with," he says, "that was like one of the necessities." He's since shelved that dimension of himself the part obsessed with hip-hop culture in the interest of pleasing Texas and the Christian right. "When I was 16," he says, "I looked at my life and said, 'Really? You're a rapper/Disney Channel actor?' Akon has more street cred, you know? I used to wear baggy pants all the time, but these skinny jeans" he grabs the fabric "make it as though I can be whatever the fuck I want to be today. There's things you have to give up, even though you may feel comfortable. You get rid of your velour suits and your Lugz boots, and you start transitioning."

LaBeouf break dancing and freestyle rapping on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn