The first time that I saw Shia LaBeouf was in a movie called Holes and while I can’t say I remember much of his performance, I do remember two things: 1. That his name was something that I had no idea how to pronounce and 2. That he kind of looked like me. The second part wasn’t anything super special, I’m sure there were tons of geeky looking white kids in movies then, but for some reason seeing this kid that I thought looked like me stuck with me. My parents didn’t have cable and weren’t super into movies, so I didn’t see LaBeouf again for quite some time. I wouldn’t see him or hear his name until I watched the first of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.
Again, I was struck by how I could see this person on screen and think “hey, that’s kind of like me,” but I didn’t think much of it. Once I got into high school, film and television began to become a very big part of my life. I would get completely lost in whatever it was I was watching, and I found that I would mimic a lot of the dialogue/movement I saw on screen in my daily life. Pretty soon, I found myself looking at the craft of acting and how someone could become an actor.
Like a lot of young people, the idea of fame was extremely seductive and became something that I was constantly thinking about. I would pretend to be characters from movies in the shower, I would practice stunts on my living room sofa, and at night, I would fall asleep with thoughts of how I would navigate my life as a famous actor. Month after month, I would find myself watching a new movie, finding a new actor, and becoming fixated on how I could be exactly like them. Hair, body, voice, personality, however small, I paid attention to it and took note as something that I wanted to incorporate in my life. By doing this, I could avoid the constant thought that I knew was in the back of my head but one that I was too scared to admit to myself: I thought these people were beautiful and if I made it to Hollywood, then I would be beautiful too.
I was too scared to admit it then, but I’ll admit it now: I wanted desperately to be beautiful. I wanted to be the laid-back, suave, masculine, free-spirited person that could win over a room with a single word. I wanted to be someone important and I wanted to feel important. I was a shy, quiet kid who liked to read, and I wanted to be someone different. These feelings were always present, but they began to grow and grow once I started to get older and started to fixate on this idea of acting and Hollywood and achieving “fame.” I knew that these were things that I wanted but how could someone like me possibly achieve them? Movies and television were no longer things that brought me joy, they made me hurt. They made me realize that I wasn’t beautiful and this life that I had pictured in my head was just a daydream.
As high school progressed and I got into college, most of these feelings dissipated. I started to like myself, I started to like film again, but I was a changed man. I wasn’t star-struck anymore, I was much more cynical, about everything. I didn’t fall headfirst into things, I looked at them critically and kept them at arm’s length. I didn’t talk about my feelings, I didn’t try and open myself up to feelings, I didn’t even try to accept myself, I just ignored it altogether. I couldn’t express these feelings, which hurt, but I also felt ashamed for having these feelings, which hurt even more. I still looked at Hollywood and scoffed, I hated the fact that they had built this perfect Eden that I would never be a part of.
Everyone was either perfect or severely troubled like that guy I had seen before, Shia LaBeouf, and how he had worn a paper bag to this and got arrested for that and showed up drunk to this. This was someone that I envied when I was younger, someone that I looked up to, someone that I thought was a perfect representation of the life that I wanted to live, and now he does this shit? it kept me safe. I didn’t care about things, so I didn’t have anything to lose. Once in a while, a film would suck me in and I would feel that excitement, that joy, that love, for a fleeting moment… and then I’d remember that I couldn’t do that. Arm’s length, that’s what I had to remember. This would be a recurring theme in my life, the idea that I had to play it safe so I wouldn’t have to bear the shame of losing.
In 2018, I saw that Esquire had done a piece on Shia LaBeouf. This was at the tail end of LeBeouf’s downward spiral, so it was at a time where I was completely detached from his persona and no longer thought of him as anything more than someone with good fashion sense. This was someone who I thought I was like but ended up being crazy, someone who had my dream profession and let it all come crashing down, someone who was proof to my cynicism that acting was bullshit, feelings were bullshit, and my dream was bullshit. As a writer, I envied how well the article was written. As a film enthusiast, I was hesitant to start rooting for this guy. He could say whatever he wanted, all that mattered was that he followed through.
Through 2018, I found myself even more deeply invested in film. My cynicism had been broken with movies like Interstellar, La La Land, Moonlight, and Booksmart, and I was finally ready to love again. I had begun to feel comfortable with my emotions, I started to like the way that I looked, and I no longer felt like l had to be a certain person or that I had to look a certain way. But something was still missing, I still hadn’t embraced myself and art and life fully. The idea of arm’s length was still very much alive in my life. So, when I sat down to see Peanut Butter Falcon, I was nervous. I was nervous about how I should feel watching this person that I saw so much of myself in on the screen again, and how I was going to stay at arm’s length. And once again, my shell started to crack.
LeBeouf’s performance was sincere, genuine, and exactly what I had once admired about the actor. I started to look up interviews of the actors, I listened to podcasts, I watched his old art exhibitions, and instead of just looking at it from arms-length, I let myself get wrapped in. I listened to what the actor said, I watched the way that he acted, and I began to see something that I had never seen before in Hollywood: I saw someone real. I saw someone who hurt, someone who wasn’t sure of himself, someone who was just trying to figure things out. And like a thunderclap, my shell exploded.
I know it may not make sense to everyone but watching LaBeouf work his way back into the world of film with recent movies like Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy has been almost therapeutic for me. It’s allowed to really rethink the way that I’ve been walking through my own life. Like LaBeouf, I thought that keeping things at arm’s length would save me from pain. Like LaBeouf, I haven’t been open. I’ve been afraid to feel, I’ve been afraid to love, I’ve been afraid to express myself. And most importantly, I’ve been afraid to ask why I don’t like myself. I’ve thought of things as concrete, as black and white. You’re successful or you’re a failure, you’re beautiful or you’re ugly, you’re good or you’re bad, and I see now why that’s wrong. Life isn’t black and white, it’s a whole lot of grey. People change, things change, ideas change, and there’s nothing I can do about that.
When I see LaBeouf in these interviews, smiling, laughing, and feeling completely at ease with himself, it brings me such a sense of relief. It reminds me that people can change, that people don’t have to be defined by their mistakes in life. It reminds me that people with pain can take that pain and make it into something productive. When I look back on the way that I fixated myself on how I could be certain actors, I think I was trying to find a way to escape my own life. I didn’t want to live like me, I wanted to live like someone else. I didn’t appreciate myself, I only appreciated these starlight figures because everyone else did. Instead of looking for qualities in myself, I searched for those qualities in other people because I knew that I would be able to find them.
Now, I see that most of the people that I idolized were probably doing the same thing. I won’t sit here and say that I love myself because that would be a lie. I won’t sit here and say that all of my problems are solved and that I wake up every day confident and happy because it’s just not true. But I’m slowly starting to realize that I don’t have to feel this way all the time. I’m starting to realize that it’s okay to be a work in progress and it’s okay to say, “I’m working on it.”