Apology tours, like failed marriages and addiction issues, are a common trope in the world of celebrity. Actors often behave badly in view of the world, perhaps fueled by alcohol or narcotics or unresolved personal issues, and they must atone for their sins in a similar manner. Maybe it’s a tweet, maybe it’s an album, maybe it’s a sit-down interview on prime-time television. The method and medium changes, but the result is the same: Our perverse appetite for watching these god-like creatures’ lives implode is temporarily sated. If the regret is tangible enough, if the confession soul-bearingly adequate to meet industry standards – judged on an undefined sliding scale the Twitter masses collectively agree to – then maybe that movie star or TV personality can carry on with their life without the threat of incessant trolling or a Hollywood blacklisting.
All this to say, I’ve seen my fair share of apology tours while covering this industry and I’ve almost never been impressed by them until I saw Shia LaBeouf’s.
I’m penning this in the first person — something I rarely do because hey, who wants to take ownership of their strange, internal ramblings, especially on the internet? – with the understanding that LaBeouf is a divisive, controversial figure. His arrest record mirrors, in length, his number of IMDb credits. He’s made headlines for urinating in public, chasing a man with a knife, harassing a homeless guy in New York City, and aggressively berating his ex-wife Mia Goth. And those may be the tamer of his many offenses.
In July 2017, while LaBeouf was in Georgia filming The Peanut Butter Falcon, he got into an argument with an officer, an altercation captured on police bodycams that showed the actor delivering increasingly erratic, often racist rants against his arresting officers. It was that incident, which ended with the actor attending a court-ordered rehab and therapy program, that may have turned things around.
I say “may,” because this isn’t the first time that LaBeouf has grappled with his professional and public personas.
Nearly every arrest has been followed by some kind of performance art or art installation, that’s forced its creator to reckon with and confront his misdeeds in raw, bizarre ways. He’s worn paper bags labeled “I’m Not Famous Anymore” to mask his face at film premieres, he’s hosted a strange form of social media penance with his #IAmSorry project, an Internet stunt that saw him confined to a chair with the same paper bag over his head, forced to silently sit through strangers asking him questions, reading vicious tweets, and inflicting physical violence on him. LaBeouf said that one woman who participated in the installation tried to rape him during her one-on-one time before security intervened.
Were these contrived acts of public humiliation and torture just for show, a last-ditch attempt to garner the thing a struggling former child actor wants most: attention? Was it proof of rumored mental health issues, just another in a series of inexplicable behaviors labeled by less-than-generous critics as examples of “Shia-insanity?”
For a long time following the blockbuster success of films like Transformers and his Indiana Jones installment, when Shia had made the leap from a funny kid with a mop of curls who excelled at physical humor to a trimmed, approachably-handsome action hero, he seemed to struggle with fame and the consequence of it. Had he developed a masochistic love for that struggle, was that why he continuously acted out, aired his dirty laundry of drunken nights at Cabaret and Chicago Walgreens on late-night talk shows, joking with hosts Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman like they were old pals recounting their embarrassing college screw-ups?
And if the fame of those big-budget films, precursors to our current superhero invasion at the box office, pushed LaBeouf to act out, so too did their apparent irrelevance. Shia drew attention not only for his public outbursts, but for his professional ones, choosing to approach grittier material and chase after darker roles in disturbingly method ways. He allegedly dropped acid for one film and nearly choked out his director; he filmed a sex tape for his Nymphomaniac audition; he mutilated himself to play a gunner in David Ayer’s Fury; he chugged moonshine and got into wrestling matches with Tom Hardy on the set of Lawless. What he may have viewed as an exercise in preparation for his craft, we viewed as confirmation of his instability.
He had become a walking meme, a breathing cautionary tale, and I admit to being happy to write him off as another failure of the system; worse, as proof of the pitfalls of white male privilege and toxic masculinity and cut-throat capitalism.
But then I saw Honey Boy. And the press tour surrounding Honey Boy.
The film, on its own, is a gripping narrative, one bleached in light despite its dark themes. It charts a period of time in Shia’s own life, one that saw him working to make it as a child actor, taking a job on the Even Stevens Disney series and living in a motel with his mercurial, often abusive father, an addict with his own demons who shaped his son – for better or worse – with his unforgiving stage parenting. Noah Jupe plays a young Shia while Lucas Hedges plays the actor at the height of his blockbuster fame.
And the film, though messy and uneven, is a beautifully raw look at childhood trauma, how it manifests and settles and seeps into its victims, digging deep into the psyche, becoming inextricable from its host. LaBeouf plays his father in the film, a decision that affords the character more grace and sympathy than his real-life counterpart is probably owed, but the actor has affirmed this film is a love-letter to his complicated relationship with his father, and a form of therapy that interrogates the hidden reasons for his very visible bad behavior.
And here’s where we are when the apology tour begins. LaBeouf, child-star-turned-celebrity-bad-boy has been in and out of rehab, and jail, and the tabloids for increasingly indefensible conduct. He wrote the script for Honey Boy as part of an assignment during exposure therapy for unresolved PTSD during rehab. He’s given interview after interview in the name of its promotion, each time chipping away at his public persona by revealing surprisingly private details about his life and upbringing – his father’s behavior when he was a child, his mother’s rape and how that’s influenced his trigger-haired temper, his drunken exploits and the shame they’ve brought.
He’s subdued and humble, able to jokingly criticize himself without making his behavior a joke. And I’m well aware of the privilege he still enjoys because of his celebrity – would anyone with less clout have been offered rehab instead of prison time; would we care to entertain the retelling of his tragic childhood if he weren’t famous?
I’m also aware of the self-effacing courage it takes to continuously appear in front of the world wearing an “I Used To Be A Douchebag” sweatshirt, hoping people take your apology seriously and view your f*ck-ups as those of a human being, not some holy idol.
So yes, I’ve bought my ticket to the Shia LaBeouf apology tour, not solely for Shia LaBeouf, but because maybe his approach to making amends might serve as a blueprint for other offenders, famous or not, to address their past mistakes in a way that feels sincere and earned so that they (and the people they’ve hurt) may begin to heal? It might be a radical notion in our age of cancel culture, and sure, who knows which “bad guys” deserve forgiveness and which don’t. I’m still torn on many of those issues, but in LaBeouf’s reckoning, maybe I see a way forward? Maybe you do too?