A chat with Jeff LaBeouf, the ex-clown, ex-con, and scary papa behind ?Honey Boy?
Credits: Amazon Studios; courtesy of Jeff LaBeouf
Courtesy of Jeff LaBeouf
You seem to have lost the Louisiana accent.
I never had the Louisiana accent! I don?t hear myself when I listen to him in the film. But remember, he?s playing a caricature. I thought makeup did a hell of a job.
Would you say it?s basically accurate overall?
Well, Shia never hooked up with a prostitute under my watch, and I never gave him cigarettes. But the first season of Even Stevens, we lived in a motel like in the film, and a pimp and his prostitute lived next door, and one time they had drama in the driveway, and I confronted them and they shut the fuck up. That happened. But I never hit Shia in the face. I did threaten him one time. I threw him in an overstuffed chair with my fist on his collar and raised my other fist and said, ?Now you want to try me, you little punk?? or something like that. In terms of being physical with him, when he was a baby or young boy, and he wanted to have a tantrum and scream and holler and cry, I would pick him up by one foot upside down, and he would totally change. His demeanor would go to wonder and awe. And there was no need to spank him.
?I never hit Shia in the face. I did threaten him one time.?
That scene where James is growing weed next to the freeway, I did that. Between the 405 and the 10, before you get to Cloverfield. Everyone?s just racing right through there, nobody checking nothing out. I?d put on a safety vest, walk around, take care of my plants. The freeway paid for the water. That part of it tickled the shit out of me. Watering is a big problem, unless you live in Costa Rica [laughs].
When I interviewed Shia in 2011, he talked a bit about your confrontations with various Hollywood people.
There?s a scene in the movie where a volunteer from Big Brother gets thrown in the water. That didn?t happen. But basically, after I had been asking my wife for a divorce for many years, she had called Big Brother and said that I had abandoned them and bup-bup-bup bullshit, and they had sent this young man who had a bunch of dirt bikes. There was no reason for him to be in our life at all, and I told him that. But I never physically confronted him.
There was another interaction. I had a conviction for attempted rape, and I was registered as a sex offender under Megan?s Law, so people would make aspersions of shit that never happened. So this young punk was running around with a story he heard from a producer about how I had come on to her, and I picked him up by his collar and threw him against the wall and said he needed to keep my name out of his mouth or we would have problems.
You?d done some prison time.
I went to the joint for attempted rape. This was in 1980. Whatever I was doing, I have no clue. I was blackout drunk. I?d done cocaine and also alcohol. I?m 6 foot 3; this person was 5 foot 2 and 29 years old. It hurt my heart to see her in the courtroom. I was appalled. I have no clue why I was in that car, whether I was carjacking the car or what. I have no rape in my history so I don?t know, but I was appalled. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I just said, ?Your honor, I plead no contest.? The judge said, ?Okay, three years, attempted rape.?
Can you talk a little about your experience in Vietnam?
The worst, very worst experience was not in combat. It was at Cam Ranh Bay Airport, loading GIs in plastic bags onto planes to come back to the States. That was a trauma that I?ve carried with me for my life. I struggle with whether the war was a good thing.
Courtesy of Jeff LaBeouf
And you worked as a clown?
Yeah, I was a circus clown, rodeo clown, street clown, and theater clown.
Working on the Venice boardwalk?
Well, the Venice boardwalk was always tits and ass, not a good place for clowns. The times I worked as a street clown in Los Angeles, I worked Westwood, where people would line up for movies, and the Santa Monica promenade. But my best street performance was in New York and San Francisco. San Francisco was a better town than it is now. That?s the pit of the world as far as I?m concerned. By the way, you?ve probably heard Shia do his ?Sway in the Morning.? Here?s one of my poems:
I am the grand presidigitatorAnd in this moment, you are my audienceAnd you have no responsibility except to hear one of my poemsI, on the other hand, my responsibility is great. For I must reach into my chest, yank my heart out,And spurting blood all over the placeWave this gruesome thing in front of your face.Then as if by magic clean it up and put it back in order again.If I do not, if I cannot, if I will not, Perhaps my wordsmith skills would be better spent, Writing Hallmark greeting card sentiment.
Thank you. You know what?s interesting right now? You called me because of my son, but it?s because of a story about reparation. The rising phoenix out of the flames. We all love that story. It?s written in several religions. And thankfully Shia loves it too, which is how he has this new career. He?s an entirely different person. You should go sometime down into South Central Los Angeles, where he?s doing his thing with the Slauson Rec Center. He does it every Saturday if he?s in town. He?s got 250 students, and they?re teaching art in a place where people don?t have time to be artists.
You sound very proud of him.
He?s my honey boy, my money honey! [Laughs.] You betcha. He?s been a light in my life. You know, he was born in ?86. I was only out of the joint three years. And in all of my insanity, I?ve been good to my children. And they have been good to me. I?m down here on my own dime, but if my dime should wash up, they?ll pick up the tab. And the only way that my dime won?t work is if they stop giving pensions to military and the Democrats spend all of Social Security. ?Cause my ass is covered down here. I even have extra money every month to do little artistic projects.
Did you ever feel jealous of Shia?s success?
No, no. The fame thing sucks, as far as I?m concerned. The level that Shia lives in, I wouldn?t wish it for anybody. No way. In fact, I wouldn?t have chosen for Shia to be an actor. An artist, for sure. He?s a really fine artist, with a brilliant mind. And from early on, I was trying to encourage him to be a writer. Honey Boy is first piece that he wrote, and he wrote it in the midst of his bottom. Addiction to alcohol is really prevalent in my family. My father was the better part of a war hero. My mother was a poet. Both my parents were alcoholics, and my mother was into pills also. My mother was beautiful, so she could go to a doctor and get whatever she wanted. Turned out there was a price to pay for it, but she was willing to pay that price.
Courtesy of Jeff LaBeouf
I imagine some of the film was hard to watch.
You know, I had to double down on the lessons I?ve learned in life, without a doubt. The two largest influences in my life are clowning and AA. And by the way, I qualify for all of the others except Overeaters Anonymous. I stayed with AA because it was the grandfather. But so, the thing is, I had to to repair shit in myself, so that Shia could repair shit in him. And I had to take responsibility for my actions. Some of my actions in the film didn?t seem like they were my actions, but I?m not supposed to be the one that judges what?s inside his head. I had to realize that his pain and how he visualized it came from a child ? that pain came to him and he carried it with him, and somehow he pointed it at me. That?s painful for anybody, but because I wanted to continue my relationship with this man, person, artist, human being ? forget that he came from my blood ? this person who is so dear to me, I was willing to face my shit as much as he was willing to face his. That path was where the reparation comes from.
Do you mean redemption?
[Laughs.] If you have a flat tire, you?re going to repair that tire before you go anywhere. That?s reparation. That?s what Shia and I have gone through in our relationship. Redemption, that?s between me and God, and I don?t think there?s anything I can do personally on this planet that?s going to cause my sins to go away. I?m really careful not to blame my shit on the Vietnam war, though that really affected my life. Still does today. But I?m not blaming my mistakes on anything. Nobody forced me to buy that fifth of Jack Daniels and half an ounce of cocaine and partake in those two substances so much that I was so fucked up that I had no clue what I was doing. That?s all on me ? not as the drunk but as the sober person. Blacking out is not an excuse for anything. It?s a fucked up condition is what it is.
How long have you been sober now?
When Shia was doing Even Stevens, that was my first go-round with AA. I?m on my second right now. I?m a way different human being ? way, way, way different. On that first go-around, I went 10 years. Then I fell back for three years, and in that three years I was already looking for heroin to stick in my arm. I was living in Montana, and I got to tell you, there?s not very much heroin in Montana. Now I?m coming up on 15 years, and there is nothing that would take me to heroin or fentanyl or crack cocaine. Or alcohol. I live a half a block away from a bar that is very active on Friday and Saturday and Sunday. Police come on a regular basis. But I?m so far away from that life it?s pathetic.
I saw a piece online that described you as a fugitive.
Not true. I promised Shia if he got nominated I would go back to LA. I?m not wanted for anything. I squeak going around corners. But I got tired of dealing with Megan?s Law. A person commits a crime, and they?re on me for the rest of my life. I haven?t committed no crimes since 1980. Megan?s Law needs to look at itself. But people are going to believe what they?re going to believe. This is another one of my pieces. It?s called ?The Answer to the Haters?:
If you don?t like this face with it?s cool-ass beard,
Well, I bet money you won?t like my ass
And the beard grows there also.
That pretty much says it all.
There?s a really powerful moment in the film when Shia?s character tells his therapist, ?The only thing my father gave me that was of any value is pain, and you want to take that away?? What was your reaction to that?
You know, there?s a lot of parts of the film that caused me to cry. I definitely spent some tears. I?m an emotional guy.
So do you have any regrets as a parent?
[Laughs.] He was a millionaire at 18, when I walked away from the team. I made a lot of mistakes in my lifetime. I can?t go around in my life worrying about the mistakes I made in the past. But I don?t make them today. I?m a happy camper, and I?m not living in guilt. You can?t take away the pain from your children. You can?t take the pain away from your lover. You can?t rescue anybody from pain.
At one point, the Shia character says James would have abandoned him if it weren?t for the Disney paycheck.
That?s bullshit, but I understand where it comes from. When he started Even Stevens, I had been managing a sober club. There was no way I could keep doing that and go to set every day, and so as a parent on the set, I started getting a wage. Shia started at $800 a week. From that, he had to give $80 to his agent, $80 to his manager, he was paying his mother?s rent, he was paying his and my motel rent. And I think I was still smoking cigarettes in those days, so he was buying my cigarettes, basically.
Three years later, he was making serious money, giving 10% to his manager, 10% to his agent, who knows how much to his mother, and I was getting 10%. I got 10% all the way through that movie he made with Keanu Reeves. After that I wasn?t on the team anymore.
But you can?t imagine how it feels to be paid by your son. It was a contention there between he and I as long as I was on the set. An interesting thing happened when he was working with Spielberg. He started feeling, I don?t know, guilt or whatever, so he bought his mother a house and a car. And he came up and got me from Montana where I was living in this isolated town. He brought me back, and I started sobriety again, and he said, ?I want to give you this house.? And he also gave me a motorcycle. He took me down to the Glendale Harley Davidson shop and he said, ?If you see a bike you like, it?s yours.? I picked out a 2007 Cross Bones Softail that looked old-school as hell and I made it even more old-school looking.
Courtesy of Jeff LaBeouf
What was it like to watch Shia go through so much drama in recent years?
Every parent worries when their children are doing bad. My grandfather was arrested for making moonshine. I rode with some pretty crazy people in Vietnam and some pretty crazy people on the streets of Los Angeles. I?ve lived outside the law, and I?ve lived within the law. When I saw Shia getting in trouble, I recognized it, and I hoped and prayed it would end. But at the same time he was in trouble with society, he was in trouble with me. He brought it to me first. When he went off on Alec Baldwin? They were going to do a play together, and to his credit he didn?t touch him but he scared the fuck out of him. And a week before that, he scared the fuck out of me. I told him, ?Please leave. Don?t hurt me.? I came down here, and he continued to get in trouble. I?d hear about it on the internet, or somebody would post it on my Facebook page. Eventually, I said, ?You know, it?s out of my hands. It?s more than I have the knowledge or the capacity to fix. Please, God ? if there is a God, and I believe there is ? do whatever you do to help him.?
Sounds like it may have worked.
A lot of things happened to set him up for reparations. One of the steps was him making that movie, The Peanut Butter Falcon, with that boy, Zack [Gottsagen, who has Down Syndrome and whom Shia later credited with helping him get sober]. That?s where he crashed. He crashed big time while making the film in Georgia. He was already struggling to get jobs of quality. He had a team, and they didn?t want him to make Peanut Butter Falcon. There was no money in it for them. They didn?t want him to make a movie about his relationship with his father either. They were against me from day one because I put their shit in their face. [Shia?s press representative declined to comment.]
But he had to dump his shit in Georgia bad. That was bad. And it was worse because he had done it in Europe. He kept putting his shit in the street. He?s talented but they don?t want talent that?s troubled. Nobody in the business would touch Shia. But he?s a success whether Hollywood likes it or not.
Is Shia still doing a movie with Mel Gibson?
Shia was signed up for the movie but he wasn?t 100% sold on it, and when he told me I pooh-poohed it right away. The movie is about the Rothschilds and he wanted Shia to play one of them and you?re talking about a very political situation. It?s not an environment that I want to see my boy go to. De Niro wants Shia to make a movie with him, too. I said, ?He may be a genius in front of the camera in a few movies, but he?s a political asshole is what he is.? And I?d tell him to his face, and I would dare him to bully me. I?d box him in a minute.
I expect Shia will have plenty of offers after ?Honey Boy?.
For me, it?s been so many levels of just pure joy. Because the last time I had seen him, he told me about how he had guns out in his car, and told me that in a threatening way, and the next thing you know we?re working on reparations and developing a script that has the juice to go around the world and actually teach something ? that none of us, none of us is in control. We just have the facade, the veneer. That?s it. And some of us have a clown nose.
You sound like you?re in a good spot.
I?m a man who has had tragedy and I?ve had extreme joy and well-being. I?ve lived a long life. And it?s been an adventure, almost all of it, including being in the joint if you want to know the truth, because it gave me some depth.
After seeing that film, it?s heartwarming to hear you guys are on friendly terms.
You know, I?m proud of my son. I?m humbled by life, which my son is part of. There?s a lovely picture of him and I on the balcony here in the jungle. I?m kissing his cheek, and he looks like, like he?s in heaven. Shia can be a badass. He has that ability. But he is the sweetest, kindest soul. He?s a wonderful person who went through some shit. I mean, he went through some shit. And now he?s stepping into some amazing shit.