Shia LaBeouf Is a Good Actor—Yes, Really

He just needs to be cast as something other than a sniveling kid


shia transformers 3 600px.jpg

Paramount Pictures

When Aaron Gell, a reporter for Details magazine, asked Shia LaBeouf, the star of three Transformers movies, whether the actor had hooked up with former co-star Megan Fox, LaBeouf answered yes. When Gell asked about Fox's current husband, the young actor replied:

"I don't know, man. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know ... " -- repeating the phrase exactly 12 times with various intonations, as if trying to get it just right. Finally, he says, "It was what it was."

To most readers, this passage might have sounded like another swell of idiosyncrasy from LaBeouf, an international celebrity sadly becoming known more for his impolitic disrespect for directors and actors than his performances. But maybe this wasn't another burst of rudeness. Maybe it was ... acting!

It's called the Meisner technique. Developed by American theater teacher Sanford Meisner, the method requires actors to repeat phrases to each other, over and over and over, to find honesty and impulse in the words. It might go something like this:

"I love you."
"No, you don't."
"I LOVE YOU!"
"No! You don't."
"I love you."
"No. You don't."

You get the gist. The point is to force actors to stop acting with preordained readings and instead to react based on the partner's tone. Repeating a phrase "exactly 12 time with various intonations, as if to get it just right" is exactly what Meisner repetition is all about. Except Shia LeBeouf isn't practicing with another actor in this interview. He's practicing with himself.

***
I was never the world's biggest Even Stevens fan. I watched that show maybe once every two weeks when I was younger. The simple reason was that the show was only OK. The deeper reason was that it made me feel toe-curlingly jealous.

Before college, the only thing I wanted to be was an actor. Watching Even Stevens inspired in me the kind of feeling that teenage gymnasts must feel when they watch the Olympics women's team, or ambitious brainiacs might feel when they watch a 13-year old win Jeopardy Teen Tournament or the spelling bee. It's a certain nausea, a kind of stomach sickness with a hint with exhilaration, that somebody out there is much, much better than you at the thing you love most. I loved acting. I thought I was good at acting. But it was obvious to me that Shia LaBeouf, the star of Even Stevens, was terrifically, and devastatingly, better.

To say this now that Shia LaBeouf has made the dubious leap from precocious TV child star to blockbuster bad boy is to invite a fair amount of blowback. You'll ask, Didn't you see the monstrosity that was Transformers 2, the less monstrous but still monstrous Transformers 3, the unforgivable disaster Wall Street 2, or Indiana Jones and the Alien Skull Thing? I saw them all. I hated most of them. Shia LaBeouf is still an extremely talented actor.

It's difficult to explain exactly what makes an actor good, especially when his most famous role is an annoying kid running away from machine-cum-Mack-Trucks from outer space. But I'll try. Bad actors often fidget, and good actors are often still and focused, but LaBeouf is focused about being fidgety. His acting has frenetic precision, something he shares with Robert Downey Jr. He moves his whole body, smartly accentuating small details that look seamless in the course of a scene, but most actors would never think to include. His voice, low and sharp, is permanently tuned to barely concealed sarcasm, which makes his line readings sound knowing, if occasionally grating over time.

There is a video of Shia LaBeouf that stitches together the infinity times he has said "no, no, no" in a movie. This is supposed to serve as mockery. Instead, it demonstrates LaBeouf's ability the wring disbelief, agitation, angst, fear, desperation, and exhilaration from a single word. YouTube user skywalkerpotter21 might be laughing. But Meisner would be proud.



A friend suggested that the video reveals LaBeouf's dependence on stuttering as a means of creating realistic dialogue. I agree, but that's a good thing. Real people don't talk in complete sentences. They mutter, start a sentence, stop, pick up a thought mid-word. LaBeouf gets this intuitively. Since Even Stevens, he's been conspicuously slicing up dialogue like a Benihana chef until the sentences fall out in pieces. If you don't agree that this is not annoying, I'd at least ask you to agree that this is, in fact, how most people talk.

Too often, however, LaBeouf's distinctive, chop-suey dialogue wrestles attention from the scene. He has mastered the art of talking, but not the art of having a conversation. He's like a devoted student of Meisner technique who learned to play the repetition game by practicing with himself.

But that's not his biggest problem.

***

If acting had a universal constitution, a strong contender for Article One might be: Draw strong contrasts.* Think about the most famous performances in recent memory and how they smartly play against, and supplement, the actor's natural instincts rather than ingratiate them. Russell Crowe, a barrel-breasted warrior, plays a soft-spoken and reluctant fighter in Gladiator. Denzel Washington, a good-guy and thinking man's hero, plays a crooked cop in Training Day. Forest Whitaker, with his sad wilting eyes, plays a monstrous dictator in The Last King of Scotland. Sean Penn bulked up physically to accentuate his breaking down emotionally in Mystic River; and then cannily used his macho instincts to give power to an effeminate turn in Milk.

The problem with Shia LaBeouf is that he's an ostensibly smug, precocious kid consistently cast as a smug, precocious kid. There's no contrast to draw. It's like buying a black canvas and painting it black. Black-on-black is obviously working out for studios, since LaBeouf is reportedly the best "bang-for-the-buck" actor in Hollywood. But it's a disaster for the actor.

Feeling trapped by his success, LaBeouf is reportedly turning down promising features because he wants to parlay his talents into indie movies. I wish him the best of luck. That kid from Even Stevens is still one of the best actors of his generation, whose preternatural glibness obscures a profound preternatural talent.

If Shia LaBeouf has one thing going for him, it's that he's very good at talking. It's time for somebody to give him something worth saying.

________
*Acting thrives in complications, both broadly in characters and acutely in moments. Here's a classic example. Self-pity is dull. But Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, swollen for the role like a Giants linebacker, whimpering "I coulda' been a contender" from the backseat of a car, is interesting precisely because, from the looks of him, he's a contender with nothing to be ashamed of.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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