Critics love to hate the "Transformers" films, but that hasn't kept audiences away. The second movie, "Revenge of the Fallen," was rushed into production with a ragged script due to the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike and earned an abysmal 20% "fresh" rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, yet still became the second-highest-grossing film in the U.S. in 2009.
"This movie's very different, more physicality, darker premise, more story line, clearer thought," LaBeouf says of "Dark of the Moon." "I feel very confident in it. The last hour ... is the greatest action sequence of Mike's career, which would put it on the same level as the greatest action ever made. ...The second movie we were making on the fly, and it was too convoluted."
Like the character he plays, LaBeouf has developed since being handed his first blockbuster. "He's grown as a person, as an actor," says "Transformers" producer Ian Bryce. "He's a man now."
In 2009 and 2010, LaBeouf topped Forbes magazine's list of Hollywood's "Best Actors for the Buck." According to the business journal's calculations, LaBeouf's movies earned an average of $81 of profit for every $1 a studio spent on the actor in 2010, and $160 for every $1 spent in 2009. LaBeouf has proved to be a good bargain for studios thanks to not only franchise films but also one-off thrillers like "Disturbia" and "Eagle Eye."
But since 2006's gritty adolescent story "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," LaBeouf hasn't played a lead role in an independent movie. That will change soon with "The Wettest County in the World," director John Hillcoat's adaptation of Matt Bondurant's book about a family of Depression-era bootleggers. LaBeouf is the youngest, most ambitious of three violent brothers -- his siblings are played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke.
"When you're a racehorse and you've got 20 trainers, all the trainers want the racehorse to run a certain way," LaBeouf says. "What does the racehorse want to do? 'Wettest' is the first time they've ever asked the racehorse. I've been running for a team of people for a long time and I don't take any of it back. ... I've learned a great deal about a certain type of filmmaking. But I have ambitions toward another type of filmmaking that I haven't been allowed to engage in yet."
Moving ahead, LaBeouf says, he's trying to be more selective when it comes to picking parts. "I like to work. I like going to camp," LaBeouf says. "I've usually had something else to jump into, or I've got a start date. I'm trying to find a way to eat up time without being destructive, 'cause that's my go-to, it seems. I have a hard time with free time."
In 2007, LaBeouf was arrested for refusing to leave a Chicago Walgreens (the store owner later dropped the charges). In 2008, he crashed his pickup truck, declining to take a Breathalyzer test at the scene of the accident and crushing his hand enough in the accident to require multiple surgeries. (The L.A. County district attorney's office did not file charges due to insufficient evidence, but LaBeouf's driver's license was suspended for a year for his "refusing to take a chemical test.")
In February, police handcuffed the actor after he got in a fight in a Sherman Oaks bar. He was there with a group of his Echo Park friends when another patron recognized him, LaBeouf says (again, no charges were filed in the incident).
"He was just being demonstrative, antagonizing me in front of a crowd of 50 or 60," LaBeouf says of his adversary at the bar. "My mother said it was below your dignity to engage in it. But there's something in a 24-year-old mind where you're in front of a lot of people you respect and love and you're getting ready to ship off and go do a movie about the most violent brothers in Georgia who sell moonshine and you're sort of rooting for a certain mentality and somebody approaches you and you're in the wrong thinking and you're drunk. I have no excuses. I'm not happy with it, but I don't think it's a calamity."
A coat of polish
The same impulsiveness that inspired LaBeouf to ball his fists that night has also driven him to say some professionally reckless things, including telling reporters at the Cannes International Film Festival last year that he was unhappy with the fourth "Indiana Jones" movie.
LaBeouf says he has been warned by people he respects -- including Spielberg -- to watch his words in public and smooth some of his rough edges.
"The way Steven described it to me was, 'When Tom Cruise walks outside his house, he doesn't pick his nose. From the minute he leaves his door to the minute he comes back home, he doesn't pick his nose.' Now that's a certain way to live your life that I have no ambitions toward."
Not that Mr. Chicken-Thing-and-Crispy-Deals isn't polishing himself a bit, with the encouragement of his girlfriend, a Vietnamese American stylist he met at a karaoke club in Echo Park.
"Pate? A cheese plate? That's a very 25-year-old deal," he says. "I can get down with some fig jelly and some cheese on a cracker.
After "Wettest County," which the Weinstein Co. plans to release, LaBeouf says he isn't sure what he'll do next.
"There's this coming-of-age thing that's happening within me. I've come from family-fare, pop-culture, Steven Spielberg-safe, made-for-a-generalized-populace [projects], and I have these yearnings to do different things. Which way is this boy gonna go? I have no idea. ... I'm just reading and being patient now for the first time."