Anything but disturbing

Actor Shia LaBeouf has no reason to be disturbed by his career choices. His latest role in the suspense thriller Disturbia became a surprise hit in April, finishing at the top of the box office for three consecutive weeks.

LaBeouf has taken a sharp turn away from stereotypical teen roles following his five-year stint on the Disney Channel’s sitcom Even Stevens. Smartly navigating his way through transitional roles in the Disney movies Holes and The Greatest Game Ever Played, LaBeouf’s dance card has been overflowing these days.

In fact, it’s a big summer for LaBeouf. He next stars in the hotly anticipated action adventure Transformers (due July 4) and voices a surfing penguin in Surf’s Up (June 8). Then he also begins work in a little movie you might have heard of — the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones films.

Needless to say, it’s a decidedly different route than his contemporaries have taken.

“I’m fortunate, especially after the Disney Channel thing. You can get locked into a High School Musical route, put an album out — it just never was my thing,” LaBeouf told me in a recent interview. “I don’t know if I really ever fit in there. I’m sort of the anomaly at that place. It’s very one-note.”

That’s not to say that LaBeouf — who has also had supporting roles in Constantine, Bobby and I, Robot over the past few years — is biting the hand that fed him from 1999 through 2003.

“The Disney Channel, especially at the time I was doing Even Stevens, didn’t have the following that it does now, and Lizzie Maguire was bigger than our show,” said LaBeouf, who soon turns 21. “But it was those types of shows that changed the channel. It was cool to be part of this exposure that happened with the Disney Channel, even if it was minimal.”

If Even Stevens wasn’t enough to convince future employers that LaBeouf was in for something bigger, then Holes did. Based on the best-selling book, Holes was a successful family adventure comedy. Director Andy Davis called LaBeouf a cross between Richard Dreyfus and Tom Hanks. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, the executive producer of Disturbia and Transformers, later echoed those same sentiments.

“I’ve been very lucky to find people like that who are supporters and work with supporters,” LaBeouf said humbly. “It’s just crazy. It’s a lot to live up to — you don’t want to let those people down.”

The Road To ‘Disturbia’
In  Disturbia, LaBeouf plays Kale, a devastated teen who falls into juvenile delinquency following a family tragedy. Sentenced to house arrest following his latest run-in with the law, Kale begins to notice the dicey goings-on in his suburban neighborhood.

But what disturbs the troubled teen more than anything else is his suspicious neighbor Mr. Turner (David Morse), whose unusual behavior leads Kale to believe that Mr. Turner is a serial killer.

Disturbia was a tricky challenge for LaBeouf in that the film’s central characters are teens and yet it’s a suspense thriller. He really wanted to be in a project that avoided the traps of the mindless teen horror movie genre.

“It was my biggest fear,” LaBeouf said. “I wanted to do a thriller — it was one of those genres I hadn’t jumped into yet. They’re successful most of the time, so there’s some safety in a thriller. And they’re easy to sell, so the business side of it was comforting. But from the artistic side, they always fall into this shoebox, pigeonholed-type of movie.”

So to avoid the trap, LaBeouf aligned himself with the director of one of his favorite films — D.J. Caruso and his 2002 crime-thriller The Salton Sea — a filmmaker named Spielberg and a project that was inspired by none other that the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

“The jump-off point for Disturbia was Rear Window,” LaBeouf explained. “It’s a classic, yet when we did test screenings of our film, we found that with people 25 and under, 99.9 percent of them hadn’t seen Rear Window.”

Naturally, the next step for Caruso and Spielberg was to update the project to make it more accessible for today’s audiences.
“When you’ve got minds like that in the room, it’s never going to be a copycat film. It’s going to be something different,” LaBeouf said. “They took a piece of Rear Window, mixed in a little bit of John Cusack in Say Anything, Gene Hackman in The Conversation and Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs and pulled out a different film.”
In today’s high-tech world, obviously some things had to be different. Using tape recorders as Hackman did in The Conversation wasn’t plausible, but cell phones, digital video cameras and computers made a lot of sense.

But other aspects, namely character traits — particularly from Rear Window — simply had to remain the same, LaBeouf said.

“The solitude of it was enjoyable for me,” LaBeouf said. “The reason that movie is so fun to watch for me as an actor is seeing Jimmy Stewart run through the paces, the quiet moments and the transitions — I wanted that really bad. I wanted the audience to move with the ebb and flow of my emotions and not use trickery with the camera.”

Another important aspect LaBeouf enjoyed was that the film was grounded in reality. The film’s title is a take-off of suburbia, and anyone who has lived in the suburbs knows that some strange stuff can happen there. LaBeouf’s experiences in the film are a spot-on reminder of it.

“My favorite part of [the film] is that you’re looking at the neighbors through my eyes,” LaBeouf said. “You’re moving with my character at the same beat. You’re figuring out the mystery at the same time I do.”

Plus, LaBeouf added, it’s not only a place people can relate to — it’s something people can feel.

“It’s grounded in real life and real pain,” LaBeouf said. “If you wouldn’t have had that tragic scene at the beginning of the film, you wouldn’t have rooted for Kale. He’s a jerk for the first 20 minutes of the film. So we needed that pain so people [could] feel for this guy.”

Transforming Roles
According to LaBeouf, Spielberg‘s producer chores on Transformers were the fuel for the fire of early rumors that he was going to appear in the next Indiana Jones movie months before he was officially cast in the film — the day Disturbia opened in theaters in April.

“I don’t know exactly where the rumor started, but I remember we were doing press in New York for Disturbia, and the discussion came about Spielberg’s involvement in the film,” LaBeouf said. “I was talking about how much I loved Spielberg, how I’d love to work with him again and how he’s produced two of my movies already.

“Then somebody brought up the fact that he’s doing Indiana Jones 4, and I said, ‘That would be insane. I’d love to be in something like that.’ “The next thing I know, I’m his offspring, and the news is all over the place.”

The rumors became reality a few weeks after our interview. But even if the dream of being in the Indiana Jones film hadn’t become a reality, LaBeouf was glad to be the center of the rumor in the first place.

“It’s better to rumored to be in [Indiana Jones 4] than Juwanna Man 2 or Kangaroo Jack 4, you know?” LaBeouf cracked.

Tim Lammers writes about movies for the Internet Broadcasting network, which includes in New York and in Los Angeles. He also writes for Big Reel’s sister publication,Toy Shop.