NEW YORK -- While in court-mandated rehab following his viral-videoed, racist-ranting 2017 arrest for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, Shia LaBeouf put his childhood reflections into screenplay format. That's just what he knew. An actor since he was 10, LaBeouf's life had been a series of screenplays. Some better than others. Few as raw and intimate as what he wrote.
It was intended as a therapeutic exercise to trace the roots of LaBeouf's alcoholism (which led to that 2017 incident) and his diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. He wrote about himself and his father. He hadn't spoken to him in seven years. His dad, whose name is Jeffrey LaBeouf, had served in Vietnam and been a rodeo clown. While LaBeouf was a fast-rising child actor, he was his son's paid chaperone. He was aggressively supportive, riddled with jealousy and, according to the film, occasionally abusive.
LaBeouf sent his pages to his friend, Israeli-born director Alma Har'el. She at once responded that they had to turn it into a movie.
"I thought she was out of her mind," says LaBeouf. "I didn't think we could get funding. I didn't think anybody was trying to make movies with me anymore. I was going to join the Peace Corps."
Instead, Har'el found the funding and they made "Honey Boy" with an added wrinkle, urged on by Har'el: LaBeouf plays his father. It's the most critically acclaimed film of LaBeouf's career.
For even an actor known for performance-art stunts (remember the paper bag over his head) and public displays of painful self-examination (LaBeouf once sat for a marathon of all his movies at New York's Angelika Film Center, an experience he compares to flipping through your high school yearbook with strangers), "Honey Boy" is something else.
The film, which Amazon Studios opens in theaters this weekend, is radically autobiographical for such a well-known movie star. As therapy writ large, it's a striking exercise in empathy in which LaBeouf wrestles and ultimately comes to peace with his father. LaBeouf considers it an act of exorcism and liberation.
"There's something freeing about this experience and also going a little bit crazy," says LaBeouf. "Going a little bit crazy, I wish that on everyone. There's something very freeing about going a little bit crazy. Crazy is freedom."
Getting into character, LaBeouf, says began with finding his father's voice -- a nasal sound, because years of cocaine damaged his nose, but not a nebbish one.
Dealing with a swaggering masculinity was part of the process, says the actor.
"I've had an aversion from alpha males for most of my life, which comes from my father," says LaBeouf, himself an intense presence. "In doing this, I can sort of hold space for that energy and realize where it comes from. It's quite sweet when you think about that overt alpha male energy. It comes from fear."
In the film, Noah Jupe plays young Shia ("Otis" in the movie) and Lucas Hedges plays him more present day, including inside rehab. Hedges had never known LaBeouf before and he grants that, given the unusual circumstance of the production, "I don't think the two of us ever figured out how to act with each other."
Hedges said he was drawn to the movie by the courage of LaBeouf's undertaking. He had endless questions for LaBeouf.
"There was no question that I was ever like, 'Oh, I know him now.' There were so many things that were contradictory," says Hedges. "But there was no line. It was like he wanted and relished the opportunity to share. He shares his whole life with the world -- his deepest fears, his deepest dreams, his deepest insecurities."
While "Honey Boy" was obviously therapeutic for LaBeouf, Har'el emphasizes no movie can vanquish such demons.
"Being an adult child of an alcoholic or being anybody that suffered from childhood trauma at a young age had their wires crossed when it comes to love and pain. It's a lifelong journey," says Har'el, whose father also struggles with alcoholism. "This film, you could say it's therapeutic but really what it was is a very big opportunity to go into that room where all the trauma happened and see it from a different perspective."