I first saw Shia LeBeouf in a movie called Disturbia and was immediately impressed with the teenager’s self-confidence and engaging presence. The film was about a teenage boy, played by Shia, who discovers his neighbor is a serial killer. What was truly “disturbing” about the movie was not the teenage horror clichés or the melodramatic score. No, it was Shia’s mesmerizing performance that made me sit up in my seat. He brought much to the role as he rode the tension and fear with a wonderful range of affect and energy.
Hollywood’s elite also thought the young man was gifted, casting him in everything from major blockbusters to small independent films. Shia was christened the next Harrison Ford and a sharp adventurous actor, bringing his considerable talent to motion picture franchises like “Wall Street,” “Indiana Jones” and “Transformers.” It appeared that Shia had successfully graduated from Disney child actor to cinema darling. In the last five years, Shia’s star burned very bright. But instead of guiding us northward towards cinematic genius, his star appears to have crashed and burned.
It was reported a few months ago that Shia was “day drinking” by himself at a bar in Midtown Manhattan, downing three margaritas and then harassing people on the sidewalk, including a homeless man who he reportedly chased across the street. This bad behavior could be excused as youthful hijinks if it ended there. But it didn’t. An hour later, he added a star performance in a Broadway show. Unfortunately, Shia was not a scheduled performer as he was in the audience, apparently intoxicated or on drugs. Reports indicate he stood up during the first act of Cabaret, interrupting the show by yelling obscenities at the cast members.
This apparently is not Shia’s first offense. He was videotaped head-butting a man during a bar brawl in London. He was arrested at a Chicago Walgreens for refusing to leave the store. In February, he was seen disheveled, with a paper bag over his head, at the Berlin Film Festival. The words “I’m Not Famous Anymore” were scrawled on the outside of the bag. He then tweeted these words to his fans for one month straight. Alec Baldwin, infamous bad boy himself, was paired with Shia in a Broadway play. The two only lasted for a few weeks of rehearsals, before Shia left due to “creative differences.” Industry rumors circulated that Shia was fired for being difficult.
Why does Shia appear to engage life with such aggression? Is it the intense scrutiny of the limelight? Is this the cost of fame? Freud might surmise that the origin of his problems goes back to his childhood. A quick glance at Wikipedia indicates some of Shia’s earlier struggles. Much of the text in Wikipedia is based on interviews Shia gave in the past, where he characterized his parents as hippies and stated that he grew up in the alternative “hippie lifestyle.” He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with his father, who was in rehab for much of Shia’s childhood for heroin use. Shia reported that he “was subjected to verbal and mental abuse by his father, who once pointed a gun at his son during a Vietnam War flashback.” His parents eventually divorced, leaving Shia alone with his mother to grow up in poverty in Los Angeles. When a neighbor insulted his mother, Shia, then 19 years old, threatened the neighbor with a knife. Shia was subsequently assaulted by the neighbor and six of the neighbor’s friends. Clearly, Shia is comfortable with confrontation and violence. Although he describes his childhood in positive terms and states that he is close to his parents, I have to wonder what the impact of that instability and exposure to violence was on a young child.
Earlier in my career, I worked as a psychologist in South Central Los Angeles with abused children, witnessing first-hand the impact of violence, poverty and inadequate parenting on a child’s development. Many of the children became violent and impulsive themselves, identifying with the abusive parent as a means of survival. The child learns that the only way to overcome the trauma inflicted on him by the aggressive parent is to become like them. I wonder if this is what happened to Shia LeBeouf.
In 2012, I was a psychologist at Juilliard, the arts conservatory in New York City, providing therapy to their actors, musicians and dancers. This experience allowed me a window into the world of the professional actor. I now follow former stars like Miley Cyrus, Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears and Shia LeBeouf with interest. What happens to a child actor as they develop? Why do some stars such as 2014 Tony Award winning actor Neil Patrick Harris, of “Doogie Howser” fame, seem to find career and psychological success? I don’t blame Shia for his bad behavior. I’m just curious how he got to this point and how he can help himself regain his earlier success in life.
If I were Shia’s psychologist, and he were on my couch, this is how I might help this young man. First, we need to evaluate or rule out serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Clearly, his recent behavior warrants further investigation into both of these problems. If Shia is not schizophrenic or bipolar, then we need to determine to what extent he is using and abusing drugs and alcohol. No real deep change can occur in the midst of a substance abuse. If he is indeed abusing substances, which seems plausible based on the evidence reported, then rehabilitation is important. This can be done in a inpatient rehab center or via outpatient treatment combined with AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous). If Shia admits to a drug and alcohol problem, which is challenging for many addicts, then I have a partner in change. We can then begin the work to understand his deepest thoughts and feelings about himself, his family and the world.
Having been trained as a trauma therapist, I would be interested in Shia’s childhood and would ask him to share some of his most uncomfortable memories. The incident where his father pulled a gun on him might come up. We would pull apart that moment, looking at not just the facts, as he remembers them, but on the feelings that arise when he recalls that scene. Then, we would combine this narrative with his thoughts about himself and his father during that event. How did Shia construct meaning around that event then and now? And most importantly, how does that impact his current relationships? The goal is to simply build awareness around how he shows up in the world. I would not give advice or suggestions on proper adult behavior as this is usually met with resistance. I have come to realize that people don’t change when struggling to be who they are not. Change occurs with self-awareness and self-acceptance of who they are now. If Shia can own how he truly is in the present, including his embarrassing behavior, with an attitude of self-love, then real lasting-change can occur. In time, the real Shia LeBeouf will emerge, stronger and more authentic than before. If that should happen, I see a star reborn.