There are dramatic storm clouds moving over the Texas state Capitol on a quiet Sunday morning in Austin. A few blocks away, Shia LaBeouf is on a sixth-floor patio overlooking the historic landmark. He holds tight onto the arm of Zack Gottsagen, his costar in “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” and touches his forehead onto Gottsagen’s shoulder.
As a photographer begins snapping pictures of the two, LaBeouf picks up energy, encouraging Gottsagen. LeBeouf asks, “Are you ready?”
He grabs a phone from someone and pulls up an ‘N Sync track, and the two start to dance together. Briefly, they both seem unburdened, free.
“This is your moment,” LaBeouf says to Gottsagen. “We did it for this moment.”
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It may seem unusual to find a Hollywood star who has become as well-known for his headline-making behavior off-screen as his impassioned performances on-screen, seeming to give so much of himself to a 33-year-old aspiring actor from Florida with Down syndrome. But Shia LaBeouf is anything but predicable.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon,” the debut feature written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is something of a contemporary folk ballad, a modern-day Mark Twain adventure fable set along the outer banks of North Carolina, amid retirement homes, blind pastors, crab fishermen, homemade liquor and a cobbled-together raft.
In the film, Gottsagen plays a young man with Down syndrome who is forced to live in a retirement home. Frustrated by his life there, he breaks out, going in search of his hero, a wrestler named the Salt Water Redneck. Along the way he encounters a man who is himself also on the run, played by LaBeouf, and the two set off on a makeshift raft together. The supporting cast includes Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church and real-life wrestlers Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley.
It was while filming “The Peanut Butter Falcon” in Georgia in the summer of 2017 that LaBeouf was arrested for public drunkenness and video footage of LaBeouf making sexist and racist comments to police officers was released. LaBeouf, now 32, has since gotten sober and publicly apologized for his behavior.
In a Q&A after the film’s world premiere Saturday night in Austin, LaBeouf described himself as feeling “fragile” while making the movie. Though he seemed wary of the spotlight for himself, waving away a microphone at one point before later reluctantly taking hold of one to answer a question, when someone from the audience declared that Gottsagen was a star, LaBeouf lit up.
In an interview on Sunday alongside Gottsagen, who received a standing ovation at the premiere, LaBeouf did not shy away from talking about his personal troubles during production on the movie, addressing them without even being asked.
“You know, I have my own issues, but when we were filming, I basically hit bottom barrel, and then the next day I had to show up on our life raft with him and no irony in it,” LaBeouf said. “That’s actually what our truth was.
“I got out of jail, walked onto a film set. Nobody wanted to talk to me. Everybody was looking down, and me and him had to go get on a raft and film the rest of the movie. And it was insane. It was just nuts.”
The pair’s on-screen connection has a warmth and intensity that seem to exist off-screen as well.
“I was what changed his life around, just so you know,” Gottsagen said. “Shia has struggled and been through bad times, and I was what changed his life around to make it better. Not everything is bad.”
“You don’t know how important that is to have a cheerleader when the world is like ‘you’re … lame’ and no one wants to look at you,” LaBeouf said, getting visibly emotional and wiping a tear from his eye.
As to what specifically Gottsagen did or said to turn things around for him, LaBeouf said, “No judgment. Just always straight love. No second-guessing. I’m the kind of a guy who lives my life validating myself in other people’s opinions of me. And I just know what his opinion of me is; I don’t second-guess it.
“He tells you straight up; he’s a truth barometer,” LaBeouf continued. “Sometimes he doesn’t want you to tickle him. He just says that, there’s no weird extra. I just know where I stand with him. He’s the straightest shooter.”
It was during a court-ordered rehab after his arrest that LaBeouf wrote “Honey Boy,” the semiautobiographical story that premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival in which LaBeouf plays a variation on his own father during LaBeouf’s childhood acting career. (LaBeouf said he actually got an extension on going to rehab to allow him to finish shooting on “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”)
Nilson and Schwartz wrote their screenplay with Gottsagen in mind after the three had already become friends. The project landed with producers Christopher Lemole and Tim Zajaros, eventually getting to Oscar-nominated producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who had previously worked with LaBeouf.
“Shia cares,” said Nilson, “and you see that in all the movies he’s done – anything from ‘Transformers’ to the Sia video. He cares. And he gets this look in his eyes, like you believe it because he believed it. And I think he took that energy and applied it to his relationship with Zack, and we fostered that.”
“I don’t think Zack gives room for anyone to be cynical,” said Schwartz. “And Shia’s not afraid to be emotional. And I do think that Shia had a bit of a tough experience in this industry trying to do stuff truthfully, working with actors that have their own motives or directors that might want to pull him in a way that doesn’t feel good. But with us it was just like, ‘Come on in, man.'”
LaBeouf declared the movie “one of my favorite things I ever did,” even though with all the personal travails he went through during the production, it would be easy to understand if he would want to put the movie far behind him.
“Can’t do it,” he said, acknowledging Gottsagen. “And it’s bigger than me too. This dude has a career, and I can’t get in the way of that, one. Two, the movie is bigger than both of us. Way bigger than both of us. And we worked way too … hard for my shame to get in the way.”
Perhaps it’s best to consider the experience of making “The Peanut Butter Falcon” as a point on a continuum rather than the end or the beginning of a phase for LaBeouf.
“It’s both. It’s not one thing or the other. It’s an epoch of my life,” LaBeouf said. “It’s a chapter of my life, but it’s also a chapter of his life and his relationship.
“Look, I’m a human being,” said LaBeouf. “I’m fully human, and I am getting stronger.”
LaBeouf turned his attention back to Gottsagen and what he draws from his costar, who has now become his friend.
“I’m going to talk too much now,” LaBeouf said, “but he’s got an unapologetic joy that I’d love to adopt. This movie has an unapologetic joy that I think I would love to adopt also, even if I know it’s silly; it just feels better. So I’m out here trying to just experience that unadulterated … love that I have for this man and this film and for what we’ve created.”
As everyone gathers themselves to go, the clouds over the Capitol have started to move. And the storm, for now, has passed.