Watching Shia LaBeouf recount for David Letterman the amusing circumstances surrounding his arrest last November at a Chicago Walgreens for drunken, public benzoyl-peroxide abuse, we were suddenly left wanting to know how—likable as he is—he so quickly ascended to superstar status. Well, that's the great thing about media-saturation campaigns riding the coattails of massive summer movie releases: Those kinds of wishes are easily granted. According to a profile in the new GQ, it all started when Steven Spielberg saw LaBeouf's Disturbia audition tape, and instantly cast him in Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That was easy! But just who is this charismatic, precocious, and ridiculously named young man? And from whence does he come? Not too far, as GQ reports—in fact, as close by as a traveling tubesteak sideshow in Echo Park:
Part of this easygoing showmanship comes from LaBeouf's teenage years in Echo Park, where despite being nearly the only white kid for miles, he blended in. He picked up freestyle rapping. He was, he says, "a major dozens player" at a mostly black school. Just so he could hang out with his friends, he learned how to breakdance. "It was sort of your greeting card," he says. "Like, yeah, I'm white, but I have soul."
The rest derives from what you might call family tradition: Shia's forebears include a long line of counterculture roughnecks and artistes manqués. His maternal grandfather—from whom Shia takes his name—was a comedian and Mafia barber on New York's Lower East Side, and his dad's parents were a Cajun Green Beret who drank himself to death and a beatnik lesbian who hung out with Ginsberg. This star-crossed tradition continued with his parents: Mom, a Jewish Earth Mama who sold handmade jewelry at local fairs; Dad, a Willie Nelson look-alike who was also a Vietnam vet, convicted felon, and commedia dell'arte clown. Pop was the sort who grew pot along the Santa Monica Freeway and thought of karate as a great way to meet the ladies.
Shia proved to be exactly the sort of natural-born hustler that this oddball family needed. While he was still a toddler, the LaBeoufs started something called the Snow Cone Family Circus, whose business plan was based on the notion that their Latin neighbors in Echo Park really dug hot dogs and clowns. All three LaBeoufs would dress in greasepaint and motley and run around the park improvising slapstick routines, trying to get some of the riches of the late Reagan era to trickle down their way.
Reading about the colorful characters inhabiting the various outgrowths of the LaBeouf Family Marijuana Leaf only renders Shia's unlikely journey all the more satisfying. This was no scion of an A-list Hollywood clan, plum career opportunities handed over to him along with keys to the Beemer on a silver platter. No, this was a young man who labored his way up from the notoriously difficult Echo Park vaudeville and cured meat circuit, up through the ranks of the Belmont High King Flares varsity hip-hop club, and ultimately managed to survive a stint inside the Disney Channel childhood-erasing machine, to land where he is today: Carrying blockbusters, and telling the story about the time he got so wasted, he had to change his clothes three times to buy a single pack of cigarettes—and through it all, somehow managed to still wind up in jail. This, ladies and gentleman, is a star.