SHIA LABEOUF is under Hollywood's microscope these days. He's got a lot at stake.
The weight of three high-profile films rests on his young shoulders: the "Rear Window"-esque thriller "Disturbia," which opens Friday, the animated penguin film, "Surf's Up," due out in June, and the latest Michael Bay extravaganza, "Transformers," opening July 4.
Although the 20-year-old actor exudes fearlessness and self-confidence, LaBeouf acknowledges feeling the heat.
"This is a lot of pressure," he said over lunch at the Four Seasons last week. And he knows how fickle the acting profession can be. Hearing that a former sitcom actor was reportedly now flipping burgers at a local eatery for a living, LaBeouf said, "I would have no problem with that. I might enjoy that life -- to do something very mundane."
He confessed he even has an application for CalArts in his backpack.
"I went to Hamilton High School intermittently," LaBeouf said. "But most of the time I was taught by tutors. That's why I am so envious of kids who get to go to college. I got accepted at Yale but never went. Opportunity arose so quickly [as an actor]. I remember asking John Turturro [if I should go to Yale]. He said, 'You have all the opportunities now. You can go to college when you are 30 or 40. Wait until the pause comes -- don't force the pause.' "
THERE hasn't been a pause in his career in the past decade. It began when he was 10, living in Echo Park. Finances were grim. His artist father was in and out of rehab.
"He got lost in the drugs of it all," LaBeouf said. "Now he's back in the art thing, but it took a while. He didn't know when the party was over. He didn't know how to be a father at the time. Now he's the greatest father."
His mother sold fabrics and brooches. "That was my life," LaBeouf said. "I was broke. I didn't like my life."
But he envied a surfing buddy. "He always had the coolest stuff. His mom drove a nice car. He had a nice watch and nice clothing. He always had a nice surfboard." He was also an actor. And after seeing his friend guest on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," LaBeouf decided that's what he wanted to be.
"Initially, it was financial," he said. "I wanted opulence."
He already had been playing clubs as a stand-up comic. "I was a kid with a bowl-cut and suspenders," LaBeouf recalled. "My shtick at that time was the 50-year-old mouth on the 10-year-old kid."
LaBeouf picked the name of an agent in the Yellow Pages and called her, pretending to be a 50-year-old manager from England pitching LaBeouf as the next big thing. Although the agent knew he was a kid, "she had never been approached that way," he said. She called him in and was won over by his stand-up act.
"A couple of weeks later, I booked 'ER,' then 'The X-Files' and 'Suddenly Susan,' " LaBeouf said.
But it was his performance as the endearingly goofy Louis Stevens in the popular Disney Channel sitcom, "Even Stevens," that put him on the map with young audiences and earned him a Daytime Emmy Award in 2003 for outstanding performance in a children's series. That same year, he made his feature debut in the Disney film "Holes."
LaBeouf said it was the 2005 period golfing drama, "The Greatest Game Ever Played," in which he really came of age as an actor.
"That was a big deal for me," he said, nibbling at his fruit salad. "I wasn't a stand-and-deliver guy. I could never do [Steve] McQueen and have quiet moments. That is something [director] Bill Paxton taught me. I came on the set with all of these conjured mannerisms. I love movement; movement makes me feel like I am someone else."
But it was too much movement for Paxton. "He said, 'No, no. This is how we are going to play it -- don't do too much. Let the audience do it for you.' "
After completing the indie films, "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" and "Bobby," LaBeouf was given a two-picture deal -- "Disturbia" and "Transformers" -- at DreamWorks.
"Disturbia" director D.J. Caruso already had a young actor in mind when LaBeouf came in and read for the role of Kale, a teenager under house arrest for three months for hitting a teacher.
"Shia came in and completely won me over in the very first scene," Caruso said. "He was so dynamic and his eyes are so expressive. I thought, he is really going to be accessible. The guys are going to like him and the girls are going to like him because he's the kind of guy you are going to root for .... "
Aaron Woo, who plays Kale's best friend in "Disturbia," said he learned a lot working with the actor-- "like improvising, not missing a beat in any take or any moment, but still being so alive," he said. "I had no idea what he was going to do, and that inspires you to go in there and see what happens and just play."
LIKE Caruso, Chris Jenkins, the producer and story writer of "Surf's Up," which features LaBeouf voicing a surfer penguin named Cody Maverick, found him to be unusually mature.
"He is ahead of his years in terms of his acting ability and insight into any role," Jenkins said. "It's difficult to describe his unique ability -- from my point of view -- to be able to see the whole story, the depth of the character and to work with the other characters on set."
While shooting "Disturbia," LaBeouf went into physical training for "Transformers," in which he plays a teenager who has to save the world from evil robots.
"It wasn't bulk-up training," he said. "It was run 6 miles a day, like a swimmer's body. They left the buff stuff to Josh Duhamel and Tyrese [Gibson] because they didn't have to have the vulnerability I had to have."
And he did a lot of his own stunts, including being set on fire -- "you would have fire retardant stuff on but it was warm."
LaBeouf said working with the notoriously difficult director Bay was "intense."
"He's Gen. Patton," the actor said. "He has to be. You don't want the director -- when your hair is on fire and your legs are on fire and you are burning to death -- to come up to you and say, 'Let's talk about your emotional history.' "