With his turn opposite Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Shia LaBeouf has risen to become a certifiable It Boy in Hollywood. The 21-year-old former Disney Channel star (who scored hits last year with Disturbia and Transformers) is anchoring not just the next Transformers film, but possibly further Indy sequels as well — movies that could make him less a sidekick and more a full-blown adventurer in his own right. (Not that anybody’s doing anything but talking speculatively at this point.) EW.com caught up with LaBeouf to talk about working with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the unique perils of cigarette smoking, dirty on-set pranks, and what it’s like playing a 1950s greaser…when you weren’t even born until 1986.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how’d you get the gig in Crystal Skull?
SHIA LABEOUF: I had just finished making Transformers [which Spielberg exec produced]. On a Monday, I got a call: ”Steven wants to meet with you at his office on Thursday regarding a movie he’s gonna be making.” Now, anybody who follows film follows Steven, and what he’s doing and what’s next. The problem is, at that time, Steven was working on about 16 different movies. So I went to [Spielberg’s production company] Amblin, and I came into his office. I had started to think maybe I was going to the principal’s office.
What do you mean?
Like that Steven was going to say, ”Listen, we just saw all the Transformers footage, and we’re in the midst of cutting you out of the film. And we just wanted to express our thanks for your hard work and efforts.”
But that didn’t happen.
Steven asked, ”Have you ever seen any of the Indiana Jones movies?” I don’t think I talked for five minutes. I had to get up and pace in his office. I was freaking out. I’m speechless. I want to cry. I’m having a panic attack, and I’m sweaty. My heartbeat — you can even ask Steven. He finally said, ”I guess that means yes.”
So you were sort of the rookie on this movie.
I was around a lot of veterans during this film. And they all kept saying, ”Don’t take any of this to your next movie.” It’s a different tone and style.
There is a certain camp element that’s needed for the Indy tone. It’s not Bourne Identity type of action. And it’s not far from slip-on-a-banana-peel type of action. It’s a very specific tone that seems to only work in Indiana Jones movies. Taking this tone to any other franchise or any other film wouldn’t work. But the audience is addicted to that tone for these films. It goes hand in hand with the rest of the elements.
Did Steven swear you to secrecy on all plot matters?
I dealt with a bit of secrecy on Transformers. And Transformers has a certain place in certain people’s hearts. But Indiana Jones, it’s much larger, and there’s much more passion involved. And with Steven, in any project he’s making, there’s a level of secrecy, because he’s is trying to maintain the magic of what movies used to be. Which was: You experienced the plot on the day you saw the movie.
NEXT PAGE: ”I’d take this knife with me to Italy and to Germany, and I’m trying to stash this switchblade in different places in my luggage so I don’t get in trouble.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like meeting Harrison Ford?
SHIA LABEOUF: He’s the John Wayne of my generation, for sure. He’s the quintessential movie star. And the fact that he doesn’t really care is beautiful.
Your Crystal Skull character, Mutt, is pretty handy with blades and swords.
Steven and George wanted the character to have a switchblade. The thing became like a third arm. The floors are now disgusting in my house because there’s all these knife gouges in the floor from me throwing the knife. I was on the Transformers press tour while I was getting my knives ready. So I’d take this knife with me to Italy and to Germany, and I’m trying to stash this switchblade in different places in my luggage so I don’t get in trouble.
I’ve read and heard that you watched a lot of old movies — The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause — to get ready to play Mutt.
I also remember Steven telling me to watch Red River, watch Montgomery Clift, and his cadence and his mannerisms and the way he dealt with John Wayne. That was my homework. George, of course, made American Graffiti and knows all about the demimonde of the ”greaser.” George has the most disgusting comb. It’s full of the most nasty crud. He’s probably had this comb for 40 years. There’s a certain bend in the comb ’cause he keeps the comb in his back pocket, like every greaser did. The pants were so high in the ’50s, that you’d have a bend in your comb from sitting on it. And George would say, I wanna make sure that Mutt’s comb is bent. Otherwise it’s not accurate. It looks like a brand-new comb and not Mutt’s comb. And make sure there’s a bunch of white specks in it. Make sure you’ve got scalp in that comb.
And you had to have a greaser hairstyle, too.
That hair took a lot of time. I’m a cigarette smoker, and it’s not easy to smoke around a flammable head all the time. That thing could light up, and it’s over. Game over.
What did you use to slick it down?
We used all kinds of stuff. We evolved from Murray’s on. Then we started making our own stuff. I don’t have hair that’s conducive to this kind of hairstyle. I have a very nappy, curly head. I come from French Cajun Jewish people. Our hair is not supposed to be that way. I don’t know anybody in my family that has that type of hair. So it took some work. I think we worked on the hair as much as we did on the sword fighting.
Did all that hair gunk smell good?
It smelled fantastic. Every time I walked by someone there was a real waft of jasmine, and Murray’s, and about 70 other products.
There’s a scene in Crystal Skull set in a typical ’50s diner, with lots of college students around, which George must have loved.
I think Steven’s favorite era is the ’30s, but Harrison and George’s favorite era is the ’50s, for sure. So being around them all the time, you were immersed in it. The movies, the culture, the scene.
NEXT PAGE: ”It was like a fraternity, a boys club. Dirty jokes and a lotta man s—. Jokes you couldn’t really repeat out loud, that you’d never want to tell around your wife.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the mood like on the Crystal Skull set with you, Harrison, John Hurt, and Ray Winstone?
SHIA LABEOUF: It was like a fraternity, a boys club. Dirty jokes and a lotta man s—. Jokes you couldn’t really repeat out loud, that you’d never want to tell around your wife. Harrison has a very dry sense of humor. And what’s amazing is Karen [Allen] was in the boys club with us. She got to ride the ride with us. It was never batting the eyelashes or pulling any of that s—. She’s one of the guys. She was my first friend on set. [Click to see our Q&A with Karen Allen]
Crystal Skull actually has a lot of humor in it.
There’s a lot of play and a lot of freedom with the comedy. It’s the most humorous one out of the bunch so far. I haven’t seen the cut, I just know from shooting.
But when it comes to Cate Blanchett as a villain? Probably no comedy there.
I worked with her for four months and I still don’t think I’ve ever met Cate Blanchett. She’s that good. She is elusive. Cate held on to a kind of exclusion. Maybe not necessarily [intentionally], but we all played into it. She definitely wasn’t in the tight-knit ”fabulous five” [of LaBeouf, Ford, Hurt, Winstone, and Allen] that we built. She was kind of in her own world, which works perfectly for the movie. She probably did do it on purpose. If it was an accident, it was divine. She’s incredible to watch, as a technician. She’s purebred badass in the movie. She’s scary.
You shot some scenes in and around Yale University. Weren’t you thinking of going there?
I had a letter of intent. I was planning on going to Yale to theater school. And then when I got there [for our location shoot], it all went away. I just felt as though I would never attend school there. It’s not an enjoyable place. I didn’t like New Haven. It’s a beautiful campus, but that’s all that it is.
Did you actually go to the admission office or anything?
I don’t know if I’d ever be accepted into that school. But being there with Indiana Jones, you almost want to call up all the administration and say, ”Listen, why don’t you meet me down on set? Maybe I can do, like, an in-person letter of recommendation. Maybe your administration can come down and say hello to Steven, and maybe he can give you the one-two punch, and maybe I can get into this school.” But that never came about. The way I felt was: What theater school’s gonna allow me to work with Cate Blanchett? Or Harrison Ford and Ray Winstone and John Hurt and Steven Spielberg? What school in the world would actually allow me to do these things, and not just study but be in the middle of the cage with them? The decision is sort of made right there. When you’re working with the best of the best, I’m not gonna put that on hold so I can work with people who studied the best of the best.