Hey, Shia LaBeouf, method acting isn’t an excuse to act like a jerk

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Getting into a role doesn’t give Shia LaBeouf an excuse to troll everyone.

Drunken arrests. Obvious plagiarism. Bizarre art installations. It’s been a weird few years for Shia LaBeouf. And those incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

Ever since he left the Transformers franchise, LaBeouf has appeared to be on a mission to dismantle his public persona. But with a new piece in Interview magazine, not to mention an intentionally candid appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, LaBeouf has at least tried to clarify his actions somewhat. In addition to talking about getting advice from Ben Affleck and finding God, the piece finds LaBeouf citing method acting as the reason for his strange and erratic behavior as of late. Talking about butting heads with Alec Baldwin while starring in a Broadway production of the play Orphans, LaBeouf stated, “I was sleeping in the park… At the time, I was out of my mind… My whole goal was to intimidate the f**k out of Baldwin. That was the role. And it wasn’t going to be fake. I wanted him to be scared… So I went about doing that for three weeks of rehearsal.”

It’s hard not to feel like LaBeouf is covering his tracks now, after spending the better part of several years burning all his bridges and trolling the entire Internet with his weird #IAmSorry campaign. However, on the press junket for his upcoming movie, Fury, LaBeouf’s costars (including Brad Pitt) have had nothing but good things to say about him and what a talented, great guy he is. So maybe he was just putting on a show that whole time after all. But regardless of LaBeouf’s intentions, the issue here is that method acting shouldn’t give you permission to be a jerk.

Developed by famed acting instructor Constantin Stanislavski, and later, Lee Strasberg, method acting traditionally refers to a style of performance in which the artist attempts to fully embody the character, inside and out. Many of the great American screen actors have employed it over time. Marlon Brando and James Dean were among the first to popularize method acting in U.S. cinema. Later, “New Hollywood” stars like Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, and, most famously, Robert De Niro followed suit. More recently, Ryan Gosling, Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, and of course, Daniel Day-Lewis have all made headlines for “going method.”

The technique has also gotten a lot of attention over time for the extreme, sometimes scary lengths actors will go to in pursuing it. In a piece called, “Is Method Acting Destroying Actors?”, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody claimed, “The elephant in the room is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.”

“There’s something about modern-day acting—the style that is famously associated with Lee Strasberg’s Method and that gained currency from his Actors Studio and its offshoots—that inclines toward deformations of character,” Brody wrote. “That modern school, which links emotional moments from a performer’s own life to that of a character, and which conceives characters in terms of complete and filled-out lives that actors imagine and inhabit, asks too much of performers.”

Hollywood loves to praise method actors, to applaud their willingness to devote themselves so completely to a role. Yet actors’ egos are also a well-known and frequently derided characteristic of their profession. Which is why, in a sense, it’s also sort of easy to look at method acting as incredibly self-righteous and showy, though in theory, method acting “hides the craft,” as it were. That it could also be dangerous at first sounds a bit silly; after all, we’re talking about Hollywood big shots here, aren’t we? But considering how problematic the idea of the “tortured artist” has become, it’s worth asking if there is something slightly toxic about method acting, whether it’s the way it manifests in an actor’s body or their mind.

Moreover, there’s an aggressively masculine side to method acting, which no one ever talks about. That’s not to say there aren’t women who are known for it as well. But it’s the macho performances of intimidating, brooding, and intense men which we so often fawn over. In fact it’s almost rare to see a method performance from a man that isn’t violent or unhinged in some way.

Brody goes on to mention a New York Times op-ed by James Franco, where he attempts to explain LaBeouf’s various antics. According to Franco, it’s only natural for method actors to behave strangely. “Actors have been lashing out against their profession and its grip on their public images since at least Marlon Brando,” he writes. “Brando’s performances revolutionized American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be ‘performing,’ in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on as much as he was being.”

There’s that idea again, of hiding the craft, of eliminating the “performance.” Any advice coming from Franco on this comes off as a bit strange, given his own penchant for performance art (or whatever it is he’s doing), but then again, maybe Franco’s personal brand of weirdness makes said advice all the more appropriate.

It would seem that actors like LaBeouf and Franco stand on a knife’s edge here. With the Internet, it’s become harder and harder to tell where the performance ends and real life begins. Franco appears to be exploiting that. With LaBeouf, it’s not exactly clear whether he’s been using this to his advantage the whole time or whether he’s actually been troubled.

This confusion is perhaps best summed up in Joaquin Phoenix’s 2010 “documentary,” I’m Still Here. Phoenix (another method actor, and one whom LaBeouf has said he admires) explored the perils of fame in the viral age, and the line between art and reality when he staged a very public meltdown, and then captured it all on film.

His career has bounced back in the years since, but it’s hard not to imagine Phoenix has some problems with Hollywood, when you look how far he went with the project. However, I’m Still Here ended up ultimately being about the way we perceive celebrity more than anything else. It didn’t matter if the meltdown was real; everyone was just so enthralled with watching it unfold. The final irony, of course, is that I’m Still Here performed incredibly poorly at the box office, earning just over half a million dollars worldwide. In the end, no one cared about the art or its intersection with real life. They just wanted to watch the meltdown and then go back to what they were doing.

Franco and LaBeouf would be wise to keep this in mind. We’ve already watched celebrities like Amanda Bynes and Charlie Sheen suffer through what look like legitimate mental problems, exacerbated by their online personas. Trying to use the Internet to blur the lines between art and life is all well and good, until it makes light of these situations. That’s why going method in the digital age is especially tough. People are waiting to see what kind of character you play long before you step onscreen, and they usually care more about your offscreen character anyway.

LaBeouf blamed whiskey for his arrest this summer during a performance of Broadway’s Cabaret, in which he reportedly grabbed star Alan Cumming’s backside and spat on a cop. Yet one onlooker said, “I was thinking he was working on a role, because it was that extreme.” Had LaBeouf ended up justifying his actions this way, asserting that he was just “working on a role,” would we be more likely to forgive him? There’s been a heated debate going on lately about whether an artist’s personal life should impact your view of their art. But if those two things become one in the same, then does it really matter? 

The answer is no, it doesn’t. Bad behavior is still bad behavior, and method acting shouldn’t detract from one’s ability to be a decent person.

Photo via The Company You Keep/Trailer

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.