“It was one thing for him to do lethally stupid things, but now you’re talking about things that are viewed like the plague to most people,” crisis PR expert Eric Schiffer says
For years, Shia LaBeouf has been open about his battles with childhood trauma, mental health issues, substance abuse and run-ins with the law. But after being accused last week of assault and sexual battery by his former girlfriend, musician FKA Twigs, some PR experts wonder if his behavior will finally make him untouchable in Hollywood.
“You’re entering into this area of no-man’s-land for any celebrity where abuse and disgusting behavior is seen as tremendously out of bounds,” Eric Schiffer, an expert in reputation, brand and political strategy and chairman of ReputationManagementConsultants.com, told TheWrap. “It crossed the line for a lot of people into a level of mortal horror. It was one thing for him to do lethally stupid things, but now you’re talking about things that are viewed like the plague to most people.”
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Bad behavior is par for the course for many celebs, and LaBeouf has done everything from wear a paper bag over his head on the Cannes red carpet to get a giant tattoo on his stomach for his film “The Tax Collector” to being sentenced to anger management for a racist tirade aimed at the police.
But the #MeToo movement has made sexual misconduct a career-killing offense in Hollywood, even for the most popular of movie stars. Johnny Depp just recently was forced to exit his role in Warner Bros.’ “Fantastic Beasts” franchise after losing a very public libel suit against The Sun and a judge’s ruling that ex-wife Amber Heard’s claims that he was a “wife beater” were “substantially true.” LaBeouf though doesn’t have the same track record of blockbusters as Depp, even if part of his brand is “wacky” and “crazed,” as one PR expert put it.
Last week, FKA Twigs, whose real name is Tahliah Barnett, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court accusing LaBeouf of “relentless abuse,” inflicting emotional distress and of knowingly giving her a sexually transmitted disease while they were in a relationship. Barnett described an incident in which she said LaBeouf sped down the highway, removed his seat belt and threatened to crash the car unless she professed her love for him, and then threw her against the car after he pulled over. She also said living with him became frightening, that she feared to go to the bathroom at night because LaBeouf insisted on sleeping with a loaded rifle by their bedside and forced her to sleep in the nude.
LaBeouf has denied some of the accusations against him but, significantly, apologized for his behavior, tacitly acknowledging that at least some of her accusations were true. He told The New York Times last week that “many of these allegations are not true,” but added that his accusers should have a platform to speak and that he accepts “accountability for those things I have done.”
“I have no excuses for my alcoholism or aggression, only rationalizations. I have been abusive to myself and everyone around me for years. I have a history of hurting the people closest to me. I’m ashamed of that history and am sorry to those I hurt. There is nothing else I can really say,” LaBeouf told The Times, adding that he is not cured of his PTSD or alcoholism. “But I am committed to doing what I need to do to recover, and I will forever be sorry to the people that I may have harmed along the way.”
Representatives for LaBeouf have not responded to multiple requests for comment from TheWrap.
Another crisis PR expert said LaBeouf’s real challenge moving forward will be rehabilitating himself with his peers rather than the public that already knows about his past and his own trauma. He’s already played the “therapy card” and the “destructive behavior” has continued, the expert said. So where can he go from here?
“He needs to convince Hollywood — insiders like filmmakers, producers, directors — that he deserves an opportunity to work with them,” said Mark Macias, founder of PR firm Macias PR. “Everyone wants to forgive someone who has gone through any childhood trauma. The difference is that childhood trauma, you’re an innocent person in this. In this situation, at least from the lawsuit, he’s the aggressor. He’s creating this trauma and this drama for himself… I don’t think very many women are going to have sympathy after reading that lawsuit.”
LaBeouf first broke out as the star of the early-2000s Disney Channel series “Even Stevens” and then toplined the first three live-action “Transformers” films that collected an incredible $1 billion-plus at the domestic box office. He has continued to score hits, with last year’s indie film “The Peanut Butter Falcon” grossing an impressive $133 million worldwide. But unlike other top stars, LaBeouf has focused on independent films for much of the last decade. His last major studio film was 2014’s “Fury” alongside Brad Pitt.
The actor currently has no film projects lined up. He co-stars in the drama “Pieces of a Woman,” a potential Oscar contender for star Vanessa Kirby that Netflix is releasing in theaters this month ahead of a January 7 streaming debut. And he was briefly attached to star in Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” for New Line but was replaced by Harry Styles in September over what was described as a scheduling conflict.
Outside of film, LaBeouf has kept active with art projects as part of a trio with Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö and British artist Luke Turner. He’s also the co-founder of an experimental theater company, Slauson R.C. Theater School, that recently staged a drive-thru performance during the pandemic.
“I’m sure he’s got stuff, but it’s stuff that he’s written and producing. And he was getting a lot of offers on indies before these accusations, but nothing from studios,” one top agent who spoke with TheWrap said. “It’s well known how crazy he is even way before all of this.”
The agent expected that LaBeouf still receives residual compensation from his work on the “Transformers” franchise, but the agent further acknowledged how a long career in Hollywood has shaped LaBeouf’s behavior.
“Shia is immensely talented. He obviously got demons that are insanely bad,” one producer who has worked with LaBeouf also told TheWrap.
LaBeouf examined his own history in detail in the 2019 film “Honey Boy,” a mostly autobiographical film he wrote while in court-ordered rehab. The film explores his career as a young child actor, his fraught relationship with an abusive father (played in the film by LaBeouf himself) and the challenges of serving as a breadwinner for his own family from a young age. But complicating the story further is that LaBeouf and Barnett became a couple for just under a year after meeting on stage set of “Honey Boy.”
What’s more, “Honey Boy” director Alma Har’el, who had previously defended LaBeouf and talked frequently about his personal growth and recovery, on Thursday issued a statement defending Barnett and another ex-girlfriend who in the lawsuit corroborated Barnett’s story.
“Like many of Shia’s collaborators and fans who battled substance abuse, suffered childhood trauma, and face mental illness, I am painfully aware of my past investment in his recovery,” Har’el wrote in part. “I want to send a clear message today that none of the above should excuse, minimize, or rationalize domestic violence.”
Even Barnett’s lawsuit seems to acknowledge that the media and the public have excused his past actions and reputation and allowed him to continue to find work.
“Shia LaBeouf hurts women,” the complaint begins. “He uses them. He abuses them, both physically and mentally. He is dangerous. For too long, LaBeouf has sought to excuse his reprehensible actions as the eccentricities of a free-thinking ‘artist.’ Eve though his history of violent behavior was well-documented, many in the media have treated LaBeouf as a harmless figure of fun, which has helped enable him to perpetuate his cycle of abuse of women over the years.”
And many in Hollywood are taking stock of their role in turning a blind eye to LaBeouf’s behavior. “The bottom line is that if true, I feel for FKA Twigs, but nevertheless we in the industry and our celebrity-worshiping society created the Shia we now see before us,” the agent said. “Little kids are not supposed to be the heads of their families. Because this is what you get.”
The consequences for LaBeouf may depend on how he responds and how Barnett’s lawsuit plays out. Evan Nierman, founder of crisis management firm Red Banyan, says that we may have already heard the worst, most salacious accusations about LaBeouf’s behavior, but that his statement to the Times may have done him more harm than good.
“His statement is notable in that he says there are some things that are untrue, but he seems to acknowledge a lot of the behavior that’s problematic. He does hold himself accountable, pledges to do better,” Nierman said. “He certainly gave tacit recognition that bad things occurred, which is an interesting development. It’s not something you always see in an initial statement.”
“Right now his message is really muddled,” Macias added. “He didn’t have a convincing answer for this. He denies the allegations, which hopefully is true, but he also said he accepts accountability for what he did. So which one is it?”
Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and the president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, said that though he doesn’t believe the actor will face any criminal charges, Barnett has a “decently strong” civil case. He feels that among the strongest charges in Barnett’s complaint is the charge of sexual battery, as Barnett says LaBeouf knowingly gave her a sexually transmitted disease.
While typical civil domestic abuse suits usually involve little if any corroborating evidence, Rahmani noted that Barnett’s case has another ex-girlfriend, Karolyn Pho, who spoke out as a “prior bad acts witness.”
“That’s a much stronger case, especially if they both have the same disease. And then you have the other ex who is willing to come forward to corroborate,” he said. “Whenever there’s other victims or other women telling the same story, it becomes a much stronger case because it’s not just, ‘Hey, this is a disgruntled ex-girlfriend, she’s upset because I moved on.’ It helps.”
Schiffer recommends that LaBeouf “be dark for some time” if he wishes to overcome the “Hollywood firewall” and find opportunities in films again. And while he will get empathy from some, he’ll need to manage this latest crisis himself.
“I hope that he can find inner peace and a level of emotional maturity and be able to contain himself consistently so that he can with enough time find a path,” Schiffer said. “Only time and I think a level of true regret and demonstrated ability to correct his behavior will heal it. And that’s a big set of question marks.”