For the actor and artist currently known as Shia LaBeouf, 2016 was a mellow year, comparatively speaking. In the previous three years, LaBeouf plagiarized graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, got arrested during the intermission of a Broadway musical, and quit the production of a different Broadway play, apparently over disagreements with his co-star, Alec Baldwin. In the court of public opinion, LaBeouf was edging toward child-actor stereotype — although he had successfully transitioned from precocious child star to “serious actor,” he seemed to be breaking down in the process. Until, on the last day of 2013, he sent this tweet:
2014 Resolution - I need to work on being a less controversial tweeter.— Shia LaBeouf (@thecampaignbook) December 31, 2013
LaBeouf’s public proclamation at the time seemed like just another New Year’s resolution that would go unfulfilled. Why would someone who had reentered the limelight because of a parade of controversies suddenly decide to stop being controversial? But over time, the lack of controversy allowed LaBeouf to become an offbeat, endearing internet personality. And keeping this resolution allowed him to become a new kind of celebrity: a Not Famous one.
Barely one month into 2014, LaBeouf began tweeting the phrase “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” over and over again. And for the next two years, he lived the life of a Not Famous person — not the absence of fame, but a subversion of it. Instead of allowing people to view his life (the tactic of a celebrity like Kim Kardashian), he let them interact with it. In hindsight, it makes sense: being frequently available for public consumption may be the least celebrity-like thing a celebrity can do.
LaBeouf’s “Not Famous” tweet launched the second, interactive phase of his redemption, after the necessary burnout phase. It started with #IAMSORRY, an art show in Los Angeles that asked gallery-goers to select an object (options: a whip, Hershey’s kisses, hateful tweets printed onto slips of paper) and use them as props on a silent, willing LaBeouf, seated nearby. It’s still one of LaBeouf’s most intimate interactive projects (Daily Beast reporter Andrew Romano said he watched LaBeouf cry there) but it’s an outlier compared to the projects that came next. Interactive celebrity usually requires a medium through which people can reach the public. For LaBeouf, the media were Twitter and live-streaming.
First there was #AllMyMovies, in which LaBeouf live-streamed himself watching his entire filmography, and then #TouchMySoul, in which he live-streamed himself sitting at a call center, and gave viewers a direct line where they could reach him. This past February, #Elevate asked people to hang out in an elevator with LaBeouf, with their conversations live-streamed online. But perhaps LaBeouf’s biggest Not Famous experiment this year was #TakeMeAnywhere, which, like an episode of Black Mirror, applied a hashtag on Twitter to the real world. For four weeks over the summer, LaBeouf traveled across the country, tweeting the GPS coordinates of his location at random. Anyone with a car was invited to come pick up Shia and his two collaborators, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, wherever the coordinates situated them. The project resulted in breathless road-trip videos from superfans documenting their journey to see a movie star in the flesh. LaBeouf always appears by the end of each clip, just another guy in a car or at a rest stop, killing time on the same road trip as his fans.
Maybe LaBeouf’s intentions these past two years were not always as pure as wanting to make new friends. Some of his stunts, like when he wore a paper bag on his head at the premiere of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, felt forced — a hammer hitting the weirdness nail a little too precisely. While public consumption of LaBeouf’s life did make him more accessible, that access, intentional or not, was still something he was curating himself.
In the end, what LaBeouf really did was preserve his own fame by deciding to be Not Famous. The conversations around #AllMyMovies and #TakeMeAnywhere were largely positive; the reaction to a Shia LaBeouf stunt was no longer derision, but the desire to be a part of it. By existing in the same spaces as his fans and opening up channels of communication with the public, LaBeouf managed to complete the cycle to redemption. Really, it’s an old trick: spend time with people to get them to like you more. But the internet has made it easier than ever for celebrity and fandom to be a two-way street. And that’s the thing about redemption: it’s really up to the fans to decide.