Shia LaBeouf has already ticked off a list of milestones that are rare for the average 20-year-old. He won a Daytime Emmy at age 17 and bought his own home a year later. Last month, a Las Vegas nightclub offered him $35,000 to celebrate his upcoming 21st birthday there.
But it's a five-minute meeting with Steven Spielberg that the actor ranks as one of the top experiences of his young life.
"The handshake is a big deal for me," says LaBeouf, who met the director on the set of his latest film, "Disturbia," which Spielberg produced. "Sometimes it's too strong – as though they're trying to do a power play. Sometimes it's too weak, and you feel like they're submitting. He had the perfect handshake. The perfect amount of attention, the perfect squeeze. It was just a really good handshake."
LaBeouf has been shaking plenty of hands lately, as he makes the transition from child TV star to bona fide movie star with this summer's release of "The Transformers," Michael Bay's big-budget live-action film based on the animated robot series. Also due this summer: "Surf's Up," a computer-animated tale about surfing penguins, featuring LaBeouf's voice for one of the main characters. Adding to all the hype are reports that Spielberg wants him to play the son of Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones in the much anticipated fourth installment of the series. All of which explains why he is slated to host "Saturday Night Live" this week.
While LaBeouf calls the Indiana Jones reports "just a rumor" and says he hasn't been approached about it, the 20-year-old clearly has made an impression on the iconic director. More than 100 actors auditioned for the lead role in "Disturbia" before LaBeouf came in and read for it. Director D.J. Caruso was impressed enough to bypass studio protocol and send the audition tape directly to Spielberg.
"You don't pull that trump card a lot, but I didn't want to fool around," Caruso says. "He called me back 10 minutes after he got it and said, 'I think you might have found the next Tom Hanks.' "
No one seems more aware than LaBeouf, however, that entertainment is a fickle business and his rise to stardom could come crashing down at any time. At a press junket to promote "Disturbia," a voyeuristic thriller that opens April 13, he downplayed the praise, pointing out that the best advice he ever received about the entertainment business came from Jon Voight, his costar in the 2003 movie "Holes."
"He said, 'Just don't read any of it. If you start believing [the good stuff] you've got to believe the bad stuff, too,' " LaBeouf recalls. "This is all magical and fun, but at the end of the day, I have two dogs, a two-bedroom house, and I'm watching a Dodgers game."
Despite these everyman tendencies, LaBeouf demonstrates a wisdom and talent for storytelling far beyond his years, according to those who have worked with him.
"He's nice-looking without being too pretty, he's funny, and there's an intensity and reality about him that he brings to his roles," says "Disturbia" producer Ivan Reitman, who first met LaBeouf at the Toronto Film Festival a couple of years ago. "Those are the makings of a great movie star."
LaBeouf didn't have movie-star aspirations at age 10 when he started appearing in small TV guest roles on "ER" and "Touched by an Angel," which eventually led to the lead role in the Disney Channel series "Even Stevens."
"It was something I could make money at," says the actor, who grew up in the working-class Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park and watched his father struggle with a heroin addiction. He got the acting bug while shooting "Holes," when Voight had him watch "Elephant Man" and read books about acting by Constantin Stanislavsky and Michael Caine.
Lanky with dark, wavy hair and flawless skin, LaBeouf appears older in person than he does on the screen and wears a tattoo on his inner wrist that says "1986-2004," which he describes as a "precautionary" reminder of his childhood. He cites Jodie Foster as a successful child-turned-adult actor whose career path he would love to follow.
"That model is perfect. Look at the diversity in her performances," he gushes. "I think I want to do more comedy than she did, but she's the epitome, career-wise. John Turturro is another actor whose tonal range is something that I [want to] emulate."
Like Foster, LaBeouf was accepted at Yale, though he has put college on hold to focus on his movie career. When he does get a break after the release of "Transformers" in July, he is more likely to be speeding through Europe on a bullet train than partying at a Vegas nightclub.
"I want to travel. I still haven't left this rock [of North America]," he says. "I want to take a train through someplace like Scotland, bring some books by Kerouac, music by Neil Young and Bob Dylan. That would be the epitome."