Celebrity news coverage and religion couldn’t be more polar opposites most of the time. Coverage of actors, models and others in the entertainment industry often resembles a list for the seven deadly sins.
Every so often, the world of celebrity and faith intersect. When they do, the mainstream press doesn’t know what to do with it, creating tone-deaf coverage similar to sports stories containing what GetReligion has long called religion “ghosts.”
Meanwhile, the religious press — I’m referring to Catholic media in this case — love to jump on this kind of story. This has certainly been the case with actor Shia LaBeouf this summer and public statements regarding his conversion to Catholicism.
It’s a textbook case of the mainstream press largely ignoring such an announcement, while the Catholic press can’t get enough of it. When the mainstream press did cover LaBeouf’s interview, it was in the context of his troubled personal life. For some journalists in the Catholic press, he became a poster child for upholding tradition and the Latin Mass against the more progressive forces in the church.
Depending on who and what you read, LeBeouf’s conversion story is either a farce, something to be celebrated or something to be feared.
LaBeouf, like many in his profession, does interviews primarily to promote specific movies and their careers overall. While promoting his new film “Padre Pio,” which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, LaBeouf announced that he had converted to Catholicism. The movie is based on the life of Padre Pio, an Italian Franciscan Capuchin friar famous for exhibiting stigmata most of his life. He was canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
The former “Transformers” star made it known that he was now a practicing Catholic during an Aug. 25 appearance on Bishop Robert Barron’s show “Conversations at the Crossroads.” The YouTube link alone has generated over 1.3 million views.
Here is where the celebrity news coverage got interesting. Some mainstream news outlets that deal with celebrity news and gossip covered it, most of them using words like “redemption,” as Catholic outlets seemed to rejoice in their coverage.
The New York Post, traditionally a wonderful source of celebrity gossip, published a story over Labor Day weekend under the headline, “Road to redemption? How once-toxic Shia LaBeouf is staging his comeback.” (Full disclosure: I worked there for 15 years as a reporter and editor). This is how the piece opens:
Even Shia LaBeouf would likely agree he’s playing against type as the actor tackles the role of a saint in his new movie.
But he may be on the road to Hollywood redemption.
For the past year and a half, LeBeouf has shunned the spotlight after being accused of sexual assault by singer ex-girlfriend, FKA Twigs in a case that could soon see them go head to head in court.
During that time he’s reunited with wife Mia Goth and, as he recently revealed, they have a 5-month-old daughter, Isabel, whom he says has given him a “new purpose.”
He revealed in an open letter to actor-director Olivia Wilde, defending himself in a simmering feud, that he has been sober for more than 600 days.
No mention of faith to start. Here are the next five paragraphs:
And multiple sources told Page Six that the 36-year-old former child star is getting back into Hollywood’s good graces — including the announcement this week that he has been hired by Frances Ford Coppola for the director’s $100 million epic “Megalopolis,” also featuring Adam Driver, Forest Whitaker, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jon Voight and Laurence Fishburne.
In LaBeouf’s latest film, “Padre Pio,” which debuted at the Venice Film Festival this week, he plays the real-life 20th-century “radical-rebel saint” who battles both his spiritual demons and burning rage on screen.
The actor — who comes from a Jewish family — recently told Bishop Robert Barron of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries that he had converted to the Roman Catholic Church while studying for the role of Pio.
Now he is even claiming that Twigs, and her accusations, saved his life.
LaBeouf told Bishop Barron that “suffering is actually a gift,” adding of Twigs: “When I think about what’s happened in my life this way. … Old me, when I walked in, was so upset about, so resentful about the woman who accused me of all this.
It’s not so explicit until this point in the piece, but the implication seems to be that LaBeouf is using his Catholic conversation to somehow clean up his image to get movie roles once again following a series of life twists that created bad PR.
Then comes this part:
Despite the actor’s public prostration, his ex Twigs — real name Tahliah Debrett Barnett — is still going ahead with the lawsuit that she brought against the actor in December 2020 for sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress.
The two met on the set of the 2018 movie “Honey Boy” and dated for eight months. She has accused him of “relentless abuse,” including choking her, threatening to crash the car they were both in and knowingly giving her a sexually transmitted disease. Twigs also said the actor kept a gun by the bed. LaBeouf has denied her claims, although the actor seems to be publicly confessing a lot.
A court date has been set in Los Angeles for April 17, 2023. (Twigs now lives in London.) Asked about the actor’s comeback, a former LaBeouf confidant told Page Six: “Shia is very much on his redemption tour. He plays a saint in his new movie and he’s taking on that persona, which he tends to do a lot with his movies. But just because you play a saint doesn’t mean you are one.”
Is LaBeouf being insincere about his Catholic conversion? We don’t know — although he sounds sincere and articulate in his Barron interview. Of course, the Post uses an anonymous source to give us the thesis and headline.
Know this about celebrity news: there’s always someone in Hollywood with an ax to grind.
The Post took a cynical approach. Variety, a publication those in the movie business read, covered the movie premiere in Venice. It was there that LaBeouf answered questions about his faith journey. This is what they reported:
LaBeouf, who is embroiled in controversy after being accused of abuse and sexual battery in a bombshell lawsuit filed by his former partner FKA Twigs, made a rare public appearance at Venice. He isn’t doing any press at the festival, but the actor was present in the cinema before the screening where he obliged fans with selfies and participated in a Q&A after.
“I feel super blessed to have worked on this movie — this movie kind of saved my life,” LaBeouf said during the Q&A. “But I didn’t enter the process as a God guy — definitely not a Catholic. And this movie just found me at a time when I was very willing and open to the process.”
The actor said that he studied mass for the film and the more he sat in mass the less it felt like an actor job and more like a gift. He also gave a shoutout to the robed members of the clergy who attended the premiere.
“They’re in the room now and they’re in my pocket always and they carried me all the time,” LaBeouf said, referring to the clergymen. “We had an incredible cast that did most of the heavy lifting — they cleared space for me to pray and feel whatever God was gonna give me.”
“This is the least work I ever did. I just showed up and, I mean it sounds cheesy, but it’s really like I opened myself up and allowed myself to fail in front of Him all the time,” LaBeouf added. “And our crew and everybody held reverence and space for God to show up and there’s moments of him really fully infused in my heart while we were filming.”
A little clunky in explaining LaBeouf’s attending church — “he studied mass for the film and the more he sat in mass the less it felt like an actor job and more like a gift” — but we get the point. It was also more factual than the Post story — using quotes from an event — rather than anonymous sources saying things that helped frame a narrative.
Many celeb sites and news outlets, however, stayed away from the story. So did mainstream news organizations. To my surprise, CNN covered it on their website. Like many outlets, they focused on his claim that he was once suicidal.
LaBeouf says he started studying Catholicism as he prepared for his upcoming movie, “Padre Pio,” about the saint of the same name.
“It was seeing other people who have sinned beyond anything I could ever conceptualize also being found in Christ that made me feel like, ‘Oh, that gives me hope,’ ” he said. “I started hearing experiences of other depraved people who had found their way — in this — and it made me feel like I had permission.”
LaBeouf said at one point he felt suicidal and was experiencing deep shame over events that had unfolded in his life.
“I had a gun on the table. I was outta here,” LaBeouf said. “I didn’t want to be alive anymore when all this happened. Shame like I had never experienced before — the kind of shame that you forget how to breathe. You don’t know where to go. You can’t go outside and get like, a taco.”
The Catholic press, meanwhile, largely gave LaBeouf celebratory news coverage. Some Catholic newsrooms tend to do that whenever someone in the mainstream who is remotely Catholic does something that gives the faith a good name.
The National Catholic Register, a website on the doctrinal right, highlighted some of LaBeouf’s reasons for his conversion. Among them was attending Mass in Latin — a rite that has recently been at the center of a Catholic culture war. Here is a sample:
Fifth, he had to be taught how to pray. Prior, praying felt like “memorizing someone else’s words.” But when a Capuchin brother and Bishop Barron explained how to handle quiet and pass from silence to loving thoughts and loving deeds, everything began to click.
Sixth, he longed to meet a masculine Jesus.
“My opinion of Christ at this point,” he said, “felt almost like I was reading about a Buddhist, a very soft, fragile, all-loving, all-listening [man] with no ferocity, no romance.” That impression was reinforced by the “art that I had seen,” which featured “very soft, more feminized” depictions of Jesus. Reading the Gospel, with the guidance of the strong paternal influence of a Capuchin, he came to understand the difference between weakness and meekness, and to grasp how meekness, like Jesus showed throughout his life, is a summit of strength.
On the doctrinal left, the National Catholic Reporter — in an opinion piece by Madeline Chastain — noted the following:
LaBeouf also says, before his conversion, he did not initially feel compelled to have a relationship with Jesus because he only knew the “soft, fragile, all-loving, all-listening but no ferocity … meek” Jesus (Barron immediately offers the word “feminized”), and it was only when LaBeouf encountered what he considered to be “masculine” — “cape, dipped in blood, sword” — that Jesus felt “appealing.”
We should be concerned about anyone who finds the Gospel most compelling in its violence or who is put off by the femininity of Jesus. If we are to understand Jesus as the savior of all, we must embrace his full divinity that has no gender, and we must confidently identify the goodness of both the masculine and feminine in the incarnation.
Throughout the interview, LaBeouf cites a number of tropes and returns to them often: cowboys, cavemen and gangsters. He repeatedly expresses gratitude for the men who accompanied him and “masculinized” his journey, “the hero’s journey.”
To some in the mainstream press, LaBeouf is an opportunist looking to recast his public image. To Catholics on the doctrinal right, he’s a model of conversion and someone to be admired. On the doctrinal left, LaBeouf’s newfound Catholicism is, as Chastain’s piece is headlined, “a portrait of masculine aggression.”
All I can say is watch the interview with Barron yourself and make up your own mind. If LaBeouf is playing us all, then he should get an Oscar for his performance.
Nonetheless, the press should be telling us what happened and what was said — not attempting to extrapolate convenient meanings while reading between the lines. I agree that context is important, but many appear willing to connect dots that don’t exist. Journalism should strive to focus on the facts, not how to feel about them.
FIRST IMAGE: A scene from the upcoming biopic “Padre Pio,” where actor Shia LeBeouf plays the Italian mystic. Publicity photo via Capstone Global.