Play Spielberg in ‘Fabelmans’ directed by Spielberg? No pressure

When Gabriel LaBelle landed the role of Sammy Fabelman in Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical new film The Fabelmans, in which he played a version of the filmmaker in his teens, he figured he’d probably show up in the film’s second act and then disappear after a handful would of scenes.

After all, it’s not as if Hollywood’s highest-grossing director of all time would put much of his life story in the hands of a total stranger, is it?

Then LaBelle received the script.

“I started folding the side of every scene I was in — and then I just stopped folding sides because I was in everything,” LaBelle, 20, said on a recent morning while standing next to one Indiana Jones pinball sat the game room of Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production offices. “Nobody told me that. Nobody said anything! That’s when the nerves kicked in. You don’t want to be the guy screwing up Steven Spielberg’s life.”

Gabriel LaBelle in Boy Scout uniform stands in front of Michelle Williams alongside other actors in the film "The Fabelmans."

Gabriel LaBelle and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans.

(Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures)

The most personal, introspective film in Spielberg’s long and storied filmography, The Fabelmans, which hits theaters nationwide on November 23 and is widely regarded as an Oscar-winning film, explores the loving but dysfunctional family that surrounds the filmmaker and the budding family was shaped by his passion for cinema, which eventually made him famous. The film alternates between tender and bittersweet about the dissolution of the director’s parents’ marriage, with Michelle Williams playing a version of his free-spirited mother and Paul Dano as the kind-hearted engineer after Spielberg’s father. But through the eyes of LaBelle’s Sammy, much of the story unfolds.

To find teenage Sammy, Spielberg and his team cast a wide net and consider more than 2,000 young actors. LaBelle’s casting tape, which he co-directed with his character actor father Ron, arrived relatively late in the casting process and immediately went to the top of the pile. Despite LaBelle’s lack of professional experience — his most notable role on the big screen was a bit part in 2018’s The Predator — Spielberg saw in the young actor a more confident version of his own awkward teenage self.

“The challenge of casting actors for my parents wasn’t as difficult as casting someone for myself,” says Spielberg, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Tony Kushner. “I can be objective about my mother and father, but no one can really be objective about themselves. Gabe was more of a fantasy me — so much cooler than I ever would have thought at that age.”

When LaBelle was born in 2002, Spielberg was already 20 films deep in his career and a living legend. For the aspiring actor and self-confessed film nerd who grew up in Vancouver, Spielberg’s films were foundational texts.

“‘Indiana Jones,’ ‘Jurassic Park’ — I had toys, video games, DVDs,” says LaBelle. “Then as I got older I started delving into Close Encounters, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, the list goes on and on. I wasn’t there to experience the real-time impact he was having on culture. But I still know what a big deal it is.”

To prepare for the role, LaBelle spent weeks immersing himself in Spielberg’s 8mm children’s films and his formative creative influences, particularly the work of director John Ford (who appears late in The Fabelmans, played by David Lynch). . He studied Spielberg’s manners in minute detail: “I found that his smile covered more of his teeth than mine.”

Gabriel LaBelle smiles as he sits on a stool.

Gabriel LaBelle says he was related to Steven Spielberg in fundamental ways. “We are both Jews; we are both children of divorce; we both love movies,” says LaBelle.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

In a series of Zoom calls before filming began, LaBelle quizzed Spielberg about what actually happened in the script and what was fiction, trying to understand what drives him. Essentially everything in The Fabelmans, he learned, stems from the director’s life, from the marital infidelity that tore his family apart to his mother’s monkey. (One small exception: Sammy’s devout Christian high school girlfriend in the film was actually based on someone Spielberg had dated a little earlier in seventh grade.)

“On Zoom, it was just the two of them really getting to know each other,” says Spielberg’s producing partner Kristie Macosko-Krieger. “Steven said, ‘It felt like he was putting me off.’ But I think they really enjoyed this time together. Steven has this ability to relate to and guide young people. It’s just something he was born with.”

When they first met, Spielberg says he was just trying to answer LaBelle’s questions as best he could. “I let him decide how much he wanted to be like me,” says Spielberg. “He has such a natural lightness [and is] so at home in his own skin and you never catch him acting – or in this case trying to impersonate me. Most importantly, I trusted him and didn’t want to stand in his way, which I think he was able to bring to the role.”

Steven Spielberg on the set of "The Fabelmans" with children looking over his shoulder.

Steven Spielberg on the set of The Fabelmans.

(Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment via AP)

Although LaBelle was more than half a century apart in age from 75-year-old Spielberg, he did have a fundamental relationship with the filmmaker.

“There are a lot of similarities that I could understand,” he says. “We are both Jews; we are both children of divorce; we both love movies. Throughout the film, Sammy experiences many firsts that I’m not that far ahead of. The change of perspective, seeing the parents as people for the first time – that was also something new for me.”

On set, LaBelle did his best to hide how intimidated he was by the much more experienced heavyweights around him. In Seth Rogen, who plays a close family friend who has an affair with Williams’ Mitzi, LaBelle found something of a soul mate. “We’re both frizzy-haired Jewish actors from Vancouver who smoked weed in high school,” LaBelle says with a smile. “Like, what’s not to love?”

Rogen says he had no idea how nervous LaBelle was during filming. “Gabe was frighteningly confident,” says Rogen. “I remember talking to his brother at the Toronto [Film Festival] premiere and he told me how scared Gabe was when we were making the movie. I thought, ‘Wow, you would never have known that.’ It shows what a good actor he is.”

Chloe East in an updo and dress dances in the film with Gabriel LaBelle, who is wearing a suit "The Fabelmans."

Chloe East and Gabriel LaBelle in The Fabelmans.

(Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures)

Since the film’s premiere in September, LaBelle’s life has been a whirlwind of screenings, Q&A, and interviews. “It’s overwhelming because I’ve never done anything like this before,” he says. “I’m learning how to navigate those uncomfortable experiences and interactions, how to figure out if someone is genuinely interested in what you’re saying or if they’re just talking to you because they think they should.” You have to put a lot into that.”

In fact, it’s hard to think of a better calling card for a young actor than to play a version of Spielberg in a Spielberg film. But while LaBelle has given up on his earlier plans to go to college, he’s trying to stay sane and grounded.

“I’ve been spoiled with it,” he says. “One would assume that every filmmaker would see this film because every living filmmaker was inspired by Steven Spielberg. I don’t know what to do next. But I will say that I am confident that something is to come.”

Whatever happens, LaBelle has already had the ultimate validation: he made Steven Spielberg cry.

“There were definitely moments when Steven got emotional on set when he saw those deep memories in front of him,” says LaBelle. “There were certain scenes where we all hugged in a big group after filming wrapped. It was intense. But whenever he cried, I would selfishly think, ‘I did exactly what it took to help him process these things. I did my part.’” Play Spielberg in ‘Fabelmans’ directed by Spielberg? No pressure

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