Gabriel LaBelle stars as young Sammy Fabelman, a character based on director Steven Spielberg himself in The Fabelmans. The actor tells us all about emulating one of the most iconic Hollywood directors of all time.
Steven Spielberg has made his most personal film to date. The auteur brings his own childhood and family on screen through the semi-fictional The Fabelman family in the appropriately titled The Fabelmans.
The film chronicles the upbringing and coming of age of Sammy Fabelman as he falls in love with cinema and attempts to understand the world around him through celluloid. We spoke to Gabriel LaBelle, who plays the teenage Sammy, about beating out 2000 other actors for the part and working with Spielberg on a movie about himself.
I want to learn more about that audition process, because I know that you beat out about 2000 other people. What was that experience like?
I first auditioned in March of 2021 for an untitled Amblin film. And I know what Amblin is, but I don’t know who’s making it. It could be anybody producing or directing. It’s just two random scenes. I send it out there and it’s not until after I do that, I hear that ‘I think Steven Spielberg is directing that one, I think it’s about his life.’
I’m like, that would be a cool movie to watch. And they go, ‘I think the character is a young him.’
I keep calling back to hear if we get any feedback and I hear nothing. And then I come across these articles: Michelle Williams to play Steven Spielberg’s mother, Paul Dano to play his father, Seth Rogen, his uncle. I keep calling and I hear nothing for months.
And then, randomly, they want a call-back. I met with Cindy Tolan, the casting director, over Zoom. I have a new scene, I stack a bunch of books on a dining room table, I have my laptop to film myself, I have my tripod and my phone to film myself separately. That goes really well. And then the next day, they say, ‘Steven Spielberg would like to meet with you now.’
They gave me another scene. So books, laptop, tripod, phone again, and it goes really well. It felt really good. And the next day, I got it. I get the script about a week later, and the work started.
You get the script, you read it and you read your character. What were your first impressions of Sammy, especially knowing now that it’s a young Steven Spielberg and having met him?
My first impression of the film was… For the first 30 pages, he’s a child. And then teenage Sammy comes in. I thought he was going to be a kid, then a teenager, then an adult. But it never happens. I’m the rest of the movie and nobody told me that! Nobody told me that it was essentially the lead role.
That was very frightening because you’re still trying to figure yourself out as an actor and as a performer, and you’re being thrown into the deep end of this swimming pool of master filmmakers. So, my first reaction was just ‘oh, this is a lot of work.’
How much of it was just nailing some of the more physical traits that Steven has?
I tried to get his posture down, maybe a bit of his walk. I thought I still don’t quite look like him, then I realised that I might be able to smile like him a bit. It was so interesting. I tried to physically and emotionally resemble him by asking him how much of this stuff really happened to him? And he said all of it.
How did you feel when you were going through these things? What does it mean to you? What were your relationships? Why are you making this? Why is this story so important? I could base emotion through the character’s emotional arc. Behaviorally… that was up to me because nobody knows how he would have behaved like 60 years ago, it’s impossible. There was freedom in being Sammy Fableman and not Steven Spielberg. There’s like a Venn diagram somewhere of Gabriel, Steven, and Sammy is just somewhere in between.
Were you able to find any similarities between yourself and Sammy?
Sammy is a really driven individual, he knows exactly what he wants to do. He’s a control freak, and he doesn’t quite feel like he belongs anywhere. His parents are going through a really rough patch in their relationship. And through that, he’s able to look at them as real people. That’s scary to him. He’s looking at the world with this new adult perspective that he didn’t expect to be new to, and the whole world kind of changes in front of him for the first time.
I was 18 when I was cast, Sammy’s 16. I wasn’t so ahead of those prospective shifts, so I was able to understand these firsts that Sammy was going through. I think there’s a lot of Sammy in everybody. I think that it’s a really universal story that people experience on their own time. I think that’s why this film is resonating with a lot of people, because everybody knows what Sam is going through.
How much was your performance… I assume you had rehearsals?
No. You might be able to run the scene one or two times before cameras are rolling. He doesn’t work like that. It’s just not what he does.
I think it’s a great discipline to have because you have to show up ready, you wake up in the morning, you have to start preparing, you get to set, you’re in your trailer, or you’re in the makeup and hair and by the time he calls action, you should be ready.
How much did you watch Steven on set and try and work some of those things that he does while directing into your character when he’s directing?
It was about the joy he had for making movies. That was the only thing I looked at, him and his excitement, and then his passion and what it was like in his eyes, to be behind a camera, and to be on set and to be making a movie. He just radiates that normally.
It was really fun, whenever Sammy is filming something or making something himself, to put that in there. Other than that, again, nobody knows how Steven would have been like 60 years ago. But it was through those beats that I really tried to put in there.
What did you learn from this whole experience that you will be taking on to your career?
Too much to say. You’re surrounded by masters. People have been doing this long before I was even born. And the knowledge, the attitude and the work ethic is really something incredible to be around and you can’t help but absorb it if you’re going to be around that for three months. It was really special.
The Fabelmans is in UK cinemas 27 January.