‘The Fabelmans’ Star Gabriel LaBelle on Playing Steven Spielberg and Being ‘Spoiled’

TheWrap Magazine: “I thought, ‘If I don’t get it, then he’s just looking for a different kind of character and there’s nothing I can do about that.’ And then the next day I got it,” LaBelle says

Gabriel LaBelle shot by Jeff Vespa
Gabriel LaBelle (Jeff Vespa)

This story about “The Fabelmans” Star Gabriel LaBelle first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

When he walked into TheWrap’s studio at the Toronto International Film Festival in September wearing a tracksuit and sporting a big grin, Gabriel LaBelle was a 19-year-old Canadian actor who’d never before done an interview. And more to the point, when he arrived at TIFF, he was an unknown who’d done a handful of roles since making his acting debut at the age of 11 on the Canadian TV series “Motive.”

But when he left Toronto a few days and a lot of interviews later, he was the star of “The Fabelmans,” the film that would win the festival’s People’s Choice Award and become an instant awards frontrunner. The movie, written by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner and based on Spielberg’s own experiences growing up as an aspiring filmmaker, stars Michelle Williams, PaulDano, Seth Rogen and a scene-stealing Judd Hirsch, among others. But at its center is LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman, a fictionalized version of the teenager who’d go on to become the most successful director of the last half-century.

A month and a half after TIFF, I sat down again with LaBelle, this time at a small coffee house off Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. The grin hasn’t faded in the intervening six weeks, and he’s still such an enthusiastic talker that a conversation in a small area of sidewalk tables felt more like moderating an impromptu public Q&A with a rising young star.

Gabriel-LaBelle shot by Jeff Vespa

You’ve moved to Los Angeles now.
Yeah, after shooting the movie. You know, there’s the trope of like going to LA and starting a life and stuff. And before I came here, I just thought, “Oh, you don’t have to do that as an actor. I’m from Vancouver, that’s enough.” But you kinda have to, right? I’m realizing that. When I was in Vancouver, it would be almost an extracurricular to do auditions. I would be driven to them, sometimes I would get ’em, but it was just a part of what I did. I didn’t really take it seriously until the last three years or so. I never put any stakes on it.

Well, “The Fabelmans” must be sort of a “Welcome to the big leagues, kid” moment.
Yeah. (Laughs) It’s very much that.

Your father is an actor and a director. Was acting something that was just around you, or something you really wanted to do yourself?
I always knew I wanted to do it. I started doing musical theater at camps when I was 8, and then I started doing regular acting classes for kids and a few sleepaway camps. I was one of the youngest kids in the camp — the other kids were older than me and cooler than me, but they treated me as just another friend, and that was really fun. And the older girls would play with my long curly hair, which was amazing. (Laughs) I just realized, “Oh, this is perfect for me. I want to keep doing it. How do I keep doing it? Oh, there’s an acting class in the fall, I want to do that.” I have always known that I’m not really supposed to do anything else, but in high school, I was also playing sports and involved in extracurriculars. Acting wasn’t a focus until I wanted to go to university to study theater and drama. Then I started to think, ‘Oh, there’s a chance that I won’t get into this school (Concordia University), so I have to make sure that this monologue is good.” It was through getting coached through that monologue that I started to understand what you need to do as an actor. I got into the school but COVID hit, so I was put off for a year. And not being able to do anything for a year — not going to school, not being able to get a job, just being inside my house not being able to see anyone for a year — all I did was watch movies and interviews with actors.

Gabriel LaBelle
Steven Spielberg and Gabriel LaBelle (Jeff Vespa)

What did you learn from watching interviews with actors?
It was a perspective shift, seeing acting as work and as a mental challenge. It was, “I like this guy. Why is that person successful?” It was a lot of watching a lot of actors’ roundtables and reading a lot of books and figuring out what they were actually doing. For a while, you think that acting is just saying words and that some people happen to say words better than others. And then you realize that it’s a lot of serious work. And when the opportunity to audition for “The Fabelmans” came, I really, really wanted it.

But you didn’t know much about the project at that point.
No. It said, “UNTITLED AMBLIN FILM.” That could be anything. Two short scenes. I send it in and then I find out two days later, “Oh, I think Spielberg is directing this.” And then, “And I think it’s about his life. And I think that role is him.” (Laughs) So I keep calling back every other day: “Any feedback? Any feedback?” Nothing, nothing, nothing. And then I read articles that say Steven Spielberg is making a movie about his life with Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Seth Rogan. And I’m like, “Oh, my God. I guess I didn’t get it.” But two months later, in May, I get a text asking for a full body shot. And then later that day they go, “Cindy Tolan, the casting director, would like to do a callback. Here’s another scene.” It’s in two days, so I don’t do anything. I don’t eat dinner with my family — I’m up in my room prepping, and the next day, I stack books on my dining room table and put my laptop on top for the Zoom. I have my tripod filming myself on my phone separately, and I shoo my dad out of the house. It goes well, and the next day they say, “OK, Steven would like to meet with you. Here is a four-page monologue.”

And by this point, you’re well past the “show up and say words” stage.
Yeah, yeah. By this point, I’m really diving into what prep is. But the writing was so perfect that it was easy to figure outwhat I have to prep. And then I just drilled that into my head for two days before each audition and callback. I Zoom with Steven and it was two scenes, each five minutes long, two different takes. So that’s 25 minutes, but the Zoom lasted an hour. So for 35 minutes, he and I are just talking about what this movie is to him, what his life was like, what my life is like in Vancouver. It was kind of great, and I felt really good about what I had performed. I thought, “If I don’t get it, then he’s just looking for a different kind of character and there’s nothing I can do about that.” And then the next day I got it.

Gabriel-LaBelle shot by Jeff Vespa

And then the work really began.
Exactly. The nerves really kicked in once I got the script. As I was auditioning, the character was named “Teenage Sammy,” and I’m thinking, “as opposed to adult.” And then I get the script and it’s like, he’s a little kid for 30 pages and then he’s 14. So I figure that for the next 20 to 30 pages, it’s gonna be me, and then later it’s gonna be an adult. Three different acts, like “Moonlight” or something like that. I’m folding every page that I’m in to keep track of what scenes I have to memorize and learn. And I just eventually stop folding them, because I’m in everything. (Laughs) Nobody told me that. As I was auditioning, it was “Teenage Sammy, supporting.” But no, I’m the lead of this. I’m him. And the actual work started, but it was so great because I could Zoom with the person I’m emulating and find out who he is as a person in reference to the script. And they sent me a lot of old 8mm footage of him and his family that he filmed or someone else filmed.

After reading the script, did you have a list of questions you wanted to ask Steven?
Yeah, yeah. It was all in reference to, “Did this really happen?” “What did you think?” “What did you feel?” “What were your opinions of your mom or your dad or your uncle or your sisters?” A lot of talking about the script, but also, “What movies did you watch at this time? What movies do you want me to watch?” It was an incredible resource to build a character, but I’m not impersonating him. In terms of the way he speaks, I’m going to have my own voice. It’s like, there’s Steven and me and Sammy, and we’re all kind of like a Venn diagram, I guess.

Did you learn how to make movies with the kind of equipment he used back in the ’60s?
Yeah, I learned how to cut and splice and use editing machines and projectors and how to load and unload cameras. Because making a movie back then was hard. It was this huge physical labor, and it took an insane amount of time. That’s what makes him really cool, ’cause he started doing that when he was 6 and then by the time he was 16, he has 10 years of experience. By the time he’s 26, when he is making Jaws, it was so good because he just knows it on an instinctual level and he’s really obsessed with it.

Where do you want your career to go after playing Steven Spielberg?
After “Fablemans,” I was on “American Gigolo.” And then I shot this film called “The Snack Shack” throughout the summer in Nebraska. I just want to be a part of good movies. I would like to make movies for the next few years, and then I might like to do some theater. Mix movies with theater. I’m gonna direct at some point.

I was going to ask whether after playing an aspiring director, you wanted to direct.
I wanted to direct before that. I think I’ve known that I’ll do that at some point from when I was 12 or 13. But watching Steven is really inspiring. He’s just walking around with a camera, figuring out what to do on the day with his co-workers and his friends. I’d wanted to do it beforehand, but it’s very validating to see it.

I suppose it’s about as high as the bar goes.
It is and it’s hard to comprehend that sometimes. Sometimes I worry that I’m being spoiled. (Laughs) I am being spoiled!

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

Jeff Vespa for TheWrap