Steven Spielberg Told Gabriel LaBelle To ‘Figure It Out’
Feb 10, 2023
At just 19 years of age (reportedly), Gabriel LaBelle is already at the pinacle of Hollywood cinema. The relatively unknown Canadian actor is turning heads as Sammy Fableman, a fictional version of the legendary director Steven Spielberg in the new period drama “The Fabelmans.” A movie that is arguably the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar and will put LaBelle under a massive global spotlight in the weeks and months to come. Not bad for just his fourth credited film role.
READ MORE: “The Fablemans” finally lands in LA as Best Picture buzz grows [Contender Countdown]
During a Q&A for members of The Academy over the weekend, Spielberg revealed that he would sit down with LaBelle about three times a week to answer his questions about the script and playing “Sammy” who was effectively, himself. The four-time Oscar winner joked that it might have been a bit too much.
“I mean, he wouldn’t answer every question,” LaBelle says during an interview with The Playlist earlier this week. “And I think he would answer questions about his life. But in terms of the script, and if I would be asking like, ‘O.K., but for this scene specifically,’ he’s like, ‘Figure it out,’ which was honestly better. But yeah, there were definitely some questions I had to ask a few more times if I needed more information. Sometimes I’d feel like, ‘O.K., I don’t need to press on this.’ But it really wasn’t this interrogation. It was us having amazing conversations, not only about his life but mine as well. Definitely, the focus was on him. But no, those were a lot of fun actually.”
Over the course of our conversation, the charismatic Vancouver native revealed the long process he went through to land the role, what aspects of Spielberg he thought was important for the role, his reaction to playing against what turns out to be a delightful cameo in the movie, and much more.
Please note: There is a spoiler regarding the previously noted cameo in this interview.
The Playlist: The most obvious question, how did this role come your way? And what was your reaction when you realized you were playing a young Steven Spielberg?
Gabriel LaBelle: I auditioned. I auditioned once in March, of 2021, and I don’t know what it is. Everything is untitled and “to be decided,” and you don’t know who’s attached. And I find out after I sent it in. And I just taped it with my dad, two scenes. And then I hear whispers that it’s a Steven Spielberg movie and that it’s about his life and that, “Your character was him.” And so I was like, “Oh my God.” And so I come across these articles of Paul [Dano]‘s attachment to it. And I never hear any feedback. And then three months later, in late May I get a text, they want to call back over Zoom. And so I have a meeting with [casting director] Cindy Tolan, they send me a new set of sides, and I get my dinner table and I stack a bunch of books up. I have my laptop levels so I could stand and I have a tripod with my phone on it filming, that I have to then send them later because the quality on Zoom wouldn’t be reliable. And that was really cool.
Leading up to it, I only saw my family. I was living at home at the time, and I would only see my family at the dinner table. But during the day, I would just be working on these auditions. And then the day later, I get a call, “Steven would like to meet you.” And then there’s this new scene that’s four pages. It’s like a monologue as well as that other scene. And it’s due two days from now. Same thing. Books on the table, laptop, tripod. I’m meditating leading up to it. And the whole meeting lasted about an hour, but there were two scenes, each was about five minutes long.
And as I was sending in the footage, I realized that all together, it added up to 25 minutes.
But for 35 minutes of the meeting, we were just talking and getting to know each other. And he was talking about this movie and his family and his life. And I was talking about mine, and we related on a few things. He asked me where my mind went when I’d been working on these scenes. And we elaborated on that together. We talked about divorce, what it was like being the only Jewish kids in town. We talked about “West Side Story” that was coming out. I told him how excited I was to watch. He said how excited he was for me to watch. And it was great. And I felt really good about it. And after that meeting that went so well talking to him, I knew that there was some impression. So, if I didn’t get it, it wasn’t about what I did wrong, it would just be, “Oh, I guess I’m just not a fit for it.” And I was really fine with that. If it’s not this, it’s the next one. He knows who I am, and I felt I had impressed him. And so it was really great and it was just an invigorating experience. And the next day, I get it.
Was there a rehearsal process? Did you guys do a read-through?
None. There was no rehearsal at all. But leading up to it, I just wanted to Zoom with Steven as much as possible, find out who he is as a person, and how it relates to the character. Because everything that happens to this character happened to him. And I want to understand his life to understand this story, and I want to make sure that I can do my best for him and make sure that he gets what he wants out of this movie in this story. So we spent a lot of time talking about it, so that we could always be on the same page when we were on set.
I have not seen a lot of video footage of Steven, even as a young director. And by the end of the film, you’re sort of playing him close to that age when he made his first films. Was any footage available for you? Did you want to try to pick up his mannerisms at all?
I think there was liberation in the fact that the character’s name is Sammy Fabelman and not Steven Spielberg. So, that relieved a lot of pressure of, “O.K., I don’t have to do an exact impression.” I didn’t bother trying to speak like him, in his voice or the manner in which he speaks, but I really wanted to look like him. I wanted to because I knew that Paul and Michelle [Williams] would look like his parents, and I wanted to look like him. And so I just focused. And when I would watch these home movies of him and just hours and hours of interviews throughout his career. I wanted there to be some familiarity. So, I learned to walk like him, to stand like him. They changed my hair, they gave me contact lenses, and I worked on making my smile look like his. And I just wanted to physically resemble him, but I didn’t try to do anything else.
I was lucky enough to be at the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. And then on Saturday, I went to the AMPAS screening with a Q&A you were part of. And Steven mentioned that you met three times a week or so, to answer your questions. He made a joke where it sounded like it was a little too much. Do you remember when you realized that was it?
Yeah. I mean, he wouldn’t answer every question. And I think he would answer questions about his life. But in terms of the script, and if I would be asking like, “O.K., but for this scene specifically,” he’s like, “Figure it out,” which was honestly better. But yeah, there were definitely some questions I had to ask a few more times if I needed more information. Sometimes I’d feel like, “O.K., I don’t need to press on this.” But it really wasn’t this interrogation. It was us having amazing conversations, not only about his life but mine as well. Definitely, the focus was on him. But no, those were a lot of fun actually.
The Playlist: There are so many scenes where Sammy is actually shooting footage with Super 16 or more advanced film cameras throughout his life. Were you actually shooting footage during those moments?
Yeah. And that was a lot of fun. And so I have the camera I used, I have the editing machine I used, and the film is being developed now. I think when the movie’s out and the press is winding down, I think I’ve been told I’m going to be sent all that footage so I can then start making my own movies. And there was a lot of the movie that got scenes or sequences that kind of got cut just for time, but where I am just filming things and take after take. So there’s a lot of footage on there, and I’m excited to see what it looks like.
What is more intimidating, working with Steven every day, or working with David Lynch, playing one of the more feared movie directors of all time, John Ford?
That was very spooky because I knew that scene meant a lot to Steven, and not only Steven but just filmmakers everywhere. And I wanted to make sure that it worked. And so there was just pressure of trying to make it as real as possible.
You’re just starting out in your career. You’re also in the new Showtime series “American Gigolo,” for instance, but you’ve just worked with the greatest living filmmaker of all time. How do you prepare yourself for what you do next? And what sort of projects do you want to do next?
After working with Paul and Michelle and watching them play these characters that are so different from each other and then meeting them, and their personalities are so different than any of the characters that they’ve ever played, the characters that they’re playing across from me. And that’s really inspiring. And I’d love to do my best to transform or to look different or to feel different or to just play really different people. And I’ve definitely been spoiled by Steven.
“The Fablemans” opens in limited release on Friday
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