Gabriel LaBelle isn’t your typical awards-season breakout. Plenty of young actors have been the centerpiece of Oscar vehicles, including ones directed by Steven Spielberg — but who else can say they actually played Spielberg?
The 20-year-old Vancouver native bested some 2,000 aspirants for the role of teenage Sammy Fabelman in The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s thinly veiled movie memoir. “You never would have expected to be part of something like that in a million years,” says LaBelle. Over the course of the coming-of-age gem, Sammy — just like an adolescent Spielberg — becomes a budding filmmaker who cares more about making movies than doing schoolwork. In the footage he captures, Sammy accidentally discovers that his mother (Michelle Williams) is having an affair with his father’s (Paul Dano) best friend (Seth Rogen), forever altering the wholesome perception he has of his parents.
The Fabelmans isn’t LaBelle’s first rodeo. In addition to a childhood spent on local musical-theater stages, he has appeared in The Predator, Brand New Cherry Flavor and Showtime’s American Gigolo. But none of that compares to portraying the most famous director alive. He also got to share a scene with another super famous director, David Lynch, who plays John Ford in an unforgettable cameo at the film’s end.
LaBelle spoke to THR about working with Spielberg and Lynch, mirroring the former’s physicality and what he’s doing to prepare for a new level of fame.
Let’s start at the end of the movie with the scene replicating a young Steven Spielberg’s interaction with John Ford on a studio lot. At what point did you find out you would be doing that scene opposite David Lynch?
I found out, I think, a day before shooting. We had to sign NDAs, and then, like, two weeks after we finished filming, there’s an article that he’s in the movie. I was in Toronto and people were asking me about it. It’s weird that people knew right away. It was very secretive the whole time.
What was your first interaction with Lynch like?
I’m pacing in a corner, and he walks onto set and starts talking to Steven. I’m like, “Hey, yeah, nice to meet you,” and that was about it. We didn’t really interact as people until we finished the day. Then he gets up from the desk and gives me a hug, and he and Steven talk about getting lunch. Honestly, I think that’s the best way for it to go down because he’s supposed to be this godly figure who’s so much better and more significant than my character. I’m supposed to be afraid of him, so it worked brilliantly.
You wouldn’t want a level of comfort to creep into the energy between those two. Lynch makes very specific choices in his delivery. He speaks loudly, has an intensity about him and spends a long time lighting that cigar. As you spent the day shooting that scene, did he alter what he was doing?
He [remained the] same the whole time. Steven had one note for him, and I remember he looked at Steven, like, “What?” And Steven said, “Try it, try it!” Then he adjusted what he was doing so slightly, but just enough so that it has this huge impact and works perfectly. But he was steady, like he was doing a choreographed dance on Broadway. He had it down, and it only got better every time he did it.
What was the one note that Spielberg had?
It was the line, “Good luck to you.” Steven wanted him to be a little bit more considerate and empathetic with that one. He said, “Do it a little more like you care.” He did it, and it was very slight, like a tip of the hat. That was one of the highlights of shooting, honestly. It’s such a special thing to be part of.
In the final shot, the camera tilts upward so the horizon is no longer in the center, as Ford recommended. Did you see Spielberg come up with that?
No, that was in the script. Actually, it was written at the end that you’d hear a voice offscreen say, “Hey, how long are you going to let him walk?” And then you’d hear Steven say, “Cut!” That was written, but they decided not to do that and they just did the camera [adjustment]. I agree with him that it’s better for the movie. But reading that for the first time was like, “Oh my God, what am I stepping into?”
It’s one of the best closing shots of his career. That extra beat might have broken the fourth wall too much.
Yeah. It’s done so brilliantly. It’s so cool.
You learned to use an 8mm camera for the scenes where Sammy is making home movies and filming his classmates. In learning and holding that camera yourself, how much did you relate to the allure — and maybe the power — of directing as you were experiencing it through Sammy?
Here, I have it over here. I’ll get it. (LaBelle walks across the room to retrieve the camera.)
Oh, a souvenir!
Yeah, I stole it. The camera was in my hotel room because I’d learned how to use it, and they just never asked for it back.
You see the child version of Sammy use this — it’s one of the first cameras he’s given — and you see me when I’m 14 making a movie, Gun Smog. You have these rolls of film within it, and film is very delicate. It’s brutal. Learning how to load it into the camera and take it out and organize it, you learn that you can really destroy it, so you have to be really careful. Your fingers have to be nimble. You have to be very focused. But you appreciate how finite everything is. When you edit a movie on 8mm film, it’s this really long and physical labor. You’re not digging graves or anything, but it takes a long time. You’re physically crafting something together. Film is expensive, and it takes a long time to develop. You understand a sense of pride that Steven must have had, to be good at something that nobody else knows how to do.
There’s a Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode where Seinfeld says, “You know what no one says anymore? You never hear, ‘Oh, I wish I had a camera,’ ” because everyone has one. I made movies on iMovie with my friends using iPads and iPhones, but back then it was harder. It gives you this perspective.
You’ve said that Spielberg left you alone during production to figure out how Sammy should sound and behave, but did he have specific notes for how he would interact with the camera?
Not really. I think visually he was like, “Twist it a little more like that,” or if he’s blocking his shot, he’d say, “OK, Sammy, run over there and get a good shot of the family.” But Steven and I spent enough time before shooting talking about the character and the movie that on set he was doing his job and you’re doing your job.
Did you and the rest of the Fabelman family spend time together before the shoot?
Only with Paul. Michelle was on another set, and I had no way of contacting anybody else. But Paul and I both felt it was important we got to know each other, just because there are a lot of really developmental scenes between the two of us. As soon as I was cast, I asked for his number. We spoke for about an hour and a half, and then when I went to L.A., we’d go out for lunch. And we’d text each other about it, really getting into these classic English-class discussions about the literature. And before our first scene together, we FaceTimed and rehearsed it a bit. Michelle was so busy, so I didn’t meet or talk to her until our first day.
Which is incredible because there’s such magnetism between the two of you. What was it like to work with the monkey Sammy’s mother brings home, and what was it like to watch Michelle work with the monkey?
It was very much like, “OK, the monkey’s coming in, and it’s going to have a handler.” We’d have these safety protocols, and everybody on the set would have to have 10 minutes to meet the monkey so the monkey was comfortable with you or wouldn’t be surprised. “Don’t tell it what to do — that’s my thing, because she won’t listen to you.”
This is the handler talking?
The handlers — very lovely people. It’s fun to have a monkey crawl over you. Michelle, same thing.
Your hair was cut and straightened for the movie, and I always wonder what it’s like for actors to see themselves for the first time after changing their physical appearance for a role. What, if anything, about your performance changes?
With this film, I changed how I stood — my posture, my shoulders, how I walked. I mimicked Steven’s smile. By the time I’m going through hair and makeup, with the contact lenses, and I’m looking at myself in the mirror with those costumes from the ’60s, it would be like playing pretend as a kid and you’re using a stick and then all of a sudden someone gives you a toy sword. It helps make everything feel real, which is really cool.
How do you retrain the muscles in your face to smile differently so that smile remains consistent when you’re in the middle of a scene?
Just the whole day, you’re doing it. You spend hours in front of the mirror trying to get it down. You want to not be conscious of it, so you try to prep as much as possible so it’s the last thing you think about.
I assume there are exciting opportunities coming your way now — or at least there will be once this movie finishes its awards season journey. I’ve noticed that you don’t have a social media presence, so I’m curious whether you’re doing things to actively prepare for a new level of fame. Are there things you’re looking for, or looking to avoid, as you cross into a new echelon in the industry?
This business and what I do, you realize it’s incredibly selfish. As in, the whole day you’ve spent thinking about yourself, and there are people around you whose job it is to think about you. Things like this, and the attention that’s given to actors, especially in this time of year or in this pocket of the industry, is a lot. I’m very conscious about it, and I’m trying to keep an arm’s length away from it. I do therapy and I talk to my mom a lot about it. You hear so many horror stories, and you just want to be as far away from that as possible. I try not to believe it or let it soak into me. It’s hard to explain, but you just try to dissociate a bit.
In a way, you have to. But it’s interesting that you don’t seem to be doing self-driven promotional stuff. Like I said, I don’t see an Instagram for you.
I got rid of social media like two months into COVID, in 2020. I thought, “Man, if I’m going to be isolated, I can’t be on my phone the whole time because I’ll just lose my mind.” Also, I think it helps me be a better actor because you want to be focused, creative and confident, but if you have this thing that destroys your attention span and takes up time away from original thought and further indulges your need for validation, that’s my whole job. I can’t have that in my front pocket. I try to dissociate from that desire. I’ve never seen any of that as good, even before auditioning for stuff.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.