After a staggering career inventing the blockbuster and pumping out dozens of all-time classics, director Steven Spielberg – arguably the most renowned in his field – is back with something a little quieter and much more personal. His latest venture, the loosely auto-biographical picture The Fabelmans follows the director’s formative years and the advent of his infatuation with the silver screen. The main portion of the film follows a sixteen-year-old Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg’s dramatized on-screen counterpart played by Gabriel Labelle. A story about art’s connective power, The Fabelmans focuses its lens on Sammy as he falls in love with movies amidst the meltdown of his parents’ marriage.
Drawing from real events in Steven Spielberg’s childhood, the teenage Sammy Fabelman faces persecution for his Jewish heritage and surname as he navigates new schools and new people during his cross-country moves due to his dad’s successful tech career. It’s these social challenges and the opposing pressures coming from his engineer father and artist mother that drive the heartfelt center of The Fabelmans that earned it the people’s choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival. If the festival reactions and limited-release buzz is to be believed, The Fabelmans is up for a busy awards season, with a number of Oscar categories up for grabs.
Gabriel LaBelle, a Canadian-American Vancouver native and the son of actor-producer Rob LaBelle, takes on his first major leading role as Sammy in The Fabelmans. LaBelle just appeared in Showtime’s American Gigolo series, where he played a younger version of Jon Bernthal’s main character, and was also seen in 2018’s The Predator. Steven Spielberg’s pseudo-biopic was a big step forward for the budding actor. Leading a Spielberg movie is one thing, but playing Spielberg himself? That’s another. In sitting down with Gabriel LaBelle for an exclusive interview, we got to the bottom of what this process was like for the young star.
Exclusive Interview with Gabriel LaBelle for Steven Speilberg’s The Fabelmans
The Fabelmans is based on Steven Spielberg’s early years. What sort of conversations did you have with him, and what research did you do of your own to bring his childhood to life authentically?
Gabriel LaBelle: I just wanted to understand him as a person to the best I could and understand what story he was trying to tell through the characters in his life and his family. So we just talked about what it was like for him growing up, what he thought of the people around him, what his perspective was on the world, and what movies he watched back then that would have inspired him, as well as what he felt about himself. So it was really just trying to understand what [The Fabelmans] means to him, and how that translates to this character.
Gabriel LaBelle: He gave me access to many of the home movies that he filmed of his family growing up, so I could see what they really looked like, and how they really acted together – at least on camera. Then I got to watch footage of him when he was a kid, and how he walked and moved around back then. I wanted to physically resemble him to the best I could. I didn’t bother trying to emulate his voice or anything like that, but physically, I wanted to look like him. So we would Zoom a lot, but then also, I was just in a hotel room isolated through COVID, so it really gave me a lot of time to just dive into interviews he had and just to understand this character to the best of my ability.
As you’ve said, Sammy is very closely based on Spielberg himself. How do you see your character as maybe different from the real Steven Spielberg?
Gabriel LaBelle: Well, everything that happened to Sammy happened to Steven. Everything, as far as I’m concerned, really happened to him. It’s just been organized in the fashion of a script to be a movie. But there is freedom in the fact that they’re called the Fabelmans. Yes, it’s based on his family and we may all look like his family, but we are playing these different characters. I felt there was no way of knowing how Steven really acted or behaved back then when he was sixteen 60 years ago, so it was just about using what I knew about him to guide me where to go emotionally. But behaviorally, that was my job to bring to the set. It’s like there’s a Venn Diagram between Steven and I, and Sammy is in the middle.
You’re about to enter the awards season circuit in a month or so, and you’ve already been bringing The Fabelmans to some major festivals. What’s that been like to showcase your first leading role at events like TIFF?
Gabriel LaBelle: It’s a privilege to be included in something like this. It really is. I pinch myself daily because it’s all so quick. You know, it does feel, though, with this press schedule that I’m being like, thrown to the wolves. But it’s exciting, and I’m really proud of this movie. I love hanging out with Paul [Dano], Michelle [Williams], Seth [Rogen], and Steven, and I love watching this movie any chance I get. So it feels really good.
This is also your first most major role in a feature. Tell us about how you handled that career jump, not only to leading your own film but one of this size with such a renowned director.
Gabriel LaBelle: Well, I had never done a leading role before and there was no one around me to kind of walk me through it. So I had to learn how to manage my energy the hard way. I learned how to manage my energy after the movie because I didn’t think I did a good job at that, because I didn’t know how. You’re working long hours, and there’s a lot of pressure and you might have to do a super heavy scene tomorrow that you haven’t been able to look at for two months because you’ve been working on every other scene. So it’s a lot, and I felt really tired. But I’ve learned since then, on other sets, I’ve worked on how to really make sure I can stay sane the whole time.
What was it like working with such a renowned casting crew?
Gabriel LaBelle: It’s the greatest education of all time. You have masters who were so professional and so lovely. They’re all great people, and it was incredibly welcoming, supportive, and really inspiring to see these geniuses all around me constantly.
In follow-up of that, what were some of your favorite things that you might have learned or experienced on set?
Gabriel LaBelle: I learned a lot watching Steven. I learned a lot about how to run a set, and what it is to be a leader. I learned a lot of important work ethic skills from watching Paul and Michelle. For myself, I learned what I have to do to feel like I do a good job. And I’m learning a lot about the industry and how to navigate people. Because, you know, it can be tricky sometimes. But I mean, it’s so much. It’s hard to say one thing because it was just three and a half months constantly, every day of being in this environment. I just absorbed so much.
What has The Fabelmans done for you in seeing yourself moving forward with your career? Where do you see yourself going next?
Gabriel LaBelle: It’s given me a lot of confidence, I’ll say that. Working with Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and watching their careers along the way and the characters they’ve portrayed, and the characters they were in front of me, it’s really inspired me in whatever I do next to try and be different to the best of my abilities: to look different, to sound different, to I don’t know, just to be different people. That’s really exciting.
After a role like this, there’s no doubt that film studios and directors will be at your door looking for you to be their next big star. How do you plan to approach choosing which projects you might star in next?
Gabriel LaBelle: I shot a movie last summer that was also really personal to the writer and director. Doing that and The Fabelmans, and working on something that means a lot to people and seeing that energy and their inspiration, that’s really cool to be a part of. It makes me feel important and makes me feel more responsible. It inspires me to know that these projects have meaning. If I read something and I can’t get it out of my head, and I really feel like it’s worth being exhausted over, then that’s what I would like to do if I had any control over it.