Less than two years ago, Gabriel LaBelle was just a cute teenager in Vancouver who played rugby and loved acting. He caught the bug early, from his family—his dad’s a character actor whose face you might remember from this thing or that, and his brother also gave it a shot. In high school, LaBelle couldn’t get enough of the stage. “There was Grease, Shrek, Fame, A Chorus Line, Smokey Joe’s Cafe. And then senior year we did Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Mention your unfamiliarity with that particular stage adaptation and he gets a big goofy grin. “Wow, yeah. That was fun. I played Bill S. Preston, Esquire,” he says in his best Alex Winter Valley-Guy voice.
This month LaBelle leaps from channeling a righteous dude on the school stage to channeling one of America’s most legendary directors on the big screen in the actor’s first major lead role. He plays a lightly fictionalized version of young Steven Spielberg in the director’s highly personal take on his own troubled childhood and dawning love of film, The Fabelmans, which opens wide on Wednesday. LaBelle plays Sammy Fabelman, whose Jewish clan moves from one town to another as their hardworking computer-engineer father climbs the corporate ladder in the early 1960s. High-school Sammy is a sweet, emotional weirdo who becomes obsessed with making films, a passion that allows him momentary escape from the anti-semitic jocks who rule his school, and the strained marriage of his parents, played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano. The quickest glance at Spielberg’s Wikipedia entry will show you how closely the film hews to his own life story; the movies Sammy makes throughout The Fabelmans often look exactly like the ones a young Spielberg made of his own family. And so LaBelle, who was still a teen when he got the role—he turned 20 this past September—found himself on his first movie set, embodying an iconic giant of the movies as that giant sat a few feet away, looking at him from behind the camera.
“It was meta,” LaBelle says about playing Spielberg for Spielberg. “It was all about trying to understand him as a person.” Leading up to shooting, the two did “tons of Zooms to figure out my understanding of who he is, what his relationships and perspectives were and how those perspectives and relationships change.” In doing so, LaBelle had an interesting and rare look at one of the most influential artists of the last 50 years. As a youth, “I think he was very repressed and anxious. [Spielberg] is a deeply emotional, intuitive person but he hadn’t quite gotten the chance to express that in its entirety yet.”
The actor was playing Spielberg for Spielberg, but in the end he was still Sammy Fabelman. LaBelle could try as hard as possible to understand what makes Spielberg tick, but in the end the trick was to “convince myself that I’m trying to be somebody else.” Spielberg let this kid LaBelle play analyst over weeks and months to better understand the director so LaBelle could better understand the character. And in the end, “There is freedom of, ‘it is Sammy Fabelman’” and not Steven Spielberg. “As long as I can use everything that he [Spielberg] has given me on the inside, I’m free…almost.”
Before Fabelmans, he’d only landed a few roles: a small but important part as the young version of Jon Bernthal’s adult gigolo in Showtime’s update of American Gigolo; a little bit of camera time on Shane Black’s 2018 The Predator; and a part on the short-lived Netflix horror series Brand New Cherry Flavor. Nothing that would make him particularly optimistic about his 2021 Zoom audition for an upcoming Spielberg film. A couple of thousand people were also trying out. Also: It’s a Steven Spielberg movie, for crying out loud. He may have been born 20 years after ET came out, but he still knew that he was dealing with a legend. “I may not have experienced what Hollywood was before and after Jaws or what CGI was like before and after Jurassic Park,” he says. “But I do know that the movies are really good.”
A year later, he sits in the floor-to-ceiling marble restaurant of an expensive midtown hotel, amidst a flurry of press. He’s still getting used to the studio press tour treatment; he wears a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops like any 20-year-old kid, and confesses, “I’d never been interviewed before doing this movie.” LaBelle talks with his hands a lot, and he’s smart and funny, making a few jokes at his own expense. He’s still taking it all in, the wonder and weirdness of it all. “I’m excited,” he says of all the attention, of getting to hang out in New York City for a few days. “But mostly I’ve been thinking about this every day since my first callback. It’s been a year and a half.”
In a massive understatement, LaBelle says he is “in great company” with the film. There’s the director, of course, but also the film’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning writer, Tony Kushner; his and Spielberg’s partnership has resulted in Lincoln, West Side Story, and Munich. LaBelle gets to play off the formidable Williams and Dano in most of his scenes, while Emmy and Tony winner Judd Hirsch has a few electric minutes as a weird old uncle, the brilliant Jeannie Berlin plays a Fabelman grandmother, and David Lynch shows up for a few unforgettable moments. Even 13-year-old Once Upon a Time in Hollywood scene-stealer Julia Butters plays one of his sisters.
And then there’s Seth Rogen, who plays the Fabelmans’ longtime family friend—who clearly means something special to Williams’ matriarch. “When I was a kid, I was told I [looked like] a love child between Seth and Shia LaBeouf,” says LaBelle. He had hoped for a smoother introduction to his doppelganger: He was shooting a scene in which he gets punched in the face by the high-school jock (Sam Rechner), “and it’s intense and emotional and I’m just kind of pacing in a corner. I’m falling on my back and there’s a stunt mat that I had to land on and there’s blood coming out, and we do it like 12 times. I’m wondering if it’s something I’m doing [wrong], but I need to stay emotional and stay in the scene and then I look up and see Seth sitting there watching the monitor in a big yellow shirt and I’m like, nope, nope, nope. I can’t meet him like this. No way. And I just turned around.”
The Fabelmans is about the decline of a marriage and the children who have to deal with it. Spielberg has always spoken about the pain of his parents’ divorce: E.T. was based on an imaginary friend a young Spielberg made up when his parents split. “Everything that happened to Sammy happened to Steven,” says LaBelle, whose own parents divorced when he was young. During our conversation, his phone chirped with a unique tone. “That’s my mom,” he says, motioning to the phone. “In high school, my parents were split up and my high school was in the neighborhood that my dad lived in, so that’s where all my friends were.” He gave each parent their own alert sound so he could instantly calibrate whose house to head toward. “If I was out and my dad was calling, it was time to walk home. But if my mom was calling, I’d have to ask how to get home…. I still haven’t changed it.”
LaBelle understands that having your parents divorce imparts a sort of grief that you’re just too young to understand, and since the two people tasked with teaching you about the world are busy with a big chunk of their lives falling apart, it’s difficult to find guidance. LaBelle undoubtedly brought that pain to the set when he turned himself into Sammy, the sweet high school teen who sees and understands the world better looking through a movie camera. Making movies is his refuge as well as his passion, an obsession he picks up early on in the story. When his father tasks Sammy with editing together film shot during a family camping trip, the young Fabelman notices something in the frame that recasts his understanding of his parents’ tense marriage. LaBelle says that he was older than Sammy when he “started to see [my parents] as people,” while his character learned the lesson “a little more quickly and more violently… He’s realizing that adults don’t have all the answers and there is no difference between a kid and an adult. Everyone is immature and lacks judgment, and he’s realizing that for the first time, which I wasn’t so far ahead of figuring out.”
Now he wants to figure out what’s next for his career. He’s obsessed with acting, and says that one day he’d like to direct. That sounds like something a person in Hollywood would tell you, but one would imagine that playing a young Spielberg would be contagious: Wouldn’t it make you want to be Spielberg? As is the director’s wont, he ends The Fabelmans on a happy note. But that’s assumed, because, as LaBelle points out, Sammy “is going to grow up to be Steven fucking Spielberg.” Perhaps that will apply to the actor who plays Sammy himself?