With only 19 years (allegedly) Gabriel Labelle is already at the forefront of Hollywood cinema. The relatively unknown Canadian actor turns heads as Sammy Fableman, a fictionalized version of the legendary director Steven Spielberg in the new period drama “The Fabelmans.” A film that is arguably the front-runner for the Oscar for Best Picture and will put LaBelle in the global spotlight in the weeks and months to come. Not bad for only his fourth credited film role.
READ MORE: ‘The Fablemans’ finally lands in LA as buzz grows for best picture [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 the role of “Sammy,” who was effectively himself. The four-time Oscar winner joked that maybe it was a little too much.
“I mean, he wouldn’t answer every question,” LaBelle said 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 were to ask, “OK, but specifically for this scene,” he says, “Find out,” which honestly was better. But yeah, there were definitely some questions I had to ask a few more times when I needed more information. Sometimes I felt, ‘Okay, I don’t have to press it.’ But it really wasn’t this interrogation. We had amazing conversations, not only about his life but mine as well. In any case, the focus was on him. But no, that was really a lot of fun.”
Over the course of our conversation, the charismatic Vancouver native revealed the lengthy process he went through to get the part, what aspects of Spielberg he felt were important for the part, his reaction to being cast in exchange for an adorable cameo in the movie, and much more.
Please note: There is a spoiler regarding the aforementioned cameo in this interview.
The Playlist: The most obvious question: How did this role come about? And what was your reaction when you realized you were playing a young Steven Spielberg?
Gabriel Labelle: I auditioned. I auditioned once in March 2021 and I don’t know what it is. Everything is untitled and “to be decided” and you don’t know who is connected. And I’ll find out after I send 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 that’s how I come across these articles by Paul [Dano]‘s attachment to it. And I never hear any feedback. And then, three months later, at the end of May, I get a text message that they want to call me back via Zoom. And so I have a meeting with [casting director] Cindy Tolan, they send me new inserts, and I get my dining table and stack some books. I have my laptop levels so I can stand and I filmed a tripod with my phone on it which I then have to send later as the quality would not be reliable on zoom. And that was really cool.
Before that I only saw my family. I was living at home at the time and only saw my family at the dinner table. But during the day I only worked on these auditions. And then, a day later, I get a call, “Steven would like to meet you.” And then there’s this new scene, which is four pages long. It’s like a monologue, just like this other scene. And it’s due in two days. same thing. Books on the table, laptop, tripod. I meditate beforehand. And the whole meeting lasted about an hour, but there were two scenes, each about five minutes long.
And when I sent in the footage, I realized it was 25 minutes in total.
But for 35 minutes of the meeting we just talked and got to know each other. And he talked about this film and his family and his life. And I talked about mine, and we talked about a few things. He asked me where my mind went as I worked on these scenes. And we worked that out together. We talked about divorce, what it was like to be the only Jewish kids in town. We talked about it “West Side Story” that came out. I told him how excited I was to see him. He said how excited he was that I was watching. And it was great. And I felt really good about it. And after that meeting, which was going so well, when I spoke to him, I knew there was a certain impression. So if I didn’t get it, it wasn’t about what I did wrong, it was just, “Oh, I guess I’m just not cut out for this.” And I was really fine with that. If it’s not that, it’s next. He knows who I am and I felt like I 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 read this?
none. There was no rehearsal at all. But before that, I just wanted to zoom in on Steven as much as possible to 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 I can do my best for him and make sure he gets what he wants out of this movie in this story. So we spent a lot of time talking about it so we were always on the same page on set.
I haven’t seen much of Steven’s video, even as a young director. And by the end of the film, you’re playing him at almost the same age as he was making his first films. Did you have any footage? Did you even want to try to pick up on his mannerisms?
I think there was a liberation in the fact that the character’s name is Sammy Fabelman and not Steven Spielberg. So that took a lot of the pressure off of, “OK, I don’t need to get an exact cast.” I wasn’t trying to speak like him, in his voice or the way he speaks, but I really wanted to look like him. I wanted because I knew Paul and Michelle [Williams] what his parents would look like and I wanted to look like him. And so I just focused. And when I look at these home videos of him and just hours of interviews throughout his career. I wanted there to be something familiar. So I learned to walk like him, to stand like him. They changed my hair, they gave me contact lenses and I worked to make my smile look like his. And I just wanted to resemble him physically, but I wasn’t trying to do anything else.
I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. And then I went to the AMPAS screening on Saturday with a Q&A that you attended. And Steven mentioned that you met about three times a week to answer your questions. He made a joke that sounded like it was a bit too much. Do you remember when you realized that was it?
Yes. 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 were to ask, “OK, but specifically for this scene,” he says, “Find out,” which honestly was better. But yeah, there were definitely some questions I had to ask a few more times when I needed more information. Sometimes I felt, “Okay, I don’t have to press it.” But it really wasn’t this interrogation. We had amazing conversations, not only about his life but mine as well. In any case, the focus was on him. But no, that was really a lot of fun.
The Playlist: There are so many scenes that Sammy actually shoots filming with Super 16 or more modern film cameras all his life. Did you actually take pictures in those moments?
Yes. And that was a lot of fun. And so I have the camera that I used, I have the cutter that I used and the film is now being developed. I think when the film is out and the press shuts down I was told that all the footage would be sent to me so I could then start making my own films. And there was a lot of the film that had scenes or sequences that were just cut for time, but where I’m just filming things and taking one shot at a time. So there’s a lot of footage on it and I’m excited to see how it looks.
What’s more intimidating, working with Steven every day, or working with David Lynch to play one of the most feared film directors of all time, John Ford?
It was very scary because I knew this scene meant a lot to Steven, and not just Steven, but all filmmakers everywhere. And I wanted to make sure it worked. And so there was just pressure to try to make it as real as possible.
You are at the beginning of your career. For example, you’re also starring in the new Showtime series American Gigolo, but you’ve just worked with the greatest living filmmaker of all time. How do you prepare for what you do next? And what kind of projects do you want to do next?
After working with Paul and Michelle and watching them play these characters that are so different and then meeting them and their personalities are so different than any character they’ve ever played, the characters that they play by me. And that’s really inspiring. And I’d like to do my best to transform or look different or feel different or just really play different people. And I was definitely spoiled by Steven.
“The Fablemans” starts on Friday in a limited edition