Channeling Your Inner Spielberg With Gabriel LaBelle

The fresh-faced actor reveals how he recreated Steven’s smile for the filmmaker’s semi-autobiographical movie, ”The Fablemans”
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T he star of The Fabelmans, Gabriel LaBelle, reveals how he channeled his inner Spielberg in the director’s buzzy new autobiographical drama about growing up a teenage film geek.

LAMag: What’s it like being directed by Steven Spielberg in a movie about Spielberg’s childhood? It’s such a meta situation for an actor to be in.

Gabriel LaBelle: Well, first, you don’t want to do a bad job and mess up his story. But, second, in terms of prep, all the information you need is right there. It’s his life. Your character is going through the things that he actually went through. So if there was a line that I didn’t quite understand or a situation where I wasn’t sure how to crack into the character’s mindset, I could just ask. Sometimes he would tell me; sometimes he would just let me figure it out on my own.

LaBelle as young Spielberg in The Fabelmans. (PHOTO: COURTESY AMBLIN ENTERTAINMENT)

Did you study his mannerisms—can you do a killer Steven Spielberg impersonation at this point?

Well, I didn’t do an impersonation. It’s not what Austin Butler was doing in Elvis. This is Sammy Fabelman, not Steven Spielberg. If there’s a Venn diagram, there’s me, there’s Steven, and then there’s Sam. We may look similar—I may dress in the same clothes in the movie; I may physically change my hair and eye color to look like him. But it’s hard to impersonate a 75-year-old guy 60 years earlier in his life. But, yes, I got some of his mannerisms down. I got his walk, his posture. I started smiling like him…

What’s the Spielberg smile?

He doesn’t expose his front teeth when he smiles. So I learned how to do that and how to justify why my character would do that. Maybe he’s embarrassed and trying to hide a smile.

And the posture?

He was growing up in the 1950s, and you had to be very presentable in those times. So his walk and posture is all in his chest. But, now, he’s lived a lifetime and created this incredible body of work, so he’s a lot more confident as a man. His center is much lower and in his hips. He has this swagger and his head is down. It’s much more centered.

Something like 2,000 actors auditioned for the part. I’m imagining it as a giant open call like in The Producers, with the singing Spielbergs on one side of the stage and the dancing Spielbergs on the other.

With Spielberg at the Toronto Film Festival in September. (PHOTO: MICHAEL LOCCISANO/GETTY IMAGES)

Everything was over Zoom. I almost prefer to audition by Zoom. I don’t have to go anywhere and worry about where to park and where do I sign in and who do I talk to. All that is distracting. Auditioning by Zoom, I can really focus and put all my energy into the audition and close my eyes and think about what I’m going to do while I’m in the Zoom waiting room.

Your dad, Rob LaBelle, is a successful character actor. He helped you get into the business. What was his reaction when you landed the part?

You could feel the pride coming off his face. He was actually with me when I got the news. My agent called and said, “Let me patch in your manager,” and put me on hold. I kind of knew then that I got the part—there was no point in patching in a third person if I didn’t get it. They said, “What are you doing right now?” And I told them I’m on my deck with my dad and brother. And they said, “Put us on speaker.’” They teased it out. I’m walking in a circle thinking, “Oh, my God,” and my dad’s all excited and smiling. It was very cool.

It’s hard to impersonate a 75-year-old guy 60 years earlier in his life.

You seem pretty calm for a 20-year-old who’s about to star as the lead in a Spielberg movie. Was there ever a point in this process where you looked at yourself in the mirror and thought, “Holy crap! My world is about to totally change!?”

Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot to comprehend. It is very strange. Like, shooting the movie was exhausting and scary and tough—the stakes were really high, and I was exhausted and drinking too much caffeine—so I feel like I released a lot of that kind of energy while making it. But seeing it for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival—oh man, I was so scared. When it started rolling, I was holding onto my mom’s hand.

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This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Los Angeles magazine