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.”