TORONTO (AP) — “Untitled Amblin Film,” read Gabriel LaBelle’s audition sheet. Director “TBD.”
LaBelle, a 19-year-old actor from Vancouver with a handful of credits in TV and film, taped his audition and sent it off, not thinking too much about it. A couple days later, he began to hear whispers. That movie? It’s a Steven Spielberg film. And the part? Playing Steven Spielberg.
LaBelle didn’t get a call back until three months later — and even then he didn’t really know what he was in for. It wasn’t until LaBelle was cast and received the full script that it dawned on him. He was the lead of Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” playing a fictionalized younger version of the legendary director.
“When I was auditioning, the character’s name was Teenage Sammy — I thought as opposed to Adult Sammy,” LaBelle said in an interview the day after “The Fabelmans” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I get the script and you’re reading it for 30 pages and he’s 6 and 8 years old. Page 35 or so Teenage Sammy comes along. OK, good! Now this is my part. It’s going to be a three-act movie, it’s going to be a ‘Moonlight’ or something. I kept waiting for my exit but it never came.”
Instead, LaBelle makes a very big entrance in “The Fabelmans” playing the legendary American film director in his most autobiographical film. As Spielberg’s fictionalized stand-in, Sammy Fabelman, he plays the 75-year-old filmmaker through some of his most formative teenage years as an aspiring filmmaker. Much of the film belongs to Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, who play Sammy’s parents and turn in extraordinarily nuanced, performances. But LaBelle’s Sammy is the through-line in “The Fabelmans,” a deeply felt portrait of an American movie icon as a young man.
For a young, little-known actor just getting a role in a Spielberg film can launch a career. Christian Bale and Drew Barrymore are just a few of the actors who got their big break with the director. LaBelle’s challenge, though, added the considerable wrinkle of also playing Spielberg, himself.
“After I got cast, it was really like: Did I just bite off more than I can chew?” said LaBelle, who goes by Gabe. “It was like the universe just dropped down. ‘Ah, you want to be an actor, do you? You want to be in the movies?’”
Before “The Fabelmans,” LaBelle’s most notable credit was probably a small part in the 2018 reboot “The Predator.” His father, Rob LaBelle, is a veteran actor with dozens of film and television credits. At the premiere, when the younger LaBelle saw “The Fabelmans” for the first time, he sat with his parents and brother, often clutching his mother’s hand. On stage after the film, LaBelle described the odd feeling of being on a film set “surrounded by masters.”
“Then there’s me, that kid with the good audition.”
But LaBelle quickly became part of the company, Spielberg said. In a talk with Cameron Bailey, TIFF director, at the festival, Spielberg said the role was especially difficult for him to cast.
“None of this is really easy because we don’t often see ourselves the way our friends and our family sees us,” Spielberg said. “As a kid growing up, I always had a lot of reasons why I was always in the corner, why I was always not the center of conversation.”
“I needed someone who wasn’t going to bring too much self-awareness to Sammy.”
“The Fabelmans,” which Universal Pictures will release Nov. 11, tracks Sammy through his first exposure to cinema as a child (Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford plays him as a boy) through his high-school years. The film captures Spielberg’s growing wonder with the possibilities — and manipulative power — of filmmaking during a time of increasing marital toil for his parents. That meant that LaBelle would be acting out some seminal moments in Spielberg’s life: Making his first war movie; kissing his first girlfriend; stepping onto a studio lot for the first time.
LaBelle found Spielberg a ready resource but their talks didn’t often stray outside of the work at hand.
“Our main focus was the movie,” said LaBelle. “Yes, I could talk to him and go off about his life but I could tell he wasn’t going to unload it all to us. We had to ask. We had to go at it scene by scene. It was really just about what’s the purpose of each moment. How did you feel? What do you want out of me? Sometimes he’d tell me and sometimes he wouldn’t want me to know and he’d want me to just do what I thought Sammy should do.”
Other times, Sammy’s own anxiety mirrored LaBelle’s exactly. One scene reenacts 15-year-old Spielberg’s famous encounter with the director John Ford, who is played by David Lynch in the film. Lynch, LaBelle said, “scared the s—- out of me.”
“I mean, he’s a great guy. But leading up to it, Sammy’s nervous, so I’m getting nervous,” said LaBelle. “He walks into the room and Steven goes over. It’s David Lynch and Steven Spielberg talking. My coverage wasn’t going to be until later, so I’m waiting and waiting to do that scene. It really helped me get nervous to meet him.”
LaBelle stars in the recently debuted Showtime series adaptation of the 1980 film “American Gigolo,” playing the younger version of Jon Bernthal’s lead character. He said that making “The Fabelmans” — along with some COVID studying (watching Masterclasses by Samuel L. Jackson and Natalie Portman, reading Michael Caine’s biography) — has taught him how if he committed to working hard he has to be as an actor. Which isn’t to say that leaping into “The Fabelmans” wasn’t head-spinning.