The Fabelmans, the semi-autobiographical story loosely based on Steven Spielberg’s childhood, is considered a serious awards contender this season.
The critically acclaimed coming-of-age drama has already bagged the People’s Choice award at the Toronto Film Festival and boasts an ensemble cast that includes Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, and Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy, a fictionalized version of Spielberg. Williams and Dano play Mitzi and Burt Fabelman, characters inspired by the director’s late parents, Arnold and Leah, to whom the film is dedicated.
I met up with Dano at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to talk about the responsibility he felt with the role, how he rose to the challenge, including reading corporate manuals from the 1950s, and the Spielberg cinematic experience that made a massive impact on him as a child.
Simon Thompson: I’d like to start with the first day on set. From what I understand, it was emotional, and Steven said you looked like his father. Did he tell you that?
Paul Dano: No matter how long I’ve done this, you’re nervous that first day. You want to get off on the right foot and somehow let it go and live the character. I remember seeing Michelle come to set and seeing in Steven’s eyes. What happened to him then and going, ‘Okay, wow. This is something.’ It’s funny because I don’t know that I look like Arnold Spielberg, but the hope was somehow in essence and spirit that I was bringing him along with me in some capacity, and I think Steven felt that. Hearing his sisters reflect that back as well was incredibly meaningful. It was a type of warmth and generosity that was still hard to accept, almost especially somebody like Steven saying, ‘I want you to play my father.’
Thompson: Do you pause when somebody says you’re going to play a version of not just anyone’s father but Steven Spielberg’s father? Is there a moment where, because of the magnitude, you genuinely think, ‘Do I want to do this because of the responsibility?’ Especially when the guy is behind the camera right in front of you.
Dano: I never thought that. When I first met Steven, I had no clue what the project might be about, he hadn’t asked me to do it, and partway through a conversation, he told me what it was about, and my heart honestly leaped. I immediately thought that it resonated with me emotionally and thematically, and I could tell how important it was to Steven. That was not just because it is personal, but it felt like this was his next step as an artist and filmmaker, so of course, this is what he’s got to do, and it felt vital right from the get-go. I am not an actor who thinks they should play every part or even wants to play every part, but as soon as he told me about it, I thought, ‘I really hope that this works out.’ I had a big feeling about it, and I’m thankful it did.
Thompson: Did it help that you had Michelle by your side because I know you guys have known each other for a long time? Did it help give you stability and a safe space to do what you needed to do?
Dano: Yes, and for a couple of reasons. Because we knew each other, I know that Michelle is a wonderful person and mother. Even outside of knowing her, I know she is a wondrous actress. We also trusted each other to come as Mitzi and Burt and to be there for each other, and the trust was especially meaningful and comforting to know. It was like, ‘Okay, Michelle’s here. We’ll try to do this.’
Thompson: We’ve all grown up with Steven Spielberg’s movies with him as a storytelling cinematic father figure. Many haven’t met him, but he’s always there telling these stories. What was your relationship with his work, and did you discuss that with him at all?
Dano: One of my two most profound theatergoing experiences as a kid relates to his movies. The lines were going to be so long in our town for Jurassic Park that my mom took me out of school early so I could see a matinee showing ahead of the crowds. As a kid, and I was in elementary school, getting to leave school to go see a movie? It was that big of a cultural event, and it’s a wonderful memory. His films beyond that, Jaws and Close Encounters are movies that Zoey and I watch repeatedly. We’ve seen them many times. I don’t know if I’d say we watch them about once a year, but we go back to those wells to drink them in. I talked with him more about his memories, childhood, and father; he was such an open emotional vessel for us, and that really moved me. It was like, ‘Okay, he’s opening the door. If he’s this vulnerable, I have to be this vulnerable.’ As his father, at a certain point, Burt was with us, or Arnold was with us, or whoever; it’s not just Paul and Steven. So it was never about me, Paul, getting to dork out with Steven about some shot in A.I. or some Kubrick story of that handoff or whatever. That was not it. You know, there was too much Burt there.
Thompson: You did listen to audio and things like that of Steven’s father to get ready for the role. Did you want to take any characteristics, mannerisms, or intonations from him and find the balance where you didn’t impersonate him?
Dano: You’re sometimes poking around in the dark to find the right balance. Steven and I talked right away, and he did not want me to gain weight. Arnold Spielberg carried his energy in a different place than I do, so I thought, ‘Okay. If I can’t physically look like that, how do I shift my energy to where I see that Arnold carries it in his body?’ You can do that in your mind, so to speak, but I also had the costume designer make me a weight belt that I wore for a few days, not for the whole shoot, though. It was in August, so it was very warm. There are physical things, intonation things, or cadence things, but it’s also Burt and the language that Tony and Steven have made, and Paul has to be brought to the table in some way, shape, or form, even if just unconsciously, because I’m here for some reason, so I guess you discover it, and you hope.
Thompson: You bought corporate handbooks on eBay and built a crystal radio kit. What surprised you most about that experience and your connection with that material? Did you find the corporate stuff interesting? Were you good at making the radio?
Dano: One of my favorite interviews of Arnold’s was when he started the interview by saying, ‘Electronics was a way of life for me.’ He talked about when he was six years old and he built a crystal radio. From there, I was like, ‘Well, okay, let me try that. What’s it like to make something with your hands, and what’s it like to understand how things work?’ It is very rational, and it’s a slightly different part of the brain. It’s a trust in engineering and the way things work. With the corporate books, I got a GE manual and some other stuff. That was great because it’s not down to the language they used at that time, but coming out of World War II, you wanted to be at GE, IBM
Thompson: Your connection with Gabriel Labelle, who plays Sammy is great. I know you spend a lot of time building a relationship. What did you do to create that? And what did he teach you as part of that relationship exchange?
Dano: Gabriel and I first started by speaking on the phone. He was an incredibly self-possessed kid from the get-go. Steven, maybe in certain parts of his life, was out of control, but around movies as a kid, he had that self-possession, so I was always impressed by Gabriel’s confidence. It’s one of those things where it’s better if it can be real rather than act it. For Gabriel and I to spend enough time together, where I can develop a love for him, and he was asking me questions, and I’m older than him, so I was imparting things like, ‘This was my experience at your age, but I don’t know if that’ll be yours.’ He was not shy about asking questions which I was very impressed by. That way, I could look at him, see things I like about him, and have a little history there or as much as possible. I found that important for the father-son thing and believing like, ‘This is my boy.’
Thompson: I have to ask about awards season because The Fabelmans is already in conversation and could go the distance. It’s not your first time dealing with awards talk. Has your perspective on this stuff changed over the years? Would it mean more to get a nomination now than it did earlier in your career?
Dano: Let me say it this way: I feel incredibly grateful to have this experience with Steven, Tony Kushner, and Michelle, making this film about Steven’s life and his parents. It felt really good to show it at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood with John Williams and have the film received the way it is. I don’t know if it’s more or less meaningful, but this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I will have as an artist. So, I am tremendously grateful to be a part of this moment and conversation and part of this film.
The Fabelmans is in select theaters before going wide on Wednesday, November 23, 2022.