Interview: Michelle Williams and Paul Dano on playing Steven Spielberg’s parents in The Fabelmans

  • Peter Gray
  • December 30, 2022
  • Comments Off on Interview: Michelle Williams and Paul Dano on playing Steven Spielberg’s parents in The Fabelmans

With The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg returns with his most personal movie yet – the legendary director’s own coming of age story set against the family drama which paralleled and ultimately intersected with his emergence as a filmmaker.

Ahead of the film’s release in Australia on January 5th (read our review here), Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, who star as Mitzi and Burt Fabelman, characters based on Spielberg’s late parents, Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg, spoke of how being parents themselves informed their performances and which films had a transformative effect on them growing up.

What was your collaboration with Steven Spielberg like? What sort of understanding and trust did you have to have, to feel free and supported on set to interpret the script yourself? And how did that work on a day to day basis?

Paul Dano: I find anticipation to be the hardest part of filmmaking. The nights where you’re alone, getting close to the first day, and what that feeling is in your stomach. But Steven was an open book from the very first Zoom meeting. And the fact that he was so open and vulnerable opened a door for us to all be, and to be human in that way. We also had (screenwriter) Tony Kushner there on set every day, who was an incredibly supportive collaborator as well… We began with the idea that this can’t just be about ‘Arnold and Leah.’ It can’t be imitation; it can’t be mimicry. But the closer we got to actually making the film, the more memories Steven was having of his parents. The deeper we dove in, the more it came up. So there was also this balance of how do we bring along the spirit of these people? How do we put it through ourselves, and then ultimately through the characters who Steven and Tony wrote and gave us such a beautiful foundation on the page, regardless of the real life stuff behind it? Ultimately, it took on its own life. And it continued to while making the movie.

Michelle Williams: I couldn’t agree more. Paul and I have talked about this. I think one of the first things you have to do is open yourself up to trusting that you’re meant to be there. It’s a very enormous thing to be asked by Steven Spielberg to play his parents. You kind of have to borrow his belief in you before you can earn belief in yourself. So it was really just taking a deep breath in the beginning and having to put away fears of disappointing somebody, or not being what they had in their mind and to trust: ‘He said that you could do a good job, so you just have to go with him.’ And in the end, it really was just so exciting and so much fun to work with him… As Paul was saying, as we kept filming, Steven had more and more memories and the process of working together kept expanding and growing. You’ve done so much research and you’ve spent so much time preparing just for that very first day. But it doesn’t end there. Steven was constantly laying experiences and memories onto you, which just felt like gifts that he could give you that would unlock a moment for you or transform a scene.

How did your own personal experiences as parents figure into the mix?

Paul Dano: I felt particularly gratified that Steven would think of me to do this. It’s one of those times where the work meets your life in a way that feels right to you, in a way that gives back to you. This was really the first time since becoming a parent that I have done something that, even though this takes place in the past, felt more present tense to my life – what it means to be in a marriage and to be a parent. It was exciting to do that, rather than have to maybe put up a certain boundary with work like I might have to on certain things like The Batman movie where there’s a boundary to be made. This didn’t have that, which was kind of scary and raw in a way that I really was touched by.

Michelle Williams: I think for me, being a mother, there’s nothing in my life that it leaves untouched. Maybe the simplest and most honest way I can answer the question is to say, it’s so hard to leave your children and go to work. But what it does is it gives you this extra desire and energy to make something as beautiful as you conceivably know how, to justify your time away from them. So, in that sense, I think actually what being a mother does, is it puts this extra fire underneath me to make this time away from my children really matter.

Michelle, you recently said you wanted to study Judaism and to raise your children in the Jewish faith. Does the rise of anti-Semitism and comments from public figures worry you?

Michelle Williams: I would say in general, in my life, I try to not lead from a place of worry or fear. I try and lead from a place of love and optimism. And for my kids… My husband (Thomas Kail) is Jewish. So my two younger children are half-Jewish. And it’s been something for me, my whole life, that I have felt compelled by. When I would go into my Jewish friends’ homes, I was so curious and moved by the traditions that their families upheld for them. I have been drawn to it since I was a child. So I really relish the opportunity to raise my children with a sense of place, history, ritual, and this is sort of the perfect opportunity for me to be able to do that. And my feeling has been: ‘I can’t raise them like this if I don’t know anything about it.’ So I have a learning process as my kids have a learning process. It’s something I’m excited about.

Michelle, you’ve danced on stage and recently on screen (in Fosse/Verdon). And you now have a beautiful dance sequence here in The Fabelmans, which takes place on a family camping trip. How was that scene written on the page and what was it like shooting it?

Michelle Williams: It was a short sentence: “Mitzi dances in the car headlights.” And I remember immediately feeling very grateful that the most recent work that I had done was playing Gwen Verdon… I (typically) like to curl up into a little ball and it took me a lot of work to find grace and expansion as Gwen. But it hadn’t been that long ago. So I thought: ‘Good, I’ve just got to dust off my bones and get back into a dancer’s space.’ Because Mitzi/Leah, Steven’s mother, wasn’t a dancer per se, but she carried herself like one. I worked technically on the choreography of that dance, because I knew from my time as Gwen that you really have to build something until you can actually find freedom within it. And so, we built something. We wanted to have a lot ideas to show Steven, to see what he was inspired by, what he responded to. So I spent a lot of time preparing the dance, but even more than that, this was (a character) for whom that kind of movement is inherent. So it isn’t just a dance. It’s really a courage that blasts through, a courage that she had throughout her life. There’s actually footage of (Leah) dancing at 95 years old. She had the soul of a dancer.

Though the film deals with divorce, it does so with a great deal of tenderness. Was that also on the page or was that something that emerged over the course of filming?

Paul Dano: There was a lot of tenderness there right from that very first conversation with Steven, given that this was so personal to him. I remember being nervous for the first Zoom, but then seeing the vulnerability in his eyes. And frankly, that opened me up and put me at ease. I think that there is a lot of love in this film. I think one of the beautiful things about the relationship – and I do think it was written this way but I think it’s also something that we looked at for ourselves, regardless of the specifics here – is that relationships can end with love and it’s all the more tragic. Love is what makes things painful, often. I don’t think that these two people did not love each other. I think they loved their kids too. So that makes it all the more painful for them.

Michelle Williams: I always think about that Neil Young lyric, “Only love can break your heart.” That’s why it is so sad. Because that love exists. And it didn’t stop existing. It changed form. These are also two people who maintained a friendship, a relationship, and a deep, deep love until their passing at 103 and 96. So this (film) is the middle of their story, actually, not the end.

In the film, a young Steven Spielberg is taken to the movies to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, the film which ultimately sets him on a path to become a filmmaker. Was there a film or a play that you saw as a child that had a similar transformative effect on you?

Paul Dano: Well, I certainly didn’t have the lightning bolt that Steven Spielberg had when he saw The Greatest Show on Earth. But I do remember growing up in New York City, going to the theater and that feeling when the lights go down and the curtain is about to open, that sense of anticipation of what’s about to happen – and then being swept away by it… For me, I’m on the dorky side of the film scale now, but when I was really young, I was watching films like Terminator 2 and I didn’t see myself in those (laughs).

Michelle Williams: Similarly, I grew up on a diet of those kinds of movies. And I similarly didn’t really imagine myself in those worlds. But I got an education in film as I grew up. In my late teens I started seeing movies that I thought: “Oh I’d like to be in that world, and maybe if I worked really hard, I could…” But I do remember being 7 or 8 years old and seeing a play for the first time, a community theater production, a children’s production – I think it was Annie… And I just wanted to be there with them so badly. I didn’t want to be Annie. I wanted to be in the chorus. I wanted to be a part of something. I still remember the thrill of that first time.

Paul Dano: And let me just clarify that I loved Terminator 2 (laughs)… It was more that I was that kid with the glasses and I was not going to be Arnold Schwarzenegger (laughs).

What was your favourite Steven Spielberg film growing up?

Michelle Williams: Mine was Empire of the Sun because I saw it when I was a little bit too young for it and I wasn’t totally prepared to see what it showed me. It scared me that I was going to be a naughty kid and that something bad might befall me and my family (laughs)… It was kind of like the first adult movie that I ever saw.

Paul Dano: I remember my mom took me out of school early the day Jurassic Park was released because the lines in our town were going to be so long to get into the movie theater. So I got to skip school and go see a matinee of Jurassic Park. And that’s a good memory because it’s probably the only movie I ever got to skip school for to see (laughs)… And I still love that film.

The Fabelmans is screening in Australian theatres from January 5th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.