In The Fabelmans, Seth Rogen plays a huge part of whatever therapy Seven Spielberg is going through with this film, and Spielberg has admitted making this movie was very much a therapy session. As Bennie, Rogen has a tough task here, playing a fictionalized version of a man that a young Spielberg looked up to as a friend and uncle-type figure in his life. As Rogen states, the real man was well-liked by everyone and the life of the party. But the real man is also a big reason why his parents divorced — he had an affair with his mother (here played by Michelle Williams as Mitzi Fabelman), which eventually led to her leaving Spielberg’s father (played by Paul Dano as Burt Fabelman).
It’s got to be a little daunting to try to get inside the head of the world’s most famous director. How do you even play this character? Would Spielberg want him to come off as a villain? A clown? Instead, what’s interesting is Rogen’s interpretation comes off with compassion. As an audience, we like Bennie and feel compassion for him. And Bennie is portrayed as truly loving Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), the avatar for young Steven Spielberg himself.
There’s one scene in particular that stands out. Bennie buys Sammy a camera to make movies, but Sammy refuses the gift. It slowly hits Bennie that Sammy has figured out what’s going on and from this point forward they aren’t going to have much of a relationship. It’s a powerful and heartbreaking scene where we certainly understand both of the reactions here, and Bennie realizes whatever he has to say to Sammy, he better say it now. (I tend to think that however this scene played out in real life, it informed how Bennie was to be depicted in this film.)
Ahead, Rogen tells us how he wound up in a Spielberg movie in the first place, which, yes, came as a surprise. And then, on top of that, how do you get inside the head of the most famous director on Earth making the most personal movie of his career? But, first, for my own benefit, I had to clear up a misunderstanding I knew Rogen might not, in any way, remember.
You’re not going to remember this, but I need to clear this up for my own sanity. Remember the party for Bros at the Toronto Film Festival?
Yes. Of course.
So, you were talking to my friend, I think about dogs…
My friend was like, “Come over and talk to Seth Rogen.” It was late and I was tired and I said, “Ah… I don’t have anything to say to Seth Rogen.” I could think of no worse thing for you to have to deal with me trying to come up with a conversation.
But I think I said it too loud and you looked at me right when I said your name. And I think you heard it as a kind of angry, “I don’t have anything to say to Seth Rogen.”
I don’t think I heard that. And if I did, I would completely respect someone who thought that.
Like, “That guy can take a long walk…,” that was my fear that’s what you heard.
I’d be like, “That’s a guy who I could relate to.”
The Fabelmans premiere was the next night, so I had no new compliments to offer. I didn’t want to say, “Hey, Long Shot was cool.”
Well, I appreciate it. I only want to talk to people who are in the position to compliment me.
So, how do you wind up in a Spielberg movie? Does he call you?
Yeah. I got a call that he wanted to Zoom with me and this was in the heat of the pandemic. I honestly had no idea what it was about. I thought, maybe, it was about writing something. I’d met with him in the past about maybe writing a movie for Amblin or DreamWorks or something like that at some point. But, no, I honestly had no inclination that it was to be in a film that he was planning on making. He told me that he was writing this very personal movie and that there was a part there that he wanted me to consider and he was like, “Read the script and then we can talk.” And I was like, “I’m probably going to want to do it anyway, but if that makes you feel better….” And I read the script and, lo and behold, yeah, I was enthusiastic about doing it.
I’m trying to imagine you calling him up like, “Sir, I have to pass. I’m sorry.”
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. “This is garbage.” But yeah, of course I was thrilled to do it. And then I just hung out for a few months as they put the rest of the movie together. I would read the script a lot and I would talk to him every once in a while and he would fill me in on how it was all coming together. And I would ask him a lot of questions about how he filmed from a procedural standpoint. It was a slow several-month march from when I was cast to when we actually started filming.
What seems tough, you are playing a role that’s central to Spielberg’s own childhood being destroyed. But at the same time, you come off as someone I kind of like. Spielberg said at the premiere that it’s been like therapy for him to make this movie. So, I’m assuming he’s working these issues out in his head, too, and that’s got to be a strange position for you to be in.
You know what’s funny? I think coming from comedy, I’m actually used to working with people on deeply personal films and semi-autobiographical ones as well. Judd Apatow, he was very much a proponent of this. So, I actually found it to be familiar in some ways of being a part of scenes that were very much based on real life. What was really a challenge is, a lot of the words used to describe the character by Steven and his sisters and other people who knew the real Bernie was that he was funny and fun-loving and charismatic and loose. And even then, despite how the story plays out, they were all very fond of him! And that was something that I really knew, for the movie to function, that I had to capture with this fun, lighthearted energy that in some ways played counter to Paul Dano. I mean, it’s one of the hardest things to capture in some ways, honestly, because it’s purely allegedly born at a spontaneity. It was something that I knew I had to do well in order to make the entire movie function.
There’s one scene in particular where you buy Sammy an expensive camera to make movies, but Sammy had just put together what was actually going on and you start to realize you’re not going to have much of a relationship with him anymore…
It was tough and I think that was one of my first real days of shooting.
Oh wow. He threw you in there.
We were thrown. We don’t rehearse at all. And what’s also funny is me and Gabe both thought the scene was just going to be us standing there in a parking lot, that’s how it’s written. And then as soon as we arrive, Steven’s like, “No, you’re walking all around and he’s crossing over here and he’s going here and you’re chasing him all around. You’re running across the street.” And it was one those times where you’re like, Oh man, thank God I know this very well because this is not remotely how I imagine this playing out and thank God also that I am an actor who does not cling onto too much of a preconceived notion as to how these things are going to be because it instantly was an incredibly different energy than we were imagining it was going to have.
It was a real exercise in trust and in hoping you did your job well. And I really knew my main job was to overcome my nerves and to make sure I was as comfortable on this set as I am any other set I’m on. And I knew this was going to be one of my first scenes. So, that was a lot of the work I did leading up to shooting. I know by the time, essentially, my first real day of shooting is, I have to be completely at ease and able to deliver what I’m generally able to deliver in the most comfortable of circumstances.
You mentioned in real life they liked this guy. That is the age when it’s like, “Yeah, this guy that’s always around, that’s totally normal that he also moved with us.” But as an adult, there’s obviously something going on.
Yeah, it’s a very unique dynamic. And I did have a lot of questions about the specifics of it and really wanting to understand how he interpreted it…
That’s what I’m wondering. Do you ever feel awkward asking the most famous director on Earth, “Hey, tell me about your personal life?” That sounds like it could be awkward, but you have to know this stuff.
Yeah, a little bit, but we were also invited into that. He made it very clear that’s what it was, so you didn’t feel like you were treading into waters that you were not invited to tread into to some degree. And I would talk to (screenwriter) Tony Kushner a lot. Tony is very easy to talk to. He was on set all day, every single day and I found him to be… I mean, it seems like it goes without saying, but I find Tony Kushner to be a really valuable resource.
That’s my headline, “You wouldn’t believe what Seth Rogen had to say about Tony Kushner.”
[Laughs] Yeah. Hot take! But he’s someone that is, if there was ever something that maybe I was like, maybe Steven doesn’t want to talk about this, in my head, I was like, maybe Tony has had the very long version of this conversation already and then I could just have it with him and he could explain to me how they arrived at where they arrived. And that’s an exercise I would do with Tony a lot obviously. “Kushner, just explain to me why this scene is the way it is in as simple terms as you can. What is this? How would you describe this scene to someone?” And hearing Tony just describe it often was like, “Okay, I get it. Exactly what the subtext is, what the text is, how much is meant to shine through versus how much is meant to be concealed.” I think those were the types of conversations that I would have with Tony a lot.
I’ve noticed you haven’t really tweeted since Elon Musk took over Twitter. I’m wondering if you’ve silently quit.
No, not really. Honestly, there was just a day last week where I was like, “Oh, I received more antisemitic vitriol on Twitter than I had in the past decade combined,” and I was just like, “I don’t need to deal with this right now.”
Oh, of course not.
I’ll scroll TikTok for a few days. The good thing is I can just stop looking at it.
‘The Fabelmans’ hits theaters this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.