Despite the literal capuchin in the room, there was no monkey business on the set of “The Fabelmans.”
Midway through Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama (in theaters nationwide Wednesday), bohemian housewife Mitzi (Michelle Williams) surprises her family with a pet monkey named Bennie, who jumps on their heads, climbs a chandelier and pelts lightbulbs at the front door. Crystal, the seasoned primate actress who plays Bennie, was thankfully better behaved than her chaos-causing character.
“She’s pretty great, I’ve got to say,” Williams recalls with a chuckle. “I asked the trainer, ‘Is there anything that Crystal hasn’t been able to learn?’ And he said, with pride and admiration, ‘Not a thing.’ So she’s very special.”
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The same could be said of Williams, 42, who brings equal parts magic and melancholy to the role of Mitzi, a stand-in for Spielberg’s real-life mom Leah Adler. Like Adler, who died in 2017 at age 97, Mitzi has an almost Peter Pan-like sense of optimism and adventure: climbing trees, playing piano and encouraging teenage son Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) to make movies, which she watches raptly through tears with a mile-wide grin.
But as Sammy gets older, he starts to realize his fanciful mom and more practical dad (Paul Dano) are not infallible, with pent-up frustrations and unrealized dreams of their own.
Spielberg, 75, considered making a movie about his childhood for roughly two decades before writing “Fabelmans” with frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (2012’s “Lincoln,” last year’s reimagined “West Side Story”). The legendary filmmaker thought of Williams for the role after watching her in the 2010 marriage drama “Blue Valentine,” for which she earned her second of four acting Oscar nominations. She’s near-unanimously predicted to pick up her fifth nod this year by pundits on awards site GoldDerby, although she faces stiff competition for the win.
Williams, who counts Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones” movies among her earliest theater memories, was immediately bowled over by the “infinitely relatable” story at the heart of “Fabelmans.”
“When I first read the script, I turned to my husband (‘Hamilton’ director Thomas Kail) and said, ‘It’s a feast,’ ” Williams says. “They really let this woman live and dance and explore and express across each and every page. And they don’t judge her for that – they see her as a full human. She’s allowed to embody her womanhood, which includes her motherhood.”
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During shooting, Spielberg gave Williams one of his mother’s charm bracelets, which featured photos of him and his three sisters: Anne, Sue and Nancy. He also showed her scores of photographs and archival footage from their childhood, which helped the actress get a better sense of who Adler was.
“She had such a specific sense of style and so much verve, and that really shines through these photos,” Williams says. “But the thing that made the biggest impression on me was just how much love he had for his mother and father. And that’s why he wanted to make the movie: He wanted to bring them back and let them live a little longer.”
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Williams calls “Fabelmans” the “happiest and most relaxed I’ve ever been on a film set,” in part, because of the immense trust that Spielberg put in her to play his mom. But it was also understandably emotional: On some days during production, Spielberg would go off on his own to decompress between takes. Williams would then find him and comfort him. (“Michelle knew how to hug me the way my mom used to,” Spielberg told The New York Times’ T Magazine last month.)
“I think about that Neil Young lyric all the time: ‘Only love can break your heart,’ ” Williams says. “It comes from such a place of deep love, that the weight (of those moments) is only the weight of how much he loved them.”
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The experience of making “Fabelmans” rubbed off on Williams in a profound way as a mom. She has a daughter, Matilda, 17, with late ex-partner Heath Ledger, and two young kids – Hart, 2, and a new baby – with Kail, whom she married in 2020.
“I miss living inside this unstoppable force of nature that was (Spielberg’s) mother,” Williams says. “That spirit is so inspiring to me as I continue to grow my own family and think about how to create childhoods for them. And think about how to create the ability for all of us to live in our fullest expression.”
Williams was just 16 when she was cast in the WB series “Dawson’s Creek,” starring in late ’90s genre movies “Dick” and “Halloween H20” before transitioning to more dramatic fare including “Brokeback Mountain.” She has no qualms about letting her kids pursue careers in the arts if that’s what they want.
“When you see the seed of what something could become in a child, it honestly seems very natural to me to offer them support,” Williams says.
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Since welcoming her third child less than two months ago, Williams has been juggling diaper changes with red carpets and promotional duties for “Fabelmans.” (“I have such baby brain fog,” she says, at one point pausing the phone call to check on her napping kids.) As a result, she’s keeping this year’s holidays as low-key as possible.
“We have a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving,” Williams says. “I don’t know how big of a feast we’re going to make with a six-week-old, so we might count our blessings around Chinese food.”
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