How Michelle Williams found the music of Mitzi Fabelman (2023)

NEW YORK -- In both Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” and Kelly Reichardt’s upcoming “Showing Up,” Michelle Williams plays women where life — societal hurdles and daily nuisances — gets in the way of self-expression.

Mitzi Fabelman, the early-1960s matriarch based on Spielberg’s own mother, has given up her career as a talented concert pianist to raise a family. It’s a sacrifice that haunts her. It’s also a gift that radiates from her.

“I think of her as the piano that she loved so much,” Williams says. “That range was inside of her. That musicality. That emotional dexterity. That was her art. That music flowed through her, and it affected how deeply she could feel. She was the tornado that she drove into.”

As an actor, Williams has, herself, steered straight into some indelibly tempestuous characters: the romantic of “Blue Valentine,” Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn,” the anguished ex-wife of “Manchester by the Sea.” But if there was ever a role that showed the extent of Williams’ remarkable range – her every-note-on-the-piano “emotional dexterity” – it’s Mitzi.

The fictionalized but autobiographical film, currently playing in theaters, centers on Spielberg’s coming of age as a filmmaker. But Mitzi is the film’s aching soul. At turns despondent, playful and ebullient, Mitzi’s moods swing with a quicksilver melancholy, caught between undying devotion to her children and a stifling of her dreams. In many ways, she gives them to her son. It’s Mitzi who gifts young Sammy/Spielberg his first movie camera. “Movies are dreams that you never forget,” she tells him at his first trip to the cinema.

How life filters into work is deeply embedded in Williams’ emotional life as an actor, one drawn from wellsprings of personal memory and illuminated by the kind of metamorphosis Mitzi was denied. How the two relate was on her mind as she spoke in a recent interview by Zoom from her home in Brooklyn. Occasionally, Williams’ newborn, her third child and second with her husband, the theater director Thomas Kail, stirred in the next room. Balancing a baby and a big new movie can be head-spinning. At the recent Gotham Awards where she received a tribute award, Williams stood stunned at the podium: “What is happening? I shouldn’t even be out of the house. I just had a baby.”

But it may be just the start. Williams’ performance in “The Fabelmans” – luminous, enthrallingly theatrical, delicately heartbreaking — is widely expected to land Williams her fifth Academy Award nomination. It’s an honor the 42-year-old is yet to win, a shutout that looks increasingly like some mistake.

(Video) The Fabelmans Exclusive Movie Clip - Mitzi Tells Sammy They Are Going to Film (2022)

But what pushes an actor like Williams -- one of such interior intensity that she hasn’t watched her work in more than a decade -- is closer to her character in “Showing Up.” In it, Williams plays a sculptor of modest human figures, with little hope of attracting a wide audience. The role is almost antithetical to Mitzi; Williams’ character, Lizzy, is solitary and less expressive. Her handmade artwork, crafted in between endless interruptions, is about the opposite of something as big and glitzy as a Spielberg production. But she’s compelled, regardless.

“I think it’s that way for everybody,” says Williams. “You never know if what you’re doing is going to be of any interest to anybody but yourself.”

Is it true for Williams, too?

“Ab-so-lutely,” she answers.


Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler, died at the age of 97 in 2017. His father, Arnold Spielberg, passed away in 2020 at 103. Making “The Fabelmans,” which Tony Kushner and Spielberg wrote through the pandemic, became a way to memorialize the two most influential figures of his life.

(Video) Os Fabelmans – Elenco Featurette

In preparation, Spielberg — who had Williams cast in his mind a decade earlier after seeing “Blue Valentine” — gave her copious amounts of home movies and photographs of his mother to comb through. Williams' impressions thoroughly informed her interpretation of Mitzi.

“The resonant information that this woman transmitted through a photograph was enough for me to work with, to embody her,” she says. “That’s how strong her spirit was. You could catch it in a frozen image taken 60 years ago.”

But there was also something that Spielberg, who grew up with three sisters, told Williams about his mom that struck her. He said: “We were more like playmates.”

“They got into mischief together. They got into fun,” Williams says. “And I’ll tell you this: None of her children seem to resent her for it. I think they thought they had a pretty great childhood. They had fun together. How often do we let ourselves really play with our children? What do our children want to do with us? Play! She was Peter Pan.”

It's an aspect of Mitzi that may not be terribly far from Williams, herself. It's how she hopes she raised her first daughter, from her relationship with Heath Ledger.

“I love, in that small window of time, to invest as much magic as possible. I do think that childhood is a place where we can generate creative work from for the rest of our lives,” says Williams. “I’ve always felt very protective of my daughter’s childhood. Now as I embark on two more childhoods, I can see that because I know what it meant for me.

(Video) John Williams - Mitzi's Dance | The Fabelmans (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

“I grew up in Montana. I grew up riding horses bareback. I grew up adventuring. I grew up unsupervised. I grew up wandering through natural environments. That wilderness is maybe the best part of me," says Williams. "The desire to feel free and exploratory and like a natural being, like a human animal, is something that I seek out over and over again in my life.”


The pivotal event of “The Fabelmans” comes when Mitzi reluctantly leaves her husband (played by Paul Dano) for his best friend (Seth Rogen). It’s a defining moment for Sammy, wrapped up in his own dawning realization of the power of cinema to capture, shape and distort reality. For Mitzi, it’s a desperate stab at self-preservation.

“I thought she already suffered a near-death experience. When she gave up her dream of being a concert pianist, she experienced what it’s like for part of you to die,” says Williams. “So when she’s faced with another near-death experience — Do I stay in this marriage or do I allow myself to go where my heart is leading? — she knows that she can’t die again. There will be nothing left of her."

For Kushner, whose plays fuse domestic life with political currents, Mitzi is a mid-century woman only fitfully experiencing more modern freedoms. He and Williams spoke about the uncertainty and pain of her choice.

“What is this thing in her that allows her to make this decision? Is it her artistry? Is it bravery? Is it how big her emotions are? What allowed this woman to stake a claim on her life like this?” says Williams. “I don’t know but I do think it’s what’s allowed her children to do the same thing, to stake a claim on their own lives. That, I think, is one of the greatest gifts that you give to your kids, showing them how they can be a full person."

(Video) Steven Spielberg, ‘The Fabelmans’ Cast On How The Film Hits Home


Williams' favorite thing to hear on the set was Spielberg behind the monitor saying, “I have an idea.” In one especially vivid scene during a campout, Mitzi dances in the headlights of a parked car, swaying to a melody seemingly just out of reach. Spielberg had many impromptu ideas shooting that scene. Williams, coming off Gwen Verdon in the miniseries “Fosse/Verdon," channeled a dancer's composure to give Spielberg as many options as possible. “Mitzi wasn't a dancer per se, but she carried herself like one,” she says.

Such moments making “The Fabelmans," Williams says, were so intoxicating that she wanted to “eat the air” on set. When Williams was 12, she decided she wanted to be an actress after seeing not just a play on stage but “the whole beehive behind." “I wanted to be inside of a family,” she says. After finding that on “The Fabelmans,” letting go of Mitzi wasn't easy.

“It's hard to let them go. It’s sad to let them go. You’ve spent so much time, to exclusion of other things and people in your life, with them,” Williams says. “I can allow it to be a slow process of letting go of them. And I can try to cling to the couple or maybe many things that they have taught me. You can’t help but be affected by their spirit as it’s been residing with you. She certainly was a huge loss for me. I hit the floor when this movie was over. I cried in a way that caught me by surprise.”

But there are parts of Mitzi living, still, with Williams.

“Coming up on the holidays, isn’t a camera the perfect gift for every child this year?" she says, smiling. "That’s what my kids are getting.”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at:


Is Michelle Williams really playing piano in Fabelmans? ›

Does Michelle Williams play piano in The Fabelmans? Throughout The Fabelmans, Michelle Williams is seen playing the piano multiple times. Her hand movement over the keyboard is incredibly accurate to the music, however it isn't really Michelle Williams we hear on the soundtrack.

Who is Mitzi in the Fablemans? ›

Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman, the sixteen-year-old son of the family who aspires to become a filmmaker. He is based on Spielberg. Michelle Williams as Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman, Sammy's encouraging mother and a skilled pianist. She is based on Spielberg's mother, Leah Adler.

How old was Michelle Williams in species? ›

Michelle Williams was still a teenager when she began getting small TV roles, and she was 15 when she appeared in the 1995 feature film Species.

How many Grammys does Michelle Williams have? ›

Grammy Awards

Williams has won 1 award from 7 nominations as a member of Destiny's Child, but each award is individually assigned to each member of the group.

Does Jennifer Hudson really play the piano? ›

Rather than being a prerequisite for the film, Hudson said learning to play piano for Respect was her own choice – and very much a work in progress. “I started piano lessons. Aretha got me back in music school,” she told People Magazine.

Did he really play the piano in the pianist? ›

Shots of Szpilman's hands playing the piano in close-up were performed by Polish classical pianist Janusz Olejniczak (b. 1952), who also performed on the soundtrack.

What is the secret in The Fabelmans? ›

The shocking reveal of The Fabelmans that Spielberg kept a secret for his whole life was that, in real life, his mother was the irresponsible one after all. As it plays out in the film, Mitzi was adulterous with Burt's good friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen).

How realistic is The Fabelmans? ›

Starring Michelle Williams (The Greatest Showman) as mother Mitzi and Paul Dano (The Batman) as father Burt, The Fabelmans is very much the true story of Spielberg's real life parents Leah and Arnold, and younger siblings Anne, Sue, and Nancy.

Is The Fabelmans based on Steven Spielberg's life? ›

Yes. The Fabelmans is based on the true story of Steven Spielberg's childhood, growing up as an aspiring filmmaker. Spielberg, in addition to directing, co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Kushner. Spielberg based the character of Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle) on himself.

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Williams, began her career with television guest appearances and made her film debut in the family film Lassie in 1994. She gained emancipation from her parents at age fifteen, and soon achieved recognition for her leading role in the teen drama television series Dawson's Creek (1998–2003).

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Michelle Williams is officially a mom of three! The My Week with Marilyn actress, 42, and husband Thomas Kail have welcomed their second baby together.

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Beyoncé made history at the 2023 GRAMMYs by becoming the artist with the most GRAMMY wins — ever — when she won the GRAMMY for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album for her 2022 album, Renaissance. Beyoncé now counts 32 total GRAMMY wins.

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Michael Jackson, often referred to as the "King of Pop," is tied for the record for most Grammys won in one night, receiving eight awards at the 26th Grammys in 1984. According to the Recording Academy, at the ceremony, Jackson took home the awards for: Record of the year: "Beat It" Album of the year: "Thriller"

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Lived: 1873-1943

Rachmaninoff is often said to be the greatest pianist of all time, hands down. Rachmaninoff considered himself a romantic, and had a strong desire to continue the romanticism of the 19th century into the 20th century, unlike his Russian counterparts, who were mostly composing modern pieces at the time.

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Sandra Bullock

Although her parents hoped for their daughter to have a career in music – we are sure they aren't disappointed with how she turned out! Bullock has shown off her piano skills in several TV shows and movies, like “The Net”.

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I was never really ashamed to be Jewish, but I was uneasy at times." Spielberg also suffered from anti-Semitism: "In high school, I got smacked and kicked around.

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Sometimes he told people his last name was German, not Jewish. (Incidentally, the moniker “Fabelman” “sounds like Jewish wordplay on the idea of fables, or storytelling,” as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency puts it.) In the film, Sammy's classmates taunt him, calling him “Bagelman.”

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Third baby early or late statistics

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David Maxwell (musician)
David Maxwell
BornMarch 10, 1943 Waltham, Massachusetts, United States
DiedFebruary 13, 2015 (aged 71) Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Occupation(s)Pianist, songwriter, singer
1 more row

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1. The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg) | Mitzi Tells Sammy They Are Going To Film
(Universal Pictures All-Access)
2. The Fabelmans | Official Trailer [HD]
(Universal Pictures)
3. The Fabelmans - Cast Featurette
(Universal Pictures)
4. Come Behind the Scenes of 'The Fabelmans' | Steven Spielberg, Michelle Williams
5. Michelle Williams Cried When She Got the Call For 'The Fabelmans' | W Magazine
(W Magazine)
6. The Fabelmans - Behind the Scenes
(Mayhem Mendes)
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