Working with Spielberg on 'The Fabelmans' was 'amazing' for local actress Keeley Karsten

The Desert Sun
The Desert Sun

Getting a pat on the back or compliment from anyone is a great feeling, but imagine getting it from one of the world's most legendary directors. Coachella Valley local Keeley Karsten knows exactly what that feels like.

"The Fabelmans," directed by Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg, tells the tale of Sammy Fabelman, who loves being behind the camera, making movie magic and escaping the dysfunctional parts of his life. The film is loosely based on the director's adolescence and first years as a filmmaker, and also highlights difficult moments from his past, including his parents' relationship. Karsten plays Natalie Fabelman, one of Sammy's sisters.

Due to the nature of the film, there were days when filming got emotional for everyone on set, not to mention nerve-racking. But Spielberg knew exactly how to elate his cast.

"Steven is really the sweetest person," Karsten, 12, said in an interview with The Desert Sun. "Whenever we had an emotionally rough day to film, Steven would just put his hand on his heart or point at you or put his hand on your shoulder and whisper, 'That was so good.' When you got a 'so good,' you would be so happy because it was Steven Spielberg."

The young actress called herself "very lucky" to be part of the film, which stars Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle, Seth Rogan and Judd Hirsch. Marking the first major film role of her career, Karsten said it was "amazing" to work with many well-known Hollywood giants, meet Spielberg's family and be part of such a meaningful project. "The Fablemans" is also one of the frontrunners in the Academy Awards Best Picture race, and it will receive the Vanguard Award at the Palm Springs International Film Awards on Jan. 5.

"It's definitely a whole new world that I get to explore," she said.

"The Fabelmans" is currently playing in the Coachella Valley and showtimes can be found at

Finding 'home'

Getting a role in Spielberg's latest film seemed like a "long shot" for Karsten and her agent, but they decided to go for it anyway.

She spent hours filming and perfecting her audition, which she still believes is the best one she's ever done. It was enough to impress the legendary director, too, because she later got the call that would change her life.

The first day on set felt the most stressful for a number of reasons, but particularly because it was when she would finally meet Spielberg. Filming took place during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Spielberg was wearing goggles, a face mask and a shield and gloves, she recalled.

"I was a little overwhelmed," Karsten said. "There's a lot of pressure (on the) first day, but I definitely learned really quickly that it would become more of a home."

That "home" environment was also quite the learning lab for the young actress. When Dano, who plays her father in the film, would arrive on set, he would watch everyone and walk around to "let everything sink in," and Karsten said that stuck with her. Williams, too, told the tween she should drink water after filming an emotional scene — portraying a motherly figure both on and off screen.

Karsten did plenty of research into Spielberg's family and made a journal for her character, who is loosely based on Spielberg's sister, using the script and stories she heard from the director and the film's co-writer, Tony Kushner. She also met Sue, Spielberg's actual sister, and asked her what was like growing up and how she felt during tumultuous times, such as when she learned her parents would be getting divorced. Karsten said that connection impacted her performance even more. In fact, that was one of the most memorable scenes to film, she said, because she learned a lot about her character, and it marked her final day on set.

Aside from impressing audiences with his early talent for filming movies, one of the most interesting tidbits people learn about Spielberg's life is that his mother once brought home a pet monkey. But filming with Crystal, the female capuchin monkey, was quite stressful, Karsten said, because everyone had to stay fairly quiet on set to not frighten her.

Most importantly, she learned it was OK to make mistakes, even in a Spielberg film.

"He had given us so much freedom because Steven trusted us so much with his life, which was great," Karsten said. "I really love working with them, and I miss them all now."

On the big screen

The film premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival was the perfect start for the press tour, Karsten said, because "everyone was so happy to be there."

The first time she saw the film, she was mainly focused on what made the final cut and what was edited out. But the second time everything clicked. The score by John Williams was "really beautiful, and I thought it made the film so much stronger," Karsten said, adding that she also admired Janusz Kamiński's cinematography.

Even though she had a few notes on her performance, seeing herself on the big screen was out of this world.

"I didn't really believe it at first. ... I was like, oh my god, I'm in a movie, which has been the goal for a long time," Karsten said. "It's a beautiful film. I may be a little biased, but I think that Steven's life was amazing."

It also allowed her to take in how she and her director had much different upbringings. In "The Fabelmans," Sammy's father is not too keen on him pursuing filmmaking for a career. For Karsten, fine arts was always part of her life. Her father is currently the Coachella Valley Repertory's executive artistic director, and her mother is a choreographer. When she told her parents she wanted to pursue acting, they were "fully supportive," she said.

"Whenever I do a self-tape, all my greatest ideas are usually (from) my parents," Karsten added.

The Coachella Valley actress is staying busy and continuing to pursue her dreams. She will be performing in the Coachella Valley Repertory's upcoming production of "Fun Home," on stage from Dec. 6 through 18, and recently completed production on the upcoming project "Entanglement."

Filmmakers she would like to work with in the future include director Wes Anderson and actress Jessica Chastain, the latter of whom she looks up to and has inspired her to pursue acting.

When she's not stealing scenes on stage and the big screen, Karsten is enjoying the warm weather in the desert with the newest four-legged, tail-wagging addition to her family.

Ema Sasic covers entertainment and health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at or on Twitter @ema_sasic.

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