If Julia Butters were to rank her most memorable birthdays, her 12th would surely be at the top. It was on that day, April 15, 2021, that she received a call from her idol, Steven Spielberg, telling her that she was going to be a part of his next movie, The Fabelmans. “I freaked out,” she says, reminiscing on the conversation that changed everything. In truth, Butters has been dreaming of, or manifesting, this moment since she was a tween gathering anyone in her vicinity to make movies. It was the legendary director who ignited her passion for the craft at such a young age thanks to the likes of Jaws and E.T.
Since her film debut in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Butters has been charting a carefully curated path in the industry that includes meaningful storytelling and working with some of the greats behind the camera—Tarantino, the Russo brothers, and now Spielberg. Not a bad start for the 13-year-old. The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama, is yet another stepping stone for the ambitious young actress. Both an ode to the power of filmmaking and a look at a family on the brink of despair, the movie is a beautiful escape for cinephiles and Spielberg fans alike that continues to delight critics. It has a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes and is an almost certain shoo-in for award-season favorite.
We caught up with Butters following the film’s AFI Fest closing-night premiere, where she wore a bow-bedecked Greta Constantine dress, to talk about finding a newfound sense of confidence through her role in The Fabelmans, the next big-name director she has on her bucket list, and finding the right balance between youthful and chic on the red carpet.
Let’s take it back to the beginning. How did your journey with The Fabelmans first begin?
It was April of 2021 around Easter, and Amblin [Partners, Steven Spielberg’s production company] sent an email to my agent and manager, and as soon as they saw Amblin, they immediately sent it to me—like, “Oh my god, your name has come up. This is an opportunity of a lifetime!” So I did a self-tape, and I actually forgot to slate and do the full. In auditions for self-tapes, they always want a full-body shot, and I forgot to do both of those things. I sent it in, and I felt so sad and was like, “I hope I didn’t just ruin my dream self-tape.” But within a few days, they said, “Steven really liked it, and we’ll keep you posted.” That was all I really needed. Even if I didn’t get the part, that was going to satisfy me. And then on my birthday, I got a call from Steven, and he wished me a happy birthday, and he said I was going to be a part of the movie.
What an epic birthday gift! Outside of it being a Steven Spielberg project, what aspects of the story resonated with you when reading the script?
Steven likes to say that no family is perfect, and I definitely could tell what the story was by the sides I was given. It was such a powerful message to really normalize regular families and imperfect families, and I think it’s a very relatable subject for many people, myself included—just to normalize that nobody is perfect. No family is perfect. We all have issues, and that is okay, and that’s normal. I think that was a really powerful message that I’m very glad to be representing.
You play Reggie Fabelman, one of the three younger sisters of the central character, Sammy. What conversations did you have with Spielberg about his own relationship with his sisters?
Well, he definitely said that through writing it he got to be closer with each and every sister, especially Anne, who my character represents. They would tell me little stories about their childhood and how their mom would cut their hair, and I actually cut my bangs for the role. They just told me stories about their relationship when they were younger and their relationship together with their mother and their father, and that was really special to get to hear about that.
Oh, I love that you got to connect with Anne too.
Oh, definitely. We still talk. We go out to lunch every now and then to catch up. She gives me miniatures, which is lovely. She’s like an aunt that gives gifts all the time. She’s so sweet. She gave me her high school ring from, I think, 1967.
That’s so special. What did you enjoy about stepping into this role?
Oh my gosh. Obviously, I enjoyed being on set and working with Steven and getting to work with my on-screen family, but I really got to know Anne, and I really got to know Reggie, and I got to create Reggie. It was such a learning experience for me to be bold and brave and to take acting risks. On the first day after a few takes, I pulled out a little improv, and Steven laughed and loved it, and I definitely think stepping into Reggie… She helped me become more confident and speak my mind. I really enjoyed that.
When we meet our central character of the film, Sammy Fabelman, he’s about to see his first film, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which sets in motion his love of movies and filmmaking. What was the first movie you saw that really ignited a passion in you for the craft?
Oh my gosh. That is a really good question. I think Jaws, honestly. I say that completely honestly, which is funny because we’re talking about Steven Spielberg. But Steven has been my idol for so long since I was about 5 seeing E.T. I loved Steven and his way of telling stories, but Jaws was really what made me fall in love with filmmaking and writing and directing and acting too. I would make my own Jaws movie with my underwater camera and friends. We would go into a public swimming pool and make fools out of ourselves screaming in the water and pretending to get eaten by a shark, and then I would edit it in iMovie. So I definitely think Jaws.
I like that there is a parallel between your own experience and Sammy’s in the film. You started doing commercials when you were around 2 years old, but when did you know acting was something you wanted to seriously pursue as a career?
When I was filming Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, that was definitely a turning point for me. That was my first real movie that I made with a real memory. Since I’ve been doing it for so long, I think that was really when my memory kicked in, and I got to learn and observe. Working with Leo [DiCaprio] and Quentin [Tarantino] and just learning how to be professional, I think that was a big turning point for me. And of course, I met my idol Steven Spielberg on set. He visited Quentin on set one day, and I marched over there, little 9-year-old Julia geeking out, and that’s when I met Steven.
In your young career, you have already worked with some notable directors, including Quentin Tarantino, the Russo brothers, and now Steven Spielberg. What were some of your biggest learnings being on set with Spielberg?
I learned so much on set from everyone really, like even just seeing how Steven worked and framed his shots and the way he spoke and how friendly he was to absolutely everybody. Even though everyone wanted to talk to him and everyone was excited to see him, he made time for everyone. And that carried through to meeting complete strangers and being so sweet to them and giving them everything. I think that was so inspiring because it’s very hard to be present when everyone is calling your name and you don’t know how they know your name. But I definitely learned a lot about how to manage so many people at once. Growing up as a socially awkward teenager in the midst of this business, it’s definitely crazy, and Steven helped me manage that.
Who are some of the other creators on your radar right now?
I got to manifest. Well, it’s crazy because my big plan was Steven Spielberg. It’s not that I ever thought it couldn’t come true, but I couldn’t even imagine it. So that was always my response, so now, I have to figure out something else. I love Martin Scorsese. I haven’t seen many of his films, but I’ve definitely seen The King of Comedy. That is such a great movie. It’s such a delight to watch.
You talked about directing your own films when you were young, and The Fabelmans is really a celebration of the art of filmmaking. Is directing in your future?
Oh, most certainly. I have had almost every single one of my friends that knew me when I was about 4 to 10… Everyone in that range of my life, I have forced them to make movies with me. And I would direct it, write the script. So I definitely have a love for filmmaking. Steven definitely inspired me. I would love to direct. I would love to write. I write a lot already. I think that would be something very fun to pursue.
What is it that you look for in a project?
Definitely who is making it and who will be a part of it. I love making new friends and love meeting new people. So that is a factor. But also the story and what it represents, what it means, what my character would bring—like do I want to be the person to give this character life? I think it’s mainly about the theme and the message and [whether] I understand the message enough to go forward with it and create more around it. I think it depends on what we’re trying to bring to the screen and to people’s hearts and hopefully bring something semi-relatable or entertaining or just something with heart, something with background to it. Something meaningful is important to me.
Your father is an animator who has worked on some big Disney projects, and you are also a talented illustrator. Is this something you do regularly?
Well, it’s always fun to see how confused people get when I start randomly drawing something every day. They’re like, “What’s happening?! What’s wrong with you?” It’s always funny to see that. But I really like separating myself from the stereotypical child actor because I’ve never considered myself a child actor. I considered myself both a child and an actor, where I’m still a minor but a professional, and it’s not my whole life. It’s not what defines me in the long run. I still have a childhood. I still have a life. I still have my personal time for myself. Self-care is very important to me. I love drawing to be something that I can share with the world while keeping it. I think it’s really special that I get to be a little bit different from all the posts on red carpet pictures and of glam. I just really like sharing a drawing every now and then.
Can you tell me a little about your most recent #Inktober series?
I love my cat. The drawings are of my personal fur baby Selleck. I love him so much. I consider him my son, my child. He is blind. He has no eyes. #Inktober is something where you draw an ink drawing, a little doodle, every day for as long as you can. I chose something that would keep me interested in doing it, so I chose Selleck, who I could talk about for ages. I decided to draw him and challenge myself to see if I could give a character with no eyes expression because you can do a lot with eyes. You can make them sad, scared, happy, excited, but with a character that has no eyes, I thought it was a challenge to see if I could give him a little bit of character.
Before I let you go, I’d love to talk a little about fashion with you. I know you are a big fan of Christian Siriano and even sketched out your dream dress for the 2020 Oscars. Tell me about working with your stylist Enrique Melendez and what you two have in mind for The Fabelmans press.
My personal style is classy, young, but still chic and fashionable. Having style not too grown-up, but not too childish. Just youthful and classy and elegant. Kind of like Audrey Hepburn, but for a minor. So that’s my personal taste, and I try to bring that every time we have a press event or a premiere or a carpet. I try to lean into the more elegant Old Hollywood aesthetic. I love that aesthetic so much.
Do you like to be pretty involved when it comes to your full look, glam included?
Yes. I love collaboration. I think it’s such a beautiful thing. I love being able to bring my own vision to how I want to show up to the public eye, how I want to be seen forever. I definitely think it’s something very important to me, so I’m in charge of how I look, how I feel. If I feel confident, that’s perfect. That’s great. Let’s do whatever we can to get that. And I’m so lucky to be working with a team that prioritizes that and makes sure that I’m feeling good about myself.
Catch Julia Butters in The Fabelmans in theaters November 23.
Photographer: Ben Cope
Stylist: Enrique Melendez
Makeup Artist: Katelin Gan
Hairstylist: Kiley Fitzgerald