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Brownstown native lands first feature spot in Steven Spielberg film ‘The Fabelmans’

William Koonce used to dream about the day he could see himself on the silver screen, let alone the opportunity to work with one of the biggest names in the movie industry.

“It was everything I could have asked for and more,” he said.

Koonce, a Brownstown native, is a working actor based out of Los Angeles, who has a small but memorable featured role in the Steven Spielberg movie “The Fabelmans,” which was released over Thanksgiving weekend and is a strong contender for the upcoming award season.

Koonce was born and raised in the Fayette County village. He recalled watching one of the school’s plays during his freshman year and being drawn in with the art of performance.

“I like going into someone else’s footsteps,” he said. “I like being something different and trying new things. When you get that first laugh on stage, it’s a bit of an addiction. Having that power to get someone to do something positive, there’s nothing like it.”

After he graduated from high school in 2016, the budding actor took a chance and headed out to Hollywood that fall. Over the six years Koonce, 24, has been working mostly background work, most notably the Jordan Peele film “NOPE” and as a cannibal on a season of “American Horror Story.” He also was featured in a Super Bowl ad for Expedia. He received an email about whether he would be interested in participating in a Spielberg project, and Koonce jumped at the chance, not knowing at the time how monumental the opportunity was going to be.

“He was my childhood hero,” Koonce said. “I didn’t know it when I was younger but I grew to learn that he made everything that I love.”

“The Fabelmans” is a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age film about a young aspiring filmmaker and how he navigates his parents’ divorce. Koonce said he was initially hired to be part of the background classmates enjoying the Malibu beach during a senior skip day. One day, in between his scenes, Koonce decided to hang back and observe Spielberg in action as he was filming a beach blanket scene with some of the main actors where he was dumping ice cream on other people’s faces as a prank.

“All of a sudden he turns around and says, ‘Hey you, Come here,’ and he asks me to yawn,” Koonce said. “I did and he says, ‘That’s perfect.’ Before we did the first take, and I was thinking he is going to want something kooky. So I did and he asked me if I wanted to see his monitor.”

The honor to see Spielberg’s monitor is not an action that the legendary filmmaker allows just anyone to see.

A couple of takes later, Koonce recalled Spielberg telling him that was the most fun he had had in a long time. Spielberg also remembered Koonce while filming a prom scene with the main character Sandy was screening his movie within a movie for his fellow classmates. 

“He asked, ‘Where’s Will?’” Koonce said. “And I was in the back and he put me in the front so I could react to my scene.”

When Koonce went to see the film, he was surprised by how many of his scenes were in the final cut.

“He kept every single moment I filmed,” Koonce said. “He was so nice and everything you would want him to be. To be in a movie that is being seen all over the world, It’s a really beautiful film and story.”

“The Fabelmans” is expected to be on the short list for “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards, and Spielberg is projected to be nominated for Best Director for the film.

Koonce said he is hoping the success of “The Fabelmans” will help him to land some more character roles but he is incredibly thankful for the opportunity to work with Spielberg at such a young age and learning everything he can during that personal direction.

Koonce said anyone who may have big aspirations is to go after them with everything they’ve got.

“You have to believe in yourself,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. You have to realize those crazy dreams can happen.”