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Home » ‘Ezra’ Movie Sees Actor With Autism Shine With Bobby Cannavale, Robert De Niro

‘Ezra’ Movie Sees Actor With Autism Shine With Bobby Cannavale, Robert De Niro

'Ezra' Movie Sees Actor With Autism Shine With Bobby Cannavale, Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro, left, Bobby Cannavale and William A. Fitzgerald star in the new movie “Ezra,” which is in theaters. (Bleecker Street)

ISELIN, N.J. — The filmmakers of the new movie “Ezra” had Bobby Cannavale and Robert De Niro.

They also had Rose Byrne, Vera Farmiga, Whoopi Goldberg and Rainn Wilson.

But with three weeks until the start of filming, they didn’t have Ezra.

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“We were getting quite nervous because without an Ezra, we did not have a movie,” director Tony Goldwyn (“Scandal”) tells NJ Advance Media.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying.

They had conducted a nationwide search for young actors on the autism spectrum to star as Cannavale’s middle schooler son and De Niro’s grandson in the dramedy.

They reviewed hundreds of self-tape auditions and flew actors into New York to work with Cannavale.

“We saw some amazing kids,” Goldwyn says.

Still, no Ezra.

Then a tape arrived from New Jersey actor William A. Fitzgerald.

“It was apparent immediately that he was special,” Goldwyn says.

Fitzgerald makes his shining film debut in “Ezra,” which opened in theaters May 31.

The movie is about the relationship between Max Bernal, a Jersey stand-up comedian (Cannavale), and his son Ezra, who has autism.

Natural talent blooms

Fitzgerald’s audition completed the picture.

When they saw him in person, he seemed a perfect match for the script’s inspiration.

“Ezra” writer and producer Tony Spiridakis based the story on his relationship with his son Dimitri, who has autism.

“When I met William, it was the spitting image of Dimitri Spiridakis at 12 years old,” says Goldwyn, who has been friends with the writer for 40 years.

He also found that Fitzgerald, who lives in Montclair and had never appeared in a film before, seemed to have an innate feel for acting.

“He had such a freedom and an ability to be himself in front of the camera,” the director says. “He just embraces who he is and that was what we needed for Ezra.”

When Cannavale (“The Watcher,” “The Station Agent,” “Boardwalk Empire”) greeted his son-to-be, the actors instantly clicked.

“From the second he met William, they just connected,” says Goldwyn, 64.

Fitzgerald describes Cannavale, a father of three who grew up in Union City, as “cozy and huggy.”

“He’s a huge teddy bear,” he tells NJ Advance Media.

Fitzgerald says he has ADHD and level 1 autism. Now 15, he was cast in “Ezra” when he was 13.

The movie filmed in Hoboken and Jersey City, among other Jersey locations, but some of Fitzgerald’s favorite memories from making the movie are the scenes set at the Comedy Cellar in New York.

In the story, Max performs at the Cellar as a tryout for a spot on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” He brings along Ezra, who is given to shouting out punchlines like a heckler.

“Every new take they would get this blond comedian to test out the new joke,” Fitzgerald says. “And even though I was supposed to laugh at the script, I actually laughed out loud, like, for real.”

Goldwyn says Fitzgerald was improvising on set every day.

A memorable line that popped into the young actor’s head made it into the movie. It arrives during a scene at a farmhouse where Farmiga’s character, Grace, lives.

Fitzgerald knew that Farmiga, who grew up in Irvington, Newark and Hunterdon County, stars in the “The Conjuring” movies. So he thought it would be funny for Ezra to say Grace’s home looks like “a demon movie waiting to happen.”

It looks like he could have a career as a screenwriter, too, because that line has gotten plenty of laughs since the movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

Spiridakis says he also saw Dimitri in Fitzgerald’s sense of humor.

“He would say the funniest things that seemed to come out of left field and absolutely work like magic on people,” he says of his son. “A lot of times it got him into trouble, but a lot of times, it was his superpower.”

A ‘deeply personal’ film

Fitzgerald became interested in movie acting after seeing YouTubers he followed make small film cameos.

“I thought maybe I could do that,” he says, having wanted to start his own YouTube channel.

Watching him with Cannavale, it’s clear the “maybe” turned into a resounding yes.

In “Ezra,” Max’s bond with his son is a close one, and the two actors create a credible relationship onscreen, part parent and child, part buddy comedians.

That bond, and the comedy that comes with it, lives alongside heavy conflict in the film.

Ezra is forced to change schools after an incident in which he leads 20 of his peers onto Washington Street in Hoboken.

Max and his Hoboken ex-wife Jenna — played by Cannavale’s real-life partner Byrne — co-parent Ezra. They disagree about what to do after he is involved in a second dangerous incident. They’re told he should be put on medication and enroll in a new school.

But Max, who is trying to gain a foothold in his comedy career while living in the Jersey City Heights with his father Stan (De Niro), rejects those plans.

When Max gets violent with an authority figure overseeing Ezra’s care, he is faced with repercussions including the prospect of not seeing his son.

Despite all this, he decides to take Ezra on a trip, making the film something of a road movie.

When Spiridakis and Goldwyn brought the project to De Niro, the Oscar winner was interested in the story because of his experience with his son, who has autism. De Niro, who became an executive producer alongside Goldwyn, Spiridakis and Cannavale, worked on refining the script and committed to the role of Stan.

In “Ezra,” which was originally titled “Inappropriate Behavior,” Spiridakis wrote from what he knew raising Dimitri, who is now an adult.

He also wanted to explore how being a parent of a child with autism made him reflect on his own behavior.

This can be seen in the way Stan and Max start to talk about the history of their father-son relationship. Max brings up how they share some traits, like their responses to stress — including violent or impulsive behavior.

“Some generations are in denial and a lot of that denial comes from people who themselves exhibit some behaviors that are, in fact, neurodivergent,” Spiridakis says.

Stan refuses to even say the word “autism.”

“In my story, it was incredibly difficult and challenging, because one of my parents was absolutely similar in every way to some of the things that Stan was about, but completely in denial about it and wanted no part of it,” Spiridakis says.

“People like Stan, they didn’t have this diagnosis … they didn’t know what it was. It was like, ‘there’s Stan, he’s weird.’”

Goldwyn says Farmiga (“The Departed,” “Up in the Air,” “The Many Saints of Newark”) also found the film “deeply personal” because she has a child with autism, and Rainn Wilson (“The Office”), who plays Max’s friend Nick, connected with a story about neurodivergence.

“They’re bringing this depth without even trying, it’s just in their DNA,” Spiridakis says of the cast. “That really fulfilled what we were trying to do.”

One of the film’s producers, actor Alex Plank (“The Bridge,” “The Good Doctor”), who has Asperger’s syndrome, is an autism advocate who was on set as a consultant. The crew also received sensitivity training before production.

“I didn’t allow any cell phones or devices on set so that people were focused and there were no loud noises,” Goldwyn says, and filmmakers worked with Fitzgerald’s parents to accommodate his needs.

“It created a very chill and kind of lovely work environment, creative environment,” Goldwyn says. “I want to replicate it on every set.”

Spiridakis says they’ve been receiving positive feedback about “Ezra” from neurodivergent people, people with autism and parents of children with autism.

“The reaction from the community that we were trying to honor and be true to, that response has kept Tony and I extremely happy.”

The United States of New Jersey

Goldwyn made his feature directorial debut in 1999 with “A Walk on the Moon.”

His family has a long history in the movie business. His father was film producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. and his mother was actor Jennifer Howard. His grandfather was early Hollywood producer and studio founder Samuel Goldwyn.

Well before het met William A. Fitzgerald, Goldwyn was an actor known for playing President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant III in the ABC series “Scandal.” More recently, he’s had roles in “Hacks,” “Law & Order” and the Oscar-winning film “Oppenheimer.”

In addition to directing “Ezra,” Goldwyn plays Bruce, boyfriend to Jenna (Byrne).

The Jersey film saw him work again with EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg, his co-star in “Ghost.” Goldwyn had a breakout role in the 1990 movie as Carl Bruner and Goldberg won an Oscar for playing Oda Mae Brown.

In “Ezra,” Goldberg plays Jayne, Max’s agent/manager.

Given her link to Goldwyn, she agreed to do the film without seeing a script.

Spiridakis originally set the movie in Manhattan, but Jersey’s film tax credits moved him to change the script.

There were also many Jersey connections among the cast and crew.

Filming in the Garden State “just felt really right,” says Goldwyn, who lived in Hoboken for 20 years.

Besides Fitzgerald’s status as a local, there was Cannavale and Farmiga’s strong Jersey ties, and Goldberg’s, too — she calls West Orange’s Llewelyn Park home.

Jersey also came in handy for Max and Ezra’s road trip.

“We recreated the rest of the United States in New Jersey with the help of some digital wizardry,” Goldwyn says, including the lakes of Michigan and the landscape of Southern California.

Steven Gorelick, former director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and TV Commission, says the Bleecker Street film reported spending about $8.5 million in New Jersey and applied for a $3.4 million tax credit.

“Ezra” filmed at Palisade Stages, a soundstage in Kearny.

Locations included Dr. Lena Edwards Academic Charter School in Jersey City, Conrad’s Confectionery in Westwood, Avenel Performing Arts Center in Woodbridge, Paterson’s School 29, Northvale Classic Diner, Camp Nyoda in Oak Ridge, Green Village Deli in Chatham Township and an Essex County court building in Newark.

With his film debut in the books, Fitzgerald, an avid gamer, is looking to launch his own video game-centered YouTube channel.

He’s also flexed his screenwriting skills with a Batman script.

And then there’s the possibility of more movies — though he’s noticed people’s perception of his age can be skewed.

In the film, Ezra is 11 years old.

“I would like to do it if people would hire me,” Fitzgerald says. “I look young but I am 15 in actuality and yet everybody’s like, ‘oh, you’re too young’ and I’m like, ‘I’m 15, I’m not young at all.’

“I don’t think it’s about age,” he says. “Throw that out the window. I don’t care about that.”

“Ezra,” rated R, runs 1 hour and 40 minutes and is in theaters.

© 2024 Advance Local Media LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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