In 1981, a 21-year-old Tony Goldwyn met a 23-year-old Tony Spiridakis at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where the aspiring actors developed a fast friendship that has seen them take on the role of best man at each other’s weddings and godfather to each other’s children. Forty-two years later, Goldwyn and Spiridakis have reunited professionally with a big-hearted, multigenerational family drama that made its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Directed by Goldwyn and written by Spiridakis, “Ezra” follows Max Bernal (Bobby Cannavale), a late-night comedy writer turned stand-up comic who decides to take his 11-year-old autistic son, Ezra (William A. Fitzgerald), who has been ordered to attend a special school, on a cross-country road trip without the permission of his ex-wife, Jenna (Rose Byrne), or his own father, Stan (Robert de Niro). It’s a deeply personal story for Spiridakis, who went on a similar journey of acceptance with his young autistic son, Dimitri, over a dozen years ago. (Goldwyn is the godfather of Spiridakis’ first-born son, Nikos.)
Goldwyn, who had read several drafts of Spiridakis’ screenplay over the years, signed on to direct the film in 2021. From the outset, Goldwyn, Spiridakis and their creative team were adamant about casting an actor with autism in the title role and hiring cast and crew members who had a personal experience with neurodivergence. They spoke with other parents who had children with autism, including producer William Horberg and “Parenthood” creator Jason Katims, and enlisted the help of Alex Plank (the founder of WrongPlanet.net) and acting coach Elaine Hall (creator of a Los Angeles theater group called the Miracle Project).
“We wanted to bring the community in and make them a part of our process,” Goldwyn says. “I wanted to get it right, but there is no ‘right.’ The right is if most people connected with that community watch this movie and say, ‘Yeah, that felt honest to me.’”
Seated in a dark green barrel chair at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, Goldwyn speaks animatedly about working with his best friend on his latest directorial outing and creating a heartfelt love letter to fathers and sons.
Beyond your personal connection to the Spiridakis family, what did you find most appealing about the screenplay for “Ezra”?
I’ve always loved Tony’s writing. His dialogue is always so alive. It is always very emotionally honest. It has tremendous heart, and he always finds the counterpoint with humor and drama. Nothing takes itself too seriously, and at the same time, it’s not too cute and slick and trying to be funny.
On a more objective level, the multigenerational aspect really appealed to me — these three generations of men trying to figure out how to be fathers. As a father myself, I really identified with that. What Tony wrote is very universal; whatever your situation is, whatever your family structure is, everybody’s trying to get it right and failing. This movie, to me, is about the power of love in and of itself to be the transcendent quality in all families.
In your capacity as the director, how did you further develop the central relationships between the three generations of Bernal men? What were the keys to creating those lived-in bonds between these three actors who seem to share a similar acerbic wit?
The joy of directing for me, being an actor myself, is when you cast something right, you really just give it over to the actors. Bob, Bobby and William had such natural chemistry that I really had to just try and stay out of the way or help however I could. But the most important thing as a director is to create something that’s real and emotionally honest and not performative. Tony rewrote this character of Stan because Bob had just incredibly insightful notes about how to make Stan a more substantive, deeper character, and it really, for me, was a key to unlocking the potential and tone of the movie, so I really credit Bob for that.
I learned a tremendous amount about directing from working with William, who is an autistic boy of 14. He looks much younger, so he plays 11 in the movie, but William had never acted before. He’s incredibly naturally gifted and super smart, and while he has many sensitivities as many people on the autism spectrum have, he is fearless in other ways. His mind is so sharp. I realized that my assignment with him was to be as absolutely clear as possible with as few words as possible about what I needed and then let him go, because he would get way ahead of me if I started talking [too much].
Ezra knows exactly what he needs to feel safe — and that includes not wanting to be touched or hugged without permission — but his parents, Max and Jenna, each use different behavioral cues to help ground Ezra, like touching his ear lobes or stroking his hair. What parts of Max and Ezra’s life were taken directly from Tony’s own experiences with Dimitri?
I would say that many of the incidents in the film were suggested by situations that Tony experienced in his life. His son really had an issue with hugging as a child. I think he still probably doesn’t like it, but he always gives me a hug when I see him. I don’t know if it is physically painful for him anymore, but it’s something he taught himself to do because he knew it was important to the people that he loved and it was a way of communicating, and that’s very much a workaround for Ezra [in the film]. He knows his dad needs [to hug].
That fight-or-flight [response in the film] is a very common thing; [Dmitri] would take off when he got stressed. The issues with the medication and the school were also a big thing in the family. In Tony’s case, he lost that battle. He did not want his son to go to this school for autistic kids, and it ended up being an extraordinary thing for his son. He ended up going to Bard College and is now this extraordinary painter, and it was actually very helpful for him.
Max uses humor as both an outlet to process his feelings and a place to hide from the reality of his day-to-day life, when those feelings become too much for him to handle. The arc of the film, for me, is Max learning to love and embrace what makes his son different, rather than insisting on treating him like any other child.
Max has always used humor as a protective mechanism, as a lot of comics do, and there’s a fair amount of repressed anger in his comedy. Max tells this story of how he went after a dog when he and Grace [an old childhood friend, played by Vera Farmiga] were kids to protect her, and she says to him, “Max, you’ve got to stop biting the dog. Not everyone is trying to bite you.”
Max’s solution was always to fight, to mock, to make fun of. Something he’s inherited from his father, Stan, is that one needs to have one’s fists up all the time because the world is attacking you — and whether Max and Stan are on the autism spectrum or not is kind of irrelevant. We all have our struggles and our sensitivities, but Max has been predisposed to assume that the world is out to get him, and, therefore, the world is out to get his son.
Ezra realizes he’s at his most powerful when he’s allowed to be himself, and through this ordeal, he ends up becoming the parent at the end. At the very moment when Max is no longer able to protect his son, it’s laid bare for him that he never had to do it in the first place.
And that’s what the original song, written by Adrienne Ackerman and performed by Rae Isla, is trying to convey in the line, “So let yourself be Ezra, we’ll sing the words to your song …”
That’s what I loved about Adrienne’s lyrics. She got it exactly. What I also love about the story is Ezra learns certain strategies to move more comfortably through the world, and he has to learn maybe not to be quite so reactive, but he is who he is. And that’s a very beautiful thing.
This is your first feature as a director in over a decade and the 23rd time you’ve directed any kind of project for the screen. What spurred your initial interest in directing? Did you always know you wanted to work behind the camera?
I thought I definitely did not want to direct. I had worked with some great directors and I was like, “I could never do that,” and I was very tunnel visioned about wanting to be an actor. Honestly, after about seven or eight years being a professional actor, I had some big success and then experienced the ups and downs. After I did the movie “Ghost,” I was super hot and I thought, “OK, now it all happens, and I’ll just sit back.” And then I realized the next movie I did didn’t make too much money, and suddenly I wasn’t as hot as I had been the previous year. [Laughs.] And I thought, “Whoa, I’m not sure I want to spend my career waiting for someone to give me an opportunity.” So I decided to take more control over my career.
I thought initially that meant producing stuff for myself to act in. I found a script that I fell in love with, worked on it for a few years with the writer and didn’t really want to act in it, but I was afraid to give it to somebody else, and it suddenly occurred to me I needed to direct it myself. I took on that challenge and then miraculously it came together, and my first film [as a director] was “A Walk on the Moon.” As soon as I started doing that, I thought, “Oh, I know how to do this.” I just loved the job.