‘Ezra’ makes an important statement — with its casting


William Fitzgerald with Robert De Niro and Bobby Cannavale in “Ezra.”

“Ezra,” a small movie opening May 31, has a special appeal for Garden Staters.

A road-trip story about a father and son, it begins in Hoboken. It stars Union City native Bobby Cannavale as the dad, Maplewood newcomer William Fitzgerald as his 11-year-old son Ezra, and Vera Farmiga of Irvington as one of Cannavale’s old flames.

But the film — directed by longtime actor Tony Goldwyn — has the potential to reach another, even wider audience.

Because the movie is also about Cannavale’s fight to provide the best environment possible for his young son, who is on the autism spectrum. And that is a struggle the filmmakers know well. The son of screenwriter Tony Spiradakis has the condition. So does a child of one of the film’s producers.

Also on the spectrum? Fitzgerald, who makes his movie debut here.

“The fact that William had never acted before didn’t concern us because he was so right,” Goldwyn has said. “He got Ezra completely. In terms of being in front of the camera, he grasped it all incredibly quickly and was even good at improvising. He was so magical.”

Casting any nonprofessional in a major role is always a risk. Casting someone who may have some difficulty reading social cues, or adapting to sudden changes in routine, is an even larger one.

But Fitzgerald took to acting. In fact, he thrived. “I found the best way to direct him was mainly to stay out of his way and allow him to take off on his own,” Goldwyn said.

In some ways, casting a person with autism to play a person with autism just makes sense. At one point, perhaps, directors could honestly say there wasn’t a large enough talent pool to draw from. But a number of organizations now regularly produce works centered on performers with autism (my daughter volunteered for one in New York, Actionplay, for years). Skilled new actors arise every year.

And, as Fitzgerald proves, experience isn’t necessarily a requisite. All sorts of children have made their screen debuts without ever having taken an acting class. Bring in a sensitive, nurturing director and they can deliver the sort of performance that would make any adult star jealous. Steven Spielberg used to do that regularly with his young discoveries. Goldwyn does it here.

It just takes empathy — which is what storytelling is supposed to be about anyway.

There are, of course, a number of actors — mostly older actors — who grouse about this very literal kind of casting. An actor acts, they insist, and should be able to act anything. You don’t need to be like the person you’re playing in order to play him or her.

In fact, in many ways, the great joy of acting is in not having to play yourself, in being able to become someone else. And, I admit, I have thrilled over the years to performers who were able to pull that kind of magic trick.

True, even our greatest actors have occasionally embarrassed themselves — Laurence Olivier putting on blackface for “Othello,” Marlon Brando taping his eyes back to play an Okinawan in “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” Anthony Quinn donning a hooked nose to play an Arab in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Trying to portray someone of another race almost always leads to caricature, or worse.

John Lithgow with Robin Williams in “The World According to Garp.”

Still, Morristown’s Linda Hunt — who is neither male nor Eurasian — was absolutely brilliant playing the biracial Billy Kwan in “The Year of Living Dangerously.” I adored Princeton’s John Lithgow as the pro football player turned trans woman in “The World According to Garp.” And was there ever a more thrilling performance than Daniel Day-Lewis as the painfully, physically contorted artist of “My Left Foot”?

Obviously, Academy members agreed. All three performers were nominated for Oscars, and Hunt and Day-Lewis both won.

But even if all acting is, basically, playing “let’s pretend,” we’re finally at a point where people don’t have to pretend to be biracial, or trans, or even have a disability onscreen. Actors like that already exist. And not casting them in those roles takes away a rare opportunity for them, and a potentially huge advantage for the work.

Because who knows more about how someone with autism acts than, say, an actor with autism?

Besides, this kind of realism on film doesn’t just help the performer, or the production. It helps all of us.

“Ezra” is a small movie, but it has a big message: We need to be kind to each other. We need to try to understand each other — what makes us uncomfortable, what makes us happy, what we need.

And what better way to show us everything that is possible for a person with autism, than by making it possible for a person with autism to show us everything they are?


Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.


Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Explore more articles:

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter