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The new movie 'Ezra' stars an actor with autism playing an autistic character


Ezra Bernal is a pretty fantastic 10-year-old. His dad, Max, is a New York comedian, so Ezra knows a good punchline. When Max gets a shot at the big time, Ezra has thoughts.


BOBBY CANNAVALE: (As Max Bernal) I just got off the phone with Aunt Jane - turns out Jimmy Kimmel wants me to be on his show in Los Angeles.

WILLIAM A FITZGERALD: (As Ezra Bernal) That's far.

SUMMERS: When it comes down to it, though, Ezra's got his dad's back.


CANNAVALE: (As Max Bernal) But where am I going to get my mojo from?

WILLIAM: (As Ezra Bernal) Mojo Man.

CANNAVALE: (As Max Bernal) That's right. Good.

SUMMERS: Ezra is played by William Fitzgerald, and they both - actor and character - have autism. Max, played by Bobby Cannavale, hasn't quite figured out what that means for their life together. The movie is called "Ezra." It's directed by Tony Goldwyn. And when I talked with producer Alex Plank and screenwriter Tony Spiridakis, Spiridakis told me the story comes from his own life with his son, Dimitri.

TONY SPIRIDAKIS: I didn't know what autism was, and so when the diagnosis came, he was only 4 years old. Things happened. You know, I was called to a birthday party where I dropped him off, and they were playing musical chairs, and he didn't get a chair. And that was the end of that party. I mean, I had to get called back to the house and take him out. And then the person at that party had suggested that I have him evaluated. So the whole journey of learning who my son was based on his autism - it was the dad, me, who really needed to be educated.

SUMMERS: I'm hoping you can talk a little bit more about the on-set dynamics. Alex, as I understand it, everyone involved with the film took part in an autism education session. Can you talk a little bit about the things that you all did to make it an accessible set?

ALEX PLANK: We looked at over 100 kids, many of whom had never acted before, and we watched tapes. And William's tape came in, and it was really good, so we had a chemistry read. And I was just looking through my notes here, and the first two lines say, he stims like me, and this is the guy. So, you know, we were really lucky to find William. But in terms of providing a good experience on set for him and creating a movie that I think was authentic and true to life and respectful of autistic people and - because, really, when we see portrayals like this on film, those things really change the way we're treated in real life. You know, it's important to get these things right because there's so little portrayals of us, and generally, they aren't portrayed by autistic actors.

And then after that, I did a training right before we started filming. And all the department heads came, and I just went through all the sort of situations that could arise on set and how to be respectful of William, how to treat sensory issues right. There's just so many things that went into it. And I think that, in reality, what happened was, by doing that, it actually made a much more positive set environment for everyone.

SUMMERS: I want to talk a little bit more about William Fitzgerald because, I mean, he is a first-time actor, and this role is a big lift. He's funny, and he's emotional. And in the film, we watch him go line for line with this incredible cast of industry veterans. I'm curious. For either of you, are there ways in which the script changed and which the character changed once you found William and started working with him as Ezra?

SPIRIDAKIS: There wasn't much that needed to be changed at all because he was - the type of humor that he had, the type of speaking without a filter - that was what Dimitri was when he was 11, and it was what made the script sort of vibrant. And he was not as perhaps inappropriate as my son was. But he had instincts at certain points where he would improvise something, and all of a sudden, it was just explosively funny. And then there was my Dimitri - right? - because that was where this whole thing started. It was the things that my son did that got him into trouble that I thought were extremely kind of brilliant and out of the box and spot-on in some ways.

And so what Tony Goldwyn did, which was so wonderful, is that he allowed William to be William, and that's what we all did. And that's everything that Alex represents, and that's everything that the film represents. It's not about changing or fixing your child. It's about letting him be or she be who they are.

PLANK: And I would just add that one of the things that I really loved about him from the very start is he was just so passionate about his interests, right? Like, people who are autistic have special interests. I certainly do, and I will not shut up about them, and he's the same way. I was invited over to his house by his parents, and we spent about an hour watching YouTube videos about the history of the Civil War and world history. And he's just so passionate and filled with joy. And I think that you see that in the stimming, you know, because stimming is not just, oh, I'm overwhelmed. It's also, I'm excited about this thing I'm talking about.

And, you know, I think that when we got on set, one of the things that I really pushed William to do is bring his own spin to things because I think that's why his character resonates so much with people - because it's authentic, and it taps into something that's true to who he is in a way and who we all are in a way.

SUMMERS: One of the things that stuck with me in this film was the scene where Max is really just grappling with the choices he's made and how he can best show up for his son. And he says, I don't want him in his own world. I want him in this world. And I know a lot of people have written about that moment, but it really just has stayed with me. Can either of you say more about that?

SPIRIDAKIS: This is sort of - as much lightness and joy as there is in the film, that's the core pain. When you write from a really good, deep place, you are going to have to share stuff that's super-private and super-painful. And I think that that line is everything I had to overcome. I wanted him in this world. Well, the journey for Max is, you can't have that, maybe. It's his world and your world.

PLANK: I think that's also something that we as autistic people go through, you know, in sort of a different way in that we want to be like everyone else. And then my journey with that was that - realizing that, like, I don't want to be like everyone else. I want to be like myself. And I think that this movie really explores that in a way that I think will make people think about, OK, well, maybe I shouldn't be trying so hard to be something I'm not.

SUMMERS: For each of you, what do you hope that people will take away when they see this film?

PLANK: For me, the biggest thing that I hope and I'm already seeing people take away is that there is finally a movie where I can see myself on screen. I've gotten so many messages from autistic people who watch the film who are in tears sometimes because they've finally seen something where they feel represented and feel seen and heard and understood.

SPIRIDAKIS: Yeah. That's what I love. I think that as much as it does that for the autism community, I also have to say that it's the parents of that community that's also so well-represented in this film. The things that I get are very much from fathers who come up to me and just start to cry. And we kind of hug each other. And, like, hardly words need to be shared. But it's been an overwhelming amount of mail that I get from parents and family who are just so happy to see something represented where you can do the wrong thing but the right thing can happen because of love.

SUMMERS: Tony Spiridakis and Alex Plank. Their new movie is "Ezra," in theaters now. Thank you both.

SPIRIDAKIS: Thank you so much.

PLANK: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOVO AMOR SONG, "CARRY YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.