'Ezra' director Tony Goldwyn went on a nationwide search to cast an actor with autism: 'We need to find a kid where acting is his happy place'

Bobby Cannavale stars in the film as a father who takes his autistic son, played by newcomer William A. Fitzgerald, on a cross-country road trip.

Robert De Niro, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale and newcomer William A. Fitzgerald sit in a movie theater in the movie Ezra.
Robert De Niro, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale and William A. Fitzgerald star in Ezra. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street)

When it came to starring in his first role, as a child with autism in the film Ezra alongside Bobby Cannavale, William A. Fitzgerald kept his cool.

“It didn’t really feel that hard,” said Fitzgerald, 15, who like his character is on the autism spectrum.

That’s because he and Cannavale had a plan.

“Seeing how 90% of the time I have scenes with Bobby, we had a little script system called ‘Be With Bobby,’ and that kind of kept me on my feet,” Fitzgerald told Yahoo Entertainment. “It was like a ‘Be With Your Scene Partner’ system.”

“You can’t go wrong if you just be with the person,” Cannavale told Yahoo Entertainment. “Sometimes actors make it more difficult than it actually is. If you do your homework, you should just be able to just be and live with the person and be in the space. And that’s harder than it looks sometimes, but this guy’s like a pro.”

Directed by Tony Goldwyn and opening in theaters May 31, Ezra tells the story of how stand-up comedian Max (Cannavale) faces his own struggles while raising a child with autism (Fitzgerald) alongside his ex-wife (Rose Byrne) and father (Robert De Niro).

For Goldwyn, who also has a role in the film, the story hits close to home. The script was written by his friend Tony Spiridakis, who is a father to a son with autism — who also happens to be Goldwyn’s godson.

And that meant the casting had to reflect reality.

“There was not one moment when we considered casting a neurotypical actor to play Ezra,” Goldwyn told Yahoo Entertainment.

“Tony [Spiridakis] wrote the script. It was inspired by his relationship with his own autistic son, and so we knew we had to do that,” he said.

After a nationwide search that included more than 100 kids ages 9 to 14, the team landed on Fitzgerald.

“You just know when you see it sometimes,” Goldwyn said.

The director, who also plays Byrne’s boyfriend in the film, explained that for the role they needed a boy who could be comfortable being himself in front of a camera as well as handle the intensity of a film shoot, “because it’s a very adult environment.”

While noting that productions can be tough on all kids, Goldwyn acknowledged that shoots can be uniquely challenging for neurodivergent actors.

“Every person on the autism spectrum has certain sensitivities and certain things they’re comfortable with and uncomfortable with, as everyone does, but even more so if you’re autistic,” Goldwyn said. “And we knew we were going to accommodate that.”

The team hired autism casting consultant Elaine Hall, who helped find Fitzgerald.

“She said, ‘We need to find a kid where acting is his happy place,’” Goldwyn added. “I was like, ‘That’s so right.’ And we certainly did with William.”

In addition to casting Fitzgerald, the production went even further when it came to neurodivergent representation.

“We wanted to involve the autism community in the telling of this story,” Goldwyn said. “One of our producers is autistic himself, and he was on set every day helping us. We had consultants, we had people on our crew who were neurodivergent and other actors in the cast who you wouldn’t necessarily be aware that they were neurodivergent, but they were.”

Cannavale drives as Fitzgerald sits in the back seat in the movie Ezra.
Cannavale portrays a father who takes his autistic son (Fitzgerald) on a cross-country road trip in Ezra. (Courtesy of Bleecker Street)

As for the actors who played Fitzgerald’s parents, both Byrne and Cannavale (who happen to be partners and parents in real life) said their own approach to acting didn’t change when working with a neurodivergent child actor.

“William, he’s such a warm kid, so we were really lucky,” Byrne told Yahoo Entertainment. “And Bobby Cannavale is so warm, my husband. He wears his heart on his sleeve, so I felt we sort of started from there.”

“[William’s] honest, and he’s charismatic, and he’s vulnerable,” Cannavale added. “He’s all the things that you want a good acting partner to be.”

Byrne explained that films have come a long way in changing casting practices.

“It’s great that there’s more of a conversation around it now and more of a language and a spectrum too, because it had such a stigma attached to it for so long and no understanding,” Byrne said. “You couldn’t make a movie like this probably however many years ago with a neurodivergent actor.”

While he was surrounded by award-winning actors, including two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro, for Fitzgerald it was no big deal.

“The only actor I was excited to work with was Rainn Wilson because I had seen a few episodes of The Office,” he said about the former sitcom star who plays Max’s friend in the film.

“See? Honest,” Cannavale joked.

Cannavale said preparing for his role ahead of time and making the effort to connect with his co-star on his projects makes all the difference.

“I’m a big believer in, ‘You do your work all the time before you start to actually shoot. Then when you start shooting, you just have to maintain your focus and your concentration, and the work — if you’ve done the work — it’ll be there. It’ll show,” he said.

He added, “If you’ve got a really good listening partner like I had with [William], it’s easy.”

Ezra opens in theaters May 31.