Illustration by Jennie Edwards

Career & Craft

On the Road with Ezra

After a 12-year journey, Tony Spiridakis’ family-inspired story hits the screen.

 “We can be such boneheads.” 

Tony Spiridakis laughs as he makes this assessment, because he is fully including himself in the boneheaded lineup of well-meaning fathers. It took Spiridakis raising two sons, a divorce, plenty of missteps, and even a TED talk about those missteps to reach this conclusion. 

Tony Spiradakis and Bobby Cannavale

For Max, the stand-up comic played by Bobby Cannavale in the film Ezra, written by Spiridakis, a similar realization fits into about two hours of screen time. Since Ezra is based on Spiridakis’ real-life experiences as a father coming to terms with parenting a son on the autism spectrum, he and his on-screen alter ego have taken the journey together. 
In the film, Max kidnaps his son from his ex-wife Jenna’s house and bundles him off on a cross-country road trip from New York to Los Angeles. Also hitting the road in pursuit are Jenna and Max’s disconnected father Stan, played by Robert De Niro. Spiridakis never went quite to those Max-ian extremes in parenting his son Dmitri, but the process of telling Ezra’s story allowed the him to rethink some of his choices. 

“I got to cop to some stuff that, looking back, I felt could have been done differently,” said Spiridakis, who joined WGAW in 1989, “better and differently.”

Such as?

“I think I would have taken cues from my son. I could have been less invested in the picture of fathers and sons that had been imbedded in me,” he replied. “I would have pushed less on the party I was having in my head and dealt more with the one I had been given. There were things I did that were traumatic to my son, but I was doing them to give him the thrill of his life or to give him the childhood I thought he should have.”

Robert De Niro, Bobby Cannavale, and William A. Fitzgerald in Ezra. Photo by Bleecker Street.

Dmitri was diagnosed with autism shortly before he turned 4. Upon receiving this diagnosis, Spiridakis, a writer, actor, and sometimes comedian, immediately began the process of trying to figure out and “fix” his son’s life.

Things didn’t go well. Dmitri had sensory issues, bit people, and was kicked out of multiple schools on both coasts. 

“The first year was a horror show. It was everything like the movie and worse,” said Spiridakis. “He was treated as a very low-functioning danger to himself and others. It was over the top in a way that was terrifying. I was told when my son hit puberty, you didn’t know whether it was going to go less functioning, or better-functioning, they said it’s going to take a turn, we just don’t know.”

The picture improved as Dmitri grew older, settled in at a school where he thrived and, as his father put it, “found his people.” As he noticed that Dmitri had a certain fearlessness on stage, and a wry sense of humor, Spiridakis began to cultivate his son’s performance chops, enrolling him in an improv class for teens at Second City. Dmitri and his older brother, Nikos, also took classes at the Manhattan Film Institute (MFI), an organization co-founded by Spiridakis which helps train aspiring actors, writers, and directors.

I hope Ezra helps families who are in some sort of turmoil and gives them the indication that this will be difficult, but it can also be the most wonderful experience if you get through it by using humor and just loving each other.

- Tony Spiridakis

Dmitri began taking roles in projects written by his father, including playing a version of himself in the pilot Greenport. At a post-viewing Q&A of the pilot, Dmitri was asked about his input into the script. Dmitri initially demurred, but when pressed, he took a gulp of the ramen noodles he was slurping, let out a belch and said, “Well somebody’s got to keep the train from running off the rails!”  
“That’s in the script,” Spiridakis said. “When I was writing Ezra, I told Dmitri and my other son who also had very serious on-the-spectrum issues, ‘I’m pulling from you. This is this kid, Ezra, but it’s you guys, and I’m doing this because I want people to know you both graduated from college. You both work. I think it’s important that we do this.’ They were like, ‘Definitely, we should do this.’”

Bobby Cannavale and William A. Fitzgerald in Ezra. Photo by Bleecker Street.

Ezra took more than 12 years to reach the screen. The film ultimately landed with a creative team including members who could empathize with the story. Several of them, behind and in front of the camera, understood the world of the story on a personal level. De Niro and producer William Horberg both have sons on the autism spectrum. Associate producer Alex Plank, who is also on the autism spectrum, runs the autism information website Wrong Planet. The film’s director Tony Goldwyn is a close friend of the Spiridakis family, as well as Dmitri’s godfather. The title role is played by 12-year old newcomer William A. Fitzgerald, who is also on the spectrum.
According to Spiridakis, De Niro had a strong belief that the story—while not a documentary—needed to be rooted in reality, and not provide false illusions.

“It was a little cathartic to write this, but to Bob’s point, this is not going to change who my son is. I’m not here to fix him,” Spiridakis said. “That’s what Bob brought to the script, the idea that we shouldn’t do that in the writing either. Let’s not be the answer of all things to all people here. Let’s try to be authentic. Bill Horberg, too. We were open books to each other in a way because we were going to talk about something that we cared deeply about. I think we all had that sense of ‘We better do better. We better try to get this really right.’”

Based in upstate New York, Spiridakis is anticipating the May 31 release of Ezra, including a special premiere of at the North Fork Arts Center, the converted movie house in Greenport which will house the MFI and where Spiridakis serves as executive director.
Spiridakis’ own journey as a father continues. In a 2017 TED talk titled Inappropriate Behavior: Fatherhood and Autism, he charts milestones in Dmitri’s growth as well as his own. The kid capable of reading the New York Times at age 4, who could also shut down a 6-year-old’s birthday party when he lost a game of musical chairs, ended up graduating from Bard College. His dad learned that neurotypical fathers can be guilty of “inappropriate behavior,” especially when they believe that their kids need “fixing.”

“As parents of neurodivergent children, everyone’s experience is so varied, so wildly different depending on the child," said Spiridakis. "I hope Ezra helps families who are in some sort of turmoil and gives them the indication that this will be difficult, but it can also be the most wonderful experience if you get through it by using humor and just loving each other.”

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