Tony Goldwyn is best known as an actor who starred in films such as Ghost (1990) and in TV shows including Scandal (2012-2018). But he has also quietly and consistently built up an impressive resume as a director A walk on the moon (1999), The last kiss (2006), Conviction (2010) and, most recently, Esra. The drama just had its world premiere as a sales title at the Toronto International Film Festival, where audiences laughed and cried and raised raves, especially for the performance of the lead actor, Bobby Cannavale.
Esra revolves around a single father, stand-up comedian Max (Cannavale), who is fiercely protective of his autistic son Ezra (William Fitzgerald), and eventually takes him on the run instead of sending him to a special school and medicating him. The film also stars Rose Byrne as the boy’s mother; Goldwyn as her new boyfriend; Robert de Niro as the boy’s grandfather; And Whoopi Goldberg, Rainn Wilson And Vera Farmiga as friends of the father.
On Thursday, Goldwyn, 63, shared The Hollywood Reporter a little about Esra‘s backstory, Cannavale’s performance, and his hopes for the film’s future.
What led to your involvement in this film? It feels like a personal, passion project for you and perhaps others involved.
Tony Spiridakis (the film’s screenwriter) and I have been best friends for over 40 years. We met at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 1981, where I got my first professional job (I was still at Brandeis). Tony was the first person I saw when I stepped out of my ’77 Chevy Nova one beautiful morning in Berkshire, and I knew immediately that we would be friends for life. We have been best men at our weddings and are godfathers to each other’s first child. The film is based on Tony’s relationship with his autistic son Dimitri. (Tony has two neurodiverse sons, both of whom are exceptionally gifted. Nikos is now a film editor and Dimitri is an extraordinary painter.)
After enduring a similar ordeal to Max – minus the kidnapping – Tony was determined to write a film based on his experience and had been working on various concepts for over a decade. I have read them all, but just as a friend who went through those difficult years with him. Two years ago Tony called saying he had reworked the script and wanted to know my opinion. I was impressed with the progress he had made and told him that I wanted to direct the film and that we should produce the film together. What better expression of our forty-year friendship, I thought, than putting Tony’s story on screen?
When putting the film together, it was crucial that we kept the autistic community at the center of the process. In addition to those on our production team and the cast of autistic children, we have several neurodiverse people in our cast and crew – chief among them is William A. Fitzgerald, the extraordinary young autistic actor who plays Ezra.
Can you say something about Bobby Cannavale and his performance?
Bobby Cannavale embodies everything we were looking for in Max. Bobby brings a kind of electric volatility and danger to everything he does. But always visible in his work is the enormous heart that beats in his chest. Bobby is incredibly smart, sensitive and funny. It turns out he’s also long had a passion for the world of stand-up comedy. Finally, Bobby gets his greatest joy in life from being a father to his three sons. No matter how destructive Max’s behavior becomes, in Bobby’s hands we never doubt Max’s undying devotion to his child.
What is the ideal ‘home’ for the film in terms of distributor? And how would you describe the interest in the film that distributors showed at the fest?
We had an incredible response at TIFF, with a standing ovation at the end of our premiere screening and a second when I introduced William Fitzgerald to the audience. The critical reactions so far have also been fantastic, which is why our sales team is in discussions with several interested buyers. That said, as a filmmaker I just want a distributor who is passionate about the film and really stands behind it. It’s an uncertain time in the film industry right now, but with the right support, I’m 100 percent confident that this film can break through to a wide audience in the same way. CODA did.