Move over Hollywood; there’s a new actor in town—one who exhibits contagious optimism, gives fresh and unpredictable performances, is eccentric to boot … and he has Down syndrome. Meet Zack Gottsagen, star of the heart-warming, crowd-pleasing indie The Peanut Butter Falcon—a modern adventure story in the line of Huckleberry Finn. Gottsagen plays Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from a hope-depleting residential nursing home to pursue his dream of attending wrestling school so he can become a professional wrestler. Shia LaBeouf portrays Tyler, a small-time outlaw who’s also on the run and who becomes Zak’s protective buddy, while Dakota Johnson plays Eleanor, a kind-hearted but restrictive nursing-home employee.

The film’s co-writers and co-directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, first met Zack in 2012 at a camp for both disabled and non-disabled individuals. They watched in amazement Zack’s acting instincts while working on a short film. “It was really fun watching actors go up against him, and Zack was making decisions that were phenomenal, like really, really mindful and present decisions that I hadn’t seen other actors do before,” Schwartz recalls. Afterwards, Zack told the filmmakers he wanted to be a famous movie star. In turn, Nilson said he and Schwartz tried to let Zack down easy. Nilson told him, “I love you, Zack, but I don’t know if the opportunity is going to arrive for a feature film starring somebody with Down syndrome.” Understandably, Zack became emotional upon hearing those words. Nilson described the moment: “And Zack, very sweetly and lovingly was like, ‘What if we did it together?’ We thought about it for like two seconds and said, ‘You’re right. Let’s do it together.” Nilson and Schwartz were determined to give Zack the same opportunity allotted to other actors in the biz.

The duo began writing a film centered on Zack to honor his spirit, interests, and talent all the while shining light on the life of an adult with Down syndrome. For inspiration, they ventured out on their own road trip, and they interviewed Zack extensively to gain insights into his life. Whenever they wondered how to portray Down syndrome in an authentic manner, they’d go straight to Zack for insights and wording. 

Their vision of the film started small—a $20-thousand indie they initially thought. The script focused on the resources they had on hand such as friends with boats and the deltas of Savannah, Georgia. The Peanut Butter Falcon went on to be the winner of the Audience Award at SXSW in March, and it grossed over $20 million in the U.S. during a limited theatrical release. 

Zach studied acting as early as the age of three, he attended a performing arts high school, taught acting at a local community center, and has worked as an usher at a movie theater. Now, the 34 year old can know he’s a groundbreaking actor who starred in a sleeper hit with audiences applauding his authentic performance. 

With today’s ongoing calls for the representation of diverse individuals in cinema, often times people with disabilities are overlooked. Think Dustin Hoffman portraying an autistic savant in Rain Man.  And remember Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump and Billy Bob Thorton’s Karl Childers in Sling Blade—both whom had intellectual disabilities. Regardless of these stars’ celebrated performances, it’s hard to imagine any able-bodied actor portraying Zak with the authenticity that Zack Gottsagen does. 

Among the common reasons cited for not casting actors with disabilities is the belief that the shoot will be too difficult; however, Schwartz and Nilson describe the vibe on set as “like a summer camp” where, for example, Zack would get ahold of a bullhorn and announce, “I’d just like to say that [co-star] Bruce Dern is my favorite actor right now, and it’s great that everybody came out, and thank you so much for being here. If we could have a group hug!” Sure enough, everyone dropped everything, followed directions, and enjoyed a nice big group hug. Indeed, when asked what it’s like working with Zack, Dakota Johnson answered, “It’s kind of like the best experience I’ve ever had, the best relationship I’ve ever had in a working environment. But also just in a life environment.” 

The filmmakers rejected the chance to receive funding to cast an established star without Down syndrome, and they couldn’t be happier. They committed to Zack Gottsagen from start to finish for the uplifting person he is, his fresh and layered performance, and on top of it, bringing greater awareness to Down syndrome.

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