Zack Gottsagen is an actor, making his big-screen debut in The Peanut Butter Falcon, which opened in theaters around the country on Friday. The 34-year-old actor costars with Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church.
Gottsagen certainly has paid his dues. He has taken acting lessons since he was a child, and even has taught acting to people with Down syndrome. It is a group he understands well: Gottsagen himself has Down syndrome -- and a dream to be a movie star.
That dream began to come true six years ago at an acting workshop at a camp in Santa Monica, California. There, Gottsagen's nuanced performance caught the eye of teachers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, two men who only had been successful on the fringes of the movie industry. He told the two men of his dream to be a movie star.
Nilson and Schwartz wanted to be encouraging, but they also knew the difficult path he would have to follow.
Although an estimated 19 percent of the population in the United States have some disability, only about 2.5 percent of the characters in the top 100 movies in 2017 -- the last year for which statistics are available. And, most of those characters were played by actors with no disabilities.
"We had to have a really frank conversation about how there aren't many opportunities for people with Down syndrome to act in movies that go into theaters. He kind of got really emotional and he just said, 'Well, let's do it together then!'
"It was his idea. It was a great idea."
Nilson and Schwartz had been on the periphery of the movie business for several years. They never had written a screenplay but, inspired by Gottsagen's confidence and enthusiasm, they checked library books on screenwriting and got to work. Whatever screenplay developed, the two men knew that Gottsagen had to be in the movie. They came up with the story of a wrestling-obsessed young man with Down syndrome who breaks out of his assisted living home and embarks on a Huck Finn-like adventure across the North Carolina outer banks and joins a destitute crab fisherman running from his debtors in the adventure.
The road to a finished movie was not easy. Both men went broke and became homeless. "For better or worse, we went a little bit crazy getting that promise we made to Zack to happen," Nilson said.
Finally, the script was done and the duo went about raising the necessary funds to make the movie. Once potential backers saw film of Gottsagen acting, they agreed to finance the movie.
LaBeouf agreed to play the fisherman, beginning a relationship with Gottsagen that he says changed his life. The established actor probably was more famous for his self-destructive behavior than his acting. In fact, LaBeouf was arrested for public drunkenness during the filming of the movie. He since has gotten sober, he said, with the help of Gottsagen.
LaBeouf said, "I was quite unintelligible to myself before I met him. He had more self-awareness coming into this picture than I do, which is saying a lot."
He said. "I've adopted a lot of his self-love and his confidence. It's leading to self-love, which is leading to an ability to receive love, which is what was lacking in my life. And I would run to alcohol. I just hated myself. Just a big self-hater."
In the middle of production in 2017, LaBeouf was arrested for public drunkenness . A video captured him making sexist and racist remarks to police officers. LaBeouf has since gotten sober, and he credits Gottsagen with his turnaround.
"He knows about my pain intimately. We'd be sitting there watching wrestling every night. He'd be eating ice cream. I'd be drinking gin. I'd tell him, 'You gotta stop eating all that ice cream.' He'd say, 'You gotta stop drinking that gin,'" LaBeouf said.
"This man's a year older than me. He's been acting longer than me and he's healthier than I am. He has more friends than I have, has longer lasting loving relationships."
Johnson said Gottsagen was a leader on the set. She said that at the end of each day of shooting, he'd take the directors' bullhorn and say a few encouraging words to the cast and crew.
Gottsagen affected many of the other actors and crew in similar fashion, all while simply being himself. The cast learned to see him as a fellow actor, not a man with Down syndrome.
The bond formed between Gottsagen and his fellow actors in the movie has lasted even after the film was finished.
"This is the least judgmental friend that I have, the most supportive, the most consistent. It didn't stop," LaBeouf said.
Many people might see Gottsagen as somebody to be pitied, to be avoided. But they would miss so much by doing so.
Gottsagen proves that we are all in this world together, each of us capable of doing more, able to learn from each other and support each other.
That might seem like a Utopian world, but in reality, it is the world of Zack Gottsagen. And all of us should be glad to be a part of it.