‘Zack has a confidence and belief in himself that is infectious’

Zack Gottsagen has followed his dreams and plays the starring role alongside Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon

Zack Gottsagen: ‘I would say to people with Down syndrome to follow their heart.’ Photograph:  Seth Johnson/Armory Films

Zack Gottsagen: ‘I would say to people with Down syndrome to follow their heart.’ Photograph: Seth Johnson/Armory Films

 

In 2017, the actor Shia LaBeouf was arrested in Savannah, Georgia, on charges of public drunkenness, obstruction and disorderly conduct. Leaked footage of his arrest, swiftly obtained by tabloid news website TMZ, contained plenty of demotic language and rowdy behaviour.

Returning to set the following day, LaBeouf couldn’t look the cast and crew of The Peanut Butter Falcon in the eye, until his co-star, Zack Gottsagen, put a hand on his shoulder. According to a recent interview with Channel 4, Gottsagen gave LaBeouf “one chance to prove to himself: never, never, never do this kind of stuff again.”

The 33 year-old actor claims that working with Gottsagen was a transformative experience that “saved” him.

While most people come into new relationships cautious and grow to either like or dislike someone, Zack starts out at 100 per cent love. It’s disarming and beautiful

“I had never worked with an actor like him,” said LaBeouf of Gottsagen. “I’d never been involved in a project like this. It felt like it was going to be a really freeing experience and to be quite frank, I was terrified. I knew he’d be playing lead guitar and I’d be playing bass to him. If he went left, I’d have to go left. I’d never been in a situation where so much is dependant on staying open, reacting and listening to another performer. I’ve been quite selfish in my choices before.”

The star of Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull hasn’t had a drink since he made his promise to Gottsagen. He, Gottsagen, and fellow Peanut Butter Falcon alumnus, Dakota Johnson, remain firm friends.

“Oh yes,” says Gottsagen. “We’re very close friends. We had a very good time together. I went with Dakota and we got our nails done together.”

“Zack, Shia, and Dakota all fell in love immediately on the set of The Peanut Butter Falcon,” says Michael Schwartz, who co-directed the film with Tyler Nilson. “While most people come into new relationships cautious and grow to either like or dislike someone, Zack starts out at 100 per cent love. It’s disarming and beautiful. Everyone worked hard but there was also a playfulness on set. Shia and Zack would rap battle. Dakota and Zack would dance. All three ate meals tighter and formed a bond for real. They still have a group text chain together and we finished shooting over a year ago.”

Shia LaBeouf, Mike Schwartz, Zack Gottsagen pose during South by Southwest film festival. Photograph: Robby Klein/Getty
Shia LaBeouf, Mike Schwartz, Zack Gottsagen and Tyler Nilson pose together during South by Southwest film festival in Texas. Photograph: Robby Klein/Getty

Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, has had his heart set on being an actor for most of his life. “I would say from watching movies and TV shows,” says Gottsagen, who worked in a cinema before landing the main role on The Peanut Butter Falcon.

“He first said it when he was three-years-old,” says Gottsagen’s mother, Shelley. “He loved anything to do with acting. Whenever I would take him anywhere, where there was any sort of performance on a stage, he would find a way to get up on that stage and start performing with them. I’m a really shy person and it was really hard because I used to have to go up and take him off the stage everywhere we went. So he has always wanted to act. And he’s a real go-getter. He knows what his goals are and he’s very tenacious.”

Shelley, aged 64, helped Zack realise his ambitions by fighting Palm Beach County when it rejected his application to a performing arts magnet school. She filed a suit claiming that he should not be denied access due to disability. 

“I filed a complaint with the office for civil rights because they were violating his rights,” she says. “And they were told they would have to shut down the school or start including students with disabilities.”

Opportunities, however, have been few to none. Gottsagen first met filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz in 2011 at a film camp for people with disabilities. The actor has previously starred in Becoming Bulletproof, a 2014 documentary-western featuring a diverse group of people with disabilities staging a costume drama Western, filmed on vintage Hollywood locations.

“In addition to being a fantastic actor Zack has a confidence and belief in himself that is infectious,” says Nilson. “When he told us that he was ready to be in feature films and become a movie star we explained that there were challenges with that. And that there weren’t many roles in Hollywood written for actors with Down syndrome. Zack’s response was, ‘Cool, you’re writers and directors and I’m an actor so we can do it together!’”

Schwartz, meanwhile, notes that on set, Down syndrome is more of an ability rather than a disability.

“The most important thing you can ask for from an actor is for them to be present, listen, and show real honest emotion,” he says. “Zack and many other people we’ve met with Down syndrome have an elevated ability to love and live in the moment.”

Tyler Nilson recently revealed on This Morning that he was “offered money” to replace 34-year-old Gottsagen. As it happens, the first-time directors were fortunate to stick to their guns. Gottsagen’s performance has received rave notices and he is surrounded by an amazing array of talents. In addition to Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, the film features no fewer than three Oscar-nominees – Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and Thomas Haden Church – as well as several name wrestlers and the American rapper, Yelawolf.

“As first time writer-directors we couldn’t get anyone to read the script,” says Nilson. “So we went and shot a five minute proof-of-concept (trailer) to show the tone of the film and that Zack could do the acting job. That five minute piece opened a lot of doors. It got us the producers of Little Miss Sunshine, Nebraska, and Mudbound and most of our actors as well. People saw Zack acting, heard the story and said, ‘I want to make that.’ Shia Labeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf. It’s an embarrassment of riches and they all worked so well together. . . This movie had so many barriers to break and every step along the way the best possible outcome came to be.”

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a contemporary reworking of Huckleberry Finn, which takes Gottsagen’s own ambitions to be an actor and changes them into a quest to become a wrestler. The hero of The Peanut Butter Falcon, who is also called Zak, hopes to be a wrestling star but worries he won’t make it because, as he notes at one point, “I am a Down syndrome.”

Having escaped a North Carolina retirement home – the only place where the state can facilitate an adult with intellectual disabilities – Zak teams up with his carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and a troubled crab trawler (Shia LaBeouf) in order to track down his wrestling hero, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). The film culminates in an exciting outdoor confrontation in the ring.

The Peanut Butter Falcon: Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf developed a strong friendship during filming Photograph: Seth Johnson/Armory Films
The Peanut Butter Falcon: Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf developed a strong friendship during filming Photograph: Seth Johnson/Armory Films

“I had a stuntman,” explains Gottsagen. “But I didn’t use him. I did all my own stunts.”

The film, which won the audience award at South By Southwest, has become a sleeper summer hit in the US and, according to everyone involved, a real conversation starter.

A lot of people have said that they always felt that they couldn’t do things, but after seeing the movie and watching Zack in the movie, they now feel that they can pursue their dreams

“I’ve had some really interesting conversations everywhere we go,” says Shelley. “People have been telling us how the movie affected their lives or about the changes they have made in their lives because of it. Oftentimes, those conversations are with parents of young adults with disabilities or children with disabilities. And they’ll talk about how the film is giving them courage and hope. And we hear that also from individuals with disabilities. A lot of people have said that they always felt that they couldn’t do things, but after seeing the movie and watching Zack in the movie, they now feel that they can pursue their dreams. And that’s what the movie is really about. It’s to inspire people who have different talents and different potentials. Disability shouldn’t be the factor that excludes them.”

Zack Gottsagen has subsequently played a cheerleader alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard in Ready To Ride: A Musical Homecoming and is currently waiting to hear about another project. He was WWE’s first celebrity guest announced for Wrestlemania 36; the event will take place in Florida next April.

“I would say to people with Down syndrome to follow their heart,” he says. “I would say to all people to follow their hearts. It will be hard. And you will have to do a good job to follow your dream.”

The Peanut Butter Falcon is released October 18th