Zack Gottsagen won over the world with his stellar portrayal of wrestling-obsessed runaway Zak in 2019’s sleeper hit, The Peanut Butter Falcon. The barrier-breaking actor with Down syndrome has big dreams and a career that’s just getting started.
He pitched the idea.
He inspired the story.
He improvised the funniest line in the whole film.
When The Peanut Butter Falcon premiered at the illustrious South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in 2019, audiences leaving the theater knew they’d witnessed something incredible. The film garnered instant buzz at SXSW, won a coveted Audience Award, had a limited theatrical release, and went wildly popular, earning $23 million as the highest-grossing independent film of the year.
The 98-minute movie contains some of the best water cinematography in recent years, a Mark Twain-style storyline, and boasts Hollywood star Shia LaBoeuf in the lead role. It inherently had a potent mix of ingredients to make movie magic.
But undoubtedly, The Peanut Butter Falcon’s success results from the charismatic presence of the film’s breakout star and inspiration, Zack Gottsagen.
Zack, an actor with Down syndrome who had been training in his craft at the well-known Dreyfoos School of the Arts in Palm Beach County, Fla., met writers/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz at Zeno Mountain Farms in Vermont. Zeno Mountain Farms is a mixed ability community where people attend activities, workshops, retreats, and camps to promote creativity and develop talents in arts and outdoor activities. The three friends started making short films and discovered they were an excellent creative team.
Zack’s dream of being an actor started when he was three years old, so it was only a matter of time before he wanted to perform in a feature-length film. Roles for actors with disabilities in Hollywood are virtually nonexistent, so Zack turned to his friends.
“I told them to write a movie for me and I was going to be the star of it,” Zack says. Tyler and Michael wrote the film around Zack, making sure his character was fully developed, three-dimensional, and about the person (not the disability, as is often the focus in film and television).
Rule Number One: PARTY
The film took five years to make. In that time, Zack and Shia LaBoeuf developed a true friendship that continues to this day. During one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Shia’s character explains “the rules” of their adventure to Zack’s character. Rule #1 is “Don’t slow me down.” In the film, when Tyler (Laboeuf) asks Zak (Gottsagen) “What’s Rule #1?,” Zak responds: “PARTY!”
Zack improvised the line on the spot as a joke, but it worked. What also works extremely well in the film is the genuine connection between Shia and Zack that gives their performances an endearingly intimate feel.
Zack’s disarming honesty appeared in Shia’s life at a moment when the actor was struggling with alcohol and family issues that threatened the film. Zack’s authenticity at accepting Shia exactly as he was and not sugar-coating how important it was to Zack that Shia not ruin his one chance to make a full-length movie proved to be the wake-up call that changed Shia’s life.
“The universe put him in my life at a very specific point,” Laboeuf told Variety in an interview. “He kept me afloat. I walked out of this project a changed person.”
The Magic Man
Zack has that kind of effect on almost everybody. His The Peanut Butter Falcon collaborators call him “a magic man” and “the most magnetic person you’ll ever meet.” Zack’s gentle, unflinching openness combined with his willingness to improv raps on the spot make him infinitely loveable.
“I follow what my heart tells me,” he says.
Like most young people with dreams and a disability, Zack faced a lot of discrimination and obstacles to his success in the Palm Beach County School system where he was studying theater. Bullies broke his glasses and other students told him he didn’t belong there.
“With bullies, I walk away. I ignore them. I move on the next stuff,” Zack says. Each year, the school tried to deny Zack’s right to attend, but his mother fought for his place among the other teenagers who wanted acting careers.
“We fought intimidation,” Shelley Gottsagen says.
“All the students who didn’t get into the school claimed Zack was taking the spot of someone ‘who could make it big’,” she laughs. In a sweet moment of irony and poetic justice, Zack won the Rising Star Award at Palm Springs International Film Festival after a screening of The Peanut Butter Falcon in 2019. He is the only person from his high school to have ever netted this accolade.
“Follow your dreams. And someday, your dreams will go big.”
Zack, who is also the first person with Down syndrome to present at the Oscars. He signed a talent deal with Kapital Entertainment and landed a role in an upcoming television comedy about family and baseball. He stars opposite Felicity Huffman, helping make the series so attractive that the networks ended up in a fight over who would produce the project. ABC won, giving Zack a producer credit, another groundbreaking achievement in the world of American entertainment.
“Follow your heart,” Zack says. “Follow your dreams. And someday, your dreams will go big.”
Zack’s dreams have taken him all the way to the big leagues—producing his own baseball comedy, the big screen, and BFFs with big-name Hollywood actors who love Zack as much as all the people around the world who consider him a big star and even bigger role model.
We’re some of those people. As huge fans of Zack Gottsagen, we will forever be in line at the box office for his next film and the first out of our seats for the standing ovation. Zack’s superstar personality and perseverance of his dreams show that inclusion is the best thing we’ve seen on the red carpet in a long time.