Actor With Down Syndrome Starring In Movie With Shia LaBeouf
BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — Zack Gottsagen may have dished out some popcorn for you behind the concession counter at the Alco Boynton Cinema or there’s a good chance he’s greeted you at the theater doors to check your ticket but, without a proper introduction, you may not have known you were in the presence of a movie star.
Gottsagen, a 33-year-old Boynton Beach resident with Down syndrome, has worked alongside Hollywood notables Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and David Arquette, but when he’s not filming he can be found at the theater he’s worked at for about four years.
In his latest adventure film called “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” he stars with LaBeouf and plays a role that was designed specifically for him — a young boy with Down syndrome who runs away to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
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“It’s rare that you meet an actor who is actually physically incapable of lying, but his sincerity is the movie,” LaBeouf told The Palm Beach Post. “All I know is that he is probably one of the best actors that I’ve ever worked with and definitely one of the scariest people to face in terms of being able to tell somebody the truth.”
LaBeouf, 32, who is perhaps best known for his role as Sam Witwicky in Transformers, has had some legal troubles and credits Gottsagen’s honesty for helping him through some turbulent times.
“Every line has got to be real, so every line in that script has got to be honest or he would know,” LaBeouf said. “He’s not just a truth-teller, he’s like a truth barometer and an honesty test, which did a lot for the movie and did a lot for my life.”
Multitalented actor has no barriers
Gottsagen has high expectations for the film, though it is still in post-production and is yet to have a release date.
“I hope that thousands of fans see this movie, and I hope that they will love it, and the cast, a lot, including myself,” he said.
He also said he hopes the movie helps change the audience’s perspective on people with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21. It usually accompanies physical growth delays and physical and intellectual disabilities.
Gottsagen’s claim to fame began early in his life, as he was the star of a natural childbirth instructional film, as well as the first person with Down syndrome in Palm Beach County to be fully included in regular education.
He graduated from the Dreyfoos School of the Arts in 2004 as a theater major before going on to act in such projects as “Burning Like a Fire” and “Life of a Dollar Bill.”
Gottsagen starred alongside Arquette in the 2012 short film “Bulletproof” and a behind-the-scenes look at the film, titled “Becoming Bulletproof,” was shown at the Smithsonian Museum in 2015. It was there that Gottsagen served as the keynote speaker for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
He’s multitalented as well, having danced with the Southern Dance Theatre in Boynton Beach for 13 years.
“The writers and directors saw Zack out in L.A. filming another movie with a nonprofit, and they were volunteering with the nonprofit and they just, I guess, were really taken by the way he expresses himself, his mannerisms and the things that he loves in life, so they went back and wrote the movie specifically for him to star in,” said Shelley Gottsagen, Zack’s mom.
The movie, filmed in Savannah, Ga., focuses on a main character, named Zak, who breaks out of a retirement home he was being forced to live in to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. The movie follows the character’s adventures alongside a crab fisherman, played by LaBeouf, and a nurse, played by Johnson.
The role was demanding, with long nights spent filming scenes, but Gottsagen met the demands with an exuberance that is familiar to the people he works with at the movie theater in Boynton.
“It’s rare to find somebody that loves their job, and it’s infectious because everybody loves working with him,” said Larry Forbes, general manager of the Alco Boynton Cinema. “I wish everybody would love their job like he does.”
No stunt double for this actor
His love for acting led him to do some things on set that surprised even the people who know him the best.
“He did things that really surprised me,” said Shelley Gottsagen. “He did all his own stunts, even though they had stunt doubles for him, and some of them were really challenging, like jumping off a 30-foot ledge into water.”
He expressed to his mother that the directors were insisting that a double perform some of the stunts, but said he didn’t feel that it would be right if he didn’t perform the stunt himself, which serves as an example of the authenticity that Gottsagen brought to his role.
“I felt like doing my own stunts because I just wanted to do it for Tyler (Nilson),” Zack said about one of the film’s directors, whom he had known from Zeno Mountain Farm, a Vermont-based nonprofit camp for people with disabilities. “Tyler is the best person.”
Gottsagen’s willingness to perform his own stunts because of his love for his directors is also indicative of the bond that was formed on set.
He watched wrestling on Monday and Tuesday nights with LaBeouf, got manicures and pedicures with Johnson and grabbed a megaphone in the mornings, before filming, to give a speech that rallied the people on the set.
“It was just so genuine, and the friendships, I think, are really lifelong friendships that formed from this,” said Shelley Gottsagen.
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