'The Peanut Butter Falcon,' Movie Starring Actor With Down Syndrome, Coming This Summer
In the movie, Zak (Gottsagen) escapes his residential nursing home to follow his dream of training under his professional wrestling idol. Along the way, Zak encounters Tyler (LaBeouf), “a small-time outlaw on the run,” according to Roadside Attractions. The pair of fugitives work their way through a series of obstacles while convincing the nursing home employee tasked with bringing Zak back, Eleanor (Johnson), to join the adventure.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon,” written and directed by Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson, was created for Gottsagen. According to Deadline, Schwartz and Nilson met Gottsagen at a disability acting camp. Gottsagen challenged the filmmakers to create a role for a character with Down syndrome, since initially they said they didn’t see any films that starred people like Gottsagen.
“We wanted to create the most authentic experience we could,” Nilson told Variety. “And the film’s wrestling is an allegory for acting, because there aren’t many opportunities for people with [Down syndrome] to act, nor is there that opportunity in pro wrestling.”
Deadline reported that LaBeouf found working with Gottsagen to be the right pairing for the film, which sometimes required spontaneity as actors. Gottasagen agreed about working with LaBeouf.
“I would say I had the most fun in my life [with this movie],” Gottasagen said. “I do love everything about what I do but just so you know, Shia has always been a brother to me.”
The filmmakers also discussed how some moments of the film may come off as harsh — Tyler, for example, can have a brash attitude. Nilson and LaBeouf said this was intentional so the film didn’t become “too soft” and to show an equal relationship between the two main characters.
“We didn’t wear kid gloves with the showing the hardships that people with Down syndrome go through,” Nilson told Deadline.
“Anybody else who is making these movies about people who are objectified or diminished in society rarely invest the time to understand those people to be able to have the perspective and make it from within their own agency, as opposed to objectifying them,” LaBeouf added.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is co-executive produced in part by Global Down Syndrome Foundation Co-Founder and Executive Director Michelle Sie Whitten, Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver and Best Buddies International Founder Anthony Shriver.
With Gottsagen, LaBeouf and Johnson along with actors Bruce Dern, John Hawkes and Jon Bernthal, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” earned the Narrative Spotlight audience award at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. The movie was initially slated for a 2017 release.
Gottsagen’s lead role is also welcome representation for people with disabilities on-screen. Based on a University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism report from 2016, only 2.7% of characters in the top 900 films examined featured speaking roles for people with disabilities. Most of those characters aren’t played by actors with disabilities.
After a screening of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” at a Global Down Syndrome Foundation event, LaBeouf shared it was clear Gottsagen’s role in the film was set to make a big difference for others who haven’t seen themselves represented in film and TV.
“We went to this party where [Zack] got up onstage and flexed for a while, but after there were other people with Down syndrome coming up to him saying like, ‘I’ve never met a movie star like you before,’” LaBeouf said, per Deadline. “You could see it, even before the movie, the shared secret, the camaraderie that exists — that mother fucker’s gonna change the world.”
Header image via Zack Gottsagen’s Instagram