When he was three years old, Zack Gottsagen told his mom, Shelley, that he was going to be an actor. Fast forward 32 years, and he is the star of Peanut Butter Falcon, an epic road drama directed by Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson. He plays Zak, a man with Down Syndrome who escapes his caring but overbearing social worker, Eleanor, played by Dakota Johnson, at an assisted-living institution in order to finally live his life on his own terms. He runs into a fisherman in trouble with the law named Tyler, played by Shia Labeouf, and the two become fast friends on the run together. The film has enjoyed massive popular and critical success with a 95% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and box office earnings over $20 million, making it the biggest indie hit of 2019.
TheCIL’s slogan, “Be Your Own Normal,” encourages people with disabilities to decide for themselves who they are and what they want to do. Zack was very familiar with independent living philosophy as his mother spent 18 years working at independent living centers in Palm Beach and Miami, where Zack was involved in programs and council meetings for a large part of his life.
Shelley recalled that on the day Zack was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, the doctors said, “he will never walk or talk; he’ll be a total vegetable.” She simply replied “Well, it’s a good thing I’m a vegetarian.” We mentioned how Ed Roberts had a similarly quick retort to the same prediction - “If I’m a vegetable, I’m going to be an artichoke; prickly on the outside with a big heart in the middle.”
TheCIL’s 4th annual Ed Roberts Awards will take place on January 23, 2020, and after one conversation with Zack, we knew we had to include him as our fourth honoree at the awards. The theme this year is disability in entertainment.
Zack met Peanut Butter Falcon’s directors at Zeno Mountain Farm, an artistic organization that gathers an inclusive community involved in arts, sports, film, music and the like. It was there he starred as the antagonist in Bulletproof Jackson, a Western short where a man retraces the legend of his grandfather. Zack knew he wanted to go on to make features, one reason being that “you don’t make a lot of money in short films.”
Schwartz and Nilson then endeavored to write a feature film for Zack. They spent their nights couchsurfing throughout filming, dedicating all of their resources to Peanut Butter Falcon’s creation. When offered a hefty sum to feature an A-list actor to play Zak, they turned it down. “They wrote this for Zack and believed he was the best to play this role, and maintained that they would not cast someone without a disability,” Shelley shared.
Schwartz, Nilson, and Zack spent two years trying to get eyes from the industry on the script, and eventually shot a short video to pitch instead. “People saw Zack had a talent, and that the world of the film had a texture,” Schwartz remembered. Producers and A-list actors then came on board, and Zack's movie was ready for production.
On working with him, Schwartz said,"There were times when we were running scenes by him and seeing what he thought about the character, and Zack would leave with the script for an hour and come back with notes, saying things like ‘it doesn’t make sense that I would approach a scene this way or from that direction, here’s how I want to do it.’”
In fact, Zack improvised many of the film’s most fun moments. When Labeouf’s character, Tyler, asks Zak what rule #1 of being on the run is, he replies “[to] party!” This was not in the script. Neither was a scene where Zak does a dance on the raft after throwing Eleanor’s car keys into the water, ensuring he won’t be institutionalized again any time soon. When I ask Zack about his favorite part in the film, it’s that moment.
We discussed how the film deliberately grounds itself in the reality that people with disabilities experience, which so often includes negligent institutionalization, base assumptions about an individual’s capabilities, and discriminatory language and violent encounters. Schwartz shared that there were moments on set where Zack had to stand up for himself, and where Peanut Butter Falcon’s message really came to life: that it’s not Zack who needed to change, but people needed to change how they thought of and perceived Zack.
“It’s not only about using certain words, but the way you treat a person,” Shelley asserts. One scene in the film particularly illustrates this, when Tyler confronts Eleanor about her over-protectiveness and that although she doesn’t use the r-word, her actions towards Zak say the same thing.
At one point in our conversation, Zack shared, “Just so you know, I love sports.” His favorites are bowling and basketball. That then led us to a discussion about his stunts, which he performed himself - including the 40ft water dive that originally bonds his character and Tyler. “Talk about self-determination,” his mom quipped.
Zack enthusiastically discussed his many talents - acting, playing sports, dancing. When I asked if there’s anything else we should know, he casually said “oh yeah, I rap.” He loves to freestyle, which was a popular hobby on set with fellow cast members Labeouf and Yelawolf. The whole cast got along so well, “hanging out, talking about our lives, making things, and doing things together,” Zack reminisced. Group hugs and appreciation sessions were quite common on set.
Throughout the press tour for Peanut Butter Falcon, many people with disabilities have approached Zack about how the film has made a difference in their lives. Zack and Shelley shared how a young man on the autism spectrum gave Zack a superhero outfit, saying “I needed to wear this every day to have the courage to live my life. Now your movie gave me courage and I don’t need this anymore.”
When the experience of living with a disability is so rarely featured on screen (and when that experience is so often portrayed by non-disabled actors), films like Peanut Butter Falcon push people from outside of the community to see disability differently. Given the film’s success, we can see that there is space and a need for these stories, too. By simply showing another's reality, these stories can powerfully advocate and overturn narrow perceptions of who people with disabilities are and the lives we lead.