Beating the Odds: Zack Gottsagen is Defying Disability

zack gottsagen
Photo by Seth Johnson, courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films

One of Hollywood’s rising stars shows us how it’s done

Zack Gottsagen has followed a trajectory familiar to many an aspiring actor in the Palm Beaches: a passion for the craft kindled from the age of 3, roles in children’s theatre, middle school enrollment at BAK School of the Arts, a high school diploma from Dreyfoos School of the Arts. Then came live theatre at companies like the now-defunct Royal Palm Playhouse, standout performances in instructional and short films and, this past summer, a co-leading role in a major motion picture.

And he’s accomplished it all despite living with Down syndrome.

Gottsagen, 34, rose to national prominence with the release of 2019’s “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” an earnest film in which he played Zak, an escapee from a state facility who becomes an unlikely companion for Tyler, a delinquent shrimp boat captain played by Shia LaBeouf. On the lam from Tyler’s rivals, they traipse through Old Virginia’s inhospitable terrain, through cornfields, forests and gator-infested waters, subsisting on peanut butter (hence the title, or part of it) and moonshine.

But it’s the chemistry between Gottsagen and LaBeouf, not the twisty plot, that carries the picture. Watching them interact, distinctions between character and performer—between acting and being—melt away into the brackish waters, and we want to be there with them, sharing in a bit of the kismet.

Much of this relationship can be credited to Gottsagen, who has invariably been described as a beam of joy by everyone he’s come into contact with, not least LaBeouf, who was arrested for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness during the filming of the movie, and was inspired by Gottsagen to clean up his act. “There’s no lead time to his love,” LaBeouf said, on “Good Morning America.” “It’s just instant.”

In late 2019, I met Gottsagen and his mother, Shelley, at Zack’s modest apartment in Boynton Beach, where he lives independently. Both were exhausted. Since the release of “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” in August, their lives had become a whirlwind of publicity, awards and opportunities. They were leaving the next day for Los Angeles so Zack could be a presenter at the Media Access Awards.

Gottsagen has appeared everywhere from “Ellen” to “Entertainment Tonight” to MTV, and he has accepted speaking engagements in Georgia, Texas and Connecticut, where he addresses the importance of inclusion for people with disabilities into wider society. Gottsagen lives by what he preaches; he was the first Down syndrome student to be fully integrated in Palm Beach County schools.

“I don’t think Zack would have had these opportunities if he wasn’t fully included in school,” Shelley says. “Don’t cut them any slack. They need to assume the same responsibilities, chores—and it’s hard, because there’s a lot of discouragement from the systems.”

That includes the entertainment industry. There are 54 million people with disabilities in the U.S., making it the largest minority group in the country. Yet according to the Ruderman Foundation, 95 percent of TV show characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors. Shelley and Zack are hoping to reverse that statistic. “We hope it’ll start being looked at the same way blackface is looked at for white people acting.”

Gottsagen is an ideal spokesperson for this movement, because he’s a case study in talent and perseverance overcoming adversity. When he was cast in “Artie” at the Royal Palm Playhouse, in 2005, producers were initially skeptical he’d be able to remember his lines. “When the show came up, not only did Zack have his own lines memorized, but when other actors forgot their lines, he was able to cue them,” Shelley says. “He memorized every single person’s lines.”

Gottsagen is also a triple-threat talent. He’s been a part of a local dance company for 15 years. He also plays the guitar and raps. In “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” he insisted on doing his own stunts, from jumping out the window of his character’s care facility to taking a 40-foot plunge into a body of water—because otherwise, he said, the authenticity would suffer.

And that’s something Zack Gottsagen has in spades.

This story is from the February 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.