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Zack Gottsagen has Down syndrome. And a movie role. And a best bud named Shia LaBeouf

The story behind the film “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is as unexpectedly heartwarming as the film itself. And it all started with the film’s star, Zack Gottsagen.

In town recently to be a presenter for the Media Access Awards, the actor posed for a photo shoot in the Beverly Hilton lobby. Songs from his favorite movie, “Grease,” played in the background to help loosen him up. His mother Shelley said he’d watched it so many times as a kid, he wore out the VHS tape. Asked what part he’d most like to play, Gottsagen immediately replied, “Danny Zuko.”

When Gottsagen, 34, was born with Down syndrome, Shelley was told to put him in an institution because experts said he would never walk or talk. She refused; the experts were wrong and he’s been defying the odds ever since. He wanted to go to public school; she worked to make him the first child with DS to be mainstreamed in Palm Beach County. He always knew he wanted to be an actor and has been acting and teaching theater for years back home in Florida, where he’s also in a dance troupe.

But it was at Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp in Vermont for people with and without disabilities, that he got his big break. Or more accurately, he created it.

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During his time there, Gottsagen met filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, and told them of his dreams of movie stardom. They tried to explain, gently, that his chances were slim. “I would say to them, ‘Write and direct and then I could be the star,’” the actor explained.

Actor Zack Gottsagen

Actor Zack Gottsagen is ready for his close-up after his performance in “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” which has turned the heads of many film critics.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

So they did. Over the next five years, Nilson and Schwartz wrote a script and scraped together backing, not giving up even after becoming homeless for a year. “Tyler was in a tent and Mike was in a car,” Gottsagen said. Nor did they take a payday in return for not having to cast an A-list actor in the role they had created for their friend. Instead, they made history.

Together, they directed “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” about a character named Zak, a young man with DS who’s been forced to live in a Georgia nursing home because the state can’t find appropriate housing for him. He makes several runs for it, finally escaping into the night, in his underwear. His goal: find the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a professional wrestler who could teach him how to succeed in the arena of his dreams. A concerned nursing home volunteer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), follows his trail.

He soon meets up with Tyler, another man on the run, played by Shia LaBeouf, and the two hit the road. Tyler is at first frozen solid from a tragic background of his own making, but over the course of their travels, Zak melts him down. It may sound corny — complete with some Huckleberry Finn raft living — but it works, in part because the writers never make that deadly turn into sentimentality or the kind of inspiration-porn so common to stories about people with disabilities.

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The bond their stars forged on screen feels realistic and lived-in. It was just as powerful off screen. LaBeouf has said that Gottsagen saved him from his own worst impulses, helping him return to sobriety after a very public relapse during shooting. Gottsagen confirmed that they’re still close, like brothers. He then mentioned how nice and talented his other costars were, and made a point to mention Yelawolf, who plays the villainous Ratboy. “Yelawolf is a really good rapper,” Gottsagen said, and would rap between takes. “It was really fun.” He said Johnson was serious in her first scene, but “then most of the time, she had more fun too.”

Via email, Johnson attested to that. “Before working with Zack, I had become slightly solitary as some form of a protection mechanism. The way Zack operates on set and in the world is just completely pure. He does not judge people, criticize or assess them. He does not compare himself to others, or hold any person to any sort of standard. He just accepts unconditionally, and it is the most powerful way I’ve ever seen a human be.”

‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’

Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf in a scene from “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”

(Nigel Bluck/Road Side Attractions/ Armory Films)

She added that her favorite scene with him was “dancing on the raft in the nighttime, floating down a river. Shooting that was absolute stardust magic.”

Asked his favorite part of shooting, Gottsagen replied, “Everything.” He wasn’t even nervous when the directors first called ‘Action,’ just excited. The hardest scene, he said, was falling backward after pulling the trigger on a shotgun. “And the wrestling too.” When those scenes came, the directors would come over and explain what he needed to do. “They would want to challenge me to do something really hard.” He loved it.

He also loved making them laugh. The film was scripted, but the actors did improvise a bit, including one punchline. Early in their journey, Tyler sternly tells Zak his rules for traveling together. “Rule No. 1: Don’t slow me down.” He then asks Zak to repeat it: “What’s rule No. 1?” Without missing a beat, Zack replied, “Party.” It stayed in the film.

“Working with Zack is sort of like working with a tiger,” Johnson noted. “He is so honest about the way he feels, and doesn’t really make an effort to mask his true demeanor in any way, so you never really know what you’re going to get in a scene. Which I found absolutely awesome.”

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