Is The Peanut Butter Falcon a watershed moment for on-screen disability?

The film’s directors and star Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, discuss overcoming industry stigma.

Words and interviews

Leigh Singer

@Leigh_Singer

Cliff Robertson in Charly. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Able-bodied actors playing characters with a particular physical or mental disability has long been a lauded and lucrative career path. Just ask the actors listed above, all Oscar winners of the past 50-odd years.

But if Zack Gottsagen were to join this prestigious roll call for his work in The Peanut Butter Falcon – not unthinkable given the generally positive reaction to the film – it would represent a watershed moment in cinema, not in terms of the type of role deemed award-worthy but the type of actor all-too regularly overlooked, or never considered in the first place.

Gottsagen, 34, has Down syndrome, as does his character Zak, who escapes his stifling nursing home and embarks on a journey across Carolina’s countryside and waterways alongside Shia LaBeouf’s wanted felon, hoping to fulfil his dream of becoming a pro wrestler. It’s a charming, Mark Twain-like picaresque imbued with an energy and spontaneity that comes from its starry cast (Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes) playing off of Gottsagen’s guileless performance. Yet as first-time directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz explain, some industry financiers only saw the project as viable with a different leading man.

“We had a few meetings where people were excited about supporting us, but only if we replaced Zack,” Schwartz reveals. “They wanted to do it Dustin Hoffman and Rain Man style. But we knew Zack could do that job better than anybody. So we turned down a couple of offers to do it with a famous, able-bodied actor.” Nilson adds, “It was never an option for us.”

The pair discovered Gottsagen at a summer camp for actors with disabilities and were stunned by his performance in a short film. “He was pretty phenomenal,” remembers Nilson. “Zack wanted to be in a [feature] movie. We’d never made a movie. So we all took the journey together. The cool thing was that the script really came from necessity, writing to tailor it for Zack.”

To offset their lack of film experience or contacts, Nilson and Schwartz shot a short ‘proof of concept’ video, showcasing their ambitions and Zack’s talent. But it’s only when you talk to Gottsagen himself that you realise his natural confidence is the best counter to any doubts. “I would say [to critics], you know, you need to chill, and we get to show what we can do,” he says. “I practised all my lines and was doing very, very hard work. But I’m just doing the thing I love to do the first.”

His favourite scenes? “Shia and me throwing the watermelons and eating them, and all the wrestling together. And my other moment is dancing with Dakota. She loves dancing too with me.”

“Dakota would say, getting in a scene with Zack is like getting in a scene with a tiger,” explains Schwartz. “You know, he’s brilliant, he’s powerful, he’s gonna go where he’s gonna go and you’ve got to follow him. So Zack was the leader in front of and behind the camera. Shia says it’s changed his whole approach to acting – that he used to come in and be in control and say, ‘This is my set, this is how I do it.’ And now he’s really making space for other actors and being more vulnerable.”

It’s indicative, too, of a wider shift in public perception that has been evident ever since the film’s SXSW premiere in March, where it won the Audience Award. “I think we’ve had some positive ripple effects,” agrees Schwartz. “When a movie that features somebody with different ability makes money, I think the business people go, ‘Shit, that’s working. Okay, let’s do more of that.’ And I’m happy that’s happening.”

Still, Gottsagen in The Peanut Butter Falcon – or the current London stage example, where actor Storme Toomis, who has cerebral palsy, became the first-ever disabled actor in West End history to play the title role in ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ – are still very much exceptions to the rule. See the recent case where actor Adam Pearson (Under the Skin), who has Neurofibromatosis type 1, a condition thought to have affected Joseph Merrick, was denied the opportunity to audition for the part in a new BBC adaptation of The Elephant Man (the role ultimately went to Stranger Things star Charlie Heaton).

Matthew Hellett, a programmer at Brighton’s Oska Bright Film Festival, the world’s biggest learning disability film festival, knows well the industry’s typical barriers. “ People make films about us and not with us,” he says. “It often feels like a closed community that we can’t get into. [Oska Bright has] been working since 2004, creating our own space and platform for people’s stories to be told.”

Of course, there’s still the thorny question of whether able-bodied actors are ever justified in playing disabled roles. What happens with, say, Stephen Hawking, who was only afflicted by Motor Neurone Disease later in life? “I’m still figuring it out myself, too, so I don’t really have an answer for you,” Nilson confesses. “My Left Foot was great,” Schwartz points out. “But for us, this was really specific. We just wanted to make a movie with Zack because he’s talented, not because he has Down syndrome.”

Hellett is far less circumspect. “Eddie Redmayne, Leonardo DiCaprio and so many others… these people don’t know anything about the lives and experiences of disabled people. Sometimes it’s as if we don’t exist.” Has any able-bodied actor ever done a good job? “No, I can’t think of anyone. I sometimes feel a bit jealous, because I know they’re playing that part when someone else could be.”

So what would Gottsagen like to do next on film? “I would say dancing,” he says without hesitation. With Dakota Johnson? “Yeah,” he agrees, eyes lighting up. For once it sounds like a sequel genuinely worth making.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is released on 18 October. The Oska Bright Film Festival runs 23-26 October.

Published 16 Oct 2019

Tags: Disability Shia LaBeouf Zack Gottsagen

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