Peanut Butter Falcon, an independent film starring Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, has made an unexpected splash in Hollywood. A re-telling of the classic Huckleberry Finn story, the film has almost universal critical acclaim, and there are even whispers of Gottsagen being nominated for an Oscar — which would be a groundbreaking achievement for actors with Down syndrome. But the movie has done more than garner accolades; according to LeBeouf, his relationship with Gottsagen saved his life.
In an interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4, a United Kingdom television station, LaBeouf explained that he had become jaded with the film industry, but this movie was unlike anything he’d done before. “I had never worked with an actor like him,” he admitted. “I’d never been involved in a project like this. It felt like it was going to be a really freeing experience, and to be quite frank, I was terrified. I knew that he’d be playing lead guitar, you know, and I’d be playing bass to him. If he went left, I’d have to go left. I’d never been in a situation where so much is dependent on staying open, and reacting, and listening to another performer. I’ve been quite selfish in my choices and my way of working before.”
He explained further that Gottsagen “softened” him, saying, “The kid in me died and I just got over all this. This roller coaster wasn’t fun after a while. You ride the same roller coaster, it just loses its appeal. Then you go on it with someone who hasn’t been on it before, and somehow, it sparks back up.”
During filming, LaBeouf had been arrested after getting drunk, and was charged with obstruction, disorderly conduct, and public drunkenness. He called the incident “mortifiying” in an interview with Esquire, and recalled that Gottsagen was the only one who called him out on his behavior. “I was angry. Mad. Frustrated,” Gottsagen told Esquire. “I didn’t want to work with Shia anymore.” He added that he told LaBeouf, “You’re already famous. This is my chance. And you’re ruining it.”
LaBeouf said it was exactly what he needed to hear in that moment. “To hear him say that he was disappointed in me probably changed the course of my life,” LaBeouf said. “Cause I was still fighting…. Just on my defense-mechanism-fear garbage. And you can’t do that to him. He keeps it one thousand with you…. Zack can’t not shoot straight, and bless him for it, ’cause in that moment, I needed a straight shooter who I couldn’t argue with.”
Yet despite all of that, Gottsagen showed him kindness and empathy. “The day after I got arrested, we were on a boat. I couldn’t really look at anybody in the eye,” LaBeouf recalled in his interview with Newman. “I was sitting next to him, and he put his hand on my shoulder, and like, nursed me back on a boat during the scene where we’re talking about the painful past. That stuff hurts, that stuff hurt to go through and to feel.”
“I was sad, I cried,” Gottsagen admitted to Newman. “But I’m still gonna take that chance for myself, to give Shia one chance to prove to himself never, never, never do this kind of stuff again.”
When Newman asked if it was too dramatic to say the film saved him, LaBeouf immediately answered, “No, that’s not too dramatic to say.”
While in past decades people with Down syndrome have been institutionalized and hidden away, today, they’re changing the world, even taking Hollywood by storm — like actors such as Jamie Brewer, Lauren Potter, and the cast of Born This Way, the stars of which all have Down syndrome, who have won multiple Emmy awards. People with Down syndrome are showing they are talented, capable, and lead lives that are successful and fulfilling, and they make a difference to the people around them — as Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf show.
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