Zack Gottsagen is an American actor who made his debut in the film The Peanut Butter Falcon. He is the first person with Down Syndrome to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Zack was discovered at a summer camp for people with and without disabilities, and has appeared in several projects since Peanut Butter Falcon, including God Save the Queens. He is continuing to pursue a career in acting.
Join us for the latest episode of All About Change as Zack discusses his experiences on set during the production of Peanut Butter Falcon, working with big Hollywood stars like Dakota Johnson & Shia LaBeouf, growing up with a disability, dealing with bullies, and more. Zack is proving day after day that when given opportunities, people with disabilities can and should tell their own stories in the film industry.
Zack Gottsagen: Right or wrong, but I always find a way to make it more of, um, a better flex to be at.
Jay VO: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change: a podcast, showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
This is all wrong. I say put mental health first because… I stand before you, not as an expert, but as a concerned citizen.
Jay VO: Today on our show, Zack Gottsagen.
Zack Gottsagen: Since I was, um, Three years old, I told, um, my mom about, um, what is my dream is and I was a, um, actor.
Jay VO: Zachary Robin Gottsagen is an American actor and producer. He was Discovered at Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp for people with and without disabilities. At the camp he met filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. The three clicked, and together, they decided to set out on a mission – to help Zach realize his dream of starring in a movie.
Zack Gottsagen: I just told Tyler, Tyler, and Mike, I would say, um, write it and, um, uh, directed and, and for me, I am gonna be the, um, star of it.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is the story of an aspiring professional wrestler with Down Syndrome. A sleeper hit, the movie grossed over $23 million. Making it the highest grossing independent film of its year. Zach was recognized as a Breakthrough Entertainer by the Associated Press and other critics. Watching him on film, as well as having the privilege to talk with him directly, I can tell you that Zach is a person that moves hearts and changes minds.
Zack Gottsagen:I would say the words, um, be yourself. That’s what does matters to.
Jay Ruderman: Zach, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Welcome to all about Change. I actually met you several years ago at the Media Access Awards, and I’m a big fan. I loved Peanut Butter Falcon. I thought it was an awesome movie. So congratulations on that. Maybe you can just tell us how long you wanted to be an actor
Zack Gottsagen: Since I was, um, three years old. I Told, um, my mom about, um, what is my greenness and I was a, um, actor.
Jay Ruderman: Hmm. And you, as I understand, were always involved as an actor from a very young age.
Zack Gottsagen: yes, I was. Um, I’m very young.
Jay Ruderman: You’re a well known actor having appeared in peanut butter falcon that did very well in the box office, and people love the movie. How do you think the entertainment industry is doing as, as far as, is it being inclusive enough for people with disabilities?
Zack Gottsagen: Uh, no. We really. Some more of the opportunity for a lot of people.
(Peanut Butter Falcon Audio)
Jay Ruderman: There’s many different aspects of, of the industry. There are the executives, the green light projects, but there are also the writers that write parts to make the industry and, and entertainment more authentic. And it’s my understanding that with peanut Butter Falcon, that you had a conversation. With Tyler, uh, Nielsen and Michael Schwartz and, and said it that you wanted to be, uh, in a movie. And they said, Well, there’s not that many parts. And you told them, Well, you should write one. And that’s how, that’s how the movie came about. Can you tell us the story about how. Peanut butter Falcon was written.
Zack Gottsagen: We have been friends for like a very long time at the, um, Zino Mountain Barn camp. And um, I just told Tyler, Tyler and Mike, I would say, um, write it and direct it and, and for me, I am gonna be the, um, star of.
Jay Ruderman: That’s an amazing story and they did write it, um, and you were the star of it.And I understand that you came up with the name for the movie. Is that true?
Zack Gottsagen: Yes, uh, yes, I did name it. Yes.
Jay Ruderman: So I understand that, that the movie was shot over 45 days. Those were really. Intensive, uh, days. And, and, and with your stars Shy LaBuff and, and Dakota Johnson, you became very close with them.
Zack Gottsagen: Oh, yes they are. Yes.
Jay Ruderman: Can you talk a little bit about like, what it was like shooting the movie with them?
Zack Gottsagen: Dakota Johnson, um, she is a very nice person and, uh, for me, I just love working, uh, with her and, and I’m. Um, just process our, um, lines and stuff. And I just had a very great time with her and she always tells me about her, um, life and, and, and she always tells me because she, she is so great to, um, get to, um, um, be with. And I just love being on a cell with her. And, um, I would say about, um, shya lebouf , he is a very cool person, and he is more of, um, uh, fun, fun, fun. I just love being on set with him and um he had been, um, um, aspired.
Jay Ruderman: So I saw some interviews that he did, um, and Dakota Johnson, um, where they really Gave you a tremendous amount of credit in terms of not only your performance, but um, your impact on them personally, that you really centered them and had a tremendous personal impact on them. Are you still friendly with them?
Zack Gottsagen: Oh, yes, I am. Yep. Still am. So yeah. But we always have been in touch and, uh, talking and some stuff and, but we still know about what we have been doing for ourselves and putting some of my things going on.
Jay Ruderman: I understand that you did your own stunts in the movie. Is that true?
Yeah. Um, um, uh, one stunt I just did well,
which one was that? Yeah.
Shelly Gottasgen: Now you mean one you didn’t do, you did all the others.
Zack Gottsagen: Yeah.
Jay Ruderman: Were you nervous at all to do the stunts? because there’s a lot of physical, um, acting in, in this, in this movie.
Zack Gottsagen: Actually, no. I actually, I just, I just love it.
Jay Ruderman: glad to hear that beautiful movie and a lot of it takes place on the water.
Tell, tell us what it was like to, to make a movie out in nature. To be in the water.
Zack Gottsagen: I would say it’s kinda like, um, a very warm, and, and I just love, you know, swimming and me, I just having a very, very, um, um, a great time and, and I just, Feel like I keep on doing it and just love doing so many things to do.
Jay Ruderman: So Zach, I wanna talk a little bit about growing up, and I understand that you were the first individual that was fully included in your school system with, with a person with a disability. But I understand it was not an easy process. I’ve heard your mother speak about it. What was it like growing up? How did, how did your, you know, fellow classmates make you feel? How’d your teachers make, make you feel?
Zack Gottsagen: Good. Good. And in, I. Feel like to be around them and they like to be around me. And, um, but I always love, um, being with my class to, you know, um, uh, learn and just give all the, um, motion to, to the, um, uh, students and, um, our classmate. But they, um, they always be my friends to me.
Jay Ruderman: That’s great. Do, do you. Fighting the school system or was that mainly your mother that was fighting the school system?
Zack Gottsagen: Actually, I have been fighting for my school because, um, um, what I did had a very good teachers. And, um, uh, some of them I have a very, uh, very, um, um, uh, bad teachers.
Jay Ruderman: How did you deal with bullies, people that, that were not respecting you? I, I heard you’re, you’re a diplomat, so how did you, how did you approach a bully?
Zack Gottsagen: I just, I. Feel like, um, to be more of, um, spec up, um, like I would say, um, For me, I, I was trying so hard just to be included in schools so I can, you know, just, um, uh, learn and, and discover all the, um, plays and, and for me, I just feel like to be included for all of my schools and, and for me, I just wanna be, you know, I’m a part of it, but Sounds like it’s not getting nowhere.
Jay Ruderman: Right, I’m sure you had such a tremendous impact on your fellow students and, and teachers and, and, you know, taught them, um, that, you know, inclusion. Is important and, and is, is natural.
Zack Gottsagen: Uh, several, uh, students, actually they have been, um, actually they have been giving me a lot of, um, support for me. I would say students and, but I do have a very good teachers. And They always have my back and, and for me, uh, they would say, Go heck, go do it. Um, just do it no matter what. I always take. So they are very happy and then I just have been moved on, so they are very happy for me. And then I always do so many things with this.
Jay Ruderman: Zach, it sounds like you have a tremendous amount of, um, confidence that, that you believe in yourself. Wh where, where does that come from?
Zack Gottsagen: Um, comes from my heart.
Jay Ruderman: That’s beautiful
Zack Gottsagen: because for me, I just like to be, um, myself and just to prove one of people always end up doing is right, right or wrong. But I always find a way to make it more of, um, a better place to be at. And that is who I am. Because e I would say the words, um, be yourself. That’s what does matters to me. But for me, I really don’t care about, like some, some people always say to me, but. I don’t care about, uh, most people know about me, but I always stand for myself and I am totally proud about who I am right now before I became, uh, movie star and that’s how I turn out right now because this is my life and this my future.
Jay Ruderman: That’s a, a powerful and, and, and a beautiful statement. Um, and, and you sound like a very strong person in, in your beliefs. Um, what advice would you give to someone who is not as strong as you and maybe doesn’t feel as good about, you know, who they are? What, what would you tell them?
Zack Gottsagen: Follow your heart and follow your dreams. Don’t give up. Keep on trying and just stay in school and just study. Study very hard and you can find a way to make this happen because I know about so many, so many schools knows about, uh, one of my, um, spots because I know about like, um, I know about all of a thousand thousand of students really wanted to be included. In one of those schools. But I, I am gonna say, uh, I’m gonna say, I’m gonna say to them is, um, um, uh, staying, staying up for yourselves and just to prove this, to prove, uh, what those, one of the, um, uh, teachers wrong and stuff like that. And that’s how I do believe.
Jay Ruderman: When Peanut Butter Falcon came. Did you, did you see it in a movie theater?
Zack Gottsagen: Uh, yes.
Jay Ruderman: And what was it like seeing yourself on the big screen?
Zack Gottsagen: Actually good.
Jay Ruderman: That’s wonderful. I happened to be at the Academy Awards. When you presented, uh, with Shaya leBuff, um, what was it like getting up on stage? You know, where at, at a, at a, a broadcast that’s being watched by millions, if not a billion people around the world and presenting an award.
Zack Gottsagen: I would say about, um, um, being, um, being on stage because for me, I just love, I just love so many people and, and they always give me so many of the, um, aplause and, and stuff like that. They, for me, I just like to be, um, aa person.
(Zack at the Academy Awards Audio )
Jay Ruderman: You broke new ground. I mean, you were at a, um, the first person with Down Syndrome to present at the Academy Awards. Yes, the first. How’d it feel to be the first?
Zack Gottsagen: Actually good and great, and I just love doing the things I love.
Jay Ruderman: How do you feel when you see an actor who does not have a disability playing a character with a disability? What does that, what does that mean to you?
Zack Gottsagen: It doesn’t make me feel good. And, and did you see, um, did you see, um, so, so many people,
Jay Ruderman: Okay. So you, so I, what I hear you saying is that there should be more opportunities for people with disabilities
Zack Gottsagen: Yes.
Jay Ruderman: To represent themselves authentically.
Zack Gottsagen: Oh, yes.
Jay Ruderman: Uh, because when you, when you, when you. Actors who do not have a disability playing a disability, is it in some ways, some sense taking away an opportunity for the disability community to represent themselves?
Zack Gottsagen: Yes.
Jay Ruderman: What’s your next, um, project that you’re gonna be involved in as an actor?
Zack Gottsagen: I would say, uh, at last, and Ian, I’m still doing music Video.
Jay Ruderman: I did see your, um, the music video that you start in, um, called.
Zack Gottsagen: Oh, Thank you.
Jay Ruderman: What is done, uh, is done by Delta Spirit. Sounds, It seems like, uh, you had a really great time making that video.
Zack Gottsagen: Uh, yes, I have. Yes, he is very good. And I did, um, did it with, um, uh, Jamie, uh, Brewer.
Jay Ruderman: Jamie Brewer’s great. She’s awesome. Oh, yes. Is she a friend of yours?
Zack Gottsagen: Uh, yes she is, yes.
Jay Ruderman: So let me ask you again, like what, what’s the, anything currently you’re, you’re working on right.
Zack Gottsagen: Yes, I am. I would say it’d be, um, label less.
Jay Ruderman: Label less. Yeah. Is that a, is that a movie or a TV series?
Zack Gottsagen: Actually, I’m not sure what, I’m not sure which one. It’s gonna be .
Shelly Gottasgen: Can I clarify? Sure. Yeah. He performed in a show called Label Less in Cincinnati, but they filmed it and were not sure he’s, He’s correct. He’s not sure. They’re talking about making it either into a television show or possibly a movie or keeping it live on stage.
Jay Ruderman: Oh, that’s awesome.
Shelly Gottasgen: Yeah, it’s, That’s awesome. It’s awesome. And he does spoken word in that.
Jay Ruderman: Is it different to act on stage than to perform in a movie?
Zack Gottsagen: I would say about, um, um, being on, being on stage, I would say is kind of, um, um, good and, and I just like to be around people.
Jay Ruderman: You like to do, uh, live production.
Zack Gottsagen: Yeah.
Jay Ruderman: That’s great. That’s great. Um, Zach, I finally, maybe I can ask you, in addition to acting, what else are you interested in? What do you dream about doing now?
Zack Gottsagen: Actually, I have been doing a lot of thinking this to, um, uh, write, um, this, to write my own movie.
Jay Ruderman: You wanna write your own movie? Wow. Yeah. Have, have you started working on that?
Zack Gottsagen: Uh, actually not yet, but, uh, I was going to, But for me, I got so many things about her, one of them, um, people. Um, I would say, um, uh, so, so many people needs me for something for them, So I really have anymore time, but, um, just to, uh, write about some stuff about what I feel I could do.
Jay Ruderman: Well, you’re a busy guy and that’s understandable, um, because now you’re, You’re a well known actor and, and, um, I hope you do get to write your own movie and, uh, I wish you a lot of success. I, I will urge anyone who has not yet seen Peanut Butter Falcon to go out and, and watch it. Um, you’ll be glad that you did. It’s an amazing movie. And, and Zach, you did an amazing job in it. Um, it was a pleasure to talk to you. Um, it’s an honor. And, and thank you for being on All About Change.
Zack Gottsagen: Uh, thank you very much for that. Thank you. I am totally, um, I’m our appreciator and then, and I just love to be, I just, I just love it on the, um, our radio.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you. Take care.
Jay VO: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital, Jackie Schwartz, Mijon Zulu and Rachel Donner .
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