Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson Talk 'Peanut Butter Falcon' Muse Zack Gottsagen

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From left: Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf

There weren't enough roles for actors with Down syndrome in Hollywood, so directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz created one for the film's lead.

The cast of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon — including Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes and Bruce Dern — turned out at the Arclight Hollywood on Thursday evening for the film’s premiere. Although the roster packed some punch with big names like LaBeouf and Johnson, it was Gottsagen who stole the show from the beginning, when he arrived on the red carpet with a large jewel-encrusted wrestling belt slung over his shoulder.

The SXSW Audience Award-winning film’s directors, producers and stars all had one major thing in common — they couldn’t stop raving about Gottsagen, who starred as Zak, a man with Down syndrome determined to break out of his nursing home in the rural southeast U.S. and chase his dream of attending pro-wrestling school.

"When I met Zack, I met him at a wild time in my life and he kept telling me to slow down and to pace myself,” LaBeouf told THR. “It was a time when I couldn't look at too many people and I couldn't talk to too many people. Really it was me and him, laying in bed, watching wrestling and talking shit, going through the script, going through our lives. I've never been so quiet, I've never talked so little — I've never listened so much."

"Meeting Zack was the most exciting aspect of the project, he's the greatest thing on the planet,” Johnson echoed her co-star's sentiments. “It changed the way I approach working with other actors. Zack is the most open, pure and honest being I've ever met."

Not only did Gottsagen inspire the actors who shared scenes with him, but he was the muse that the project was initially built around. The writers and directors of The Peanut Butter Falcon, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, told THR that they had known Gottsagen for three years before he prompted them to create the film.

“He studied acting since the age of three and in high school,” said Schwartz of Gottsagen. “He teaches acting. He works as an usher at a movie theater to be close to movies. He wanted nothing more than to be a movie star and we were having that hard conversation telling him there's just not a lot of roles for somebody like him and he said to us, "Let's just do it together.’"

Everyone attached to the film described Gottsagen as a person with such magnetism, they couldn’t help but immerse themselves into the project.

Initially Schwartz and Nilson thought they’d be making a low to close-to-nonexistent-budget film with just Gottsagen and then big names started signing on, drawn to the script and to the lead protagonist.

"He is the purest person I've ever met. There's no cynicism in him. There's no irony. Everything he's saying is coming from a very sincere place. When I met him, I really needed sincerity in my life and he happened to be that vessel," LaBeouf added.

Before the film began, producers Christopher Lemole and Tim Zajaros, Schwartz, Nilson and LaBeouf thanked everyone for coming out and just as the introduction was coming to a close and the lights were set to dim, Johnson handed the microphone to Gottsagen, prompting an unscripted speech. Gottsagen took the microphone and, without missing a beat, led the entire audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to his beloved grandfather, who had died years before and whose birthday coincidentally fell on the day of the premiere. 

The Peanut Butter Falcon opens Aug. 9.