2024 International DIR® Conference

Zack Gottsagen

Friday Keynote Presentation

Zack Gottsagen

Zack Gottsagen's Lived Experience and the Peanut Butter Falcon

Zachary Robin Gottsagen, “Zack," made his first debut as the star of a natural childbirth instructional film on April 22, 1985, and has been an enthusiastic performer since his first role as a frog at age three.  He attended Bak Middle School of the Arts, and graduated from Dreyfoos School of the Arts, as a theatre major in 2004.  Zack attended Palm Beach State College.

Zack was the first child with Down syndrome to be fully included in the Palm Beach County school district.  After the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, Zack filed one of the first ADA suits, which successfully challenged Little League to include children with disabilities, resulting in all coaches being required to receive training in inclusion.

Zack is an actor and a dancer.  He performed with Southern Dance Theatre for fifteen years and assisted teaching there.  Zack also assisted teaching theatre to children at Standing Ovation Performing Arts.  He worked in an inclusive childcare center as well.  Zack lives independently in an apartment in Boynton Beach, Florida and worked at the Alco Theatre for several years.  He deeply loves his friends, family, and his rescue dogs.

He loves swimming, working out, basketball, kayaking, windsurfing, bowling and watching wrestling.  Zack is a leader in SAIL (Self Advocates for Independent Living) through the Gold Coast Down Syndrome Organization and is actively involved with Arts for All.  He votes in every election and has advocated for the rights of people with disabilities in local, state, and national arenas.

Zack performed a monologue from Hamlet while standing on top of a tall ladder at the Blackbox Theatre at Dreyfoos in 2003.  He auditioned for and was chosen to star in the live theatre production of “Artie” at the Royal Palm Playhouse in 2005.  He became involved with Zeno Mountain Farms nonprofit film productions from 2008 until the present.  He performed in multiple independent movies with Zeno, including “Burning Like A Fire” and “Life of a Dollar Bill”. 

Zack often played the villain role, with his most outstanding performance in “Bulletproof” in 2012.  During the filming of “Bulletproof”, a documentary was made titled, “Becoming Bulletproof,” (2014) which went behind the scenes to follow Zack and other actors with different disabilities through their daily lives.  “Becoming Bulletproof” was featured on Showtime for several months, received numerous film festival awards, and has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  In July 2015, the Smithsonian Museum invited Zack to be the keynote speaker for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and showed the movie “Becoming Bulletproof”.  

While filming with Zeno Mountain Farms in Los Angeles, Zack met Tyler Nielson and Michael Schwartz, who were volunteering with the production.  Tyler and Mike were so taken with Zack’s personality and talent that they wrote the script for “The Peanut Butter Falcon” incorporating Zack’s mannerisms, ways of expressing himself, innocence, enthusiasm and joy for life into the lead character role.

In 2017, Zack began filming his first feature length movie, “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” where he has the leading role along side his co-stars, Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and Bruce Dern.  Zack thrived on the opportunity to perform.  He insisted on doing all his own stunts, much to the chagrin of his stunt double. Each morning of filming Zack welcomed the cast and crew with his inspirational speeches via megaphone and called out each person who excelled the day before.  His genuine warmth and affection built the camaraderie and love that flowed throughout the production of the film.  

Zack's talent, passion, motivation and perseverance have been the impetus for Zack to build his expanding performing arts career.  Zack has won many awards, including the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocate Award from Global Down Syndrome Foundation; Outstanding Breakout Performance from Crested Butte Film Festival; the Rising Star Award from Palm Springs International Film Festival; Newcomer Award from the Hollywood Critics Association; Distinguished Alumni Award from the Palm Beach County Education Foundation; the Ed Roberts Award from the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley; Honorary Champion of Inclusion from Best Buddies; and the Breakthrough Entertainer Award from the Associated Press.  Zack presented the Media Access Award in 2019 to the producers of “The Peanut Butter Falcon”.  He also presented an Oscar at the 2020 Academy Awards.  In March 2020, Zack was invited to speak in Norway for World Down Syndrome Day.

In Zack’s words, “Talent… that’s all I've got.”