“I knew I was in immediately,” LaBeouf said at the Hollywood premiere Thursday night, explaining that the movie’s star, Zack Gottsagen, was the main reason he knew he had to be part of the project. “He’s been acting longer than me, he’s more trained than me, and he was involved with this project five years before I even got the call — it was intimidating.”
LaBeouf’s eagerness to join the movie isn’t the only rarity of the indie film, which was created by first-time feature filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz who dreamed of giving Gottsagen, a 32-year-old with Down Syndrome, a chance to become a movie star.
The decade-long friends took to the newcomer immediately after meeting him at Zeno Mountain Farm, a Santa Monica camp which brings together those with and without disabilities. After discovering Gottsagen’s acting talent, Wilson and Schwartz vowed to write a script for him, using his contagious personality as a way to win over bold-faced names such as LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes and Bruce Dern — despite having no Hollywood connections themselves.
The story follows Gottsagen’s character Zak as he runs away from a nursing home where the state has sent him to live to pursue a wrestling career and befriends a reckless outlaw (LaBeouf) on the way. The result is a modern take on “Huckleberry Finn” as the unlikely duo adventure down the North Carolina coast. And the pair’s chemistry transcends the screen, according to Gottsagen and LaBeouf, who say “they became brothers” while filming together.
“He’s very connected to God and I thought God was silly for a long time. And then life hits you hard and then you start asking wild questions,” LaBeouf told Variety, noting that his co-star has served as his “spiritual adviser.” “And the universe put him in my life at a very specific point and he kept me afloat.”
LaBeouf may be referring to one specific dark point: he was arrested for drunken behavior in Savannah, Ga., while filming the movie in 2017. The actor pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction. His sentencing included 10 weeks in rehab. The former child actor has found himself at the center of controversy and legal woes throughout his years in the spotlight, but says, “I walked out of this project a changed person — big time.”
“We spent a lot of time rehearsing and getting close and laying in bed together and talking s—…holding each other’s hands, running around Georgia,” LaBeouf shared of working with Gottsagen, before turning to his co-star and tearing up as he added, “And leaning on each other, but mostly me on you…mostly. I love you.”
Gottsagen had a similar effect on almost everyone on set, which comes as no surprise to Wilson and Schwartz, who recognized his star-power from the moment they met him. “He is probably the most magnetic human you’ll ever meet, which made people want to be involved in the film.”
Dern, who plays Zak’s roommate in the nursing home, agreed, saying that he signed on almost immediately after meeting Zach: “He is a magical man.”
Talking about magical moments — before the screening, Gottsagen asked the audience to sing “Happy Birthday” to his late grandfather because his birthday happened to fall on the same day as the premiere.
Roadside Attractions will release “The Peanut Butter Falcon” in theaters on Aug. 9