Image courtesy of Best Buddies International
By Trinity Ruiz
The event dominating the campus on Thursday October 21, eagerly awaited by the U Catholic community, was unforgettable. Catholic University’s Best Buddies Club honored to welcome actor Zack Gottsagen from the film The Peanut Butter Falcon, directed by Tyler Nilson and Micheal Schwartz, to talk about his experience as an actor and active member of the national organization True Buddies. In honor of National Disability Awareness Month, Gottasgen, originally from Florida, dedicated his Thursday to spending time with Catholic’s Best Buddies Club and speaking with the Catholic community U about the challenges he overcame despite his Down syndrome.
In the film, Gottsagen plays the film version of himself and instead calls himself Zak. Gottsagen clarified that it was not confusing for him, because “it is the real me”. Mirror by Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the film follows Zak and Tyler, an outlaw fisherman played by Shia LaBeouf, on their journey in search of “Saltwater Redneck”, Zak’s favorite professional wrestler. Dakota Johnson plays the supporting role of Eleanor, Zak’s guardian in the retirement home from which he escaped to live out his dream of going to wrestling school and becoming a professional wrestler, as promised by the advertisement for “The SaltWater Redneck’s”. Despite the hardships, the characters unite and commit to achieving this goal. The two secondary characters have made it their sole mission to help Zak achieve what he has sought all his life.
“I couldn’t do it with my mothers,” Gottasgen proudly declares before asking them to stand up. From the moment he knew he wanted to be an actor, Gottsagen’s mother Shelley fought to make it a possibility. When turned down by a performing arts high school that had never accepted a person with a disability, Shelley went to civil court. The following year Gottsagen was able to attend school. He pointed out that “this is how I got included… mom helped me out” explaining that the system was “not doing a very good job”. Gottsagen thanked his two mothers for telling him the story of his life.
When he was only three, Gottsagen was a frog in his school production; he “liked to play the most.” On the set of the movie, he was always excited and full of energy. Gottsagen enthusiastically says his “favorite part was everything!”
“While you were doing the paperwork, we did something called living,” LaBeouf’s character tells Johnson in the film. And that’s what Gottsagen did. He was the first person with a disability to appear at the Oscars, was invited by the Smithsonian Museum to be the keynote speaker for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2015, and received the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award in 2018. He lived and his accomplishments testify to it. With his biggest challenge on the set being “waiting” and “patience,” it’s safe to say Gottsagen has lived a life of abundance. He is now dedicated to advocating for the disability community and raising awareness of the need for inclusion.
Gottsagen says Best Buddies is all about friendship; it represents loyalty and leadership. Julia Moluf, alumnus and director of CUA’s Best Buddies, introduced the event by talking about Best Buddies Living, a program that empowers adults with disabilities to live independently. Since Best Buddies Living is relatively new, their locations are limited to Washington DC and Miami, Florida. However, the Catholic organization hopes to contribute greatly by partnering with the program by allowing adults a meal plan and access to sports facilities and weekly events! This program strives to create an inclusive lifestyle and unify any separation between this wonderful community and the community created here at Catholic.
In the film, the characters of LaBeouf and Johnson were linked so simplistically by this person they both cared about. The love they shared for Zak brought them closer together. And that’s what Best Buddies is all about. By dedicating ourselves to the club, we also forge links with people who do the same. It is important to ask not only how we can do their more inclusive lives but also how they give we purpose and something to be a part of.
Gottsagen spoke so hopefully about True Buddies and serves as an inspiration not only for the disabled community, but for all who have a goal to accomplish. Gottsagen hopes to one day write his own film. He encourages the Catholic U community to “follow your heart and your dreams… get up, speak, speak with your heart so that you can make it happen.