Archive for the ‘Be Beautiful Be Yourself’ Category

The Peanut Butter Falcon: A Must-See Indie Film Starring Zack Gottsagen

May 19th, 2019 by Global Down Syndrome Foundation

Featured: Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, and his mothers, Shelley and Trish, and Shia LaBeouf at Global’s Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show. Photos: Jared Wilson

From Down Syndrome WorldTM Issue 1 2019

Film wins Audience Award at the prestigious South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, and audiences fall in love with Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s Q-Award winner. The key to the movie’s success? Friendship.

ZACK GOTTSAGEN IS NO STRANGER to the spotlight — in fact, he dances right into it. Last year, Gottsagen received the Global Down Syndrome Foundation Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award. After giving a powerful acceptance speech, he literally threw off his jacket and unexpectedly danced down the runway, charming a crowd of over 1,400 guests at Global’s 10th Anniversary Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show.

The accomplished actor, who is 33 years old and happens to have Down syndrome, stars alongside Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson in a new feature-length indie film called The Peanut Butter Falcon. Gottsagen’s breakout role and the film were praised by Variety magazine’s review: “… there’s something so guileless and genuine about Zak (qualities that stem directly from the actor playing him) that he manages to win over both his newfound friend and the audience in the same coup.”

The review goes on to focus on the relationship between LaBeouf’s and Gottsagen’s characters. “… Both [their acting] approaches result in a kind of spontaneous unpredictability, making the characters’ choices feel constantly surprising.” Definitely two thumbs-up!

The Peanut Butter Falcon tells the story of a young man with Down syndrome, Zak (Gottsagen), who escapes from the nursing home where he pines to follow his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. Along the way, he meets Tyler (LaBeouf), a troubled traveler with a mysterious past, and Eleanor (Johnson) who is sent from the nursing home with orders to return Zak to the facility. The film also includes award-winning actors Thomas Haden Church, who plays a retired wrestler, and Bruce Dern, Zak’s roommate who helps him escape from the nursing home.

In March, Gottsagen and LaBeouf promoted the film together at the prestigious SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where The Peanut Butter Falcon won the “Narrative Spotlight” Audience Award.

The filmmakers are hoping to land a distribution deal and release by summer of 2019.


The Peanut Butter Falcon crew at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Global’s Q-Award winners Colin Farrell and Zack Gottsagen strike a pose with Gottsagen’s moms, Shelley and Trish.


Gottsagen was born with an irresistible charm and drive to change the world. Just ask his mom Shelley Gottsagen.

“Zack has this ability to connect with people from all walks of life,” she says. “He has a real compassion and love for people.”

He was also born with the rare vigor and determination necessary to succeed in the entertainment business.

“Zack tells everyone he meets about his passion for acting , which landed him a lead role in a feature film,” she adds.

“I have wanted to be an actor since I was 3 years old,” Zack says. “I want to show people that no matter who you are, if you follow your heart, you can do whatever you want with your life.”

It was this charisma and determination that led to Gottsagen being cast as one of the first actors with Down syndrome to star as the lead in a full-length feature film. Co-writers and directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, explained their inspiration to write The Peanut Butter Falcon.

“Zack told Michael and me that we should write a movie for him to star in,” Nilson says. “We thought it was genius!”

Nilson and Schwartz had worked with Gottsagan on other short films at Zeno Mountain Farm, a nonprofit that hosts inclusive camps in Vermont, California, and Florida for people of all abilities . They were taken not only by his acting ability but his uncanny sense of timing and skill at reading others. But how to capture that on screen?

Schwartz continues, “Being friends with Zack for many years, we tried to create the most authentic experience we could for our audience by writing a character that is really tailored to Zack and his strengths.”

Gottsagen’s character in The Peanut Butter Falcon, “Zak,” is consistent with Zack the actor in elements such as his love of wrestling and caring, determined spirit.

The result is truly a must-see movie. Variety likened it to indie great Little Miss Sunshine and blockbuster hit Forrest Gump, calling it “a feel-good niche indie with its priorities in the right place.”



This article was published in the award-winning Down Syndrome World™ magazine. Become a member to read all the articles and get future issues delivered to your door!

A huge part of any movie’s success is the on-screen chemistry of its actors. The Peanut Butter Falcon has this in spades because the actors became very close while filming. And they have remained close — supporting each other at award ceremonies and keeping in touch frequently through text messages and phone calls.

The bonding happened remarkably fast. Once Nilson and Schwartz finalized the script, the crew had only 30 days to film on the isolated beaches of Savannah, Georgia. Being together every day for a month and working through late hours of the night, the cast truly became a family. Every morning before they started shooting, Gottsagan would give the team a pep talk.

Gottsagen’s mom, Shelley, recalls, “He would call out certain members of the group and thank them for what they did that day. It really gave everyone that extra boost of confidence and created a sense of community.”

For LaBeouf and Gottsagen, their relationship began before the two ever met.

“I saw a video of Zack and thought it would be incredible to work with him. I fell in love with him before I even met him,” LaBeouf explains.

LaBeouf, Johnson, and Gottsagen would eat lunch together every day during filming. Gottsagen consistently ate only chicken. Johnson even named her rescue cat “Chicken” because she said it would make her think of Gottsagan when she was home. While LaBeouf and Gottsagen would watch wrestling together every Monday and Tuesday, Johnson would get mani/pedis with Gottsagen once a week.

“When I met Zack just before we started filming The Peanut Butter Falcon, I was totally bewildered by his purity of heart,” Johnson explains. “He is extremely intelligent, kind, charming, hilarious, and deeply empathetic. He’s the most loving and embracing person I’ve ever met in my life.”



It was important to the film’s stylistic integrity to keep everything as realistic as possible.

“Zack insisted that he do all of his own stunts,” Shelley recalls. “I couldn’t believe that he jumped off the wooden bridge into the water or that he grabbed a fish with his bare hand! But he wanted it to be real.” She explained how this process wouldn’t have been possible without Nilson and Schwartz’s imaginative vision.

“They allowed Zack to have creative control with his scenes, which really made a difference in bringing his character to life.”

“Often, what Zack and Shia came up with was even better than what was on the page,” Nilson says. “Some of the funniest lines and bits in the film, I have to admit, actually come from Zack’s improv!”

Schwartz adds, “With Zack and Shia, we created a space for them to actually live the scenes.”

LaBeouf confirms how special the interaction was. “When Zack and I met, we would just start riffing with each other [while filming],” he says. “Everywhere it went, we’d wind up with gold. We had really deep conversations that I could only have with Zack.”

Gottsagen agrees. “We practiced our lines, but we were able to make it real, and that’s what it’s all about.”

During red carpet interviews at SXSW, the whole cast and crew spoke to the understanding, patience, and appreciation they developed for people with Down syndrome by working with and learning from Gottsagen.

Schwartz summed it up. “There’s a magic that Zack brings to every scene. With him, he’s not just saying his lines, he’s actually feeling the moment.”



Gottsagen caught Global’s attention when a Global Ambassador, Chase Turner Perry, identified a family connection to a producer of The Peanut Butter Falcon.

“We were actually a little nervous as we can’t support a film, even a great film, if the messaging is counter to our advocacy work,” says Michelle Sie Whitten, President and CEO of Global. “So we organized a screening in Denver last May, and I was blown away by how excellent the film is, how it pulls you in, and how the film makes important societal statements that the Down syndrome community would be proud of.”

After spending a good amount of time with Gottsagen, Whitten and her team made the decision to honor Gottsagen with Global’s 2018 Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award at their 10th Anniversary Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, the largest fundraiser for people with Down syndrome in the world.

“Zack is a role model and inspiration not just for people with Down syndrome, but for all of us,” says Whitten.

To Whitten’s surprise, The Peanut Butter Falcon family immediately rallied, and LaBeouf, Johnson, Nilson, Schwartz, and other crew members descended upon Denver to support Gottsagen. LaBeouf and Johnson both introduced Gottsagen and helped bestow the Global award.

Now Global is part of the family supporting Gottsagen and traveled to Austin to cover him and The Peanut Butter Falcon at SXSW. Johnson was not able to attend but sent her best wishes to Gottsagen via text. LaBeouf and Gottsagen walked the red carpet together, laughing, joking, and posing for photos.
During the screening, the audience laughed and cried. When the credits started to roll, there was a standing ovation. At the end of the Q&A that followed, Gottsagen took the microphone.

“I make Shia’s life better every day,” he told the SXSW audience. LaBeouf laughed and nodded in agreement. The sincere and unique friendship, both on and off the screen, is undeniable.

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2018 Quincy Jones Award Honoree Colin Farrell

November 14th, 2018 by Global Down Syndrome Foundation

2018 Quincy Jones Award Honoree Zack Gottsagen

November 14th, 2018 by Global Down Syndrome Foundation

John C. McGinley on Hallmark Channel’s Home & Family

October 25th, 2018 by Global Down Syndrome Foundation

Debbie Matenopoulos and Cameron Mathison welcome actor John C. McGinley.

Farrell & Gottsagen to be honored with Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award at the 10th Anniversary Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show celebrating a decade of beauty and achievement

Press Contacts:
Trisha | O: (310) 454-3080
Anca | C: (720) 320-3832

DENVER, CO. – Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 – Today the Global Down Syndrome Foundation (Global) announced film stars Colin Farrell and Zack Gottsagen will receive Global’s Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award (Q Award), as well as its initial celebrity lineup for the 10th Anniversary of the Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show. The marquee event is the largest Down syndrome fundraiser in the world and will be held during Down Syndrome Awareness Month on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018 at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, 1550 Court Place in Denver.

Farrell is an award-winning Irish actor, UN Spokesperson and philanthropist. He has a son with Angelman syndrome and has served as the official games spokesman for the Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai, China. Gottsagen is an accomplished film actor who happens to have Down syndrome. He is an ardent advocate for inclusion and shines in the new adventure film, The Peanut Butter Falcon, co-starring with two of his biggest fans: Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson.

“I love the Sies, let me start there,” said Music Icon Quincy Jones. “When I met their granddaughter, Sophia, I told them ‘these children are not broken, they don’t need to be fixed, they just need to be allowed to reach their God-given potential.’ Ever since then, I have been proud to encourage and support their amazing work. I want to congratulate Global on 10 years of saving lives and recognize Colin and Zack for their dedication and advocacy.”

Other confirmed celebrities for the 10th Anniversary Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show include: award-winning actor and Global board member John C. McGinley; supermodel and actress Amanda Booth; Miss Colorado Ellery Jones; Major League Soccer player Sam Cronin; and past Q Award winner DeOndra Dixon. A full roster of celebrities will be announced in the coming weeks.

During the fashion show, Global will also honor the 2018 Be Beautiful Be Yourself Ambassador Sam Levin while celebrating the return of past Ambassadors: Chase Turner Perry, Sophia Kay Whitten, Katherine Vollbracht Winfiled, Clarissa Capuano, Louis Rotella IV and Marcus Sikora.

Entering its 10th year, Global is thriving. Since the establishment of the Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, the event has raised over $16 million which underwrites life-changing research and life-saving medical care. Global’s recent lobbying efforts to Congress and outreach to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) resulted in the first significant increase of NIH Down syndrome research funding in nearly 20 years, from $37 million in 2017 to $58 million in 2018. Additionally, Global just opened its new Cherry Creek headquarters, which includes top-notch office facilities and a future education center of excellence supported by a generous grant from The Salah Foundation. The building will be home for people with Down syndrome and their families, as well as a destination for inclusion, inspiration and achievement for everyone.

“We work very hard,” said Global Down Syndrome Foundation President, CEO and Co-Founder, Michelle Sie Whitten. “Global provides excellent medical care to over 1,500 patients from 28 states and 10 countries, has made groundbreaking research discoveries that will improve health outcomes and has successfully lobbied Congress to get our fair share of funding. On our 10th Anniversary, we are filled with gratitude for the outstanding medical professionals, scientists, Down syndrome partner organizations, celebrities and wonderful self-advocates and families who empower us to save and transform lives every day.”

Various levels of 10th Anniversary Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show tickets, table sponsorships and model sponsorships are available, including VIP levels at For more information on the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, please visit

For celebrity interviews, additional information, imagery or to cover the Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, please contact


About the Global Down Syndrome Foundation

The Global Down Syndrome Foundation is at the forefront of research, medical care, education and advocacy dedicated to significantly improving the lives of people with Down syndrome. Global supports the research of hundreds of scientists around the world through their advocates, partners and affiliates, including the Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome and the Anna and John J. Sie Center for Down Syndrome. Global invites its supporters to celebrate a decade of milestones in helping people with Down syndrome at their 10th Anniversary Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show. To learn more, please visit and

Zack Gottsagen, 2018 Quincy Jones Award Winner

August 8th, 2018 by Global Down Syndrome Foundation

“Peanut Butter Falcon” film star, Zack Gottsagen, to receive Global’s 2018 Quincy Jones Award

Global’s historical hearing in Washington, D.C. soars to 150 million views

November 20th, 2017 by Global Down Syndrome Foundation

Global’s President & CEO highlights video of historic congressional hearing on Down syndrome research reaching over 150 million views

At the annual Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, Michelle Sie Whitten encouraged Global’s 1,360 attendees to watch the C-Span coverage of the landmark congressional hearing and to support increased federal funding for research benefiting people with Down syndrome. 




Generous $1 million grant will help establish a much-needed education center at Global’s new international HQ in Denver 

Salah Foundation

Media Contacts:
Kathy Green | | (720) 280-9725
Anca Call | | (720) 320-3832

DENVER – The Global Down Syndrome Foundation (Global) today announced a transformative lead gift of $1 million from The Salah Foundation. Combined with the generous $1 million grant, Global will receive additional matching funds that will help to establish a center in Denver dedicated to educational activities primarily for people with Down syndrome but also for others who are differently-abled.

The gift was unveiled by Noreen Salah Burpee, executive director of The Salah Foundation, at Global’s annual record-breaking Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show held on Nov. 11, 2017, at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel. The announcement brought a crowd of more than 1,300 including advocates with Down syndrome, their families, friends, supporters, and celebrities Quincy Jones, Jamie Foxx, DeOndra Dixon, Marisa Tomei, Joe Manganiello, John C. McGinley, Matt Dillon and Eva Longoria to their feet.

“We are so grateful for The Salah Foundation and Noreen for making this generous and impactful gift to the Global Down Syndrome Foundation,” said John C. McGinley, award-winning actor and Global board member after hearing the announcement backstage at the fashion show. “The team at Global works hard and is truly delivering for the Down syndrome community. This will allow them to reach even more people.”

“We are thrilled to support the work of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation as they continue to create extraordinary change in the lives of people with Down syndrome and their families,” said Salah Burpee. “We hope that others will follow suit and open their hearts and wallets to this important project.”

The education center will be housed in Global’s new international headquarters in Denver in the Cherry Creek Shopping North – one of the most popular districts in Colorado with the fastest growing foot traffic. It is anticipated that the multi-use education center will provide cooking classes, computer labs and other center-based educational programs for varying ages and abilities and will open sometime in the second half of 2018.

Global supports the research of hundreds of scientists around the world and helped establish the first and only academic home for Down syndrome research at the Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome at the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus, with a focus on Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders.

Global funding also helps provide the highest quality of comprehensive medical care to thousands of children with Down syndrome from around the world through the Sie Center for Down Syndrome at Children’s Hospital Colorado, coordinating medical care, along with therapies including speech, physical and occupational therapy.

“We are grateful for the continued support of The Salah Foundation as we advance our mission,” said Michelle Sie Whitten, president and CEO of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. “Noreen, Fred, Megan and the whole Salah family have believed in our work, provided us guidance to expand, and now have given us this extraordinary gift that simultaneously increases our impact on people with Down syndrome and helps ensure my parents’ legacy. I can’t tell you how meaningful that is to us.”


About The Salah Foundation

The Salah Foundation is a private foundation, by invitation only, that supports non-profit organizations in the United States that strengthen families and communities and advances individuals to become productive and responsible citizens. There is a special interest in education, medical research, community development, and self-sufficiency programs aimed at the economically disadvantaged, the young, the elderly and the disabled. To learn more, visit 

About the Global Down Syndrome Foundation

The Global Down Syndrome Foundation is at the forefront of research, medical care, education and advocacy dedicated to significantly improving the lives of people with Down syndrome. Supporting the research of hundreds of scientists around the world, and through our advocates, partners, and affiliates including the Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome and the Anna and John J. Sie Center for Down Syndrome, Global is making an impact on the lives of people with Down syndrome today, and remain focused on finding solutions tomorrow. We are committed to helping people with Down syndrome realize their fullest potential and lead healthy and productive lives. To learn more, visit.

The sold-out star-studded event attracted over 1,300 attendees from 22 states and 10 countries

Media Contacts:
Kathy Green | | 720-280-9725
Anca Elena Call | | 720-320-3832

DENVER – The Global Down Syndrome Foundation raised a record $2.6 million for life-changing research and medical care at its 9th annual Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show held on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, at the Sheraton Downtown Denver.

Chaired by Peter Kudla, CEO of Metropolitan Homes Inc., the sold-out event attracted more than 1,300 attendees from 22 states and 10 countries. Music Icon Quincy Jones was on hand to present his namesake award, the “Q Exceptional Advocacy Award” to actress and activist Eva Longoria and to model phenom Madeline Stuart. The fashion show grand finale procession to Quincy Jones’ “We Are the World” brought the audience to its feet.

A roster of impressive celebrities and VIPs including Jamie Foxx, DeOndra Dixon, Marisa Tomei, Joe Manganiello, John C. McGinley, Matt Dillon, Denis O’Hare, Amanda Booth and 2017 Ambassador Marcus Sikora made powerful contributions to the evening.

“This is the fourth year in a row that we have sold out,” said Global President and CEO Michelle Sie Whitten. “It is deeply gratifying to know that so many people care about the terrible lack of funding for Down syndrome research and medical care. Of course, our models with Down syndrome make the event so joyous and inspirational, it has become an annual destination for our families and supporters.”

Global’s Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show is the single largest fundraiser benefitting people with Down syndrome in the world. The money raised supports critical research conducted by the Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome on the Anschutz Medical Campus and life-saving medical care at the Sie Center for Down Syndrome at Children’s Hospital Colorado. This year’s proceeds add to the over $14 million already raised in the previous eight fashion shows held by Global Down Syndrome Foundation.

“Global’s research funding is already helping us make giant strides in exploring the unique disease spectrum affecting the population with Down syndrome,” said Dr. Joaquín Espinosa, executive director of the Crnic Institute. “We now know that Down syndrome can be understood in large measure as an immune system disorder, which opens the door to find new treatments and therapies, and allows us to better explore the connections that may help cure Alzheimer’s disease.”

Down syndrome is the leading cause of developmental delay and the population of people with the condition is increasing dramatically in the U.S. Yet over the last two decades Down syndrome has been one of the least funded genetic conditions by the federal government, specifically the National Institutes of Health.