How 'Peanut Butter Falcon' 's Zack Gottsagen Didn't Let Down Syndrome Stop Him from Taking Hollywood

"I'm really proud of myself," Gottsagen tells PEOPLE of starring in The Peanut Butter Falcon alongside Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson

Shia LaBeouf (L) and Zack Gottsagen
Photo: JC Olivera/WireImage

Zack Gottsagen dreamed of being an actor as he grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“I used to watch Shia LaBeouf on Even Stevens,” Gottsagen, 34, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I would dream of working with him someday.”

While some thought Gottsagen’s acting goal seemed unlikely because he has Down syndrome, Gottsagen never let that stop him. (A genetic condition, Down causes developmental delays and mild to moderate intellectual disabilities.) He enrolled in a performing arts school and took acting lessons, and after years of training and dedication to the craft, Gottsagen achieved what many thought would be impossible. Now Gottsagen stars in the new film The Peanut Butter Falcon with LaBeouf, 33, and Dakota Johnson. Gottsagen plays a young man Down syndrome who runs away from a nursing home.

“Down syndrome won’t stop me,” Gottsagen says. “I knew I could do it. It was hard sometimes, but I knew if I worked hard, I would do a good job, and I did. I’m really proud of myself.”

For more on Zach Gottsagen, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday

Gottsagen’s mom Shelley helped him get to where he is today by fighting Palm Beach County when it rejected his application to a performing arts magnet school. Shelley, now 64, filed suit saying that he should not be denied access due to disability.

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Zack, who lives in his own apartment, supplemented his income by working at a local movie theater until it closed last month and took small acting roles. His work on 2014’s Becoming Bulletproof, about actors with disabilities, caught the eyes of writers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who were so impressed that they wrote a role for him in Peanut Butter Falcon.

Zack also wowed his costars. “There were times his eyes were the only thing I could look at,” LaBeouf says. “He’s creatively masterful. He was my rock.”

Adds Johnson, 29: “Working with Zack was the most honest and loving experience I’ve had with another actor. He’s pure light, and he totally changed my heart.”

And Zack feels just as accomplished.

“People think that someone with Down can’t do things,” Zack says. “I want to prove them wrong. If they watch me in a movie, maybe they’ll think that they can do anything too. Maybe someone else with a disability will follow their dreams because of me.”

The Peanut Butter Falcon opens Friday.

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