After Kari Wagner-Peck watched Where Hope Grows, she just had to speak with David DeScanctis, one of the stars of the film who also happens to have Down Syndrome.
I watched the film ‘Where Hope Grows’ in preparation to speak with one of its co-stars– David DeSanctis. Where Hope Grows is a buddy film co-starring DeSanctis and Kris Polaha. The actors click with real chemistry as they journey through a series of comedic and dramatic interactions that unite this unlikely pair in friendship.
Polaha is Calvin: the mostly drunk and sullen former pro baseball player who meets up with Produce (DeSanctis), a twenty-something guy with a more positive outlook on life.
Polaha is an actor who does not have Down syndrome (Ds) and DeSanctis is an actor who does.
I wanted to see the film and talk with DeSanctis because my son has Down syndrome. And –there just aren’t many opportunities to see people with Down syndrome on-screen period.
Aside from Ryan Murphy who bucks the stereotypes of characters with Down syndrome in the shows Glee, The New Normal and American Horror Story, actors with Down syndrome are not in much demand on the little or big screen.
Unfortunately characters with Down syndrome or cognitive challenges are often relegated to the happy, hugging role. I am not opposed to ‘happy’ or ‘hugging’ but I do oppose narrow stereotypes that offer a blanket understanding of an entire group of people like my child. Much in the same way actresses must be discouraged by the over-abundant roles of tireless mother and long-suffering wife.
Imagine my dismay early on in the film when Produce exuberantly hugged Calvin and later Calvin asks Produce about his “magical happiness”.
I’m glad I stuck with the film I was otherwise enjoying. Chris Dowling, the screenwriter and director of the film, conceives Produce’s gifts of compassion and happiness not from his 47th chromosome but instead from his character’s strong faith. I am not a religious person but that is a distinction I can accept– because it could apply to anyone.
I was happy to see DeSanctis’s character works and lives independently. Often characters with Down syndrome are held back by the same limiting beliefs attributed to real people with Down syndrome.
How DeSanctis came to audition sounds like a Hollywood discovery story. A golf buddy of his was on the same flight in the same row as Milan Chakraborty – one of the producers of the film. In flight, DeSanctis’s friend offered him up for the role of Produce -not based on his acting experience, of which he had none, but because of his advocacy work in the Down syndrome community. DeSanctis is an accomplished speaker and advocate serving as Ambassador for Special Olympics and a Global Messenger for Best Buddies.
DeSanctis told me modestly, “It was a world-wide search and somehow I defeated out the other actors who auditioned” noting “one was a Shakespearean actor.”
The director, Dowling, related in an email, “…you could tell from the [audition] tape he was a star. I decided I wanted to roll the dice and cast a guy who had never acted before but had this amazing personality compared to going with someone who had more credits on a resume. It was David’s first professional acting job…and he just crushes it.”
I asked DeSanctis what the biggest challenges was for him acting first time out. He referred to the physical demands of being out in cold weather and being in one position for a long period of time rather than the emotional demands required of embodying a character. That part was easy for him.
Dowling shared, “First time actors often get caught up with being too self-aware and let fear hold them back. David is fearless…it takes actors a lifetime to lose that fear. David began without it.”
Polaha’s Calvin is the mirror for those of us who do not have Down syndrome. As Calvin moves from self-indulgent to connected he sees his new friend is like any one else. A realization this mother and anyone who actually knows someone with Down syndrome easily understands.
I asked DeSanctis if he could relate to the slurs and stereotypes his character faced in the film. He told me he has “worked hard to end the word ‘retarded’, the R-word.” He advised: “Look at my abilities not my disability. That’s what I am.”
DeSanctis said, “Chris [Dowling] made the cast and crew sign a pledge to end the use of the R-word.” The pledge is not to say the word “retarded,” which is rightfully considered a slur just like the N-word. The movie ends with a challenge for the audience to take the pledge as well.
DeSanctis described a video he appears in, also directed by Dowling, that “has people with disabilities showing three words they do not like to hear written on glass that they shatter with rocks.” The video is titled Stand Up for Downs – Help Us Shatter Stereotypes. DeSanctis told me: “Watch it. It’s important to me.”
Clearly the film set was one of inclusion where DeSanctis felt accepted and respected. The best part of film for him: “We were a group of people who became family. Everyone adopted each other.”
I asked if he wanted to continuing acting: “Yes, I do. I am waiting for TV show creators and casting agents to see me.”
His hopeful waiting is probably like any other marginalized Hollywood outsider. As is his dedicated advocacy– he is using his slim fame now for more than himself.
One of my final questions was: “As a mother of a son with Down syndrome what should I know?”
The answer he gave me is probably the best advice any parent can get:
“Tell him to go for his dreams. Support him through his dreams. Take your time with him. He’s eight. You don’t want to miss out.”
You also don’t want to miss out. I hope you get to see DeSanctis soon in Where Hope Grows.
This post originally appeared on Huffington Post Entertainment in a slightly different form.