Becoming an Actor With Down Syndrome: Challenges, Advice, and Support

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Photo Source: “Champions” Courtesy Focus Features

From Jamie Brewer’s portrayal of supernatural characters on “American Horror Story,” to Lauren Potter’s casting as a queen bee cheerleader on “Glee,” actors with Down syndrome are being cast in increasingly diverse roles. Keep reading to learn about acting with Down syndrome and the move towards inclusivity.


What is Down syndrome?

Down Syndrome ribbonMadison Tevlin/Shutterstock

Most humans are born with 46 chromosomes, or little packages of genes with instructions on how we should develop; people with Down syndrome are born with an extra chromosome, chromosome 21, which is why Down syndrome is sometimes referred to as Trisomy 21. This additional genetic material changes the course of an individual’s development. 

Down syndrome is the most common chromosomal condition diagnosed in the U.S., occurring in approximately 1 in 700 babies. While there are common characteristics associated with those born with Down syndrome, each person is unique and has different abilities.

How Down syndrome manifests

Lauren Potter in 'Glee'

“Glee” Courtesy Fox

The extra chromosome associated with Down syndrome can lead to similar physical features in those affected by it. These include a flattened face, a shorter neck, poor muscle tone, and being overall shorter in height, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some people with Down syndrome might have one or more major birth defects or other medical problems such as hearing loss, eye diseases, and heart defects. While Down syndrome is a lifelong condition, each person varies in their strengths and weaknesses and requires different levels of support. Thanks to early support and intervention, many children with Down syndrome attend regular classes at school.

Challenges for aspiring actors with Down syndrome

Zack Gottsagen in 'The Peanut Butter Falcon'

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” Courtesy Roadside Attractions

Getting any job can be challenging for someone with Down Syndrome. Only 81% of adults with developmental differences have a paid job in the community according to Best Buddies. While that number is dismal on its own, there is even less workplace representation of people with Down syndrome on the stage, screen, or in film. 

Speaking on behalf of her sister Macclaren Goodwin, who has Down syndrome, Mackaella Goodwin says that actors with Down syndrome face similar challenges as those without developmental differences. 

  • A heavy load: “The theater schedule can be intense, especially around performance time,” says Mackaella, “which took some practice getting used to.” Macclaren performed in multiple plays in high school, including “Hello Dolly,” “Bright Star,” and “Drowsy Chaperone,” each of which required multiple rehearsals. “Just like other performers, Macclaren got tired some days, adjusting to a bigger schedule,” her sister reports. Still, the extra work may have helped Macclaren prepare for what was ahead. Now at 19, Macclaren attends East Stroudsburg University, where she studies theater and concert choir. 
  • Changes to routine: Like many people, those with developmental differences often prefer a routine. “Sometimes there were curve balls that the theater would present with scheduling, which created a level of discomfort for Macclaren,” according to Mackaella. “Macclaren is the type of person that just goes and goes, but there were times we could tell that it was taking a toll.” 
  • The fast pace of the industry: Actors with Down syndrome may struggle with fast turnaround times—but having someone on set or stage who advocates for their needs can make a huge difference. Macclaren’s theater director took steps to help her with scene transitions. “One weakness for my sister was that she was not the fastest costume changer,” says Mackaella, “so there were times when she would need a little extra time between scenes to get ready. When more time was needed, the director would try not to schedule her in back to back scenes.”

Tips and techniques for becoming an actor with Down syndrome

Pablo Pineda

“Yo, también” Courtesy Olive Films

According to Goodwin and Rob Snow—who started the Improvaneers, an improv comedy and acting group for those with developmental disabilities, like his son—these tips will male the path to becoming an actor with Down syndrome a bit smoother: 

Find a group

“Nerves are usually a big hold back for anyone in deciding to act or improvise in front of others,” Snow says. “Being with the same group of actors or entertainers each week will eventually create a special bond and lessen or completely erase any feelings of nervousness or anxiety about performing.”

Learn to brush off mistakes

According to Snow, those with Down syndrome are often made overly aware of their slip-ups. “It’s important to know that in improv, there are no mistakes,” he says. “We work hard at making sure individuals know they can just about do anything in our program and it will be accepted.”

Find a good match

Different individuals have different abilities, so it is important to find an acting situation that fits with individual strengths. “Some with Down syndrome may have trouble with articulation or voice projection,” explains Snow, while others “may be challenged to understand more complex directions.”

Try out

Goodwin recommends that actors cast a wide net, even if they’re not sure which part will be a good match. “When my sister would audition for a play, no one really knew for sure what role she would land, and how it would work out, but it always did,” she says. 

Be flexible

Adaptability is a huge boon for any actor. “Even if you are trying out for a certain part and don’t get that part, acknowledge the importance of every role in a production,” Goodwin advises actors with Down syndrome. “No matter what, you will be part of the inner workings of an awesome machine.”

Practice, practice, practice

Making acting practice part of the daily routine at home makes all the difference when it’s time to perform. Goodwin’s family practiced with Macclaren regularly, which made her feel more comfortable during performances.

Famous actors with down syndrome

Jamie Brewer

Phil Stafford/Shutterstock

People with Down syndrome who have made acting their profession include: 

  • Jamie Brewer, known for her recurring roles in the “American Horror Story” series. 
  • Chris Burke, who has appeared in shows including “Life Goes On” and “ER”
  • Zack Gottsagen, who has starred in multiple films including “The Peanut Butter Falcon”
  • Tommy Jessop, the first actor with Down syndrome to star in a prime-time BBC drama
  • Daniel Laurie, who acted in “Call the Midwife”
  • Pablo Pineda, known for his award winning role in the film “Yo Tambien”
  • Lauren Potter, famous for her work in “Glee”