By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
When movie producer Milan Chakraborty came to town in 2013 looking for an actor with Down syndrome, people at local organizations that advocate for individuals with disabilities said, “You need to meet David DeSanctis.”
DeSanctis, a 22-year-old member of the Church of the Epiphany, was ultimately selected to play a lead role — a character called Produce — in the independent film “Where Hope Grows.”
The film will premier in movie theaters across the country on May 15, including Cinemark Tinseltown and Carmike Stonybrook in Louisville.
David DeSanctis’ father, Bill DeSanctis, said that a meeting between his son and Chakraborty was coordinated by Down Syndrome of Louisville, a nonprofit that provides support, education and advocacy.
During the three-hour meeting, David DeSanctis said, he was asked to pretend to cry and pretend to look happy. Then he was invited to submit an audition tape.
Bill DeSanctis said he thought the director was just being nice and didn’t think anything would come of it.
They decided to make and submit an audition tape anyway.
Thirty other actors — from across the United States and one from Australia — auditioned for the role of Produce, Bill DeSanctis said.
Produce is a grocery store clerk who befriends a former professional athlete going through a tough time in his life.
When the part was offered to David DeSanctis, his father said they were “shocked.”
“We were told that some of the others were better actors, but David had more personality,” said Bill DeSanctis.
As he and David sat in their home on a sunny day last month, they took turns explaining the events which had suddenly whisked David into the fast-paced world of acting and onto the big screen.
“It’s never about the acting experience,” David DeSanctis explained emphatically. “It’s about the personality.”
His family agrees that David, who received the “Mr. Spirit” award while a student at Ballard High School, always has had a “big personality” and loves the limelight.
Five years ago, he was invited to speak at a golf tournament and he told listeners then that one day he would be an “actor in Hollywood,” his father said.
The 22-year-old who was born with Down syndrome — a genetic condition which affects one in 691 children born in the U.S., according to the National Down Syndrome Society — is the youngest of five.
“When he was born someone told me not to treat him differently, to love him and discipline him like I did all the other kids,” said his mother, Julie DeSanctis.
His parents took that advice to heart, so David DeSanctis grew up a “normal little boy” amidst the flurry of siblings’ activities and could always be found cheering on the sidelines of his sisters’ field hockey games, his parents said.
On the set of the movie — which was filmed last fall in Louisville — David DeSanctis became fast friends with the cast and crew. After 24 whirlwind days — that entailed long hours on set and filming during wet, cold nights — David had made an impact on those around him, his father said.
“They all said that David changed their lives and that they’ll never look at people with disabilities the same,” Bill DeSanctis said.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz — who attended a private screening of the movie April 9 — said the ability to transform the lives of those around them is typical of people with Down syndrome.
“It was true in my own family with my brother Georgie,” said the archbishop of his late brother who had Down syndrome.
The archbishop has long spoken about the gifts of people with disabilities, especially in sharing stories about his older brother, who lived with him for 12 years until he died in 2002.
Archbishop Kurtz said that one of the things that struck him about the movie was, “how a person with Down syndrome can easily be dismissed by even the kindest of people.”
Bill and Julie DeSanctis know this all too well.
They said they always kept their son involved in the community and the film has provided an even larger platform from which to let others know that people like David DeSanctis are capable.
“There’s so much people with disabilities have to share,” said Bill DeSanctis. “They are very talented, but sometimes we don’t give them the chance to show it, because they may look different, don’t speak as clearly, or are in a wheelchair.”
Archbishop Kurtz said the film brought to mind Pope Francis’ teaching to always see the person first and to see the gift in people.
“This is what the movie is all about,” he said.
David DeSanctis is an advocate for that very message. Whenever he has the opportunity to speak to a group, he always tells those listening to “look at our abilities instead of our disabilities.”