5 Fantastic Performances By Neurodivergent Actors

Busting a whole string of stereotypes.

neurodivergent

Disclosing your neurodivergence is often tantamount to career suicide. Take Sia’s movie ‘Music’, for example. The singer-director fired the autistic actor who she’d cast as the lead in the project, replacing her with a neurotypical young woman instead. In an attempt to justify the move, Sia said that no autistic actor could be capable of handling the role. When a number of neurodivergent aspiring actors called her out on social media for her actions, she publicly insulted and then blocked them. The role was never recast.

Thanks to attitudes like this, there’s still a persistent myth that neurodivergent actors can’t handle the responsibilities of a major role. This even though Orlando Bloom is neurodivergent. And Octavia Spencer. And Tom Holland. And Tom Cruise. Oh, and Sir Anthony Hopkins – you know, who won two Oscars? You know what, we’ll just get into the list.

Here are five world-class performances by neurodivergent actors that are guaranteed to prove the doubters wrong.

 

1. Zack Gottsagen in The Peanut Butter Falcon

Zack Gottsagen-Zak the peanut butter falcon

Actor Zack Gottsagen, who has Down Syndrome, shines as Zak, a young adult who escapes from the depressing nursing home where he’s been imprisoned by the state. Zak goes in search of a local celebrity who he is convinced can help him kickstart his dream of being a professional wrestler, and is thrown together with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a local fisherman on the run from the
law. Chaos ensues.

It’s the kind of story it’s impossible to look away from. Gottsagen’s intensity as an actor and his deep commitment to the role hold it together. He leaps effortlessly from sadness to joy to ferocity, always completely convincing. It’s easy to see why the performance netted him a Palm Springs International Film Festival Rising Star Award and a Hollywood Critics Association Newcomer Award.

 

2. Chloe Hayden in Heartbreak High

Chloe Hayden 'Heartbreak High'

We couldn’t make a list like this without mentioning Chloe Hayden, who had a breakout role as autistic teen Quinni Gallagher-Jones on Netflix’s “Heartbreak High”. Her performance made us all laugh, cheer, and then cry, taking us through both the joy and the devastation of the autistic experience as Quinni schools a class bully, has her first kiss and her first heartbreak, and finds a
group of true friends for the first time in her life.

One of the best moments in the show is Quinni’s iconic line “Okay, Sia”, said to a date who makes an ableist comment about her autism. Hayden, who, in a TV-worthy twist, is one of the
actors Sia insulted after the ‘Music’ controversy, wrote this line herself.

Hayden won an AACTA Audience choice Award and a Marie Claire Rising Star of the Year Award for the role, which made her the first openly-Autistic actor to play a lead on Australian TV. Incredibly, she has never had any professional acting training. It’s not fair for anybody to be that talented.

3. Leo J. Long in I Used To Be Famous

Leo J. Long 'I Used To Be Famous'

In this movie, which is heartwarming without being cloying, autistic actor Leo J. Long plays a young autistic drummer, Stevie, recruited by a former pop star trying to reignite his flagging
career. His passionate performance makes us root for Stevie one hundred per cent as we watch him grow as an artist and a human being, slowly beginning to find himself and his place in the world.

Long is an incredibly grounded actor. Even though his character is passive at times, his performance never is. He commands attention every time he’s onscreen, without ever overdoing it. He’s also an accomplished drummer in real life, which lets him bring amazing authenticity to the story’s performance scenes. Incidentally, the music is fantastic – whoever arranged the songs for this movie deserves an award. You’ll be humming the main hook for days.

He’s also funny, delivering withering sarcasm with just a glance or a raised eyebrow. That was amazing to see in a world where autistic people are normally depicted as humorless robots (The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, with his cartoonishly annoying, monotone voice, comes to mind).

 4. Wentworth Miller in Prison Break

wentworth miller prison break

Wentworth Miller, who shared his autism diagnosis in 2021, was one of the best things about ‘Prison Break’. His subtle confidence reeled us in from the first scene, when we realize his character, Michael Schofield, is not someone to underestimate.

His intensity and charisma made us want to keep watching for five seasons, as Michael’s brilliant plan to escape from prison, free his wrongfully-incarcerated brother, and engineer his own disappearance unfolds in a series of stunning twists and turns. His performance is a masterclass in doing a lot with a little; though he seldom raises his voice, we are never in doubt that he is utterly in command. Not surprisingly, he won a Golden Globe for the role.

 

5. Bella Ramsey in Game of Thrones

Bella Ramsey Game of Thrones

Actor Bella Ramsey, who announced they were neurodivergent in a 2023 interview, made GoT fans all over the world cheer and then cry as ass-kicking warrior Lyanna Mormont. Even though Ramsey was only thirteen at the time, we completely believed Lyanna was terrifying enough to intimidate hardened noblemen three times her age. When Ramsey delivered the iconic line “I don’t plan on sitting by the fire while men fight for me. I may be young, and I may be a girl, but I am every bit as much a Northerner as you!”, shivers ran down all our spines.

Mind-blowingly, the role, which earned Ramsey a SAG award nomination, was their first professional acting job. They have more presence onscreen than some actors who’ve been doing this for thirty years.

Is there anyone else we should have included in this list? Let us know in the comments.

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