With Roadside Attractions' upcoming drama Where Hope Grows, David DeSanctis (pictured) will become one of the first actors with Down syndrome to play a leading role in an English-language feature film.

After conducting a national search, producer Milan Chakraborty reached out to the advocacy group Down Syndrome of Louisville, which suggested he meet with DeSanctis, 22. Shortly thereafter, Chakraborty offered DeSanctis the role of Produce, a young man with Down syndrome working at a local grocery store.
Winner of the 2014 Heartland Film Festival Audience Choice Award, Where Hope Grows follows the story of Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha), a professional baseball player sent into early retirement due to panic attacks at the plate. Amid a downward spiral, Campbell encounters Produce. Together, the two form an unlikely friendship.

A 1996 French-language film, The Eighth Day, similarly depicted the budding friendship between a busy but unsettled salesman (Daniel Auteuil) and a resident of a mental asylum (Pascal Duquenne, who has Down syndrome). But Where Hope Grows will be one of the first English-language examples.

The film marks a milestone for actors and actresses with disabilities, who have made important strides in recent years. Like Breaking Bad's RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy and played a character with the same condition, DeSanctis is demonstrating that people with disabilities can carry a major role.

"I was participating in the Louisville Down Syndrome Walk when the producer came and surprised me with the news," DeSanctis told The Hollywood Reporter, recalling the moment when Chakraborty announced onstage that DeSanctis had beaten out 30 other actors for the part. "My eyes lit up."

DeSanctis didn’t have any acting experience before auditioning. He did have on-camera expertise from starring in his own cooking show, Cooking With Dave, which helped him prepare for the filmmaking process. That show was part of a school project.

"I was in front of the cameras a lot in high school, so I was used to it," he added.

Before filming, DeSanctis memorized 130 lines a day and even used self-curated music playlists to better envision the scenes.

"I took each scene and used songs to imagine it," he said. "My favorite songs to listen to were 'Cruise (Remix)' by Florida Georgia Line and Katy Perry's 'Roar.' "

According to DeSanctis, the film was made in just 23 days, resulting in 12- to 14-hour days. However, he took the workload in stride.

"I want people to see me for my abilities, not my disabilities," he said.

DeSanctis also will act as a spokesman for World Down Syndrome Day on March 21, when he will talk about living with the disability and his experience working on the film.

"David’s been a self advocate for a long time," said Chakraborty. "He’s excited this message will be spread further and help people understand we are more alike than different."

Though he doesn’t have any upcoming acting roles, DeSanctis is looking actively with his agent Gail Williamson at KMR Talent. His dream job would be to land a gig on the sixth season of Once Upon a Time.

Written and directed by Chris Dowling, Where Hope Grows will be released in theaters May 15. Steve Bagheri, Simran Singh and Jose Pablo Cantillo also produced. Jesse S. Jones executive produced.