The following post was written by Hayden Zaller and his mom Shannon Zaller. The duo share a passion for acting, with Hayden recently starring in the feature film American Underdog, and Shannon performing at the Historic Savannah Theatre for 20 years. In this post, Hayden describes his experiences on set, his future goals and dreams, and what he enjoys most about having a visual impairment.
We aren’t trying to do anything that hasn’t been done. Not on purpose, anyhow.
Hayden is a really special 11 year old: he’s soft spoken and crazy polite. He loves school (math is his favorite). He enjoys superhero movies and Pokemon, but also loves singing to Hamilton (even when his sisters make him sing Peggy’s part). He wants to design video games one day. When you first meet him, it’s likely you’ll notice his cane first. He has lots of cane colors- this week his choice is a blue and green shaft with a white marshmallow roller tip. Hayden is diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and is completely blind.
And he’s totally cool with that.
If you ask him, he’ll tell you “My superpower is that I can read in the dark. Most sighted people can’t do that, since they don’t know braille.”
He has said that while he’s a little curious about sight, he doesn’t really think he would want it, because he feels very special knowing that he has a disability that not many people are familiar with (though he wants to make sure people are using the word “cane” and not “stick”). He loves educating kids about what blindness is and isn’t. And, he’ll tell you, it’s given him a lot of opportunities.
In 2021, Hayden co-starred in the movie American Underdog alongside two of his movie idols, Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin (they both have played superheroes in movies he watches). We found out about the audition from a friend who is also blind. The producers were looking to authentically cast someone who was blind to play Zack Warner, the real life son of Brenda and Kurt Warner, who the movie is based on.
To our knowledge, Hayden is the first completely blind child actor to be cast as a lead in a major motion picture.
The production gave us his script in braille. His teacher who was fluent in braille and knew how to use his tools (like an abacus and a refreshable braille display) was able to travel with him so that his learning could continue even while on set. Allowing Hayden access to read and write his own homework is a big deal, as literacy rates among adults who are blind have been referenced as being as low as 10%.
As a mom on set, the most special thing to me was that every member of the team would introduce themselves as Hayden walked by every day, which was amazing. Most of the time in our everyday life, Hayden walks into a room and doesn’t know who is near him.
People often say, “Hi Hayden!”- but he doesn’t always know who is speaking (don’t get me started on the people who say “guess who it is”- please never do that to your friends who are blind). The director of American Underdog, Andy Erwin, had the entire crew circle around Hayden before filming started and they asked me what they could do to make his time there more accessible. By far and away, this one little thing- introducing themselves- was the thing that made his time there the most accessible, safe, and enjoyable. “Hi Hayden, it’s Andy, the director,” was a common sentence we heard while on set, and it made Hayden burst into a HUGE grin every time.
For the red carpet premiere at the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, we wanted to make sure his blindness was represented. We contacted Alexa at Aille Design and asked if she had any ideas for a red carpet look. Knowing his photo would be all over the internet, we felt that putting braille on his clothing might bring more (pardon the pun) visibility to the blind community. In braille, his shirt collar said “Hayden Zaller American Underdog 2022” and one of his favorite lines (that was cut) from the film: “I can do this”.
From there, Hayden has been auditioning for animated features and tv shows, as well as modeling for catalogs and runway shows, and is even being stopped during the school day during his Orientation and Mobility classes by fans who recognize him for his work in American Underdog and want a quick pic.
The biggest thing Hayden wants people to come away with is that people should stop setting limits for themselves. He wasn’t trying to be a trailblazer for anyone who came after him, but that’s what he accidentally is.
Because of, and not despite his blindness, he was given this special opportunity. Because of, and not despite his blindness, we know that Hayden will thrive in his life, no matter if he decides to become a game designer, a teacher, or a superhero.
~ Hayden and Shannon Zaller
To learn more about Hayden visit:
IMDb: Hayden Zaller
Video Interview: Watch American Underdog Featurette about Hayden Zaller
American Underdog Movie: Watch the movie on Amazon Prime
Hayden's Red Carpet Outfit: Watch Hayden read the braille on his custom shirt