Nik Sanchez is only 17 years old (his birthday was on Thanksgiving), but the Orange County native already has some impressive credits to his name. He has played Silas March on the ABC series The Rookie for the past two years. He recently finished shooting Safe Space, a feature film directed by Boris Kodjoe, in which he performed opposite industry veterans Drea De Matteo, Nicole Ari Parker, and Mackenzie Astin.
This weekend he will make history as the first actor with autism to portray a character with autism in a Hallmark movie.
In the movie, Sanchez plays 18-year-old Marcus, a young man on the autism spectrum who lives with his mother, who is played by Holly Robinson Peete. When his father finds a space available in a program that helps adults with cognitive challenges learn to live independently, he is immediately interested. But his mother is hesitant. She isn’t sure that he is ready to live so far away or without her help.
The family travels upstate to visit the facility, and Robinson Peete’s character is forced to confront the fact that she might be the one who can’t live without her son, not the other way around.
Robinson Peete not only starred in the movie, but she was also an executive producer.
“I feel that the concept of embracing neurodiversity is something that we have to get behind,” she said in an interview with Monsters & Critics. “…The more we do that, I think the more empathy and the more compassion we’re going to have for people with ADHD, ADD, autism, or any other special needs.”
Robinson Peete and her husband, former NFL player Rodney Peete, have been vocal advocates for members of the autism community since their son, RJ, was diagnosed with the condition as a young child. In 1993 they founded the HolyRod Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and providing resources to families with a loved one who has received an autism or Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.
“It was extremely frustrating to have behaviors that you can’t control and then get put down for them, or get talked about, or not have a friendship because of it, or your mom’s nagging at you because of it,” Peete said.
Sanchez describes himself as “awesomely autistic.” He also has ADHD. As a child, he was always putting on different personas, or “role-playing,” as he called it. He took acting classes as a child, but it wasn’t until his sister began pursuing a career in Hollywood that he turned pro. Soon after landing an agent, he was cast in The Rookie.
He is not the only successful actor on the spectrum. Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, and Daryl Hannah have all been open about having autism.
The character he plays in Our Christmas Journey is not the first person with autism to be portrayed on TV or film. Neurotypical actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Dakota Fanning, and Freddie Highmore have all portrayed characters on the spectrum.
Sanchez is, however, part of a small but growing group of actors on the spectrum portraying characters on the spectrum.
In an exclusive interview with Monsters & Critics, he talked about his love of acting, the challenges he has faced, and what he wishes people understood about being “awesomely autistic.”
Monsters & Critics: What drew you to acting?
Nik Sanchez: Well, I have always loved role-playing and creating characters ever since I was a kid. My mom put me in acting classes when I was five years old, but my ADHD was in full force then, and I had a hard time sitting still. The instructor told me I wouldn’t do well because I had the attention span of a gnat. I mean, I never stopped role-playing, but I just did it with family and friends until a couple of years ago.
M&C: How did it feel when you booked your first job?
Nik Sanchez: At first, I didn’t really understand what it all meant. It sounded really cool and like a way to earn some money for my future, but then when I was actually on set, people were treating me like I was a really big deal. It was strange at first but really good.
M&C: Were there any surprises about shooting a series or movie?
Nik Sanchez: My first job, I was just really focused on remembering my lines. I was prepared to crush this opportunity. But I didn’t realize we’d have to do the scenes over and over and over again because of the angles and the camera changes. I gained a much higher respect for the actors.
M&C: What was it like to work with Holly Robinson Peete?
Working with Holly was amazing. Working with her was probably the closest I’ll ever get to making a movie with my own mom. She just knew things. Being around her felt very natural from day one.
M&C: Were you able to meet her son RJ?
Nik Sanchez: Yes, we met two days ago.
M&C: Actor Lyriq Bent plays your father in the movie. What was it like working with him?
Nik Sanchez: Acting with Lyriq was amazing. Like Holly, he made me feel really safe and comfortable. One example was when we had a scene where his character, Rick, is teaching my character, Marcus, how to shave, and he just made it so much better. I usually don’t like to be touched, especially on my face, and that scene was also shot during one of the first couple of days on the set, but Lyriq was so calm and so patient and so gentle with me. He really made sure I was okay in between takes and everything. It truly felt like a real father-slash-son bonding moment for me.
M&C: What did you like about Our Christmas Journey?
Nik Sanchez: What I liked about Our Christmas Journey was that the movie was really accurate. In real autistic families, everybody is affected. Everybody plays a role, and this movie really portrays that.
M&C: There are a lot of misconceptions about autism. What do you wish more people understood about being awesomely autistic?
Nik Sanchez: Well, the first and the most important thing is that everybody with autism is different and unique. Autism isn’t a weakness. If you can just be kind and have a little patience, you can see that we are capable of great things.
For me, I say that I’m awesomely autistic because I view autism as my superpower. My autism allows me to view the world in a different way.
Our Christmas Journey will premiere on Saturday, December 4, on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries at 10/9c.More: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, Holly Robinson Peete