How Sofia Sanchez, the ‘Hunger Games’ actress with Down syndrome, is helping to change the face of Hollywood

After walking the "Barbie" red carpet, the 14-year-old makes her feature film debut in the new prequel — and hopes to inspire others.

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Sofia Sanchez was only 7 years old when made her first profound effect on pop culture.

In a video uploaded to Facebook called “Down Syndrome Is Not Scary,” Sofia’s mother, Jennifer, filmed the adorable kiddo answering a series of questions. “Can you do anything?” Jennifer asks. “Yes, I can do anything I want!” Sofia responds emphatically. “Are you smart?” “Yes, I am smart!” “Do you have down syndrome?” “Yes, I have Down syndrome.” “And is Down syndrome scary?” “Nooooo, Down syndrome is not scary!”

The video quickly went viral, racking up 5 million views and landing national coverage on ABC News, CBS News, and the popular aggregator Now This News.

Seven years later, and Sanchez hasn’t stopped, with the now-14-year-old becoming perhaps the most prolific advocate for Down syndrome in the nation. She has appeared in ads for Old Navy and Target, inspired countless children with the books You Are Enough and You Are Loved, and launched an acting career with appearances in the television series Switched at Birth and the short film For Paloma.

This past weekend, though, came Sanchez’s most prominent appearance yet. She plays Wovey, a tribute from District 8 forced into a battle royale in the highly anticipated prequel The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which opened to nearly $100 million worldwide.

“Acting is the best thing! It’s just the best,” Sanchez told Yahoo Entertainment with infectiously good energy, which you quickly realize is her constant vibe.

Sanchez on set with costars Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler, photo courtesy Mosaic PR
Sanchez on set with co-stars Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler. (Courtesy Mosaic PR)

Born in Ukraine and adopted from an orphanage by American parents, Sanchez lives in Rocklin, Calif., with her mother, father, three brothers (one, Joaquin, also has Down syndrome), two dogs and one cat.

After making a self-taped audition with her mother’s help for Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes — based on the 2020 novel by Suzanne Collins that fills in some backstory to the original 2012-2015 film series starring Jennifer Lawrence — Sanchez scored an in-person an audition with director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson.

“I just loved them. They told me I could scream. It was awesome,” she gushes.

The character of Wovey does not have Down syndrome in Collins’s book, making Sanchez’s casting particularly refreshing.

“Sofia came in and had a great audition,” Jacobson tells Yahoo. “She’s also super charismatic kid, it’s really hard not to fall in love with her.”

“I wanted to make sure that there was plenty of diversity, and I don’t just mean ethnic diversity in this, that there’s all kinds,” adds Lawrence. “And one of the things that I thought was really interesting is we had an opportunity here to really individualize the tributes in the games. In the later series, there’s people that train to be in the games. They’re all in uniforms, so they become more unified. … I wanted this to be more raw, more authentic. I also wanted to show that if you were a young child and you have tuberculosis and your name was chosen, you’re going in. If you’re a young child with Down syndrome and your name is chosen, you’re going in. There is no mercy for anybody. And so I just found that really interesting to have [actor Knox Gibson], who’s missing an arm. He goes in. Sofia, who has Downs, she’s going in. But she was amazing. Everybody fell in love with Sofia.”

Sofia Sanchez poses on the red carpet for the world premiere of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes in London on Nov. 9, 2023. (Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images)
Sofia Sanchez poses on the red carpet for the world premiere of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes in London on Nov. 9, 2023. (Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images) (HENRY NICHOLLS via Getty Images)

And Sofia fell in love with everybody. Asked who her biggest acting inspirations are — like a seasoned Hollywood pro — Sanchez names three of her co-stars: Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage. “I like all of them! They’re so sweet. And they’re so good at acting.”

Sanchez calls watching herself in The Hunger Games “the best day in my whole entire life. It was a fun experience for me.”

She’s on track to have plenty more like it. Months before The Hunger Games was released, Sanchez walked the pink carpet at the premiere of the year’s biggest blockbuster, Barbie, in a bid to represent a Barbie with Down syndrome.

Sofia Sanchez at the premiere of Barbie in Los Angeles on July 9, 2023. (Christopher Polk/WWD via Getty Images)
Sofia Sanchez at the premiere of Barbie in Los Angeles on July 9, 2023. (Christopher Polk/WWD via Getty Images) (Christopher Polk via Getty Images)

She got to meet Margot Robbie (what did the star say to her? “Hi, Barbie,” of course), danced with Kate McKinnon, aka “Weird Barbie,” and met the “the second Ken” (Simu Liu). Ryan Gosling, Sanchez says, “had to go home to see his wife and kid.”

“They were crazy,” Sanchez says of the Barbie cast … in a good way. And yes, by the way, she would happily appear in Barbie 2 (memo to Warner Bros. and Mattel).

Next up, Sanchez has a third book on the way in 2024 (You Are Brave), will shoot a TED Talk and recently recorded a voice role for Nickelodeon.

And she wants to see more actors with Down syndrome get work. “Everyone can be together and be included,” she says. “You can be different or special in all unique ways. But we can cure the world if we love each other.”

Her message hasn’t changed since her viral video first charmed America seven years ago.

“It’s no big deal if you have [Down syndrome], or if you don’t have it,” she says. “We can all be different. And we can all be included.”

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is now playing.

This article contains affilate links; if you click such a link and make a purchase, we may earn a commission.