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Gigi & Nate: History vs. Hollywood


Charlie Rowe
Born: April 23, 1996
Islington, London, England, UK

Ned Sullivan
Born: abt 1982
Birthplace: Massachusetts, USA
Renamed Nate Gibson in the Movie

Allie the Monkey
Bio: Primate Actress

Born: abt 1985
Renamed Gigi in the Movie

Marcia Gay Harden
Born: August 14, 1959
La Jolla, California, USA

Ellen Rogers
Birthplace: Massachusetts, USA
Renamed Claire Gibson in the Movie

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

How closely is Gigi & Nate based on a true story?

As indicated by the photos above, the movie was loosely based on Concord, Massachusetts native Ned Sullivan and his capuchin helper monkey Kasey. However, as we'll point out below, there are some key differences between the movie and the real-life story. In fact, the film is not even credited as being based on Ned's mom Ellen's book Kasey to the Rescue: The Remarkable Story of a Monkey and a Miracle, which tells the true story of her son Ned's bond with his service monkey Kasey.

Did the real family live in Nashville?

No. A Gigi & Nate fact-check reveals that Ned Sullivan, the real young man who inspired the movie, lives in Concord, Massachusetts with his mother and several siblings, not Nashville.

Did the real young man who inspired the movie end up paralyzed from meningitis?

No. The Gigi & Nate true story reveals that the real young man, Edward 'Ned' Sullivan, who inspired Charlie Rowe's character in the movie, ended up paralyzed following a car accident, not from meningitis. In the movie, Nate Gibson (Charlie Rowe) is at the family's vacation rental in North Carolina. He jumps off a steep cliff into the lake below. He lands safely but his sister later finds him having seizures on the bathroom floor. We soon learn that he has contracted amoebic meningitis from bacteria in the lake water. He is 18 at the time and six weeks away from college.

In real life, Ned Sullivan, then 22, was a senior at the University of Arizona. He was in a bad car accident on June 5, 2005, sustaining major brain trauma and a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed. "Unfortunately, for a reason we don't really know, [he] went 40 miles per hour into a brick wall," said his mom Ellen. "He had broken his neck in several places very high up. It's called C1-C2. That means that you're paralyzed from your neck down, period, end of the story." By the time Ellen had made the flight from Boston to the hospital in Tuscon, the surgery team had installed a halo to secure Ned's head to his neck.

Ned Sullivan is pictured on the left before the accident. Sullivan inspired Charlie Rowe's character in the movie (right).

He was flown back to Boston and underwent a high-risk surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital to secure his head to his spine. The surgery went well and he spent months in the hospital recovering. Eventually, he could breathe without a ventilator and the halo was removed. Three months after the accident, he was transferred to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a hospital that specialized in spinal cord injuries. There, he would undergo intense physical and occupational therapies. -Kasey to the Rescue

Is the Gigi & Nate movie set in the same time period as the true story?

No. In answering the question, "How accurate is Gigi & Nate?" we learned that Ned Sullivan, who is renamed Nate Gibson in the movie, was paralyzed on June 5, 2005. It would be approximately a year and a half before he was paired with the capuchin helper monkey Kasey, who inspired the monkey Gigi in the film. While the movie spans several years, it is ultimately set much closer to the present day.

Following the accident, was the real Nate Gibson unable to talk at first?

Yes. The movie doesn't make this very clear, but in real life, Ned Sullivan, who is renamed Nate Gibson in the film, was unable to speak for several months. As the swelling from his injury and the surgery began to go down and he regained some strength, he tried to mouth a few words without much success. His mother, Ellen, says that when he did speak it was like hearing his first words all over again. "Hi, Mom," he said. In the movie, like a switch, his speech is back again and he's talking as he did before his paralysis. In real life, Ned Sullivan's speech returned slowly but is still impaired to some degree. -Kasey to the Rescue

What gave the real family the idea to get a capuchin monkey as a service animal?

An organization that trained assistive dogs brought a lab to the hospital Ned Sullivan was at in Atlanta. Ned and his mother, Ellen, were introduced to the dog, but Ned wasn't interested, telling his mother that they already have dogs at home. His mother then remembered once seeing something on TV about assistive monkeys. At first, Ned thought it was a ridiculous idea.

Back at the hotel that same night, Ellen was checking her email and saw a notice from the middle school where her daughters, Maddie and Anna, attended. It was to let the parents know that the organization Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled would be visiting the school that Friday. Ellen saw it as a sign. A little over a year later, they were being introduced to the 21-year-old female capuchin monkey named Kasey, who would be Ned's service animal (the monkey's name is changed to Gigi in the movie).

Ned Sullivan and Kasey the monkey's first picture together, December 18, 2006. Photo: Facebook

Are Nate's parents in the movie inspired by the real-life parents?

Not exactly. In conducting our Gigi & Nate fact-check, we learned that Ned Sullivan, the real-life young man who inspired the character of Nate Gibson, lost his father to cancer when he was just 18 months old. His mother, Ellen Rogers, eventually remarried, but that marriage ended in divorce years later after Ned's stepsister, Mindy, died of melanoma at age 23. Ned's mother was not married at the time of his car accident.

Ellen displayed strength and encouraged her son in a somewhat similar manner as Marcia Gay Harden's character does in the movie, if not more so in real life. "I knew that I was gonna have to be the one that was gonna fight for him, 'cause [initially] all he could do was blink, once for yes and twice for no," said Ellen. Physically, Ellen and actress Marcia Gay Harden don't resemble each other much. For one, Ellen, a former marketing executive, has blond hair. At the time of the movie's release, Ellen was working as a realtor, handling closings for a Concord, Massachusetts real estate company.

Did they reward the real monkey with peanut butter?

Yes. The Gigi & Nate true story confirms that the real capuchin monkey, whose name is Kasey, was rewarded with peanut butter, one of her favorite treats. She also likes parmesan cheese.

Did it take months for the real young man and the monkey to develop a bond?

Yes. In her book Kasey to the Rescue, Ellen Rogers says that even after the first few months of having the capuchin monkey Kasey, she "was still acting like Ned was nothing but a boulder she had to climb over to get her peanut butter." The trainer reassured them that this was normal, telling them, "It takes time to build the relationship." Sure enough, Kasey slowly came around. At first, she would stay on Ned's lap for a few extra seconds. Then they witnessed her pounce on a big stuffed monkey Ned had, showing signs of jealousy. One day, Kasey dragged a notepad onto Ned's lap and began to scribble.

The biggest sign that a bond was forming came when Ned was having a bout of excruciating nerve pain and Kasey climbed onto his chair, wrapped her tail around his neck, and then positioned herself on his chest over his heart. Miraculously, his pain began to recede. "Kasey comforts and relaxes me like no drug," Ned told his mom later that evening.

Left: Ned Sullivan and his capuchin monkey Kasey. Right: Actor Charlie Rowe and Allie the Monkey as Nate Gibson and Gigi in the movie. Photo: Facebook / Roadside Attractions

How long do capuchin monkeys live?

Capuchin monkeys live for roughly 35 to 45 years in captivity, 15 to 25 years in the wild.

Did the real monkey fling its poop at people?

In the book, Ned Sullivan's mom, Ellen, says that Kasey wasn't initially a huge fan of their dogs or the teenagers in the house. She says that Kasey would screech at them. Since it's not uncommon for monkeys to throw feces, this may have very well happened, but we found no evidence it unfolded the way it does in the movie.

Did the real monkey help to lift the spirits of the young man?

Yes. "So much of my brain injury is anxiety-driven," says Ned Sullivan, "and when she brings things down a notch, I realize that I'm much more at peace with myself. ... This is not about a circus monkey that can draw circles and open DVDs. It's about the family. It's far more sweeter than a companion. It's the aura of respectability."

The real-life capuchin monkey, Kasey (left), inspired Allie the Monkey's character in the movie (right).

Did animal rights activists target the family in real life?

No. While exploring the question, "Is Gigi & Nate accurate?" we found no evidence that the real-life family was targeted by animal rights activists. If there was targeting, it certainly didn't happen to the degree that the family in the movie is targeted.

Was a real capuchin monkey used in the filming of the Gigi & Nate movie?

The filmmakers used a combination of a real capuchin monkey animal actor named Allie and a CGI monkey to represent Gigi throughout the movie. It's rather obvious in the film when the computer-generated monkey Gigi is used in place of the primate actor.

Is actor Charlie Rowe a quadriplegic in real life?

No. British actor Charlie Rowe is not paralyzed in real life. In order to not confuse Allie the Monkey, who portrays Gigi, Rowe made sure to always pretend to be paralyzed in front of Allie, even when the cameras weren't rolling. This way she would never doubt he needed her assistance when it was time to shoot a scene.

Are capuchin monkeys still being trained as service animals?

No. The organization Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled trained capuchin monkeys to be service animals from 1979 through 2020, focusing on providing "daily in-home assistance to people living with spinal cord injury or other mobility impairments." After more than 40 years of pairing capuchin monkeys with disabled adults, they stopped training and placing the animals in early 2021.

Why did the Helping Hands organization stop training capuchin monkeys to be service animals?

While researching the Gigi & Nate true story, we learned that the organization stopped training capuchin monkeys mainly due to pressure from animal rights groups, as well as concerns over health and safety. These factors resulted in federal and state governments changing the laws to make it difficult or impossible to have a monkey as a service animal. In 2010, a revision to the Americans with Disabilities Act stripped capuchin monkeys of their status as service animals. According to the website, only dogs and miniature horses are currently recognized as service animals. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that primates designated as service animals are no longer allowed on airplanes. Many states also now prohibit keeping primates in home environments.

In the Gigi & Nate movie, some such activists accuse Nate (Charlie Rowe) and his family of animal cruelty and harboring an intelligent primate as a slave. The family is then forced to defend itself against these accusations. On their official website, Helping Hands cites the changes in the laws, but only alludes to the role activists played in their decision to stop training monkeys. "We came to this difficult decision after careful and thoughtful reflection, and a deep understanding of the landscape around us." The organization also says that advancements in technology to help the disabled have made service animals less necessary.

Has Ned Sullivan regained any of his motor function?

Yes. "Ned has made incredible progress," his mom Ellen told an audience at the Nantucket Atheneum in August 2011. "We think back, the prognosis was so terrible. He was never gonna walk. He was never gonna talk. He was never gonna eat. He was never gonna breathe on his own. He wasn't going to have cognitive capability. And I'm so delighted to tell you that today, hands, all ten fingers move. He types, he texts, he goes on Facebook. He eats everything. He can now wiggle his toes, and he can even do a couple little kicks with his legs. He has defied every single doctor's prognosis, every single person we met along the way. He wouldn't give up." She considers his helper monkey Kasey to be one of the biggest factors in his progress.