Between the success of Black Panther and female-fronted projects like Wonder Woman, it seems like diversity and representation in front of — and behind — the camera has finally become increasingly important to filmmakers and audiences alike. But self-described “bionic actress” Angel Giuffria is waiting for more. She hopes this will be a tipping point, where eventually people will start to see more characters like herself on the big screen: people with disabilities.
“It’s funny, I refer to myself as a bionic actress because truthfully my career didn’t take off until I got this prosthesis,” Giuffria said, referring to the high-tech prosthetic arm she wears, which is one of the most advanced in the world.
“I was born missing my arm, below the elbow, and I was fit with a myoelectric muscle operated prosthesis when I was very young. Obviously, at that point in time, they were much different and not as high-tech. As I’ve gotten older and the prosthetics have advanced, I’ve tried to stay as current as I could with the latest technologies.”
The 28-year-old has appeared in films such as The Accountant alongside Ben Affleck and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 with Jennifer Lawrence, but when she was younger, she struggled to believe an acting career was possible for her because she didn’t see a version of herself depicted in pop culture. That is, until she got called up to be the body double for Hailee Steinfeld in the Coen Brothers Western, True Grit.
“I was a teenager at the time and I remember being so excited at the thought of there being a character with one arm,” she said. Unfortunately, her parents wouldn’t allow her to take the time off school to shoot the part, but it gave her a taste of what she would later pursue as a career once she left high school and then college.
Yet acting is a notoriously tough business, even more so for someone with a visible difference, and it wasn’t easy going at first.
“A lot of times when they have a character with difference, they want to make that character only about the difference,” Giuffria said. “I wore my fake arm originally — which looks very real and fleshy, but has little function — because I thought that was my way into acting: ‘I’ll trick em.’ Then I realised once I got the opportunities, a lot of times doors would close very quickly because they felt deceived or they were being close-minded or it couldn’t work for that project. Also, I can’t audition for something unless it’s written. I got my prosthesis four years ago and I decided this is me, this is who I am, and I’m not going to hide that. So now I’ll walk in there with my bionic arm and audition unless it’s, well, a period piece,” Giuffria laughs. “Obviously not then.”
Perhaps strangely, a turning point came when she was cast in Green Lantern, one of the biggest superhero flops of all time (it’s also been credited with teaching Taika Waititi how not to make a comic book movie). But it was an interaction with the film’s director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, GoldenEye) that was pivotal for Giuffria.
“The first thing I did that you can see me in is Green Lantern with Ryan Reynolds. I play a two-handed person, so I had a cosmetic prosthesis on and I run in late for class,” she said. Just a “regular background extra” at first, she was selected by the assistant director and then Campbell himself to be a featured extra in a classroom scene, which excited and terrified her simultaneously.
“I started panicking and I walked up to them and said something no extra would say: ‘Excuse me, but I need to speak to the director.’ They just looked at me and laughed, then I had to go ‘No, um, I have one arm’ and someone quickly went ‘I’ll be right back.’ They got him, he’s English, and he goes ‘What’s going on?’ I launched into my big prepared story of ‘You know, I’m really excited you picked me and I would love to do this. I am an actress and I understand how film works and I don’t want to draw attention away from the scene and not reflect your vision if this isn’t what you want, I only want to make sure you’re aware.’ He just looked at me and goes, ‘Have you ever been late to class before?’ And I remember in my head going ‘duh.’ I knew I was a one-armed girl who had been late for class before, but it was the idea that this amazing director who had done all this stuff was like ‘Well, I don’t see why you can’t do it.’ Literally that was when I stopped wearing [my prosthesis]. I went on to get an agent, and stopped covering it up. One day I really want to meet him again and say ‘Hey, thanks.’ He really gave me a lot of confidence and he made me feel like it could happen.”
It was from that point onward that Giuffria said her career “took off,” with a batch of film and television credits under her belt as well as a Super Bowl commercial that aired earlier this year where she got to display her archery skills:
“[I did] a lot of scifi to start with and I do a lot of auditions for military hospital type stuff. Then I did a film this year that I can’t say too much about, but it’s based in the near future, with a high-tech, Black Mirror vibe. It was the first time I’ve ever booked something where the character wasn’t specifically written with a physical disability and I love that, it was amazing! They thought my arm was cool in the audition — it really adds to the story and the dynamic nature of that character, who could have easily been a throwaway role.”
Although one part of the struggle is getting those characters on screen, another part is making sure “the representation that’s willing to be out there” has depth. Giuffria wants multidimensional characters depicted in the same way characters without a limb difference or disability are shown to be multi-faceted and complex. She pointed to Walter White Jr. in Breaking Bad as an example of when it can be done right (both the character and the actor who played him, RJ Mitte, have cerebral palsy) — and the Kingsman films as an occasion where it was done wrong (every character with a disability or difference in the series is a villain).
Australian Paralympian and author Jessica Smith says although she has seen disability represented in film, it has never felt like an accurate representation to her.
“The only thing that comes close really is Finding Nemo,” she said. “I remember becoming emotional as I watched it for the first time. Here was a fish with a ‘lucky fin,’ essentially an arm like mine. For me, the association with swimming was even more meaningful because in so many ways I felt that Nemo was me. But I think it’s important for onscreen roles to highlight the fact that not everyone needs to be a hero in order for their ‘role’ to be fulfilling.”
While one-armed heroes like Marvel’s Bucky Barnes (a.k.a. the Winter Soldier) or Misty Knight might hit on a mainstream level, for Smith the everyday and the depiction of it can be just as important.
Actor, author, and disability activist Quentin Kenihan had a featured role in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, playing Corpus Colossus, the son of the movie’s big bad Immortan Joe. The 43-year-old says at the time he hoped the film might spark change due to its success at both the box office and in its depiction of multiple characters with difference.
“The good thing about Fury Road was I auditioned as Corpus Colossus three times for George,” he said. “It wasn’t some meeting and I got the role, he made you work for it. And that was the same for the other disabled actors cast in the film as well. I hoped it was going to happen — things would change — with that film, but it didn’t. I haven’t had another acting job since it and that was three years ago. I’ve gone for stuff, I auditioned to play a character in the [Australian] zombie series Glitch, but they ended up not going with a disabled character. I really thought Mad Max would open doors for me, but it just goes to show how narrow-minded Hollywood can be.”
For Giuffria, Fury Road’s Imperator Furiosa was a pivotal character; it was “the first time” she felt like she got to see herself represented on a mainstream platform.
Charlize Theron as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.
“The way that character was portrayed is what really struck me. No one ever asked if she needed help, no one ever asked what happened to her arm — because I get asked that every day. People feel very entitled to your story and I don’t really have one. I was just born this way and that’s who I am. With Furiosa they made it so someone with a limb difference could be talented, proficient, emotionally well-rounded — I mean, obviously, she’s a little intense and has her issues, but everyone does.”
As much as she loves the role and the performance, Giuffria noted that a performer with a limb difference cast in the role would have been “so dynamic.”
“I love that character and I can sit here all day and say how I wish someone with a limb difference would have played that role. But at the same time, as an actor, I understand getting bums in seats and Charlize Theron is an amazing, Oscar-winning actress.”
A much more realistic opportunity for inclusion would have been on an indie film like Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, Giuffria says. She was disappointed to learn the production didn’t audition any actresses with a limb difference for the main role of Arlen.
Suki Waterhouse as Arlen in The Bad Batch.
Instead, British performer Suki Waterhouse was cast as a woman who is both a transhumeral amputee (above the elbow) and transtibial amputee (below the knee). Unlike Theron — who is an established actor and box-office draw — Waterhouse is not a huge star, which begs Giuffria to ask the question: Why not audition amputee actresses for the role? “Suki Waterhouse is not a household name and that’s the problem — when they’re not even auditioning actors with a limb difference for the role.”
Kenihan agreed, adding that “Hollywood needs to embrace disabled actors as well, not just stars.” With four feature films under his belt and decades of experience in the industry, he said having “proper professional representation” has gotten him through the door countless times, but notes that we’re still a long way from seeing a disabled A-list star.
“There’s a new movie with the Rock coming out where he plays someone with a limb difference, Skyscraper,” he said. “They could have found an amputee with acting training and given that guy a shot as a new lead, but they’re not going to… because it’s the Rock.”
With Hollywood’s increased discussions about representation and diversity, Giuffria hopes it will mean more opportunities for performers with disabilities, more characters of difference and more faithful portrayals. Realistically though, she knows it’s going to take something massive — your Marvel movies, your Disney movies, your sweeping franchises — to really impact change.
“I think it’s going to have to take something that huge in the industry — a big budget film with a huge platform — to display a difference like that for people to go ‘oh yeah.’”
The “if you can see it, you can be it” mantra is more than just some inspirational slogan to Giuffria and the growing community of people with disabilities and differences who work in pop culture. Through social media they interact and encourage each other, sharing tips on everything from how to break into the industry to performing surgery on your bionic arm while on the go.
“Making an effort to represent the world around you better will actually make a difference in the world being better,” said Giuffria. “I truly believe that and it’s happening… it’s happening and I’m not gonna quit until it does.”