Actress Champions For More Roles For Disabled Performers
Since the pandemic began, Angel Giuffria has lived with her parents at her childhood home, located in a small town about 40 minutes outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. It's been a continual struggle, deciding whether to stay or head back to Los Angeles, where she had been living pre-Covid-19 and where her career had been thriving.
But the pandemic paused her upwards career trajectory, where Giuffria had finally begun seeing consistent work. She says she went from auditioning once every few months to auditioning three to four times a week. Then the virus struck, Hollywood shut down, and opportunities dwindled for Giuffria.
Giuffria, who has appeared in NBC's Chicago Med, CBS' FBI Most Wanted, and films such as The Accountant, has been making her way through Hollywood, a dream that began when she was a student. For as long as she can remember, Giuffria dreamt of acting, which some may have found unrealistic because of her congenital limb difference: Giuffria was born without her left arm.
"Honestly,” Giuffria said, “It doesn't affect anything.” Before she was born, there were no signs that Giuffria would be missing her arm. Ultrasounds hadn't evolved to what they are today, so anything her parents saw appeared as a shadow— there was no reason to be alarmed.
Towards the end of her mother's pregnancy, Giuffria says, she started experiencing Braxton Hicks, or false labor pains, which put her on bed rest. While in bed, Giuffria's mom watched the local news when a story about myoelectric-controlled arms for babies and children appeared. Giuffria says her mom, a nurse, thought the story was incredible. Little did she know that she would give birth to a baby missing an arm in a matter of weeks.
"A week later, the newspaper where I lived had run the story. All of our neighbors showed up with the newspaper. My mom had kept them until probably like ten years ago," Giuffria said. "I was like, 'Mom, why do we have 30 of the same newspaper?'"
Myoelectric was located in Houston, Texas, about four hours from where the Giuffria family was living at the time. Almost immediately, Giuffria says her mom took her to be fitted for a prosthetic.
"I got a passive, so a non-moving device, at four weeks old, and then they started training me. And then, at four months and ten days old, I was able to operate and use the little tiny robot arm by myself," Giuffria said.
Giuffria would become the youngest in the world to wear a myoelectric prosthesis, even being featured on the latest season of Ripley's Believe It or Not.
Giuffria went on to use prosthetics for most of her life— something that made her stand out in a school where she was the only person with a congenital limb difference. She remembers feeling different and often being teased.
"The problem was never that I had one arm, the problem was how people reacted," Giuffria said. "People didn't understand, or people were raised to think this or that. And I was constantly, even as a child, thinking, 'how do I talk to this adult to convince them that I'm okay?'"
"Once I got into high school, I got pretty good at figuring out: this is the thing I need to say to this person for them to realize I am okay, and this is the thing I need to say to this person because if I make a joke, they don't want to hear any jokes that would make them uncomfortable." Giuffria was involved in plays and musicals as a child, even attending a program at her hometown theater. But when she got to college at Southeastern Louisiana University, she majored in psychology.
"I don't think I ever thought that acting could be my job because I had never seen anybody like me, which is a common thing that we talk about within the disability community," she said. While she was in college, post-Hurricane Katrina, there were film incentives in New Orleans, making Louisiana the "Hollywood South." To make extra money, Giuffria decided to start doing 'extra' work — often finding herself on sets of television shows and major motion pictures.
And then the moment that changed everything. Giuffria was on set for Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds. One day, the director, Martin Campbell, known for directing Casino Royale, among others, decided last-minute he needed a featured extra— a role that hadn't already been written in the script.
"The PA (production assistant) came in first and was like, I need to pick 12 girls, and he was like you, you, you come in this room," Giuffria said. "And then it got down to three of us and then finally, Martin Campbell walked in, looked at the three of us for like two seconds, and said, ‘her’ [pointing to Giuffria.]"
Giuffria was rushed to hair and makeup. They chose her for a scene where she would play a student who was late for class. Giuffria was instructed to throw open the door and sit down while the teacher was giving a speech.
"All of a sudden, I realized they didn't notice I have one arm," Giuffria said. At the time, Giuffria was wearing a cosmetic, flesh-like, prosthesis and she was wearing a long-sleeve shirt. Giuffria started to panic, her mind going a mile a minute, fearful of what would happen if the crew realized she was missing a limb.
"I'm thinking - I have to tell them because if they find out is this going to be awkward? Is he [the director] going to tell me, 'why is she so stiff while she's running in front of everybody?' Or is he going to want to pick someone else?"
"So I go to the PA, and I say, 'I'm sorry, but I need to speak to the director.' And he just laughed in my face because I'm this extra asking to talk to the director. I look at him, and I'm like, 'I have one arm.' And he looks down, and he was like, ‘I'll be right back,’" Giuffria said.
When she finally had the chance to talk to Campbell, Giuffria said that she told him about her arm through scrambled words and nervous energy. "I told him, I understand if you want to pick someone else for this part, and he looked at me, and he was like, 'are you in school?' And I was like, 'yeah,' and he's like, 'have you ever been late for class before?' And I was like, 'yeah,' and he goes, 'well, I don't see a reason why you can't do this," Giuffria said.
"I was shocked because I never thought that somebody like him would agree with the fact that I could just be there." From there, Giuffria dived into acting. She started taking classes, obtained an agent, and even landed a role in The Accountant, starring Ben Affleck.
Although Giuffria has been fortunate enough to book television, film, and commercial roles, she says, most of them have had to do with her arm and her ability to use a prosthetic. Most of the time, she is playing a service member who lost her arm in battle.
"Because it seems like 90% of the things I book are the only amputees on TV that must have been in the military, and it's just perpetuating the idea that we don't exist outside of this," Giuffria said. "Some of us aren't [service members], and why aren't those stories being told?"
In 2018, Giuffria landed one of her first roles that had nothing to do with her arm. She played a flower clerk in the film Hover. Giuffria credits casting directors who believe in the work of actors with disabilities for helping her land this role, and others that have nothing to do with her disability.
"I was so stoked to be the flower clerk," Giuffria said. "My dad was like 'you don't have a name.' But I'm like, 'I don't care, I am a flower clerk! Not like robot flower clerk.'" As quickly as Giuffria started booking, many of those parts, not focused on her limb difference, were as fast as they disappeared when the pandemic began. Giuffria fears for disability representation in the industry moving forward.
People with disabilities make up about 20% of the American population, compared to a minuscule number of characters on television and in film. And often, when a character has a disability, it's played by a non-disabled actor. "I think the goal is we want people with disabilities to play characters that are written to have a disability. And obviously, we want to play any character, but how, if we can't even have disabled people actually playing disabled characters?" Giuffria said.
"For so long, I was on the team: as long as they auditioned disabled actors for the part [when searching for an actor to play a disabled character], and they didn't find what they were looking for. But now I feel like it's such a cop-out."
Giuffria has become an advocate in Hollywood, promoting inclusivity and better representation for people with disabilities and other minority groups. She consults on productions, too, reading scripts to ensure accuracy and authenticity when it comes to the disability population.
Although the future is still unknown, as Hollywood works to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, Giuffria is optimistic, hoping she and other actors with disabilities will continue to be given opportunities. She hopes her involvement in Hollywood will encourage others to change the way they view disabled people.
"I love participating in the idea of representation because if people can see people like me existing normally, then it's going to change a lot of how people view the world."