I had the pleasure of interviewing bionic actress Angel Giuffria about growing up without a left arm, biomechatronics, acting, discrimination and her research in psychology.
She was such a lovely person to interview. We shared plenty of laughs and nerdy discussions about prosthetic limb technology. There are also beautiful moments where the interview becomes more personal and emotive.
We are only three months into 2017. What interesting things have you done this year so far?
I got to film a Super Bowl commercial where my arm is featured. I do archery for fun, but they gave me the challenge of shooting in a different way than I am normally familiar with.
In the commercial they were like, “wouldn’t it be cool if you could draw with your prosthesis.”
I said, “yeah that’d be cool, but not possible.”
Obviously not the most practical thing. So that’s one cool thing!
I moved to Los Angeles from New Orleans where I normally live because I’m working on acting and doing some cool stuff. So that’s nice.
I’ve been testing the DEKA (an acronym of DEKA CEO Dean Kamen) prosthesis using Coapt (Classification using a fuzzy Or/And network with Principal components Technology) pattern recognition. I started this study to see if I was going to be able to actually use the hand.
So there’s a couple of things!
How did you lose your left arm?
So technically, I did not lose anything.
I was born without my arm. I’m what is referred to as a congenital amputee or someone with a limb difference. Adding a prosthesis to me is just adding new capabilities. I grew up wearing a prosthesis. I’m actually the youngest in the world to a wear a myoelectric arm. I learnt how to do things without my arm on and with my arm on.
I would never tell anyone not to call me a cyborg just because it has a positive connotation around it I think mostly.
It’s always a fun and an interesting experience having people’s reactions now as opposed to before it was kind of like, “maybe I shouldn’t say anything, maybe she is uncomfortable about it.” They see this arm (left arm) and they’re like, “well, she knows that I know that she knows that she has one arm.”
Can you tell me what was it like for you growing up without a left arm as a child and as a teenager?
I remember when I started school everyone was nervous about it. I’m from Louisiana. The school I went to was a private Catholic school and everyone kind of looked the same… except for me!
I remember thinking when everyone was staring, “listen, I’m great. My mom told me I’m great. My arm’s great. This is all really cool. I don’t understand why you’re uncomfortable.”
I had a small group of friends. They got that not everyone looks the same. I can’t blame the other kids, obviously. It was just their upbringing. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but at first it was kind of like a little stand-off-ish. Also, if anyone tried to tease me I’d take it off and try to hit them with it. That didn’t help. I also do that with my brother a lot, but he’d catch it and hit me back. So, never fun to be hit with your own arm.
Around sixth grade was when kids finally realized that this is Angel and she happens to have one arm.
I had this mindset that I would never be an actress. I wanted to go to school for psychology because as someone who is constantly thinking about all these things – how am I perceived, attitudes of other people – I could help people with therapy. I am finishing up my Masters in Psychology. I’m almost done. I just have to finish up my thesis.
For years I wore, what I called, my “pretty arm” which literally was a cosmetic passive. It didn’t have any function, but it looked nice. At the time, I had this idea that to be attractive, to be what the majority felt like was important I needed this cosmetic arm that blended in. It never really was that important to me, but I felt like everyone thought it was important.
Did you ever experience any rude comments or discrimination as an amputee?
There was one boy that I really liked in second grade. I remember him calling me “one-armed girl” and thinking why was that bad?
People do this now not thinking this is offensive: they’d put their arm in their sleeve. I would cringe because I remember kids used to do that to me when I was younger. I know that people are making fun of me now, but sometimes it feels that way.
I had plenty of friends, but there were always some people that made me uncomfortable because I knew they looked at me like different is bad. I still get it occasionally. On flying trips when someone grabs the peanuts out my hand. They automatically assumed that I need help.
I get frustrated when they pull the peanuts out of my hand. It’s kind of like, “what do you think I do when you’re not here?”
The big thing that frustrates me is this year at amputee camp we had four limbed, able-bodied counsellors for the first time. One of the big discussions was:
We totally understand you want to help a lot of the kids when you see them struggling, but you need to make sure that they are actually struggling and that this is an issue that needs to be resolved. Ask them if they need help. For all you know, this is a new amputee, whether a child or an adult, that has never tried this task before.
Never in my life have I tried to open these peanuts and automatically someone took them out of my hand and did it for me. When you take that from someone maybe they might not try again. It’s one of those important things of just ask first.
What about the other way? You helping another person. Is there any sort of discrimination there?
At the gym is a big one! I do kickboxing. I remember I had a class and someone came up to me. I know they were trying to give me a compliment. They said, “I was so tired in class, but I looked over at you and you’re doing so well.”
What they meant to say was, “because this class isn’t designed for you and I saw you working so hard, it made me want to work harder.” Instead, they said, “if she can do it, I can do it!” It is literally the implication that I have two arms so I should be better at kickboxing than the one-armed person.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the term yet inspiration porn? The idea is to motivate or inspire the able-bodied persons to be their better self. Look at what they’re doing. Now you should work harder because they’re working so hard!
It almost feels unethical.
Yes! For us, that sucks!
What was it like when you were fitted with your first bionic limb?
I got my first prosthetic at six weeks and that’s when I started my training. They put a little sensor on me and hooked it up to a tiny control. Every time I flexed the right muscle, it allowed me to move the race car. So as a baby that was rewarding – classical conditioning.
The first multi-articulating hands came out in 2007. Anytime I saw something new or wanted to try something new we would go to my prosthetist. I found one of the only vendors in my area because at the time there were very few people licensed. I remember using it and thinking this is so cool. As a teenager, someone in high school I was constantly uncomfortable with the looks I got from people. It was heavy.
I kept saying, “when is a smaller one going to come out?”
They’d say, “in a year.”
“I’ll keep this one, but I’ll just wait.”
Then it was two years; still nothing! Then that was when I got involved in the DEKA study which is part of the study I am doing now.
I went to the DEKA hand which weighed 7lb (3.18kg). It was a big hand, but it had all of these functions, though. It had wrist flexion, pronation, supination as well as open and close in six different grip patterns. They had foot sensors of all things that allowed me to open and close my arm and wrist at the same time.
I didn’t care if it was big anymore. I’m not worried about it. I’m comfortable at this point in my 20s that I just want the function. The DEKA is not available commercially. I wanted an arm so I found a place called Advanced Arm Dynamics. In the U.S. they are the only company that specializes in upper limb.
I went to this place that only fits arm amputees because I trusted that they knew a lot. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know a lot and I need them to know more than me. I need you to know more about this than I do.
You’d be the one with the PhD.
Yeah, exactly! At this point I know enough where the prosthetist will always be like, “I need to stay on my game because Angel knows a lot and I need to know more than her.” Occasionally, he’ll be nice to me and pretend I know something.
In the U.S., I’m not sure about the laws in Australia, you have your prosthetic company put in the order to your insurance company. It gets signed off by your doctor and the insurance company gets to say yes or no if they want to cover it, whatever portion of it. It’s usually around 80%.
First letter said something like, “you were born without an arm. You don’t need it.”
Then another letter said this is experimental technology. They’re on version three so when does it stop being experimental?
All of a sudden I get a call from my prosthetist – “We’re going to cancel the appeal.”
I said, “what? No, I want this hand!”
He said, “they’re coming out with a small sized hand.”
I’ve been told they’ve been coming out with a small sized hand for like five years now. I started thinking that it was never going to happen.
He said, “no, I’ve seen it!”
“Can you send me pictures?”
It was this hand and it was the same size as me. Not only was it the hand I wanted function-wise, it’s a hand that feels like me size-wise. As opposed to something that looks like a boxing glove.
We’re getting to a place where people can have more individualized, multi-articulating control. I’m going to be able to have full intuitive control at some point. Hopefully, within the next five to ten years.
It would be nice if all these devices could be readily available to everyone which is why 3D printing has been big recently. People without missing limbs make the argument, “it’s so cheap. You could just print another one.” They’re not understanding. This is my hand.
If I’m at a restaurant and I’m holding a plate and my hand breaks, would I feel comfortable holding plates again?
Now my psyche has become an incapable thing.
I am very trustworthy of this device (current prosthesis).
What inspired you to pursue acting?
I started acting in sixth-seventh grade. I did musicals and enjoyed singing. I’m very dramatic as you can tell. I’m very expressive and enjoy playing other characters.
I worked on this one movie called The Green Lantern with Ryan Reynolds. If you ever heard Ryan talk about it, he’s not too thrilled about how it went. It didn’t do well.
The director was Martin Campbell, who directed Casino Royale and amazing other movies. I was there wearing my cosmetic arm.
They picked 20 people and I was one of them. We waited around for an hour. Finally the director comes in, he looks at me and goes, “her!” and walks out.
They said, “you have the featured role; you’re running in late for class on camera. It’s just going to be you. We’re going to do your hair and makeup. We’re going to make sure your wardrobe is okay.”
It wasn’t a speaking part, but a featured part. Not just a blur on the camera.
All of sudden I was like, “I have one arm. Oh no!”
I started thinking, “what happens if he asks me to run in and grab the doorknob with my left arm? What happens if he asks ‘why is your left arm so stiff?’”
I started panicking and did what no extra ever does. I walked up to the production assistant and I said, “I need to speak to the director!”
“No, really. I have one arm.”
She went and got him. I was panicking.
He comes up to me and he says, “what’s the problem?” He’s a very serious guy.
“Okay, so I wear a prosthesis. I have one arm.”
He looks down and notices for the first time and he says, “okay.”
“I understand how movies work. I am not a principal actor. I don’t have lines. I’m an extra. I understand if you want to pick somebody else.”
At the time I was very worried and said, “I would still love to do this if you don’t mind.”
He looked at me and went quiet for a minute.
“Have you ever been late for class?”
I looked at him and said, “yeah?”
He then goes, “I don’t see any reason why you can’t do it.”
It was just that easy, duh! Of course, I have been a late student for class with one arm. That’s me, that’s my life!
Where do you think all this anxiety came from?
As you still know, we are working on diversity in the media with the big push last year at The Oscars. This was six years ago where I didn’t see anyone like me on TV. I needed permission to exist. In my real life I always thought I should be here; I matter; I exist; I’m a real person; there’s nothing wrong with my differences.
In film, I had never been shown that. I know that I’m a sister, daughter, friend, college student. I could play any of those roles and have one hand. I love this and you know what?It’s important that I do this for anyone else like me or with a difference!
Having said that, why do you think there are not many bionic actors who get cast for main roles in Hollywood?
There is this general perception that there needs to be so much written into the character. I don’t think writers, directors or any of the people higher up give the audience enough credit.
We exist in real life!
Mad Max – Charlize Theron did an amazing job. Within that film the important aspects are, no one asked her what happened. No one asked her, “what happened to your arm?” or “do you need help?”
At one point Max’s character let’s her make a shot because he knows she has a better shot than him. They don’t give people enough credit to think “oh, that makes sense!” Sure people can be curious, but people can still enjoy the movie and understand that this is a character with one arm. Period.
It’s really good how Hollywood can bring awareness about amputees and reduce stigma around that. What did you discover about yourself when you pursued acting?
The first time I didn’t pretend being a two-handed person, just a daughter role. I remember thinking I could wear the cosmetic. I could do it.
It was a movie set in current times. I didn’t get a call back, but I felt good about it. I had to start realizing I’m me everyday, but I needed to show people in film that this is also how we are everyday of our lives. If they could be exposed enough to that then maybe they will start realizing that, “oh, maybe I could cast her to play the daughter.”
I remember the first role I went in not wearing any arm and that was scary. It was a movie set a long time ago. The idea was there weren’t any prosthetics. I exist like this everyday in real life. I even have that bias in my head – “I shouldn’t be auditioning with one hand.” It’s funny to acknowledge things in my own head. Why am I nervous? This character could totally have one arm. She could be a total bad-ass with all the things she’s doing.
The movie that I just booked that I’m going in for tomorrow was not made for a one-handed person. It’s a sci-fi movie set in the future, but the role was open to anyone. They took advantage of it in a way that makes sense. You don’t need all this back story that even I thought you needed for a while.
Your story kind of reminded me of La La Land with how it’s so hard to get an audition and be in a movie. If you were to make a movie about your life who would you get to play you?
To be honest, I wouldn’t play me. Representation-wise, I would want a one-handed person to play me. I think that’s important.
There’s a girl from my amputee camp, I think her name is Jenna. She started doing acting. I think she’s eleven and I would want her to play me. Whether this movie happens when I’m in my 80s, I am going to insist there’s no CGI; that there’s all one-handed actresses because that’s important!
That’s pretty cool!
Since this month is Women’s History Month and at the time of this interview International Women’s Day in Australia, I think this would be an opportune time to discuss gender equality. Emma Watson and your fellow Hunger Games co-star Jennifer Lawrence have been huge advocates for gender equality within and outside of the film industry. What changes would you like to see in the future that would promote greater justice for women’s rights within and outside of the film industry?
People don’t even realize that taxes on products that women need are considered by others as luxury items. From tampons to things that are not better discussed with a hushed voice. This is biology! These are things you need! There are so many things I feel hasn’t gotten enough attention. It’s that whole idea of we need to talk about the majority again which the majority becomes male.
From the Women’s March, I thought it would be important for me to say, “proud disabled woman.”
There are plenty of people with disabilities that would have loved to be at the Women’s March, but were not able to because of mobility issues.
Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence are great, but they are also white women as like I am.
There are so many different issues to different minorities within being a woman. I think we have ignored a lot of intersectional things that are very important.
I would hope we could do more in the minority aspects of being a woman as well.
If you didn’t pursue acting what do you think you would have been doing?
My thesis advisor would love to say I’m finishing up my Masters and moving up to a PhD program to be a psychologist which is probably true.
I had been in a relationship for five years. I had always been acting in our relationship, but he never wanted acting to be my job.
We had a conversation where he said, “what if you never did psychology again?”
“I could always do something else like law, HR, marketing. I would find something to do.”
“What if you never did acting again?”
I know this is going to sound a little dramatic, but I started crying. This is more important to me than I first realized. I think my second love is always going to be psychology.
I’m doing a lot of research on stigma and attitudes on people with disabilities and amputees. My thesis is looking at juvenile amputees and stigma; looking at if it’s different for upper limb or lower limb. After I finish my Masters I plan to continue doing research.
Will we be expecting a journal article or systematic review any time soon as a lead author?
My thesis advisor would like to say soon. I will be conducting my research this summer so I will possibly have something published next year… Maybe?
That’s pretty cool! The only other actor in Hollywood that I know that did psychology was Natalie Portman and she did that at Harvard.
She. Is. Amazing!
In one of the episodes of the White Rabbit Project on Netflix and also in the 2017 Super Bowl, you are featured showing your skills with a bow and arrow. Wow, you were incredible. What got you interested in archery?
I tested the DEKA prosthesis with the government and that hand has six degrees of freedom, more than any other hand. They had a part of the testing, three years ago, saying, “what are some activities you want to try?”
As you know, I started out as a huge Hunger Games fan which I had a small part in. I was a huge dorky fan. I love Jennifer Lawrence!
The idea was I could pick activities that were two-handed activities. I came up with different activities from horse back riding to archery. I could shoot like a two-handed person. I don’t have to make all these adjustments for how I would do it. Every time I went back to the DEKA, I got to do archery.
I went through Advanced Arm Dynamics and they designed an activity arm for me that is entirely for archery. It’s lighter; it grips better. I got it before I went on White Rabbit. They contacted Advanced Arm Dynamics who said, “we just made all this stuff for one of our client’s who’s an actress. Would you like her on the show?”
We filmed it out here (Los Angeles). I got to show them all the different parts. Grant (Imahara) was so great! He was so excited he said, “I want to take this home.”
I have lights in my arm now that were all inspired by Grant. We talked about getting back together at some point and coming up with a flying fist mechanism that I can shoot off. Now that I’m out here in L.A. I might call him up about that.
If people are willing to dedicate their time, their profession to advancing these things – what we can be capable of is a mind-blowing thing to me.
It would be really cool to have Grant as part of your special effects department and having you as the lead actor in another Hunger Games sequel.
Oh, absolutely! That would be wonderful.
I want you now to imagine that you are in a room with 18-year old Angel. What would you tell her?
Trust your instincts. Make the brave choice.
The more times you make stronger choices, the more opportunities you have to do the things that are important. A lot of the brave things are the scary things. Usually, those are the right things. Especially when I was younger I was doing things that I was supposed to be doing. Going with the flow saying, “this is how the world thinks I am supposed to react to this.” I would say go with what you think is right. Don’t be afraid to make those choices even if they’re scary.
Yes, just like in The Green Lantern and how you were talking about having all that anxiety before, but you worked through that and you’re here now.
Was there anything else that you wanted to share?
People always ask me that. I talk so much that I’m surprised that you think that there is anything else for me to share.
Any really cool projects coming up, any Salsa dancing skills?
I have a film coming out on April 9th. I play a small part. It’s called Speech and Debate (see trailer here). It was my first speaking role that I booked correctly. I went through an audition, call back and I got it.
The character doesn’t even have a name. It’s just girl in motorized wheelchair. There’s some great people in it like Lin-Manuel and Sarah Steele. It’s an indie film. Dan Harris is the director. Hopefully, I made it into the final cut.
Connect with Angel on social media
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