It was decades before actress Angel Giuffria saw a version of herself on the big screen. That’s nearly three full decades before the self-described “bionic actress” saw a character in mainstream pop culture that she identified with not just physically, but emotionally.
That “first time” was with Imperator Furiosa in George Miller’s groundbreaking Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). "I love her, I love Furiosa,” said Giuffria. “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.” A congenital amputee, Giuffria was born with her limb difference and grew up seeing the only characters like that on-screen usually portrayed as villains in films like The Fugitive (1993) , both Kingsman movies (2014 and 2017) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
“A lot of times when they have a character with difference, they want to make that character only about the difference,” she said. “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… I feel like it’s important to show that these are the characters that represent me and it sucks there aren’t that many.”
As much as she loves the role of Furiosa and the performance from Charlize Theron, Giuffria noted that an actor with a limb difference cast in the part would have been "so dynamic". Yet as an actress who has appeared in everything from Green Lantern (2011) and The Accountant (2016), to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014) and television series Claws (2017–present), she understands the business behind the show. “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."
For the late, great Australian actor Quentin Kenihan – who passed away in 2018 – Mad Max: Fury Road was groundbreaking on a professional and personal level. A disability activist as well as an actor, he appeared in four films throughout his career beginning with Thunderstruck in 2004. “I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve been cast in four feature films,” he said in an interview at the start of 2018. “The first time I was in a film, I thought it was a bit of tokenism. Whereas the next three, I thought that it was because I was an actor.”
Kenihan played one of Immortan Joe’s sons, Corpus Colossus, in Mad Max, which he said was significant because he knew for many it would be the first time they saw someone with a disability so prominently represented. “The good thing about Fury Road was I auditioned three times for George (Miller),” 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.”
Kenihan was born with the rare bone disease osteogenesis imperfecta and was an outspoken advocate for representation in show business, using his voice as someone with a public profile but also an extensive social media following. Given the Oscar-winning success of Mad Max: Fury Road and a $378 million global box-office haul, he said he thought that increased audience would lead to further acting opportunities.
“I hoped it was going to happen, but it didn’t,” Kenihan said. “I really thought Mad Max would open doors for me, but it just goes to show how narrow-minded Hollywood can be… Kelly Vincent is an actor and playwright, she made all her own work, and in order for disabled actors to get noticed they have to make their own stuff. And you don’t just see this (discrimination) with disabled actors, you see this with short statured actors as well like Verne Troyer and Peter Dinklage. They struggled too before they had their breakout roles.” Kenihan said that “inclusion is a slow burner” and for many actors with difference, it’s too slow, too incremental. Mad Max: Fury Road felt like a leap forward for not just the performers showcased in the film, but for those out there in the real world who identified with those same characters: whether it was a patriarchy-smashing Imperator Furiosa or the most intelligent man in a post-Apocalyptic dystopia, Corpus Colossus.
See Quentin Kenihan reveal his role and insights into the Corpus Colossus character in Mad Max: Fury Road.