One of my favorite hidden gems of SXSW Film Festival was the emotionally raw and fascinating documentary Mr. Angel. I had a chance to sit down with former trans-porn actor, speaker, and the man himself, Buck Angel and his wife Elyane to discuss everything from his documentary and transformation to Buck’s impact on the trans community and beyond.
Nate for Comics Bulletin: How did Mr. Angel come together with you and director Dan Hunt?
Buck Angel: Dan called me like 6 or 7 years ago…
CB: That’s a long time to be making a movie.
Buck: Yeah a long time, and he wanted to make a documentary about my life. I said I’m not ready to make a documentary about my life, but how about if we make a documentary about my porn work? So he was like “Okay…” but I know Dan and he was like “I’ll just keep doing this until he becomes more comfortable.” So I became more comfortable, and because my porn work also progressed, it was inevitable that the story about my life was going to be told as well. It’s not possible for that film to be made without talking about my personal life. Right? So I think it’s a stronger film because we did it for so long, and you could just see the progression of my life, and my work in porn, to what I’m doing today which is pretty incredible.
CB: I noticed you were sitting behind me at the screening and I almost turned around and asked you in the middle of the movie. Is it weird seeing photographs of yourself when you were a kid?
Buck: (Laughs) Totally! I think that was like the hardest part of the film was just sort of seeing myself. Like wow! I’m totally up there, my whole life in 1 hour. It wasn’t like disturbing; it was just kind of weird.
CB: Is it weird seeing your former self?
Buck: Umm no, because I show it all the time. Do you know what I mean? Yeah, if it was the first I had seen it, I think so. Some of the pictures of like my boxing stuff were a little weird, because I was so skinny and so girly. That was a little weird… I don’t relate it to myself, which I think is a little weird. I don’t think of it as me. I’m so disconnected from it. I don’t relate to it, which I wasn’t feeling in that body at that time either. So it’s kind of a strange thing.
CB: You talked a little bit in the film about the stigma of porn now that you’re trying to go out and speak. You know if you were having someone come to talk about sex, you’d think you would want the people who do it professionally speak.
Buck: You’d think! (Laughs) You’d think so… You know what? That’s my profession, believe me, I know what I’m talking about. But still it’s because it’s the pornstar thing. Because I work in pornography, so it’s not that I went to school and got a degree in sexology or anything. It’s the pornography aspect that turns people weird… I always just think it’s so interesting
CB: Especially here in the States.
Buck: Absolutely! Especially in the States. Canada is really open minded, I speak a lot more in Canada than I do here.
CB: Do you find as you keep speaking and speaking it’s gotten a little bit easier? Cause for someone who didn’t really do well in school you’re very well spoken and clearly an intelligent guy.
Buck: Thank you! I honestly think it’s because I wasn’t stupid. I just didn’t excel in school because it wasn’t interesting to me. And I was worried about myself, my whole focus was me. So I was bullied in school: I was uncomfortable, I was shy. Because most people in school are just themselves so it’s easy to function in a classroom and it’s easy to interact with people. And I didn’t because my outside was all… rejecting something else and I was getting teased and fighting all the time.
CB: As you hit puberty and adolescence what was going through that like?
Buck: That was the start of my problem right there. My early childhood was rad dude! I was like a little boy. Not a problem, not a problem at all! It was when I hit puberty and the girl shit started happening: the boobs, the menstruation…That was like when all hell broke loose for me, dude. That was when I withdrew, I started drinking a lot, and that’s when the drug and alcohol problems progressed for like 15 years or something. I don’t even know, from 16 until 28, I was just a raging alcoholic. Which is really sad.
CB: I think that’s a big thing people are going to take away from this though is just how strong a person you are… I’ve been around addicts, and it’s a very cyclical thing. For someone to just flip a switch like that one day? I’m sure you had to hit rock bottom first.
Buck: Yeah I had to. I totally had to.
CB: But I think it’s very impressive. What was the road to recovery like?
Buck: I was ready. I must have been ready. And it sounds all wing-nu
tty, but in a way I feel like I was chosen. Somebody wanted me, somebody chose me to make this message, because nobody else had made this message before me. Really, you know, what does make you a man or a woman? Somebody picked me up and said, “No, you’re not going to die right now,” because really? I should be dead, dude! I really should be. I mean, the things I did to my body, the homelessness, the taking pills and drugs and everything, and being lost…I don’t know how I got out, but I’m really lucky. I’m very, very lucky that somehow I got focused. As soon as I got sober? I got a taste of like "Oh…okay." And then as I got sober, through sobriety, is when I realized "oh, you know what? I’m a dude." That was my problem. I don’t really think in a sense, and a lot of people might take offense to this, but I don’t really think of myself as an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic.
CB: Has it been an issue at all since became sober? Because I know for a lot of people every day is like a battle.
Buck: No, that’s what I’m saying! Like for me, I don’t consider myself an alcoholic or a drug addict.
CB: It was more like a distraction?
Buck: Yes, totally! Whereas some people fight it every day that are sober and I feel for them. But for me once I realized that I needed to become a man? Once I did that, never do I have any feelings of wanting to use drugs or alcohol ever again. It was to hide and suppress my feelings of hate for myself. But I do think alcoholism can come from that, there’s something inside of you that you’re not being honest about.
CB: In watching the film I think your parents seem to notice that shift too. I think it made them a little more accepting. Clearly it’s not something as simple as you’re an alcoholic, that there’s something there.
Buck: Yes, yes! There’s something there. Even since that film, since those shots of my parents and my dad breaking down like a year and half ago. Since then my parents are even more amazing. My dad Skypes me now! I’ll be online and I’ll see "oop there’s my dad!" And he’s calling me: “So, what’s up?”… And I’m like, is this my dad? That’s just amazing, they’ve really come full circle.
CB: How did they get involved? When you started making the documentary more about you and less about the porn? Was it still distant between them at that point?
Buck: No, I’ve had a great relationship since basically… Let’s see Elayne and I have been together for 10 years so since we’ve been together they’ve been pretty cool. They’ve progressed a lot though. I would say in the last 5 years they’ve really progressed, but in the last couple of years they’ve even more progressed. But I think since I’ve been with Elayne…
Elayne Angel: Well you’ve been successful and been coming into your own, making a name for yourself in the world.
Buck: They’re proud of me. My parents are very proud of me, and what I do. They don’t even have any issues with me being in sex work, my dad might have it a little bit, but my mom was just like "whatever." I think they’re just happy that I’m alive.
CB: I’ve seen a ton of documentaries that do have a lot to do with the sex industry that are all about the drugs and the depression. But this was very sex positive.
Buck: Thank you, that means a lot to me. I really want to put that message out there that just because I’m in porn doesn’t make me like a loser or a… It’s actually done wonders for me! It has been empowering for me like nobody can believe! It’s made me who I am in a sense, another step of that was acceptance of my body and showing it to the world. Can you imagine? Not very many people can do that.
CB: I thought that was incredible, because I’m kind of in the same camp as you, I don’t think bottom surgery is necessarily good. I feel like often afterwards people feel unfulfilled and disappointed. And that’s sad, but it’s hard for people to get over that hurdle of "oh, that’s the only way to do it." And for you to be so bold and confident…
Buck: I have to be, but I get torn up by the trans community because I am very bold about it. But people don’t understand, it’s my story. Whenever I say that, it’s always from my own experience.
Buck and Elayne Angel
CB: I think it changes for a lot of kids and a lot of people. That changed things just to have someone…
Buck: It does, all I’m telling you is you have a choice. I’m not telling you should not do it. I’m just telling you, you have a choice. And my life is amazing without the bottom surgery. So if I can do it, you can do it. And the other thing I’m telling you is this, look at everything that bottom surgery gives you. Is it that important for you to have that? I met a guy not too long ago who had bottom surgery, and he wishes he never did it. And he says to me “If I would have seen this before and I would have known? I never would have done it.” But the state that he lived in forced him to get that bottom surgery or he would never be legally a man. I mean can you imagine? They’re saying “You have to have this penis put on, or we'll just never give you any kind of recognition that you’re a man.” I mean that’s like… Nazi! (Laughs) I feel like it’s an obligation of mine and I would be an asshole if I didn’t put that out there. And I don’t give a fuck what people think about me, I just don’t. So it’s my obligation to say look you have a choice.
CB: Did you ever even consider having bottom surgery?
Buck: Oh sure! First off I really, really wanted to have a penis. I really did. And I did pack a thing there so it looked like I had a penis. I did research on it, I felt so disconnected with my vagina, dude. It was horrible. I had sex, but it was always kind of disconnected in a way even through my sobriety. But through the research little by little in the back of my head I was just realizing, I don’t like this. But it was hard to sort of come to terms with that for a while… I just did eventually. I can’t tell you what was the defining moment of that. It just sort of progressed into I’m not going to get a penis.
Elayne: I remember the day and the vibe was his understanding that to be penetrated was being serviced for his pleasure and not being female.
Buck: That was a certain level of comfort of not feeling feminine, which is a big deal. When you have a vagina, you’re told that that’s female. So realizing that had nothing to do with me as a woman or a man, it’s just part of my body.
CB: In the film you talk about how one day you just decided you don’t care what others think anymore. You have this great way about you that you seem very invincible yet you’re very vulnerable and open to people. But is there any part of you that still needs your dad’s approval? Because that’s a big part of what spurred your transformation.
Buck: Yeah… That’s a good question…. Yeah, yeah it is, but I feel like I do have his approval now.
CB: Cause by the end of the film you guys were very close, but he’s still just struggling with it a little.
Buck: Yeah you can still see! I love when people catch that because he’s kind of like “That’s my kid, but I’m not really sure I’m okay with it!” (Laughs) But he is! Now he’s totally okay!
Elayne: It’s really interesting that next time I saw his family after they had done that, and his dad, I mean it was just mind-blowing coming from him, was like “So what are you doing for the families of trans people to help them understand? Cause they really need that.” I was like oh my god he gets it! I just was blown away by his insightfulness, understanding that it’s bigger than just the realm of his family.
Buck: It’s incredible. You have to understand that my dad is this total macho, Republican, one view of everything… I broke him out of that mold in a way. He still has that way of thinking, but there’s still part of him that has broken out of that mold.
CB: It says a lot about how close you guys are.
Buck: I feel really blessed, for lack of a better word, to be able to have that relationship with my parents. I mean I didn’t have it for so much of my life, and I always said "oh, it doesn’t matter. "But I think it did matter to me in a way, I did need the approval of my family.
Elayne: One of the other things I learned in that conversation after I saw them was that his parents said they started calling him Buck when he was about 2 years old. And that hadn’t come out before, that all his life he’s been this guy.
CB: That’s got to be super confusing when you did hit puberty.
Buck: Yes! I thought I was a boy, I really did. And then they used to confuse me about going to church and having to put on a dress. Then when I was at home I could put on pants and be a boy, but then when I would go to the family event I would have to be a girl. That was very confusing for me.
CB: I think a big hurdle for people to kind of accept the trans community, though, is they see masculine habits or features but there’s a bigger difference in wanting to be kind of a tomboy and what you felt. I don’t know if it’s possible to put into words, but can you talk about what that’s like?
Buck: Well, you know, I think there is some influence in your surroundings that can influence you in the way you physically are. And looking at things, I did have a physical influence. My dad was a huge influence on my ultra-masculinity, most definitely so. But that said, there is a difference in being a gay person and a transsexual person. A lot of times people put sexuality and gender together. Just because you’re a butch female doesn’t mean you’re a transsexual person and vice versa, just because you’re a very female man doesn’t make you a transsexual woman.
CB: Obviously you’ve changed things dramatically for trans people, but you’ve also made non-trans people comfortable with their bodies as well.
Buck: Yes, and honestly I feel more proud about that than I do about just a specific community. If you’re a big person and you’ve never felt good or you’re a skinny person or a black person or a little person! Basically that’s my message. If that’s who you are, just learn how to say it doesn’t matter what other people say to you.
CB: What would you most like for people to take away from this film?
Buck: To be yourself, that’s it. It’s so simple. Deprogram yourself from what society has told you have to be, whatever that is, and reprogram yourself to say I’m okay. I’m totally okay. It doesn’t matter what people think about me; I can be whoever I want to be.