Among the minority groups underrepresented in Hollywood television and film, actors with disabilities are perhaps the most invisible. In 2015, less than one percent of all series-regular roles on primetime network television were played by actors with disabilities, and yet 20 percent of our population is a person with a disability. Slowly but surely (emphasis on the “slowly”) things are changing in Hollywood, and Eileen Grubba is proof. For 24 years now, Grubba (pronounced Grooba) has quietly carved an impressive career in a variety of memorable television roles, most recently as Alice Ann on NBC’s new drama series Game of Silence, premiering this Tuesday, April 12 at 10/9c. The Alaskan-born actress even does her own physical stunts on the show. I spoke to Grubba about her journey as an actress in Hollywood - not an easy path to say the least - which makes her triumphs all the more inspiring.
Xaque Gruber: It’s considered a great feat for a non-disabled actor to play a disabled role. Daniel Day Lewis, Sean Penn, and many others have received Academy Awards-level acclaim for this. Your role in Game of Silence aside, are disabled actors making strides in Hollywood - or are they still largely invisible?
Eileen Grubba: They are still almost completely invisible. The problem is that when it comes to a lead role WITH a disability, there is no interest in hiring an actor with a real disability, because they are not famous names. Well, how are they supposed to become a well known name if you won’t let them work at all? And allowing people with disabilities (PWDs) to audition once or twice a year is not enough. It takes many auditions to get as good at auditioning as the actors who go in 5 to 10 times a week. Through many of my years in Los Angeles, my auditions were 5 to 10 a YEAR, when I watched many friends go in 5 or more times a WEEK. We need to get casting to start bringing in actors with physical differences for all kinds of roles, not disability specific. Like real life, they can be a mother, a teacher, a lawyer, a judge, a friend, a banker, a shop owner, a victim, a witness, a neighbor, a cop. Why not? Let them build their experience and resumes. Let them in the game.
To give you an idea, 24 years into this career, and with the training and experience I have, I am still almost NEVER allowed to read for a television pilot. Maybe once every other year. Even when there is the rare role “with a limp”, they often won’t allow me to read because they want “names.” When I do get in, it is usually because we pulled strings, fought hard, went over people’s heads, or even taped it, sent it to the east coast casting, and got in that way. In Los Angeles, we still have mostly closed doors, but I keep fighting because I know the most creative people usually love and appreciate my skills and differences, I just have to get in front of them. And the creative people usually expand my roles when they see what I can do. Eventually my resume will be too big for them to say no. So... we’re getting there!
XG: This year much has been made about diversity in Hollywood, but where are the people with disabilities at the Academy Awards? The Emmys?
EG: Exactly! Where are they?! We were all shocked and amazed when the Academy President excluded People With Disabilities from her diversity initiatives statement, so many of us wrote in asking her to please include people with physical differences in their diversity conversations. Clearly they ignored that because not one single person with any form of disability was SEEN or talked about, in any capacity at this years awards, not even in the audience, or on the carpets, not in the show, not in the support teams. Nowhere. That was sad and so disappointing, given this was the year of DIVERSITY! They had a beautiful opportunity to show the world what TRUE diversity, ALL inclusive diversity, looked like, but they left out the largest, most excluded group.
XG: Tell us about your physical disability - how and when did it happen?
EG: For the record, I have never seen myself as disabled, I am more active and able than most people I know. It’s just the entertainment industry can tend to see me that way. I walk a little differently. The fact that I had all that life experience makes it possible for me to light up roles in ways most people cannot imagine. There is a passion, a life force, that is rare and quite valuable given my health history. It is what gives me the courage to do my own stunts. There is very little that I fear in life.
Here’s what happened, when I was four and a half years old, I had vaccinations for school, along with all the other kids in my family. Thirty days later, while racing through a park with my sister, doing flips, I landed, and couldn’t feel my legs. By that night, I could not even sit up in the bathtub. One of the viruses in the vaccines was attacking my spinal cord. My parents rushed me to an emergency room. At first they didn’t know what was happening, but my system was shutting down. They told my parents I would not survive, and when I did they were told I would never walk again. So I was stuck in a wheelchair. I never understood that, so I just kept trying, until one day I could stand again, and so it went. There was a lot of nerve damage, and atrophy from the growing years being stuck in a wheelchair, but I was a determined kid. My dream then was to be a cheerleader. Soon I was up and jumping and running and even cheerleading in spite of the broken parts. By my teen years, I had to begin a series of surgeries that eventually led to rebuilding my entire left foot and ankle.
For years they thought it was polio, from the vaccine, or Guillain-barré syndrome. Last year at UCLA, I was sent to the neurology team that deals with post polio syndrome. Through advanced MRI imaging, they definitively stated that is was not polio, thank God, but they can see permanent spinal cord damage from some viral attack that they believe was from one of the other vaccines. They were able to confirm that it will not get worse later in life, as it would have if it had been polio.
XG: How has the condition changed over the years?
EG: It has gotten better to live with because I found an engineer who custom designed a leg brace to support my ankle so that I could walk with more stability and less pain. Now I hike mountains with that brace! I don’t get to wear pretty shoes like most of the actresses in LA, but I have a wealth of life experience and depth of emotion that few can touch, so it’s a good trade. I do live in pain, but I use that pain in my work.
XG: Tell me your Top 3 favorite roles you’ve played on TV, and why.
1. Precious Ryan in Sons of Anarchy (FX)
This role, while small, opened a lot of doors for me. I was one of the FEW girls who got to punch one of the main club members in the face. It was a fun shoot, and all the cast were kind and great to work with. Gwyneth Horder-Payton directed and she trusted me and let me go for it with all my guts. It was a wild role! Precious was actually supposed to live on, but the entire storyline was cut from the show, for reasons that had nothing to do with me. That was disappointing, because I know I would have created a legendary, strong female character that fans would not soon forget. As it was, Precious still made quite a lasting impact. I’ve been invited to many Sons Of Anarchy fundraising events, and even ended up in the S.O.A. Official Collectors Edition book. I love playing characters like Precious, who are strong, fearless, and will violently fight for their rights. We need more women showing up like that.
2. Missy in Hung (HBO)
Missy started out as a Guest Star, but expanded to a nice story arc. This show was the first to actually SHOW my brace and limp. Most others wanted to hide it. These exec producers, Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin loved it and asked if they could show it. I thought, well, this will either make me or break me in Hollywood, but let’s go for it! They had me running in the Detroit rain in a tight mini skirt and high sandals, brace showing in all its glory. I was a Detroit street whore, baby mama for the pimp played by Lennie James. We had so much fun! We were all so sad when the show was cancelled. I heard the 4th season was to open on our storyline, so that was heartbreaking. This was a career favorite, and game changer, because they embraced my difference, and gave me the freedom and comfort of a set where I was able to walk in and not worry AT ALL about how I walked, or if anyone was noticing it. What a gift! I just got to be me, and focus on my work instead of hiding a major part of me.
3. Alice Ann in Game of Silence (NBC)
This is by far my most fun role in television yet! Not only does the age span, going from 35 years old in the 1980’s to 60 years old present day, but also, the creator, David Hudgins and his team of writers are just fantastic! They have written such a layered character with so much fire and guts. She spins in so many directions and is edgy, scary, wild, funny, says whatever comes to her mind, and is pretty courageous. I’m not sure how much I can say since it has not aired yet, but I love this character. They really wrote Alice Ann well. She is a rich, complicated character who has really lived a passionate, challenged life.
XG: Tell me about doing your own stunts on Game of Silence. Was it scary? Daunting? Is that unheard of for an actor with disabilities?
EG: Yes, it is rare for an actor with a “disability” to do their own stunts. The fantastic, courageous, director, Niels Arden Oplev, totally trusted me and let me go wild. Which was necessary for the pilot. They never assumed I couldn’t do something, they just asked me. And the very experienced stunt coordinator, Michael Trisler, did the same, but also made sure I was safe. The fight scenes were easy. I’m really, really good at falling after all I’ve been through (laughs). I get bruised, but never get hurt, and when it comes to a character’s action in a scene, I go for it 100%. I don’t fake it. After a few takes, Niels came running over and hugged me, saying, “You’re gonna get Emmys for this performance!” That made my day, so needless to say, I was happy to try anything he asked!
The daunting part was when they asked if I could chase after a speeding car. With a rebuilt left ankle, I’m not really supposed to run and it hurts like Hell, bone on bone, but I said, “Sure. Let’s give it a shot and see what happens. It might not look good, but I’ll do my best.” So we shot it, and then the real fun began. It was decided that I can’t have my shoes on for the chase scene since they were knocked off and thrown in the fight scene. My brace is shoe dependent. So now I had to do a few takes, running down a gravel road, no brace, no shoes, chasing a car. No brace! Okay, now I was a little nervous. But, we did it. Director was happy. Yes, it hurt like hell, and I paid for it for days, but it was worth the satisfaction of knowing I did it, and could do it again of it needed. It also made me happy that the industry will see that I can run, and do all kinds of action, so maybe more will open up and stop fearing my physical differences.
XG: What advice would you give a young girl with your disability who wants to break into Hollywood as an actor?
EG: I will tell them the truth. I had no idea how hard it was going to be. The many stories would shake you to your core. Sometimes I wonder how I kept going all these years. It’s very painful to be ready, but not allowed to go in the door, year after year after year. I had a lot of faith in people, and in the industry, but had no idea the Los Angeles mindset was so completely closed off to the slightest “imperfection”, especially for women. However, I know that because we have stuck it out and fought SO HARD, and spoke up so much, we have opened up minds and more doors. I believe we have cleared at least a small trench that will one day lead to a wide road with open doors for young actors with physical differences.
I recently spoke to a room FULL of actor with disabilities at Performing Arts West, for David Zimmerman, and I told them this: Whatever it is that they tell you is the reason you will not make it, is the very reason you WILL make it, if you keep going. That thing which makes you different, is the thing that will set you apart, and set you free. So honor it. Keep moving, no matter what resistance you face. When you hit a wall, climb over it. Don’t let anyone stop you. Go over their heads, go around them, but keep going until you find the people who have the creativity and power to say YES! They are out there, and you will find them, you just have to keep going.
I also tell them they have to train constantly! Get into groups like The Actors Studio, theater companies, and work every day on your craft. Be ready. Be better than everyone else. Train throughout your entire career, because just when you think you know what you’re doing, someone better will come in, so take control of that one variable. Make sure you are the BEST at what you do. Be an exceptional craftsman.
And finally, I tell them to create. Create your own content. Write scripts, make films, web series, pilots. Do everything you can to work, and get your skills seen by the industry. Whatever it takes, go make it happen. If anything my career says to us all, is that it can be done. Against all odds, it can be done. But you must be ready to fight with all your heart and soul for as long as it takes to make it happen. If this is your dream, go for it with everything you’ve got.
The Writer: Xaque Gruber