The entertainment industry is tough on everyone. People often ask me where I find the courage to keep walking through those doors. In order to understand how I keep going, you’d have to look at my childhood adventures, and the lessons learned there. We all have challenges, they’re just different, so I’ll share the ones that taught me how to survive in life, and helped me create victories in Hollywood.
Eileen and Joe / Photos courtesy of Eileen Grubba
My little brother Joe said my stories bring back painful memories. Maybe he’ll feel better when he sees the movies inspired by our childhood lighting up the silver screen!
We moved several times as kids. Each move was another dreaded trial, until we found a way to turn it around. In 5thgrade, we were temporarily placed in public school. Remember a few years earlier, I had a miraculous recovery from what doctors believed was permanent paralysis, but still had some residual complications.
Unfortunately, the principal of that school was not wise in dealing with physical challenges. Before I arrived, in an effort to get the kids not to tease me, he announced to the entire 5th grade that I was “handicapped” and that I pee in my pants. As I walked into my new class, right up the center aisle, I saw the looks on the kids’ faces, and knew something was terribly wrong. Immediately the school gang targeted me. They chased us from school, each day becoming more aggressive, until one day we were in real trouble. “Run Forrest, run!”
I couldn’t really run, but after years of being in a wheelchair, I had super strong arms, so I shoved Joe up a big tree, and scrambled up with him. We climbed as high as possible, but those boys didn’t stop throwing rocks and balls, trying to knock me out of that tree. Realizing we had no safe way out, I devised a plan. “Joe, I’ll climb to the other side of the tree and distract them, you jump down and run as fast as you can for help.” Joe ran like the wind. Ten minutes later, he came back with the local football hero . . . our oldest brother, Jerry. They squealed around the corner in my Dad’s convertible, skidding to a stop between that gang, and me . . . stuck in a tree. Jerry didn’t hurt those boys, he just lifted the gang leader off his bike, into the air, and let them know what might befall them if they didn’t leave me alone. The kid was terrified. I think he actually peed in his pants that day.
Unfortunately, life taught one of those boys how it felt to be the handicapped kid. He ended up with a debilitating illness that had him walking far worse than me by his teen years. I remember driving by his house in high school, and it was like life just went into slow motion. I saw him struggling to walk, legs caving inward. He slowly turned his head and revealed his sorrow, before looking away. That painful image burned into my brain. I hope when our eyes met, he felt my compassion, and knew I was sending him my strength and understanding.
Mom used to say, “Be very aware of the lessons life sends your way, ‘cause if you don’t learn them the first time, they’re coming back bigger. Maybe even through your children.” God help us all, Momma was always right. I believe people with challenges are sent into all our lives to teach us compassion, understanding, kindness and strength. You never know what critical piece of your life puzzle they may be holding. So, rather than reject them, we should probably embrace them. Consider what they’ve come through, learn from their trials, help whenever possible, and ward off those lessons from coming back . . . bigger.
Who knew walking into the entertainment industry would be like walking into elementary sc
hool again? I went from Atlanta to New York City to L.A. Earned my way into The Actors Studio and into the hands of some of the best coaches in the industry. They showed me how to channel my passion into characters, and I was moving people!
But while my skills were praised by distinguished professionals, the gatekeepers of the industry were shutting me out whenever they noticed my “imperfect” sway. Barely noticeable by now, but it had to be hidden because if they saw it, I was out. Sometimes they would admit that to my agents, other times they would make up excuses and keep saying no. Walking into those rooms became as painful as walking up that center aisle in the 5th grade.
After reading faces all my life, I can see the second I walk into a room if it’s an issue, or not. Most actors go in worrying about performance, I go in praying they don’t notice my walk, so I can work and earn my health insurance. It’s hard to understand. In my opinion most girls in high heels walk sillier than me! Besides, it’s film and television: head and shoulders; eyes and soul!!!
I never doubted we could turn it around, so I continued banging on door after door, knowing they could never take away my endurance and passion to do what I was meant to do. The more they slammed the doors, the more determined I became. Sometimes it felt like the whole world was stacked against me. I cried a few tears and threw all that emotion into my work.
Then one day, the light bulb went off: find somebody bigger. So I did! After one little agent told me I’d never work in this town, I walked right in the door of 20 others, and by the end of a week, was signed with one of the top five agencies in N.Y.C., and so it went. The big people said yes! You see, my Momma taught me another thing: “When someone is being unreasonable, go over their heads”. The people in charge are the risk takers, the rule breakers. They are creative, inspired and fearless. That’s how they got to be the people in charge. They’ve faced adversity. They see the gold. And do you know what they do when they know something is wrong? They fix it. Effectively, immediately, they open the doors. They turn the tides, because they can.
The bigger ones welcomed me, gave me a chance, fought for me. When creative producers saw my work, they often expanded my roles. And whenever someone blatantly refused to give me a chance, I made friends with their bosses, the producers, the showrunners, the heads of marketing, even the heads of giant corporations. You’d be surprised at the caliber of friends I’ve made all over the world.
Who didn’t see Seabiscuit? Rudy? Forrest Gump? Always place your bets on the underdog! Adversity creates winners. Do you think after conquering polio, cancer, and a dozen other catastrophes, that I could allow a few fearful folks stop me from achieving my dreams?
It’s been a battle, but we are crushing the last category of discrimination in entertainment, and beginning to embrace physical “imperfections” in film and television. Now isn’t this going to make the world a more welcoming place for us all?