If Eileen Grubba’s name isn’t familiar, there’s a reason. She’s built a strong television career playing edgy characters in shows like Game of Silence, Sons of Anarchy, The Mentalist and HBO’s Hung, plus others. Her thespian roots stretch back to Atlanta and New York, where she acted in musicals, plays, commercials and independent films. A lifetime member of the renowned Actors Studio, she’s been compared to theater greats Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley.
Yet, despite her impressive resume, Grubba’s faced prejudice in Hollywood because she walks with a limp. But the experience and her subsequent health issues, including multiple surgeries and surviving cancer, have made her a fierce advocate for people with disabilities. Although diversity and inclusion in Hollywood have received a lot of play of late, actors with disabilities remain underrepresented in Hollywood—a fact Grubba is committed to changing. She spoke at length with ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan about her story and mission to fight prejudice against people with disabilities.
Lia Martirosyan: If you had a chance to do something over in your life, what would it be?
Eileen Grubba: Well, that’s a loaded question. If I had to do something over again in my life, the biggest thing I would have done was have kids in my very early twenties, instead of waiting for life to sort itself out. I was having a lot of surgeries and challenges from that age on, but I didn’t realize the challenges were just going to keep coming. So I wish when I was young and far healthier that I would have had kids. That’s the number one thing I would have changed.
Number two, I would have never left New York. Had I known what I was going to face in our industry, broken legs and all, I would have stayed in New York City. Because even 25, 26 years ago in New York City, truthfully, they were much more open-minded and more interested in skill and talent. I did not face nearly the resistance in New York City that I did in LA.
Martirosyan: So let’s pack our bags and go back to New York!
Grubba: If I were a younger girl, my butt would be back there.
Martirosyan: What opportunity that you’ve said “no” to would you say “yes” to today?
Grubba: Not a single one would I say “yes” to that I said “no” to. I still firmly stand behind every “no” I ever said.
Martirosyan: And what opportunity that you’ve said “yes” to would you now, looking back, say “no” to?
Grubba: There are quite a few things through the years I wish I’d said “no” to. I was very open. I said “yes” a lot. Not to things that were ever against my integrity or anything, but things were maybe—they weren’t paid and you weren’t respected. So you were treated like they were doing you some sort of favor for giving you a job, but I didn’t know that going in.
There were a few experiences that to this day when I think back on them, tempt me to be bitter because I’ve dealt with some really ugly people in this town through the years. So there are a few things that I wish I’d known and could have seen coming. Or when I saw bad behavior show up in a micro-moment, that I would have realized that would grow and was a window of true nature for someone.
Now, when I see bad behavior, you’ll see me shut a door on someone so fast because now I see it and understand it. But it took a lot of learning to not be so much of a yes-person. We always want everything to work out. We want a job, and we want the world to be something. We want this free project everyone labors on to turn out to be a great thing. So we put our hearts and souls into it so we don’t always see all the little signs that maybe this one isn’t the one. In that respect, if I could go back, there are a lot of things I would have said “no” to!
Martirosyan: Nicely said. What inspired you to get into acting?
Grubba: (laughs) Oh, boy! There were a lot of things that inspired me. I was always a bit of a performer, because when I was young—and I’m going to use a lot of language people won’t like in the disability community—and I was stuck in a wheelchair, ‘cause that’s how it felt when I was in it, I was stuck in a wheelchair that was too big for me, and I’m looking out the window watching everybody else play in the snow and I can’t. I just couldn’t wrap my head around that.
My mom brought me all these art supplies, and things I could do while sitting in my room. That’s how I started becoming an artist. I started creating and building sets in my room. I had spaceships and seven-story Barbie doll houses. I made all their clothes and every little detail of their homes. I would draw for miles across the floor because she’d bring me newspaper print from the newspaper place that would throw away the old print rolls. I would roll it out as far is it could go and draw everything I ever wanted in my life and all the things I saw for my future. And that’s how it all started.
But as I got older and got out of my chair, I became a cheerleader, which is something I always wanted to do. I would always sit in my wheelchair and watch the cheerleaders at my brother’s football games. I wouldn’t sit with everyone else. I would make my mom push me up on the track right in front of the cheerleaders (laughs) so I could look up at them, and I would be like, “I want to be a cheerleader!” That inspired me. That’s a bit of performance art right there. I was always the only little girl who was cheerleading, and my mom would have to bring, like, four changes of clothes because I was paralyzed from the waist down, so now that I’m up and moving didn’t mean all my little parts weren’t still broken, and jumping makes your bladder go, and she’d have to change my clothes every quarter, and I’m still out there goin’, “Woo!” Peein’ in my pants.
Then I ended up on the stage when I got into high school and grad school. I was going to be an artist. I was an art major, and I got an art scholarship. I wanted to be a fashion designer. A few little detours, and I got pulled into this world. I didn’t seek out the acting world, it came to me and just kept coming, so I was like, “All right, well, if I’m gonna keep getting asked to do this stuff, I should learn something about it.”
I started training and working for casting directors, which is how the second casting career started. It was also unfortunately right when I first started having surgeries on my legs. So while I was back in a wheelchair with a cast up to my hip with a handle on it, and I wasn’t allowed to walk for the first year.
So I just kept training and going to classes. I remember asking one of my teachers at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, who was a wonderful teacher, “You know, I’m about to have my whole left leg rebuilt, and I’m gonna be off my feet for probably at least a year, so maybe this isn’t the best profession for me. Should I maybe not pursue this?” And she said, “Eileen, I’ve taught a lot of actors through the years, and to most of them I would say, ‘No, you should go do something else.’ But not you.” I said, “Really?” She said, “You, of all people, should do this.” And I always remembered that.
When I got out of my wheelchair, and I started walking again, I was involved in musical community theater in Atlanta. And they all watched me go through all this, and they didn’t have a problem with accommodating me for the musicals we did. I played Cinderella, and I had to wear construction boots because I couldn’t walk in any other shoes.
Martirosyan: Were they glass construction boots?
Grubba: The gown was floor length, but when I had the little maid’s dress on, I wore my construction boots. I still have pictures of it on the stage. You could pretty much just ask them for whatever you wanted to do. And then when I played one of the silly girls in Beauty and the Beast, the ones who’d flirt with Gaston, I wore a skirt to the floor with my construction boots, and I shimmied up the aisle. And when I got to the end, I couldn’t walk up steps, so Gaston, who was enormous, reached down, picked me up by the waist, spun me around, and stuck me on the steps.
And when we did Pajama Game, I was the girl who lay across the piano and sang in my gown, and that time I did have fancy shoes because I wasn’t walking anywhere. I had blue sparkly shoes to match my dress, and I’m slinkin’ around on a piano. They were really great about it in Atlanta. They had no problems with it.
When I moved to New York, I started doing training for musicals. I thought I was good at musicals in Atlanta, and then I got to New York and had the real vocal training. New York was a super-fun experience. I did pretty well there, except for the fact that I couldn’t walk well, so it was a tough city to get around in.
Martirosyan: Not the most accessible city.
Grubba: It’s challenging. I still had the walking cast boots. And I would take it off when I could to work on things, but I mostly would just wear long skirts. I’d wear walking boots and bring shoes and put shoes on when I got to a place. That city was tough. And then I moved out to LA and the real fun began.
Martirosyan: When did the need for inclusivity and diversity enter your consciousness?
Grubba: It’s been my life, since the age of four—three months before my fifth birthday, when I got a vaccine that nearly killed me. That experience from a young age showed me who people really are. And I didn’t like what I saw. When I look back on my life I wonder, should I have done this or that, should I have gone off and had kids and not gone into such a difficult industry? But then one of my friends once said to me when I was in a place of doubt, “Eileen, don’t you see you were born for this?” I was like, “What do you mean?” She’s said, “You came into this world and at five years old you had to deal with all these things, bullying and discrimination through the years. And yet you were able to overcome it, and then you came into this industry with all that strength—somebody had to be strong enough to keep hittin’ their head against this cement wall here.” I said, “Yeah, not that I’m the only one, there are a lot of us who have been here a long, long time.”
Martirosyan: Who are hitting that wall.
Grubba: Yeah. I have been very vocal about it. I have busted some barriers for a lot of people. I am not as afraid to speak up as so many of ‘em, and I do walk a line—well, not this year, but most years I walk this fine line between both. It’s like, you could see me as not disabled if you wanted to in your show, or you could use the disability and the experience—you could show the limp if you want to or you could hide it. So I skirt both sides of it, which has been interesting.
Sometimes, when I doubt why I’m here, I think to myself, “I don’t ever want another five-year-old to see the world I saw. I don’t want another kid with a dream to come into this industry and face what I faced. And if that takes my whole life to speak up somebody’s got to do it. Until enough people speak up, it’s not going to change, and every generation of kids coming up behind us is going to face the same challenge.
I can’t go down thinking I didn’t make a difference in this world. Why else were all these challenges given to me? I feel like there’s a reason for it all. When I look at it all, I think, God, it isn’t all that long ago that Hitler said, “let’s kill all the kids with disabilities.” And people followed, “Sure, why not?” They called them “useless eaters.” “Let’s kill ‘em all!” And so they did. And people didn’t have a problem with it, really, except the mothers. And the next thing you know, he got good at killing people. And then soon we had the Holocaust. And this one line keeps running through my head all these years, “What if we cared about that first kid?” That first child. What if the world had cried out, “You can’t kill the babies with disabilities!” We might not have had the Holocaust that ended up murdering millions of people. I think, we have to care about every one of those kids.
Martirosyan: Circling back to your career you’ve done a lot of impressive work.
Grubba: Well, I wouldn’t say my career has gone exactly the way I planned. (laughs) But I do also have to be grateful for the opportunities. I’ve had some nice successes and met amazing human beings who are highly creative, who see the gift and the gold in it. I hope that if I keep working I can keep speaking up about the gold, because there is a lot of gold that comes with it. It’s like trophies on our shelf, life experience as actors. If you don’t have any life experience, you can’t really move people the way somebody who has a lot of life experience can move people. Because of everything I’ve been through, and all the people I’ve worked with in these communities, I do have empathy, and I don’t think there’s a lot of things I couldn’t feel or portray. I’m one of those people who can’t watch a movie if people are hurt or tortured, because I literally feel the pain. That’s how empathetic I am.
Martirosyan: How’d you connect with the Trailblazing event?
Grubba: Steve Rohr. Steve and I connected years ago.
At the time I was recurring on a nice show, and I wanted to find out if I could afford to do some publicity. Being a performer with a disability, I wouldn’t say you get paid well, and you certainly don’t get paid the same as your peers, that’s for sure. I’ve noticed that on every show I’ve ever worked. I’m always at the bottom of the pay pool and usually the one having to get myself to the locations. They don’t treat you the same way. I’ve had people say things like, “Well, when you’re a bigger star,” and I want to scream and throttle them and say, “I have more experience than all the stars on this show put together!”
So I went to Steve at that time and asked if he could help me with publicity for this one show, even though I didn’t know how long it would last or if I’d be able to afford him. So I worked with him for just a couple months, and then the show got canceled. But we’ve always stayed friends. We’ve always found a way to reconnect through the years. I think it was because I was shouting out on Twitter about diversity, including people with disabilities, and he responded to some of that, and I had said something about how it’s going to be when people who don’t have disabilities start standing up to this community, because I’ve been trying to get people in our industry who have bigger voices than me to speak up. And Steve Rohr did. He started doing more of that online.
He does a lot with diversity. The Oscars did a diversity campaign a few years back, and they didn’t include people with disabilities.
So I shouted out to him, “In a time when diversity is covered all across the stage and thrown in everyone’s face, we didn’t have one person with a disability, not one. Not one in the audience, not as a presenter, none, nowhere. We need help.” And he was so great and receptive and glad to know about it. He’s become an amazing advocate for this community because he’s standing up for diversity across the industry, and he’s one of the people who understood that this is also a form of diversity. Truthfully, we all are, every crayon in the box is a different color, right? He’s fantastic. I don’t know how to thank him sometimes for how much he’s become an advocate for this community.
Martirosyan: Good! He was quite versed. One more question. What advice would you give to up-and-coming individuals with disabilities who want to be actors or singers?
Grubba: Okay. No one ever likes the advice I give to young performers with disabilities, but I’m gonna give it.
Grubba: You have to be better than everybody else. Know that going in and get on it because nobody’s ever going to hire you because you’re disabled. Maybe down the road that will happen, but it might not stick. Start training and do it constantly. People I work with in the Actors Studio have been in the industry 50, 60 years, and they’re still constantly training. Every person I’ve ever known who is of great success in our industry, and I’ve worked for a good handful of celebrities, and I’ve worked in casting for a lot of years enough to know the people who work are so aggressive going after the work. So the number one problem I see with people with disabilities, and this included myself 25 years ago, was that we were too careful, a little too apologetic for what’s wrong with us.
Too many times, I was like, “Okay, fine,” and smiled and left because somebody was making an issue about it. But don’t do that any more. Be so good at what you do and own it and keep training with all kinds of different teachers so you’re seeing lots of perspectives. Make sure every class you’re in you stay until you’re better than everyone else in that class, and then go find a class where everybody’s better than you and do it again. Just keep getting better and better and better, and do not stop. And then look for every freaking opportunity you can find. And yes, this involved a lot of my heartbreak, but it’s also where I found a lot of experience and a lot on my résumé from doing every single project I could get my hands on, from doing student films to every single thing you can do to get experience and build that résumé.
Probably the number one mistake you could ever make, any actor, not just one with a disability, is to think that somebody is going to come along and make it happen for you because that is not going to happen. Most people have to fight really, really hard to get a break in our industry. And if you have a disability, you’ll have to fight harder than everybody else. That is just the cold, hard truth.