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.