Actress Meredith Eaton has been in a number of shows with roots in the law: She started out on Family Law, and recently has been featured on Boston Legal. But her professional roots are in psychology, where she worked as a therapist for many years. Some of those were with United Cerebral Palsy, which her grandmother, Nina Eaton, helped to found in in the 1940’s after her son—Meredith’s father—was born with the condition. Today, UCP affiliates serve more than 170,000 children and adults with disabilities, and their families, every day. Here Eaton talks with ABILITY Magazine about the unique path her life has taken so far.
ABILITY Magazine: Your background is in clinical psychology.
Eaton: I worked for many, many years in the field, often with people with physical disabilities. That was in New York when I was a therapist for United Cerebral Palsy. I was always interested in working with people with disabilities, and in high school I worked with people who had Down syndrome. That was for an agency called AHRC, Association for the Help of Retarded Children. Then I went to college, and throughout college I volunteered for AHRC. After that, I was hired to work at United Cerebral Palsy as a program administrator and I did some therapy.
When I moved to California, I got my first series, which is what brought me here. Paul Haggis, who’s now a big movie guy, cast me as a lawyer in Family Law. When that series ended, I thought that I would be going on more auditions and booking more jobs, but everything just came to a screeching halt. So I had to figure out a way to make money, and I went back to my roots as a therapist in a locked psychiatric unit, working with people who were criminally insane. I did that for a yearand-a-half, and I had to leave, because it just was not safe. I had been assaulted several times, and I said, “I can’t do this any more.”
I did a little bit of acting—some guest spots here and there. I got a job working as a therapist doing individual and group crisis intervention and family therapy. I did that for two years. I left to do Boston Legal. So my psychology career has been interwoven into my acting career, and it’s my safety net and fallback. But again, it’s not where my heart is. I was dealing with every type of mental illness: depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder–you name it. I was exposed to every type of mental illness. I was trained to do that. Although I haven’t been practicing for about three years now, so I can focus on acting.
AM: What’s the difference between a psychoanalyst and a psychologist?
Eaton: My mom is a psychoanalyst. They have a different school of thought. A lot of psychoanalysts practice classical psychoanalysis. They follow a Freudian model. It’s a much more strict, regimented therapy, where you see the patient three times a week. It’s very free-flowing, analytic thoughts. A psychologist, on the other hand, problem solves and helps you to get through a certain crisis in your life, which is quicker.
AM: So when someone says they’re a psychologist, they don’t typically do psychoanalysis?
Eaton: You could, but it’s very hard to do psychoanalysis in this day and age, because insurance companies won’t pay for it; they consider it a luxury. You’re really getting to the primary root of all problems. You go back to childhood. Whereas psychology is much more hereand-now oriented. You focus on a problem you can fix in 12 sessions. As opposed to psychoanalysis, which can go on for years and years.
AM: So the psychoanalysis goes back to the date of birth, where psychologists go back to last Tuesday?
Eaton: Exactly. Literally, what brings you here? Let’s troubleshoot how we can fix it. And it’s much more contained. The sessions are pretty much spelled out by the insurance company.
AM: As a psychologist you had something of a safety net. But as an actor you don’t. How do you feel about that?
Eaton: My first and foremost love is acting, so I’m excited about the possibilities of where my career is going to take me. I’m realistic about the limitations that I continue to face because of my (short) stature, and because of a lack of willingness to explore non-traditional casting. But for now, I want to focus on acting.
AM: Your stature has grown on Boston Legal?
Eaton: My stature? I’m not any taller, if that’s what you mean! (laughs) Do you mean my notoriety has grown?
AM: (laughs) Yes.
Eaton: Oh, OK. (laughs) Yes, it definitely has because the show is so popular, and everywhere that I go, people respond to me and acknowledge my work. It’s wonderful. So certainly, publicly, I’ve definitely seen a difference. But still, industrywise, not that much has changed. My activity level, in terms of getting interviews, has not really changed.
AM: What’s going on with Boston Legal?
Eaton: This is our fifth and last season. I’m in the premiere episode in September AM: Tell me more about your connection with UCP (United Cerebral Palsy)
Eaton: My grandmother, Nina Eaton, founded United Cerebral Palsy. At the time that my father was born with it, there were no resources for people with the condition. So my grandmother and grandfather, who lived in Brooklyn, tried to reach out for some type of resource or support, and people just told them to institutionalize my father. There was no help, no hope. But my grandmother, who’s very headstrong and assertive, didn’t like that answer, so she founded the organization that would become UCP in the basement of a firehouse in Brooklyn.
AM: Did the firehouse know she was down there?
Eaton: (laughs) Yes, they did. It started as a parent-support group. And then it evolved into what it is today. She has many, many, many buildings and structures named after her. She’s still alive. In fact, she recently had her 93rd birthday, and I went to New York to celebrate with her.
AM: Oh, wow, how cool is that! How is she doing?
Eaton: She’s had some cardiac issues this year, but she’s as sharp as a tack. I just hope I inherit her genes.
AM: She had a shark attack?
Eaton: (laughs) You’re a comedian—or at least you try to be. She’s had some cardiac issues, so this year she’s taken a step back. At 93, though, she’s still functioning. She’s doing better than a lot of people her age. I’m happy that she’s OK. But what is even more remarkable about her story is that her son, my father, the one people told my grandmother to institutionalize, not only retired as a governor-appointed administrative law judge, but he’s probably the most brilliant man I know. The poetic justice of it all is that my father went on to thrive. I’m very proud of both my parents, especially when you think about the lack of knowledge about people with disabilities back then and how quickly they turned to just pushing them into institutions.
AM: What CP symptoms does your father have?
Eaton: It’s orthopedic. His whole life he walked with forearm crutches, and then eventually he stopped walking. It just became too hard for him. He doesn’t have much use of his left hand, but his speech is totally intact. He doesn’t have any speech impairment or cognitive deficiencies.
AM: Was he right-handed to begin with?
AM: What does your father think about the work you’re doing?
Eaton: The first recurring role I ever had on TV was on Family Law. I played a lawyer. He was thrilled. I would show clips to him, and the judge in him would say, “That’s not correct.” He would be very technical. He’d almost be like a technical advisor. And he’d get frustrated, because he’s a huge law-show fan. He watches every law show on television, and so he was really thrilled. Then when I was cast on Boston Legal, it was even more exciting. He’s also a big fan of that show.
AM: Did your father ever work with UCP?
Eaton: No. But when he was a little boy, he was the first “poster child” for UCP. My dad’s a huge sports fanatic; he had a baseball signed by Jackie Robinson, and that was where he’d put all his energy. As a little boy he’d go to baseball games and follow sports. My grandmother was very consumed with UCP, and I think my dad wanted to identify with other things besides his cerebral palsy, so he developed other hobbies.
AM: Did he participate in sports as well?
Eaton: Though he couldn’t play, he would coach. That’s the closest he could get to the game. In fact, my dad’s really something. His favorite song, which he’s instructed me to play at his funeral, is “Put me in, Coach!” He made me promise.
Eaton: When he hears that song and he just hops up and down in his wheelchair. He loves that. He was just talking to me about his love of sports, and how he was really sad to hear that his college roommate just passed away. He went to Adelphi University on Long Island. His roommate was an African-American basketball player. One night, the two of them broke into the gym. It was pitch black, and the roommate put the lights on, took my dad out of his wheelchair and lifted him up so that he could dunk a basketball. It was one of the best moments of my father’s life. My dad will come back as a basketball or baseball player.
AM: I thought you were going to say as a basketball.
Eaton: No. (laughs) Definitely as some kind of sports player.
AM: When you were at UCP, did people know it wouldn’t have existed if your grandmother hadn’t been proactive?
Eaton: Of course the support staff all knew; however when I applied for a job, I applied just like everybody else. I sent my resume into the main office. I didn’t have my grandmother make any phone calls. Obviously, they probably knew who I was from my last name. Eaton has carried a huge impact in the area of cerebral palsy and people with physical challenges, but the people I was helping didn’t know. To them it didn’t matter.
AM: ABILITY has a partnership with UCP.
AM: If you go to their website, you’ll see their announcement.
Eaton: If you go to the UCP national conference, they have the Nina Eaton Awards, they have the Founder Award, an award presented in her name. If you’ve ever been to a national conference and my grandmother is there, she chairs the awards show. The reverence she receives is just—you cannot even open her hotel room door without being flooded with flowers. She’s an amazing woman who deserves the recognition. It was my grandmother and my grandfather and another couple, the Hausmans. I think if you interviewed the higherups at UCP, you would get some incredible feedback about her, because everybody—you know the show Everybody Loves Raymond? Everybody loves Nina Eaton.
AM: It’s cool that you worked for them and went that route—through the front door rather than the side or back door. So what are you doing now?
Eaton: We recently wrapped the season premiere episode of Boston Legal, and I’m hoping to do more episodes. I’m also trying to get out on auditions for other film and television roles.
AM: How do you do that?
Eaton: I have an agent and a manager, and they’re actively seeking work for me. But it’s difficult. It’s difficult for anybody in this business. Unless you have really made the A-list, it’s not easy to be seen for roles. But you multiply that times 10 when you’re in my situation. It doesn’t matter that I’ve had two recurring roles in series. It doesn’t matter that I’ve proven I can act with the best of ‘em. It’s always the height thing that gets in the way.
My mom’s an accomplished psychoanalyst and a little person. My dad is an accomplished judge with cerebral palsy. They’ve been incredible role models. They’re intelligent, intellectual, accomplished people, who always taught me to have pride, be a go-getter and fight for my rights, which I do on an daily basis. I’m not trying to stand on a soapbox, but I am trying to make a point. I refuse to take roles that perpetuate negative stereotypes about people with dwarfism. I just won’t do it. I’d rather not work than put that out there. And I know there are many little people who do choose to do those kinds of roles. That’s their choice. But when they do that, they also make it a lot harder for little people who are trying to be seen as just people, and it’s very, very frustrating to me. If I take five steps forward, their choice brings me four steps back, because it says to a casting director or a writer, “It’s OK to write these sophomoric, idiotic roles, because somebody is gonna take them.” It’s a real challenge.
AM: Have you thought about writing scripts yourself?
Eaton: I have and then I try to pitch it, and a lot of people don’t get it, or they think it’s a great idea but nothing happens. It’s really, really hard, when you have shows on the air like I Love Money and other reality crap, to get anybody to pay attention to anything that’s not bubble gum for the brain.
AM: When you described that year and a half that you worked in the lockdown facility, I imagined there could be a whole show about a psychologist who works in that environment and the different scenarios and personalities. It doesn’t have to be that particular scenario. But whenever you’re working with psychologists, there are so many different story lines that come out.
Eaton: You know, it’s funny that you say that, because I wrote something about that called A Little Therapy, and I’ve tried to pitch it for years and years. It’s based on my life working in the unit. People think it’s a great idea, but at the end of the day, nothing happens. But I have to continue to push, because that’s the only way anything is going to happen.
AM: Maybe you could find another writer who has a different type of edge to that person and have them massage what you’ve written, pump it up a little bit and give it more whatever.
Eaton: That’s a good idea.
AM: I used to publish National Lampoon magazine, and we had some writers that in person were dead as a doornail. But you’d give them something to write and they’d hand it to you, and you’d say, “Wow!” So if you find a person like that who has another way of looking at life, and you already have the basics, that might do the trick.
Eaton: I might explore that.
AM: What are your hobbies?
Eaton: I love to read. I’m a huge animal lover. I have two incredible Pomeranians, Moby and Mason, whom I adore. We go for walks. I write. I travel.
AM: What do you write about?
Eaton: I write pilots and episode concepts, that kind of thing.
AM: Your family is where?
Eaton: In New York.
AM: You’re the only one here?
AM: How often do you go back?
Eaton: Typically, every two months.
AM: That’s not too bad. Which part of New York?
Eaton: Long Island.
AM: Did you say Lonk Island?
Eaton: I try to say “Long.” It may have come out Lonk because I was just home yesterday. It takes a while to shed the accent. It’s like a contagious disease.
AM: Other than UCP, what other organizations do you support?
Eaton: Media Access. I’ve started to volunteer with animal shelters, and I attended the Genesis Awards , which has become an interest of mine. My really good friend Pauley Perrette, who’s on NCIS, is very involved in animal rescue, and I’m getting involved with that more. That’s pretty much it with organizations.
AM: Do you know William Macy.
Eaton: Oh, he’s very active in UCP. I admire him. He presented my grandmother with an award; I have it on video.
AM: He’s got a great sense of humor and is very talented. One year, he wrote and performed a song at Cal State University, Northridge’s annual technology conference for people with disabilities. The song was about augmentative devices, and it was so funny!
Eaton: I would love to work with him one day.
AM: Maybe he’ll read this. Note to Bill: Ask Meredith to read for your next project.
Eaton: I have always been an admirer of his. I really think he’s a brilliant actor. I love his work. He did a movie years ago, a TV movie, where he played a doorto-door salesman.
AM: That’s why we interviewed him.
Eaton: I don’t remember what the name of that movie was.
AM: It was called Door to Door.
Eaton: I was so incredibly moved by that. For days I was haunted by that performance.
AM: As you know, the person he was playing, Bill Porter, has CP.
Eaton: Yes. I was so moved that I looked up the back story. I wanted to know everything I could about that person. It was a really authentic performance. Typically I get angry when performers with disabilities get passed over without an opportunity to audition. So when they cast an actor who’s not disabled in a role where the character is disabled, it makes me upset. But in this particular case, I was thrilled. There could not have been a more appropriate person to play that role, especially because of his involvement in UCP.
AM: The way he rode that motorcycle in Wild Hogs, he had me at the first kick.
AM: He’s great. And he puts the time into it. A lot of celebrities will throw their name out there and their connections, but he really puts in time and energy.
Eaton: He does. Another person who’s like that is Robert David Hall. He is another actor who I adore. I know him personally, and he’s just a delicious teddy bear.
Eaton: (laughs) Yeah. He is also on a successful series. He’s as busy as can be, but he is so involved. He sits on the SAG Board of Performers with Disabilities. I don’t need to tell you what he does. You know. I know you guys did an interview with him, and he was on the cover, rightfully so. This is a man who doesn’t just sit back. He is an advocate. I think he’s fantastic. It’s people like that who inspire me to continue to fight for respect and dignity. I have been known to get involved with writers of shows to have them change things. Sometimes it’s to the dismay of my representation; they think I’m a little nutty, but you know what? At the end of the day it’s me, on screen, portraying a character, and that character needs to be respectable.