- Hef Matthews
An Interview with Disability Inclusion Advocate Eileen Grubba
We here at Disability Solutions understand the talent value of people with disabilities (PWD) is often stronger than their non-afflicted counterparts. Each day we work to change the minds of employers in the corporate world that hiring people with disabilities is not only the right thing to do, but it’s good for business. And while we focus on putting PWD to work in the private sector, there are those in Hollywood working just as hard changing minds and changing lives as advocates for PWD in film and television. One of those individuals fighting for greater inclusion in Hollywood among PWD is Eileen Grubba, whose film career spans over twenty-five years, where she’s developed a reputation for delivering outstanding performances that depict strong, edgy women in shows like FX’s Sons of Anarchy, HBO’s Hung and NBC’s Game of Silence. Between acting, producing, casting, writing and directing, she has been credited over a hundred times. But despite her accomplished career, it has not always come easy for Eileen. As a child, Eileen was told she may never walk again. But like so many other obstacles in her life, including a bout with cancer that she beat, she found a way to overcome, eventually learning to walk and triumphantly move ahead with her life. This fighting spirit is what has propelled her to be a leading advocate for the inclusion of performers with disabilities in film and television. Kris Foss, our Managing Director at Disability Solutions, recently had the honor to interview Eileen and discuss her work as a disability inclusion advocate. Kris Foss: We are here today with Eileen Grubba, writer, director, producer, actor, and I would add change agent, who’s been working tirelessly for the inclusion of actors with disabilities in Hollywood. Eileen, you and I met when we both spoke at a great event, the Trailblazer conference, that was really focused on meaningful employment for people with disabilities. When I heard your story, it resonated for me with the work that we’ve been doing with employers and with job seekers in finding meaningful work. Not just finding that first job, but then even having a career path within a company and building somebody’s profession. Thank you for joining us. Eileen Grubba: You’re welcome. Thank you. Kris Foss: I am always fascinated in hearing people’s career paths or their stories. I think especially these days, it’s really rare to hear that somebody, their path kind of follows a straight line from where they started to where they are today. Would you share a little bit about what or who your inspiration to get into acting was as well as some of your experiences along the way in your career path? Eileen Grubba: Sure. It was not my goal or my plan to go into acting. My goal was to be a fashion designer. When I was a child, in a wheelchair, and couldn’t walk, my mom used to bring me tons of art supplies and I would make everything. I had little sewing machines and made Barbie doll clothes. I took every scrap of paper, every box, every piece of fabric, everything I could find, and I would build things. I built a seven story dollhouse out of the seven shelves that were in my closet, with every detail down to tiny little rolls of toilet paper. I made their clothes. I would tear apart cardboard boxes and make spaceship sets across my room and put little buttons for the dials. I just had that kind of mind. Mom used to also get newspaper print that was thrown away, huge rolls of paper, and I would roll it out across the floor and just draw and draw.
So I was an artist, and started getting awards for my artwork when I was still paralyzed, when I was a little girl. I thought, okay, this is what I can do. Everybody else was an athlete in the family, and I was too, before the vaccines. That’s what I started putting all my energy into and I loved it. I ended up getting an art scholarship from high school into college, went to the University of Florida and majored in the arts. About halfway through, I ended up moving to Atlanta, Georgia where I started working on interior design and houses. The weirdest thing that happened is that I was at a gas station one day, filling my gas, and a man walked up and said, “Have you ever done any modeling?” I said, “No.” He said, “Would you like to?” And I said, “I don’t know.” I ended up doing some wedding photography, modeling the wedding dresses, and then that spilled into doing some other artistic photography. I wanted to make sure I knew the whole business so I started training. I went to Alliance Theater School in Atlanta. I also took private classes, and started learning about the business and immediately started working for casting directors. That’s how I started. At the same time, I was doing community theater and we did a lot of musicals where I got the bug. It just became fun and it seemed like the more I did it, the more things were coming my way. I outgrew the city of Atlanta pretty rapidly. In the middle of all that, I ended up having to have my left leg rebuilt, so for a good year I was completely down, back in a wheelchair. Not even allowed to step on it. I still worked for a casting director, went to classes and kept training, but it set me back. Because the rebuild wasn’t exactly successful, I ended up going to New York with a walking boot and a limp. That’s how I started in New York City. It’s interesting, the first few years, it all came pretty easy to me. I worked hard, I trained hard, I put myself in the right positions, and things came pretty easy to me. I did have some resistance in New York City. Two agents told me, forget it, because you limp. But everybody else was really open. It was really hard to walk around that city with this rebuilt leg and bones hitting, so I ended up moving to California. California was not quite as easy as Atlanta and New York. That was a big shift, because coming to California, and I don’t mean to insult all the people in this town whose paths I’ve crossed, but coming to California was very much like walking back into the 5th grade again. Where suddenly everyone’s like, ‘ah, something is wrong with you’. LA was a challenge. I was very inspired by Jessica Lange. When I was young, in Atlanta, I remember sitting there recovering from one of my leg surgeries watching all her movies and being fascinated by her. Not only her skills and her amazing performances in so many films. Blue Sky, I think I watched it 10 times, and Frances … I was like, oh my gosh, I’m glad I didn’t live in that time zone, somebody would have stuck me in one of those places, because of my spirit. I was always fascinated by her work, and collected all her movies. The other thing about her was that I had lost my mom when I was 23 years old, and they look so much alike that it’s almost frightening. Except my mom had blue eyes. Same shape of the face though. In Blue Sky, same hairstyle. Same shape of their figures and everything. So one of the greatest things so far in my career was that I got to work with her. I booked a movie with Jessica Lange. And then I ended up on set and I’m looking at her, and I’m like, wow. Once we got comfortable on set, I told her, “Forgive me, I’m a little bit in awe of you, which I am not in awe of anyone in our industry. But I can’t tell if it’s more your work that I’m so enthralled with, or the fact that you look so much like my mom and can only imagine what she would have looked like at this age. The last age that I knew my mom, in her 40s, they looked exactly alike at that age in their lives. Kris Foss: Wow. You’ve had incredible roles, and on some really iconic television shows. From Sons of Anarchy, I love your role as Precious there. I’d be scared of your right hook, I have to say. You’ve been on CSI: Miami, Bones, Game of Silence and Fear the Walking Dead. So many great shows. And these are shows with a huge fan base. Do you feel that your work, or being part of those shows has had an impact in moving forward or opening doors for other actors with a disability? Eileen Grubba: It has absolutely made a huge impact and I’m really grateful for those edgy cable shows that started it. The first one that fully accepted me for my limp, for my walk, was Nip/Tuck. It was a tiny role, and I got pulled out of set when I was still in a bathrobe because they wanted to block. So I had to throw my brace on, which is something I’ve had to hide a lot through the years because once they see it, I’m out of a job or I don’t ever get hired again. This time, I was like, well, I’m already hired, so what are they going to do, fire me today? I threw my brace on, went to set, and this very handsome man comes walking up to me and shakes my hand and welcomes me to the set and I thought, oh, gosh, he must be one of the stars of the show cause he’s just gorgeous. He starts asking me, “So do you walk with more of a limp with that brace or without the brace?” And I said, “Well, I can walk without it if you don’t want to see it.” He goes, “No, no, no. We love it. We actually want to see the limp.” I told him, “So I limp a little bit more without the brace, because it’s a little bit more painful.” He tells me, “We don’t want you to be in pain. We just would like to see it.” I said, “Well, then I’m going to bring it. I’m going to give you the limp.” Then I found out that he was not only the director of our episode, but also one of the creators of the show, Brad Falchuk.
"That moment, I’ll never forget it. My eyes filled with tears because it was the first time that I felt truly accepted in my town, in Los Angeles, without having to hide who I am."
So that was the first one. The next one that really opened up to me was Hung, in a tiny little role they brought me in for, as a hooker. It was a small role, but when I go in to do a role, I go in 150%. I put my guts into it. When they said, “street hooker,” I went street. Like, scary looking. So much so that the security guards were like, “You might want to do something about that crack habit.” I booked that role, and then we shot it. The interesting thing is that when we got on set, the wardrobe people were thrown off by the brace. They were like, “Oh god, what do we do? Do we hide it, are we going to show it? I said, “You’ve got a lot of girls playing these characters. If you don’t want to see this, put them in the skirts, put me in pants, it’s all good.” But they said, “No. I think we’re going to put you in a skirt and let the producers see it.” I was horrified. I was like, okay, well, I’ll either lose my job, or I don’t know. We walk out on set in the miniest mini-skirt you ever saw with my brace up to my knee, and the lead of the show, Jane Adams, looked at my leg and from 20 feet away, she’s screamed, “Oh my god, is that real?” And I laughed, and said, “Yeah, it’s real.” She’s said, “That is awesome.” She said it so loud, every head turned, including the producers, and they all looked at it. Dmitry Lipkin came up to me after and asked, “Do you mind if we show that?” And I said, “Not at all. It’ll either make me or break me, but if you want to show it, let’s do it.” They ended up taking this tiny little role and expanding it. I had five episodes before the end of that season. From what I was told, it was going into the next season … if the show hadn’t been canceled, it would have been a great one for me. So that started the ball rolling. It also gave me some confidence that things were shifting and that people were going to start letting me be me. It’s interesting, because it’s gone in waves. Like, here it is, show it, and people are welcoming. And other times when I show it, I can’t get back in their office again, ever. It’s been a very interesting ride. I remember a disabled role that I was up for. The character’s name was Eileen and she was in a wheelchair, and I was like, well I have all that life experience. And I’ve even got the atrophied little leg to go with it. It’d be nice to not have to walk for a while and not worry about it on a show. I got all the way to the end on that one, and they ended up hiring somebody who had no experience with disability. It took me 11 years to get back in their office. Literally, they eventually told my agent it was because they found out about the limp.
Then came Sons of Anarchy, a role that opened up more doors, and incidentally, so much publicity for me, that I started to get this niche with very edgy characters. They typecast me in these hardened roles because, you know, in the role of a crackhead or a hooker or a meth head, you can justify a limp, right? I was fine with that and I don’t even care. Make fun of me, throw me down the stairs. Just keep me in the show. I want to work. I don’t care what you do to me. And I know there are a lot of people with disabilities who don’t feel that way, but I want to work. And I know that once you break through, you can work more and more and more. There was a show, CSI: Miami that I booked, in a very, very hard role – mother of a serial killer. She’s the reason he became a serial killer. I came in for that role, and again, it was a small one. Then a week later they called and brought me back, which is very unusual in a big, scripted drama like that. When I got to the set, one of the Executive Producers who was going to be directing that episode said to me, “Do you know why we brought you back?” And I said, “No, I have no idea. Why?” And he said, “Because we love what you did, we want more.” And he said, “Do you know that you’re one of the only actresses in this town who’s not afraid to get ugly?” Not afraid to get ugly. And I thought, hmm. That’s true, and that’s interesting, and I worked so hard on these kind of characters at the Actor’s Studio that … I have a depth that I don’t think a whole lot of people really truly understand. They might think they do, but until you’ve faced your life four times, and until you’ve lived most of your life in the kind of pain that would drop most people, and lost the people you love most to cancer, and dealt with cancer yourself, and have faced rejection after rejection and absolute humiliation at the hands of so many people, the depth that I’m talking about is so rich and so scary to a lot of people that I don’t think a whole lot of people can manufacture that level of emotion as completely and as deeply.
Martin Landau used to say, “You’re sitting on a volcano, and you know how to use it. And with that, there’s no end to how far you can go.” And that is true, because I’m not afraid to touch it. I’m not afraid to touch my pain. I’ll do it a thousand times over for a role, I don’t care. Because I know that I’ll get up and start laughing again after, because that’s what I learned in my life. That no matter how much I hurt, I will be laughing the next day, or maybe even that same day. That’s what these challenges do to you. They make you absolutely resilient. Kris Foss: I’ve heard you talk previously, a little bit, about some of that resiliency and that your life experiences have really contributed to that. With our work, so many of the conversations I have with employers is about trying to increase the awareness of how much stronger any organization can be when you’ve got people with diverse perspectives, diverse life experience and that they bring all of that with them. It makes you stronger as an organization, it makes your products better and it makes your services stronger. That’s big part of our messaging, and I think that’s why, when I heard your story, it so connected with me with the work that we do, and the education piece of the work that we do with employers. It sounds like you had the opportunity to have these conversations with your prospective employers at times, or casting directors I’m sure, or with others. What would you say to an employer about what all of those experiences, life experiences, mean in what you bring to the table? Eileen Grubba: Some people think disabled means not able to do the job – that disabled means they’re less, they can’t do it. I still get questions from employers like, “Well what kind of jobs can a person with a disability do?” That’s as broad as asking, what kind of jobs can a woman with red hair, or blonde hair do? My first response to somebody saying something like this is, “What can one of us do? Well I can run your company. That’s what I can do. I’m not sure what everyone’s skill sets are, but I know what mine are.” When I first got to Atlanta and was exploring all the avenues for my future, I went to work for a company – a big sporting goods company that’s very well-known, and I started as a temp. About three weeks after starting they asked me to work full time. About a month after that, I revamped their entire file system because it was a waste of time, the way they were running it, and a waste of resources. I figured out how to get that running more smoothly. Then they moved me into the data department where I streamlined what they were doing to enter their data faster so that they could keep their warehouse up to speed and find all the glitches. Then they moved me into accounting. This was all within less than a year, because I’m a problem solver. When you take a child and you stick them in an impossible situation, which I was stuck in at four and a half years old … a child’s brain is so adaptable. My little brain was going, how do I fix this? How do I fix this? Adapt, adjust, overcome – that’s what we do. So for someone like me, I say this laughing but I sincerely mean it, I don’t know a single job that I couldn’t have gone into and excelled at. When I went into casting, I moved to the top of everything right away. I knew how to fix their problems. I would not waste all the time at the bottom, trying to figure out how to slowly get there, and go home at 5:00 every day. I would stay there until midnight, until I found out how to give them exactly what they wanted, right now. I cut so much time and manpower out of these jobs that I got the head job on the next show, and then the head of the department on the next show. That’s how I paid for all my cancer bills, while I kept up my acting career. I feel like it’s a mistake to underestimate someone who has a disability before you find out what they are capable of. Because someone like me? My disability’s different than everyone else’s disability. Mine is from the knee down on my leg. I walk in pain. That’s no one’s business and it doesn’t matter for most things. But the fact that I’ve had to get through life adjusting only makes me better, stronger, more resilient. I am the actress who will be on your set until the 24 hour mark and still be smiling and shining with a lot of energy because that’s what I do. I have incredible endurance and I am a natural problem solver.
"When I talk to companies, I say, you know, let’s just look at the problems of the whole world. Let’s look at every person’s complaint about the whole world. Tell me, would we not be in better hands, world-wide, if the leaders of our companies and our countries were kids who grew up challenged, and have done nothing but adapt, adjust, overcome and problem solve their entire lives?"