Eileen Grubba is a TV, film, and stage actress, writer, director, producer, and casting expert, as well as a strong voice for those with disabilities. She is known for portraying edgy characters in shows like Sons of Anarchy, Game of Silence, and Hung and is a lifetime member The Actors Studio. A writer of TV pilots, as well as screenplays—one already sold and two more commissioned— she features strong women characters and deeply emotional plots, drawing on her life experiences.
SHELLIE: Describe growing up as a child who was paralyzed and then gained most of your mobility.
GRUBBA: I was a happy, healthy, active, little wild child. Very athletic. One day, I was running through a park with my sister and brothers, did a flip, landed normally, but suddenly couldn’t feel my legs. I had to drag myself across the park on my elbows to my mom. She picked me up, looked for signs of injury, and told me I was fine. That night, my mom realized something was really wrong. I couldn’t even sit up by myself. That’s when they rushed me to the emergency room.
At the time, no one knew what was wrong. They told my parents I would not live through the night. I pulled through, but the doctors said I would never walk again.
But I could not accept that. Every day, I tried to stand. I would slide down my bed until my feet touched the floor and fell every day, until one day they held. I stood, holding onto my bed with my upper body. Eventually I began walking again.
I was full of life, excited to move, anxious to show everyone I was a normal kid again, but the imperfections left behind from a near fatal illness and paralysis scared people. Kids no longer wanted to play with me. I was left out, tormented, and picked on by kids, siblings, even adults and teachers, and I was too young to understand why.
My brilliant mom taught me that others were not showing me what was wrong with ME; they were showing me what was wrong with THEM. So, I held my head high and marched back into that school every day. I learned to stand up for myself. No one was going to stop me from doing every single thing all the other kids did.
SHELLIE: What is it like to be a working actor with a disability in New York? Hollywood?
GRUBBA: In New York, for the most part, I was accepted and treated fairly. I signed with one of the top five agencies there and auditioned regularly because of them. Abigail McGrath, a wonderful casting director, told me I was the next Meg Ryan, with edge, and had me compete with big stars.
However, NYC was hard because of the walking. My leg had been rebuilt before I moved there, and bones hit in my ankle. Whenever my leg gave out, I was forced to sit down and wait for the swelling to go down and then hobble to the next subway stop or try to hail a taxi. My ex, Henry, often pulled me through the city on roller skates because it was too hard for me to walk across town.
Coming to Los Angeles, to my shock and dismay, was like walking into the 5th grade again. People made fun of me publicly, imitated my walk, asked what was wrong, and then used that information to permanently close doors.
Then I auditioned for the world-renowned The Actors Studio, where my talents were finally appreciated and I was treated equally. I made it to working finalist after my first audition and into a lifetime membership soon after. The Actors Studio gave me the confidence to keep going, and the tools to put all my life experience to work. They even encouraged me to stay involved while I went through cancer treatments and juggled multiple jobs to pay my medical expenses. I will forever be indebted to Barbara Bain and Allan Miller for guiding me. My agent JD Sobol fought hard for me, and Carmen Argenziano helped me with auditions, and suddenly, I started working on edgy shows and building a competitive resume.
Even after years of proving myself though, the industry still resisted. Once I was made to sit at the back of the bus, so the director could stop me from walking into his shots on a project about cancer survivors! That incident perhaps hurt me the most. I went to my hotel room and cried.
I asked, “Why is this happening to me?” And I got my answer: Because you will DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
I’m one of the loudest advocates in Hollywood for people with disabilities. My mom used to say, “When someone is being unreasonable, go over their heads.” So 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.
In my opinion, most girls in high heels walk sillier than me. Its film and television: head and shoulders; eyes and soul! What’s on the inside should matter more than a perfect outer package.
In my dreams, there will be a day when my walk is honored, and I am seen as the indomitable, fearless woman that I am.
DR: SHELLIE: What has been your favorite role thus far?
GRUBBA: My favorite roles have been on the stage because, there, I have played the leads and brought my life to great roles. For film, my favorite role is yet to come, but I enjoyed doing Wild Oats because I got to work with Jessica Lange, who was my inspiration when I was young. For TV, Alice Ann on Game Of Silence, because she goes from 35 years old to nearly 60, from an out-of-control, wild, love-starved alcoholic, to a wise, strong, meddling mother who truly cares. The showrunner, David Hudgins, let me bring my fire and sass to the role and made me feel like a valued team member. And of course, the notorious Precious Ryan on Sons of Anarchy—a fearless, fierce protector of her children, and the only female character strong enough to survive and remove herself and her children from the lure of the club. In fact, they come to her for help!
DR: SHELLIE: Tell us about your family and personal history with cancer?
GRUBBA: My mother died of ovarian cancer 26 years ago. My father died of thyroid cancer 20 years ago. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in my 30s and then the genetic syndrome my mom had, so I’m facing the same things that killed BOTH my parents. So far, I’m winning! I went totally plant-based vegan, and visit my doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center yearly to make sure all is well. I’ve since coached a lot of people through cancer battles. Maybe some of us go into battle young so we can show others how to fight and win.
DR: SHELLIE: How do you keep going when the cards seem stacked against you?
GRUBBA: Many things have helped keep me going. My mom’s words of wisdom still ring in my ears when things get tough. My dad taught me how to work hard and build a strong will. That work ethic has gotten me through great challenges while still building a career and working. I have postponed surgery and cancer treatments so I could finish shows. I’ve gone to auditions on crutches, classes in wheelchairs, and taped auditions just hours after coming out of anesthesia. Every day, I do the best I can with whatever is on my plate.
When I get sad, I turn on my favorite music so it drowns out my sorrows and gets my spirit dancing again. Also, knowing my purpose has kept me going. I don’t want one more kid EVER to endure what I was forced to endure as a child with a disability. I will find a way to get this world to finally understand, accept, and honor people with disabilities.
My childhood memories have driven me to remain in this business until I have a voice, because I want to create a world where kids with challenges won’t experience abuse and isolation. I share my stories so people will realize what we as a society do to kids with challenges. I want these kids to be celebrated for their strengths.
DR: SHELLIE: What is your message of inspiration for the world?
GRUBBA: We all have a specific purpose, and when we find and honor it, we contribute to the evolution of all humanity. We need to shine, not just for us, but for everyone. Some of us are meant to lead, others to support. All of us are equal; we just have different gifts to share. So, find your purpose, find your allies, speak up, show up, stand up, take risks, and make a meaningful difference before your time is up.