Awards Daily chats with New Amsterdam Guest Star Eileen Grubba on how she coincidentally ended up playing herself in the episode “Good Soldiers.”
Actress Eileen Grubba was paralyzed from the waist down as a child, when she was less than five years old, from a bad vaccine that attacked her spinal cord. She spent many years of her life not knowing exactly what hit her. Doctors thought it was the polio vaccine, but it was only a few years ago that she learned it was the DPT vaccine.
“The neurologist was like, ‘This isn’t polio; this is something else,’ so they did a spine study, and realized it was the other vaccine—not the polio [one],” said Grubba. “I spent my whole life thinking I was going to have post-polio syndrome, and it wasn’t polio.”
Grubba’s resume is a lengthy one (you may remember her as Missy on HBO’s cult favorite Hung), and while she’s spent her career working in film and television, she’s also a disability advocate. Her guest role of Elizabeth on New Amsterdam marks a culmination of both of these worlds, especially given the character’s backstory.
Like her character in “Good Soldiers,” who also discovers a medical error, Grubba was naturally angry when she learned that it wasn’t the polio vaccine that had caused her issues, especially so many years later after the fact. When I asked her what kind of justice you could possibly ask for in a moment of realization like this, she says that there’s nothing that can fix it. However, Hollywood’s fix for unfortunate situations like these is to commit to cast actors with disabilities in disability roles, so they are able to tell these stories accurately and with respect.
Awards Daily: You’ve had such a big year, in some of the season’s biggest shows. Watchmen. The Politician. New Amsterdam, of course. What has it been like?
Eileen Grubba: It actually was an amazing turnaround to a horrible year. I had lost two people, the closest people, in my life in a matter of months apart, and then I came back into town, and suddenly all of these doors were opening up, after many many years of hard work. Yeah, some of the best shows on TV. (Laughs) And then interestingly enough, the most amazing role ever, the one that came up on New Amsterdam, because it was so close to my life experience that it was almost unbelievable.
AD: Elizabeth Archer has a spinal cord injury and discovers that a surgeon caused the injury and put an unnecessary plate in her back. How close is it to your life experience? I know a bit about your background, but did you do any research for this part?
EG: I didn’t have to do any research for the part, because I lived that part, without the lawsuit [Elizabeth ends up suing the hospital at the end of the episode]. (Laughs) There was no time. I literally got the audition one evening, and it was due the next morning. I was supposed to be on the stage at the actors’ studio that very next morning as well. So when I got the audition, I read the sides, and I just started laughing out loud. (Laughs) No problem! Because the character is paralyzed from the waist down with a spinal cord injury, she’s a cancer survivor, the medical industry caused her paralysis, and she’s angry. And that’s so my life. But I’m a post-spinal cord injury walker, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. I’ve been in and out of wheelchairs all my life.
AD: Did the New Amsterdam writers know that this was so close to your life? Or was it coincidental when they offered you the part?
EG: It was a weird coincidence. I read it and thought, “Who knew me?” (Laughs) “Who knew me that wrote this?” Because I’ve been speaking up and advocating for so many years, saying we need to start hiring people with who have these disabilities to play these roles, so that the impact hits, so people see it accurately portrayed, so that people will stop thinking, “Oh, no, if I have a spinal cord injury, I have to kill myself.” The reality is a lot of us live really full lives after spinal cord injury, and some of us recover. I have a good handful of friends who are just starting to get up and walk after major spinal cord injuries, one of them at the neck. He’s walking how I was much younger. I’ve worked so many hard for so many years, rebuilding and recovering and still doing it. Yesterday I strapped on a brace and some walking sticks, and I hiked up a mountain. (Laughs) Every step of the way, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. And you’re just constantly fighting to keep building and improving, especially with spinal cord injury. Your body will atrophy pretty rapidly if you’re not constantly pushing it. And I was feeling the weakness of being stuck in the apartment the last few months with this pandemic. I was doing exercises on the floor and all that stuff. But I was nervous to go out, because I’m also a cancer survivor.
AD: Wow. Speaking of your character on the show, I was struck by her first reaction to the doctors, when they tell her that she needs surgery, she asks if it’s her fault. I thought that was so interesting. They’re telling us so much in that little moment. Why does she say that? Is that something that you could relate to, too?
EG: Well, the very first moment that strikes me in the writing, and of course they put into one episode what has taken a lifetime to unfold in my life, but the very first moment when they come in and I see there are two doctors, I immediately know there’s a problem. If you watch, I’m holding my breath. And then the first thing they say is that it’s not cancer, and there’s this sigh of relief. I am a cancer survivor, but not only a cancer survivor—I also have a genetic cancer syndrome, that my mother had that killed her. I have beaten the cancer that killed my father, only to find out that I have the genetic cancer syndrome that killed my mother. On top of all the other fun. Believe me, I was truly holding my breath in that moment.
And then the next thing, why two doctors then? I know something’s wrong. Then when they say, I need to have another surgery, that’s another thing that people who’ve been in hospitals, I live in horror of surgeries. I literally said to my doctors, “I’m not afraid of cancer; I’m afraid of surgery.” (Laughs) I’ve had so many surgeries, that I don’t want to go through another one. So suddenly, my character is like, oh no, did I do this? Because I’m moving too much? Every surgery, you’re putting your life on the line. In that moment, it happens really fast in the episode, faster than probably life would be. I laughed about the fact that they summed up my life in a quick hour of television.
The next moment that’s powerful for me, perhaps if someone hasn’t been through as many medical challenges, but everyone I know in the disabled community who understands surgeries and spinal cord industries—I got messages from total strangers online who thanked me for portraying it accurately—because the next moment is, she sucks up the pain, the fear, and grief, and she laughs. “Okay, let’s have the surgery.” That was a choice that’s authentic to me. In those moments, you finally decide you’re going to do it. For me, a defense mechanism since childhood is to laugh when I’m in the most pain.
And the director, Rachel Leiterman, oh my gosh, what an amazing woman. I couldn’t have asked for a better director to take me through this most vulnerable role I’ve ever played. Between her and Shaun Cassidy, who wrote the episode—those two were so amazing and made it such a safe space for me to do whatever I had to do.
Season 2 of New Amsterdam is available on NBC.com.