Actor with Disability and Wheelchair User Teal Sherer on Acting, Love, and Life

You might have seen her in the HBO movie Warm Springs, which portrayed American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s struggle with paralysis from polio and the rehabilitative relief he found in the warm springs of a small Georgia town.

She’s shared the spotlight with stage and screen luminaries like Dustin Hoffman, Annette Bening, Kathy Bates, and Kenneth Branagh (whom she calls “Ken”). Sometimes her wheelchair is essential to the character she plays, and sometimes the wheelchair just gets her character from point A to point B.

Teal Sherer is an actor, a producer, a dancer, a wife, and an advocate. She has a page on Wikipedia, and she’s the star of her own Web series My Gimpy Life, built around her experiences as a person in a wheelchair. It’s hilarious…

Has she achieved her success in spite of her wheelchair—or because of it?  Our exclusive interview with Teal reveals this and more.

Tell us about your family—parents, siblings, home life.
My dad is a retired Navy Commander and is the one who named me “Teal”, after the duck. He used to hunt them. He has a really great sense of humor. My mom is my biggest supporter. She was right there by my side after my accident and since I’ve been a performer, has been my biggest fan. I have a younger sister named Brynn who is a nurse practitioner and has two little boys. She’s a hard worker and has such a beautiful spirit.

You had your accident at age 14. How did you come to terms with your paralysis at that age?
It was difficult. I had just started my freshman year of high school, and I desperately wanted to fit in and be popular. Thankfully, my parents, friends, school, and community gave me lots of love and support. I think it helped that I went to Shepherd Center [a world-class hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury and brain injury in Atlanta, GA] for my rehabilitation. While there, I met other teenagers my age going through similar situations, and I learned that I could still have a great life.

What happened to your friends in the car?
Thankfully, we all survived. Two of my friends in the car also broke their backs, but they didn’t have any paralysis. The driver broke his nose.

Acting wasn’t even on your radar screen at the time. What dreams did you have for your future before the accident?
I don’t know if I had specific dreams, but I was competitive and I liked performing. I was on a swim team, had played basketball, and was about to try out for the track team. I was also a cheerleader all through middle school and had just made the high school squad. I was also very driven, made straight A’s, etc.

When and how did you acquaint yourself with the greater community of people with disabilities?
When I started dancing with Full Radius Dance, a professional physically integrated modern dance company in Atlanta, that was my first experience working with and really spending quality time with other people with disabilities. It was such a wonderful experience.

What did you learn from them?
I learned to embrace my disability, to be proud of it. For a while, I had been embarrassed and ashamed of it.

What were your goals during the time you spent at the Shepherd Center?
To learn to sit up on my own, to transfer in and out of my wheelchair, to dress myself. The basics.

What treatments, if any, have you sought for your paralysis since then?
I’ve done a lot of physical therapy, and I used to walk with heavy-duty leg braces and a walker using the momentum of my upper body to swing my legs. It was too much stress on my upper body though. My focus is to keep myself in the best shape possible. I eat healthy, work out with a trainer twice a week, and I try to use my EasyStand Standing Frame every day. I also go on several nice walks/rolls a day exercising my dog.

You caught the acting bug at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. How did you first venture into the craft?
I had to take a theater class as part of my communications major, and I had an amazing professor, Troy Dwyer, who was really encouraging and could care less that I had a disability. He cast me in my first play in a role that wasn’t disability-specific. I was hooked. From that moment forward, I was either acting on stage or working behind the scenes, stage managing, ushering, working in the box office, whatever.

When and why did you make the decision to move to Los Angeles?
It was about a year after I had graduated from college. I had just gotten out of a pretty serious relationship and needed a change. I had also just filmed the HBO film Warm Springs, which gave me my Screen Actors Guild card, and that gave me the confidence I needed to make the leap.

Where did you live when you first moved to Los Angeles?
Hollywood (right off Sunset Blvd in the middle of it all!)

What type of vehicle transportation do you use?
I’ve always owned my own cars, usually four-door sporty sedans.

What was your plan for breaking into the big time?
To get an agent, to get into a good acting class, and to start networking.

On your acting resume, besides the fact that you use a wheelchair, what’s your unique selling point?
I can do a pretty great Southern accent. 😉

We notice you sing, too. Are you a “bathroom singer?” How would you describe your singing?
No, I actually don’t sing much in the bathroom. I’m really not a good singer. I’ve even taken lessons. I think I could potentially make a good rapper though.

What, if any, impact did your paraplegia have on your personality?
It’s made me more strategic and easy going. I have a sense of humor and have gotten good at not taking things personally.

How did you get the gig in the movie Warm Springs?
My agent in Atlanta submitted me for it and I got an audition.

So what’s Ken Branagh really like?
He’s a total gentleman. We were doing take after take of that singing and dancing scene I was in and, during a short break, Kenneth walked up to me and asked me if I needed anything and if he could get me some water. That’s just how nice he is. I helped prep him for his role as FDR. I showed him how to walk with leg braces and how to swim without the use of your legs. He was super-professional, focused, and never once did he try to “make out” with me.

What are some of the challenges of filming?
We did a lot of takes of the singing and dancing number in that old antique wheelchair. It was pretty uncomfortable sitting in it, and it was hard to move, but I had a job to do, so I couldn’t let myself focus on that.

What did you learn from that experience?
It was my first time on a Hollywood movie set, and I was fascinated by all of the crew and watching everyone work, like the costumers, set designers, and props people. I was like sponge, soaking it all in.

If you could star in a remake of any movie, which one would it be and why?
It would be The Wizard of Oz, and I would play Glinda, the good witch. I was obsessed with that movie as a child, and I think it would be cool to float around in my wheelchair in that bubble.

What did you learn from your improv classes? 

It taught me to trust my instincts and not to think too much.

How do you choose which parts/auditions to pursue?
Well, I don’t get a lot of auditions so I normally don’t get to choose. But if I’m offered a part, I consider if it’s worth my while–do I like the project and who’s involved, will it help further my career, will it be a good experience?

Why do you like playing “the villain”?
Because I get to say and do things that I don’t get to in real life.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do as an actor?
I starred as Catherine in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof, and I didn’t leave the stage for close to two hours, other than the quick costume changes between scenes. These costume changes had to be so fast that the other cast members had to help me change, and we choreographed these changes so they were the most efficient they could be. It was a total adrenaline rush and took so much focus.

How well has acting worked for you in terms of making a living?
Some years have been better than others. Overall though, I don’t make all of my living as an actor. I’ve also been doing some public speaking.

How did you meet Felicia Day and become involved with The Guild

Felicia and I met on the HBO film Warm Springs and have been friends ever since. She wrote the part of Venom for me on The Guild. (Editor’s Note: The Guild is an independent, sitcom web series about a group of online gamers created and written by Felica Day, who is also the star. Felicia played the character “Vi” on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.]

How did “My Gimpy Life” find its way to the Web?
Being in The Guild definitely influenced me to want to create a show of my own. I’m not a writer, so Felicia Day recommended that I meet with a comedy writer named Gabe Uhr. We immediately hit it off—and My Gimpy Life was born.

Gabe Uhr and I are big fans of comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, and Louie, and those shows inspire our approach. A lot of the first season of My Gimpy Life is based on my real-life experiences, like the alley audition or the time a stranger asked me an extremely personal question in a bank parking lot.

We start with those moments, and then create characters and stories to heighten them. In real life, I generally avoid confrontation and brush those things off, but that wouldn’t make a very interesting show. (Editor’s Note: There’s an episode of My Gimpy Life waiting for you at the end of the interview!)

As a disability advocate, I want to share my perspective and broaden people’s minds. Disabled people are out in the real world, but we’re underrepresented in films and on TV.

What inspired you to start Blue Zone, the theater company for actors with disabilities?
I started Blue Zone with two other actors with disabilities because we wanted to create our own opportunities. We produced Mike Ervin’s The History of Bowling, which starred two actors with disabilities, and we also produced Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which three of the four main characters were played by actors with disabilities. It was such a wonderful experience, and it introduced me to the world of producing.

Of stage, film, and television, which type of acting do you prefer?
They’re all wonderful for their own reasons. I love the rehearsal process of theater. You really form a bond with your cast and crew. I also enjoy that the performances are live—if you mess up, you have to keep going.
With TV and film, you get multiple takes, which is nice, and it’s always cool to see the finished product–once it’s been edited, and with sound and music. TV and film sets are also fun–I love the hair and make-up and the wardrobe departments, and just the overall energy on a set. There are so many people running around doing their jobs.

According to your bio, you like to surf. We recently ran a story of a paraplegic woman in Australia who surfed while duct-taped to the back of her son’s surfing buddy. How do you participate in the sport?
I basically lie face down, on my stomach, and a cute surfer dude pushes me into the waves.

Is your disability an advantage in the acting world?
I’ve always seen it as one. It makes me unique.

How would you advise a young person in a wheelchair who wants to break into show business?
The same advice I’d have for any actor. Get into a good acting class and focus on being the best actor you can be. Be proactive. This industry is about building relationships, and you never know when one will pay off, but don’t wait around for a call. You have to create your own opportunities: take an improv class, put up a play you’ve always loved, or produce your own web series or online videos.

How are you handling “role model” status?
If people connect with me and consider me a “role model,” then I’m honored. After my accident, a girl came to visit me at Shepherd Center. She had been a paraplegic for a couple of years and was in high school. She had a boyfriend, was a cheerleader (even in her wheelchair, which I thought was so cool), she drove a convertible, and she had plans to go to college. I looked up to her in so many ways, and she gave me hope that I, too, could be like her. She was a role model for me and had a major impact on me, so if I can do that for others, then that’s pretty amazing.

What makes you happy?
Being with my family and friends eating good food and drinking red wine. I’m actually living in Nashville now, but go back to Los Angeles often for work stuff. My husband and I like to listen to live music, find new restaurants, and go on walks with our dog, Bre.

Tell us about Bre!
We’re training her as a service dog. She’s so sweet, like a big lap dog, but also kind of goofy and loves to play. She’s like our child—we call her our “dogter.”

What are you most proud of?

Where my life is right now. I have a wonderful husband, I love where I live, and I’m about to film more episodes of My Gimpy Life. My husband and I are also going to start trying to have a child in the near future.

Besides a bundle of joy, what’s next for Teal Sherer?
I’m about to film more episodes of My Gimpy Life. I’m also starting to get more involved with the disability community in Nashville–specifically the NSCIA Peer Support Group at Vanderbilt.

What’s your philosophy on life these days?
Don’t worry, be happy.

Outstanding advice, Teal! Thank you for sharing! As promised, here’s an episode of My Gimpy Life (VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED/Graphic Language!), and you can watch all the episodes on her YouTube channel!

Teal Sherer

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