By Stephanie DuBois
"She stands tall and steady like the Eiffel Tower."
"Sophisticated Lady" - Natalie Cole
Meredith Eaton may only reach to four feet at her full height, but the actor -- who's recently been making putty of William Shatner's character, DennyCrane, on "Boston Legal" -- casts a giant shadow.
That's something fans of the 1997 cult fave film, "Unconditional Love" have long been aware of. In the off-beat comedy, Eaton manages to steal every scene she's in, which takes some doing considering she's playing opposite the likes of Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett. And five minutes into the movie you forget her diminutive size and are wondering 'Who is this dynamo and where did she come from?'
"It has such a huge fan base for a little movie that never came out," notes Eaton, who plays powerhouse attorney Bethany Horowitz on "Boston Legal."
Indeed. "Unconditional Love" has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving.
Eaton was a series regular on "Family Law" three and a half years ago and says the show's creator Paul Haggis "or someone in his office saw 'Unconditional Love' and created that role for me because of it."
Then, as fate would have it, "Boston Legal" creator/writer David Kelley also saw the film and "created this role of Bethany for me," she says.
"I've wanted to work for him for ten years because he's known for such multi-level and out-of-the-box actors and now I'm having the opportunity. I'm so grateful to that movie and to David."
"Unconditional Love" was the New York native's first audition for an acting gig. The daughter of a clinical psychologist and administrative law judge, graduated from Hofstra University with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Theater before going on to get her Master's Degree in Clinical Psychology.
All that took a backseat to acting when Eaton beat out over 500 women from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. to play Bates' ballsy, outspoken, daughter-in-law, Maude Beasley, in "Unconditional Love."
Ironically, she notes, her character in the film, which also starred Geoffrey Rush and Dan Aykroyd, "was not supposed to be a little person. P.J. Hogan's wife, Jocelyn Morehouse who wrote the film with him said one day, 'Let's make her little.' P.J. said 'Why?' and Jocelyn said 'Why not? We never see that.'
"And I agree. Why not?" ponders Eaton.
Unfortunately, she says, most of the casting forces in Hollywood still can't see past her perceived physical limitations. "I wish I could say that it has changed, but Paul Haggis is a rare bird and so is David Kelley. They are the few and far between."
Realistically, Eaton realizes her height will never be completely ignored.
"Of course, in the beginning you have to notice it or else it would be like the pink elephant in the room that nobody's talking about," she says. "But there should come a point that becomes 'Oh yeah she's short and there's that, but after that they should be focusing on me as an actress and a person and not my height."
The actress, who's married to Michael Gilden, an actor who's also a little person, is holding out hope that "maybe with the emergence of more real roles for little people writers and producers will start to see that we can portray lawyers, doctors and all this other stuff. In fact, my husband did an arc on 'NCIS' as a scientist. It's great.
"But we have a long way to go. It's an uphill battle to get away from the stereotypes and shtick I see out there, and it's the same thing with African-American, Native American and Asian actors."
Eaton's made it clear she'd love to play the take-no-prisoners Bethany Horowitz for as long as Kelley wants her aboard "Boston Legal."
"The whole crew and cast from top to bottom have been such a well-oiled machine and an endearing and welcoming group," she says. "Everybody from Candice Bergen to Bill Shatner to James Spader... It's a great environment and they're all lovely people. I really mean that and that's why I'd love to stay on the show."
She adds, "It takes a really creative writer to write roles for me and think outside of the norm. I just wish it would happen more than it actually does.
"But when it does happen I embrace the opportunity. I like to represent myself, first and foremost as a dignified woman, and secondly, as a person with a disability or difference. So when I have the opportunity to show that I'm a person and my stature is secondary to all the other characteristics that I possess I love it. It's phenomenal."
Even more phenomenal is Eaton's ability to allow her spirit to transcend the physical. We should all stand so tall.