After breaking out as a runner-up on The Glee Project, Ali Stroker made history in the Tony-nominated 2015 revival of Spring Awakening as the first person in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway.
The 30-year-old actress continues to break boundaries as Tamara in the new ABC drama series Ten Days in the Valley, which stars Kyra Sedgwick as a TV cop show producer whose life suddenly imitates art when her young daughter goes missing.
Stroker, who also guest-starred on Glee and Faking It, explains why her latest primetime role makes a powerful statement without saying a word.
Tell me about Tamara, your character in Ten Days in the Valley.
She’s one of the writers in the writers’ room for the show within the show. She’s really intelligent, and when it comes to information, she’s like a computer—she wants to be accurate and precise. She’s a workhorse.
What’s Tamara’s sexuality and romantic status?
She’s straight. There’s flirtation for sure between my character and a character named Jefferson, played by Harry Katzman, who’s a friend of mine. That’s been a fun development.
Have you been able to bring aspects of your own personality to the role?
Definitely. I’m a “yes” person, especially working as part of a team, which is what they do in the writers’ room. I always want to be supportive and helpful, so I think I bring that energy to the character.
Was the part written for an actor in a wheelchair?
It was adapted after they cast me. It’s actually never really addressed in the show why I’m in a chair, and that’s a statement for sure: Not every story about a disabled character has to be about the disability.
Did you have to audition for the role?
It was offered to me.
Wow, look at you.
I know, right? I’m like, What is happening?!
GLAAD reports that the number of regular characters with disabilities on primetime TV has nearly doubled since last year. Are you happy with that representation?
I want to be supportive of any improvements. The truth is that people with disabilities have not been authentically represented as well as they could be, so if we’re moving in the direction of greater, better representation, then that’s great news, and I hope that there are more roles for people with disabilities in coming seasons.
The LGBT community often balks when straight actors are cast in LGBT roles. How do you feel about the fact that most characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors?
I just feel like it’s such a missed opportunity, because there are a lot of really talented actors out there with disabilities. Having a disability is a full life experience, and somebody with a disability would represent that authentically.
Of course, there’s also been very thoughtful and positive representation of disabled people by able-bodied actors like Kevin McHale on Glee.
Totally. If somebody else is the better actor for a role, should they not get it because they’re not disabled? A lot of people would say that they shouldn’t, but I always want to be hired because I’m the best actor, not because I’m disabled.
As the first person in a wheelchair to graduate from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, you became the first person in a wheelchair to perform in a Broadway show. Why did those milestones take so damn long?
Well, when you look at the numbers, there aren’t a lot of people with disabilities in the industry, and there are a lot of reasons for that. But the industry hasn’t really shown up to say that it wants to hire and represent people with disabilities. I also believe in timing, and with diversity being on the rise, I guess it wasn’t the right time until now.
Another actress in a wheelchair, Madison Ferris, appeared on Broadway earlier this year in The Glass Menagerie. You kind of stole her thunder!
[Laughs] No, she’s amazing, and I’m so proud of her. When somebody with a disability gets a role, that visibility is a win for everyone in my community.
You came out publicly as bisexual in 2012 at the same time you revealed that you were in a relationship with Glee Project co-star Dani Shay. Why was that important to you?
I wanted to come out because I was dating a woman and I was so proud to be with her. Labels aside, I was with her because I was in love with her.
I noticed on your Instagram that you have a boyfriend now, but you seem to be a bit more discreet about the relationship.
We’ve been together for over a year and a half. After my last relationship, I didn’t want to be too public about this one. Because when that last relationship ended, I had to sort of explain it to everybody, and that was hard.
As an advocate for both, do you see similarities between the LGBT and disabled communities?
Yeah, both communities have been through a lot. They understand what it means to fight for their rights and for what they want and need.
You’ve also mentored aspiring performers, and you’re a founding member of the anti-bullying campaign Be More Heroic. What kind of responsibility comes with being a role model for young people?
Sometimes I feel pressure when I’m trying to figure out what I should be speaking about and representing. As an advocate for any community, you’re responsible for knowing what you want to see changed. I know what needs to change in a general way, but with specifics that can get really difficult, because I’m still changing and finding out what’s important to me.
Are you conscious of setting a good example for fans on social media?
Yeah, or sometimes I feel pressure to always be speaking out about something, because I don’t always have the attention for that. Most people probably feel that same pressure with social media right now, because we could really be speaking out every minute.
You seem like such a good girl, but I like to believe you’ve got a naughty side. Do you have any vices?
Probably shopping and turning off my phone. I love to go out in the city with my boyfriend and have a good time. I cook when I’m stressed.
Wow. Even your vices are adorable.
[Laughs] I was raised to be really classy, and that’s important when you’re in the public eye. But there are days that I don’t want to be nice or always saying the right thing. There’s a part of me that wants to be really honest. Sometimes I’m upset or outraged, but I do feel a certain responsibility in those situations to keep my mouth shut.
Ten Days in the Valley premieres October 1 on ABC.