“MacGyver” cast member Meredith Eaton, a Woodmere native, belongs to a club with just about three members. Along with “Game of Thrones’” Peter Dinklage, and “NCIS: LA’s” Linda Hunt, she is one of the few stars of an ongoing prime-time show who is a little person. Eaton’s showbiz career began in 1999, when she starred in a straight-to-DVD movie with Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett (“Unconditional Love”), which led to “Family Law” (2002) and a recurring role on “NCIS” along with recurring ones in a dozen other series and movies. The breakout was “Boston Legal” (2007-08), where she played Denny Crane’s (William Shatner) tough-love girlfriend, Bethany Horowitz. On “MacGyver,” she plays Matilda “Matty” Webber, chief of “Mac’s” fabled Phoenix Foundation.
I spoke with Eaton, 43, about her career and Long Island roots. An edited version of our conversation:
Where did you grow up on Long Island?
I was born in Manhattan and raised in Woodmere, went to Ogden Elementary [in Valley Stream] and Woodmere Middle School, then Hewlett High. I lived on Long Island until I was 20, and my mom still lives there. I’ll always be a Long Island girl at heart.
I understand your father was an administrative judge on L. I.?
My dad was a government-appointed — through Mario Cuomo — administrative law judge who used to work at the Twin Towers and left there and worked in Hempstead presiding over workmen’s compensation and did that for 25 years. He passed away in January. It was unexpected and really hard because he never got to see any of my “MacGyver” appearances. He was my biggest fan and biggest publicist.
You come from an accomplished family?
My father was a very successful judge and also had cerebral palsy, but defeated every odd that was placed in front of him. Whenever anyone said no to him, he said yes. My mom is also successful — she’s an academic — and also a little person. And my grandmother, Nina Eaton, founded United Cerebral Palsy Foundation.When my father was born, his parents were told to put him in an institution and forget about him. But she was a tenacious Jewish lady from Long Island and said absolutely not. She founded UCP at a fire station in Brooklyn and now there are Nina Eaton centers all over the country.
You went to Hofstra and then completed a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Not exactly a track to Hollywood.
I completed my master’s degree and started my doctoral program at Adelphi’s Derner Institute [and] then I learned of a casting call for a movie looking specifically for a little woman. I was sort of burned out [in school] and thought it would be fun. I thought I could always go back to school but I can’t always star in a movie with Kathy Bates. My parents were like, “You just got into this hard school.” And I was like, “Trust me. I’m living my life.”
You began a career where there are virtually no roles — at least serious ones — for little people. Why?
The roles are very few and far between and not every role I’ve ever gone up for has been a role for a short-statured person, so I’m in there fighting for a role with everyone else in the world. The roles for short-statured actors are not always roles I want to play — they can be stereotypical and perpetuate all the things I’ve run away from my entire career. I’ve been in this business 20 years and I took one role that I wished I hadn’t. I think a lot of that has to do with my mother and it just gets down to who I am as a person. I’m not going to do something I don’t feel good about.
What kinds of biases have you had to deal with over your career?
No one wears their biases on their sleeves. [But] I always go in giving them every reason to believe in me and I don’t know what else anyone can do. There’s no reason I can’t portray ... [any role] on screen, and have played a forensic scientist and doctor and coroner. I’ve been lawyers and a mother — and I am a mother [to a 9-year-old daughter]. I have to go in and do the best I can do and if I don’t get it, it’s because I wasn’t right for the part.
You and Dinklage are members of an exclusive club.
I just know Peter is one of the most talented actors out there and he just happens to be in the “4-foot club.” It doesn’t matter. He’s dominated TV and film because of who he is as a person and actor. For me, I like to think that people enjoy watching because of who I am. Our height is secondary.
Nevertheless, it’s a tough racket, acting, and most of the characters you play are pretty tough. Art mimicking your life?
Yeah, I have to be [tough]. The world is not always kind and I have to be tough in order to deal with people’s prejudices and their perceptions of me and to prove to them that I’m maybe not what they think and to look deeper.
How did you come up with the character of Matty — who I guess is also known as Matilda the Hun?
Peter Lenkov [“MacGyver’s” co-creator and showrunner] laid out her colors — how she fit into this group. Peter’s brilliant and had a very specific idea for her. But all the things she had to go through to get to where she is similar to my life. Nothing was handed to me, nothing to her. What she lacks in stature she makes up for in intellect and power, and she’s earned the respect of her team.
Did you sell yourself to get the role?
No, it was an offer that came to me but we were on the same page from the beginning. Obviously Peter didn’t want the show to focus on how tall Matilda Webber is. That’s just a physical characteristic but [he said] you’re a million other things. He’s kept true to that.
Did you ever return to work as a psychologist, say, between shows?
I don’t practice anymore. This is my passion, although I do use my career on a daily basis in terms of character dissection. I’ve been busy [and] don’t have a lot of downtime ... [but] after my first year at “Family Law” did go back to work an institution where I worked in an outpatient clinic.
Where do you see yourself in five, 10 years?
I want this show to run for a really long time because I love it and love my cast. I love episodic television. It’s my wheelhouse.
Any reaction from the hometown fan base back on Long Island?
Whenever I’m on Long Island, for sure, and I keep in touch with my elementary school friends. It’s definitely cool and wherever I go people stop me. “MacGyver” is so wide-reaching, I can’t take five steps in an airport without a mob scene. I can’t hide like any other actress by putting on a baseball cap and blending in. As I’ve said before, I’ve been stared at every day, whether I like it or not. But this is nice.