In their attempts to land roles, actors often say they were born to play a part, but when Santina Muha read the description of “Debbie” in the script for the John Callahan biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, her reaction was even more visceral.
“The description was this aggressively cheerful brunette girl who can prove that there’s life after spinal cord injury, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s me,’” she says.
Muha got the gig, and months later, after filming with award-winning director Gus Van Sant and an all-star cast, Muha lived out one of her childhood dreams, rolling down the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of her first big movie. “It was everything I have been wanting,” she says. “Literally a dream come true.”
Even with the seemingly perfect fit between role and actor, Muha’s success in landing the part was testament to the hard work she has put in building her name as an actor and comedian, and the latest of many signs that it is starting to pay off. When she is not performing in or hosting shows for the Los Angeles theater run by the famed comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade, Muha is filming episodes for the third season of Netflix’s revival of the ’70s classic TV show One Day At a Time, reprising her role as “Beth” from season two. She also has a number of smaller projects winding down, including a role as a non-wheelchair user in a mockumentary called Spinners: Izzy Lyon.
That’s the kind of packed schedule Muha envisioned for herself when she decided to take the plunge and move to Los Angeles five years ago. Living the life is proving as rewarding as she had hoped.
“My goal when I moved out here was to start getting called in for work,” she says. “Now, this is my life every day. I’m not waitressing. I’m not hostessing. I’m not delivering weed. I’m not driving for Lyft. I’m not doing any of that. I’m just focused on creating. And luckily, I’m able to do that.”
An Entertainer Emerges
Muha grew up as part of a large extended Italian family in New Jersey. Among her earliest memories are watching The Golden Girls with her Italian grandmother. Muha’s grandmother could barely speak English, but they both cracked up in response to Bea Arthur’s expressions.
Paralyzed in a car accident at the age of 6, Muha quickly discovered that, like Arthur, she could use humor to lighten the mood. “Whenever I made a joke, said something funny or did something funny, it broke the tension,” she recalls. “It added levity. And then it wasn’t sad anymore. That’s something that got ingrained in me from childhood, that if I could make people laugh, I could make the situation less sad … I want to make people happy. And I want to make people laugh.”
There is a lot more to Santina Muha than just a performer who will make you laugh. Photo by Dawn Bowery Photography.
Los Angeles offered Muha more opportunities to do just that, and after feeling uncertain following her first visit, on her second visit she put down roots. “I came out here on a Friday, I signed up for classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater and I started class on a Monday,” she says. “Once I started those classes, that was it. I never lived back home again. Never.”
Muha loved UCB, and was getting connected and making friends when a medical emergency landed her in the hospital for three months. Her worries about how she’d cope thousands of miles from her family disappeared when she was inundated with visitors from UCB and her new Southern California friend group.
“It blew my mind,” she says. “It made me feel loved, which I think is really important whether you have a disability or not, whether you’re trying to be an actor or not, but especially in this field. To feel loved is so important because it’s the foundation. It was after that hospital stay that my career really started to pick up, and I think it has to do with the energy that I was able to harness from everybody.”
More Than a Wheelchair
Prior to her hospital stay, Muha had made an appearance on Comedy Bang! Bang!, an IFC television show based on a popular podcast. Soon after Muha got out of the hospital, the show invited her back as a recurring character. “That was really cool because the first time they hired me it was about the wheelchair, but then they were like, ‘Oh, that’s a funny girl. Let’s get her back.’ And that made me feel really accomplished.”
Establishing herself as an actor and not just “a wheelchair” is one of the tricky realities Muha navigates. When she started to hone her standup routine, she avoided wheelchair jokes out of fear of being pigeonholed. “I thought if I did too much wheelchair stuff, it would become my only thing. But now, I’m realizing I need to do it because it’s funny and there’s a — there’s a hole in the world that needs to be filled.”
Muha’s new approach is evident in her standup and it helped her craft her one woman show, That Girl in the Wheelchair. Beth Appel, UCB’s artistic director, has been impressed by Muha’s evolution.
“I’ve seen her perform a ton, and I’ve seen her get huge laughs from comedy that’s completely unrelated to her using a wheelchair,” says Appel. “And I’ve seen her use the wheelchair to make certain moments in shows even funnier than they would be otherwise. She definitely uses it to her advantage comedically when she can, but that’s not the only comedic value that she has.”
Just as she works to balance the “wheelchair stuff,” Muha is equally aware of the responsibility that comes with increased visibility. Looking back on her childhood following her injury, Muha remembers not having wheelchair-using role models to look to. “I couldn’t go to Spencer’s and find any posters [of wheelchair users] to put on my walls,” she says. “There was nobody. Nothing. I really wanted there to be someone, but even more than that, I wanted to be that person.”
“I still want to be that person,” she says. “I realize I’m not getting any younger, so the clock is ticking if I want to be a poster on anybody’s wall, but I’m working on it.”
In January Muha and fellow improviser Fiona Landers rallied a throng of UCB friends and local celebrities to raise over $2,000 for United Spinal Association with a one-night-only event titled “Don’t Just Stand There.” In addition to raising money, Muha wants to raise awareness of some of the obstacles facing wheelchair users.
Headlined by former Sopranos star Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who has multiple sclerosis and served as a monologist, all the event’s entertainers had to take the stage and perform using a wheelchair. “Within 15 minutes of being in the wheelchair they were like, ‘Oh my god, I never realized this theater is accessible, but the other UCB one still needs a ramp,’ and ‘How do you come out of the curtain?’” says Muha. “So just in that short amount of time it really had an impact.”
Muha thinks the approach has wider potential. “My ultimate goal is to have a platform where I can have politicians and celebrities live a day in t
he life of people with various physical disabilities so that we can start to incorporate the accessibility and the adaptations that we need in everyday life,” she says.