Katy Sullivan’s face is animated as she describes her passions — acting, running, cooking and Jay, her husband of two years. She tosses her head back as she laughs easily and often — at herself, at Jay’s jokes and the little things in life that she doesn’t let get her down.
Sullivan, 31, is the 2011 recipient of Webster University’s Young Alumni Award. As the result of a congenital defect, she was born without legs.
She is a 2002 graduate of Webster’s Conservatory with a degree in acting, and has appeared in plays, movies and numerous TV shows — most notably the NBC series “My Name is Earl.” She is also the current national paralympic champion in the 100-meter sprint and the world record holder in the 200-meter.
“I would say the only limitations in life are the ones that you set for yourself,” Sullivan said. “So if you are physically challenged in some way, you can do anything that you want in life. You might have to do it a little bit differently than the other people, you might have to take the ramp instead of the stairs, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get to the same place.”
Katy was born the youngest of four in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Her interest in acting began as a small child when she saw the play “Annie” for the first time.
“I wanted to be an actor before I even knew what (acting) was,” Sullivan said.
She chose Webster because she wanted to attend a school that would immerse her in theater and acting.
After graduating in 2002, Sullivan moved to Chicago to pursue theater. There, she starred in a play directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman called “The Long Red Road.” She moved to Los Angeles in 2004 to focus on her television and movie career. She had several uncredited roles on TV until she landed a role on the “Killerball” episode of “My Name is Earl.”
“It’s one of the first times that I was on set, not doing a pilot,” Sullivan said. “There’s hundreds of extras and camera people and crew and all these people and the first (lines) come out of my mouth, I’m the only one speaking in this take, and I literally thought I was going to vomit.”
After she moved to LA, Sullivan first tried running, following the suggestion of her prosthetist, as she wears prosthetic legs.
“I was getting a lot of ‘Why don’t you try it? Why don’t you try it?’” Sullivan said. “So eventually you’re like, ‘Fine! I’ll try it!’ And it just ended up being something that I happened to be good at. It’s a chapter in my life that I didn’t expect at all.”
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One of her first competitions was the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a member of the U.S. Parapan team.
She felt so out of place that she said she would rather sing the national anthem at that race than run. She broke the world record for the 200-meter in 2007, beating the previously held record by .79 of a second.
Today, Katy is training for the 2012 Paralympics in London.
“I’m going to be a Gorlok at the games,” Sullivan joked. “Gor
Sullivan said she was notified that she received the Young Alumni award at the end of the 2011 spring semester. She said her accomplishments in acting, sport and in her continuing support of the Webster community were listed as the reasons she was receiving the award. Sullivan officially received the award on Saturday Sep. 25 at the Alumni Celebration Gala dinner, a homecoming event open to all alumni. Sullivan is only the third recipient of the award.
“I’m incredibly honored,” Sullivan said. “It’s a very cool distinction.”
Bruce Longworth, head of the performance Conservatory of theatre arts, taught Katy during her time at Webster.
“She was always really fearless in her work,” Longworth said. “She brought a lot of courage to what she did. She was just very much in her own skin.”
Longworth asked Sullivan to teach a Master Acting class while she was back on campus to accept the Young Alumni award. Sullivan agreed, and said her goal for the class will be to teach Webster’s Conservatory students aspects of the acting business that they didn’t know before. She said she hoped to spend much of the time just answering questions, and telling the students what they really wanted to know about acting “out in the real world.” Sullivan’s Master Class was on Saturday Sep. 25th from 1 to 2:30 p.m.
Sullivan said she encounters many challenges as a disabled actress in Hollywood. She said it can be frustrating at times, because of the industry’s tendency to typecast actors.
“It’s been interesting,” Sullivan said. “Because there have been (roles) that I have gotten because of my acting ability, but I got in the door because of the disability.”
Sullivan said sometimes she tries to use this to her advantage.
“Because when the role comes along, and you’re just thrown into a stack of a thousand other girls, the likelihood of you even being seen is slim to none. But you can stand out in some way, whatever that way is, and find that thing about you that makes you unique.”
Peter Sargent, dean of the college of fine arts, first noticed Sullivan at her Webster audition, when she sang “I Ain’t Down Yet” by the “Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Sargent came up to her after the audition and told her it was an interesting song choice, being whom she was. Sullivan said that didn’t even occur to her when she chose the song. She said she only chose the song because it ended on a high note.
“She’s got an incredibly positive spirit, and is an indomitable force of energy…she has a ‘there are no obstacles’ point of view,” Sargent said, “There’s a lot of physical work in the Conservatory and she did all that.”
Longworth remembers Sullivan’s gymnastic performance as “extraordinary.”
Sullivan recalled one of the best pieces of advice she ever received during her training at Webster. It was during her freshman acting class. Her and the rest of the students had “just barely gotten our 18-year-old feet in the door… all just bright eyed” when one of her acting professors said, “If you can see yourself doing anything else, do that. Because this is that hard.”
Sullivan is currently working on a role for the indie film, “Recalculating,” and is also in the process of writing a book. She is always searching for new roles. She also runs a blog entitled “Observations of an Eternal Optimist.”
“What I truly believe in is the fact that the obstacles that we encounter in our lives are there to prove how badly we want something,” Sullivan said. “So if you are faced with a challenge, and you feel like the challenge is more difficult than your desire for the outcome, then you’re not going to do it. So those obstacles are in our way to prove to us that we do want that, whatever it is on the other side of that hurdle, and to decide to go after it. Or not.”