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‘Abbott Elementary’ Star Sheryl Lee Ralph on Life as an Emmy Winner: “It Has Been Absolutely Amazing”

The morning after she won the Emmy for her portrayal of veteran teacher Barbara Howard, Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Abbott Elementary colleagues greeted her with a spirited ovation. After 45 years of consistent work in film (To Sleep With Anger, Sister Act 2), television (Designing Women, Moesha, Ray Donovan) and theater (Dreamgirls, Thoroughly Modern Millie), her career had reached a new pinnacle. Never again would she be yet another under-recognized Black performer hungry for Hollywood validation. Thanks to Quinta Brunson’s smash ABC sitcom, Ralph has been able to reap the material rewards of her longevity.

She’s also enjoying an even meatier season two, full of scene-stealing moments that remind us why her acceptance speech struck such a rousing chord back in September. With the show’s ratings holding steady, it seems that Ralph and her colleagues’ awards destiny is only just beginning. THR talked to her about the reactions to her Emmy win, the industry wisdom coming her way, and finding more nuances in the unflappable kindergarten teacher she portrays.

What was the first day back to work like after that Sunday when you won the Emmy?

Oh my God, it was exhausting! I couldn’t believe that here we were, going to the Emmys, we did as well as we did, and we had to wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning the next day to be there at 8 o’clock, which in our life is considered a late day. That’s exactly what happened: We just got up and went to work the very next day. It was great to be cheered on your own set. And I brought the Emmy with me. Everybody was so excited. They were so happy. There were folks who’d been around, and they understood the significance of the win. It was 35 years before a Black woman won this award.

The last Black winner being Jackée Harry for 227. Have the two of you talked about sharing this milestone?

We have not talked about it, but I know we will. She had said something about, “Girl, we’ve got to sit down and talk about this.” And I said, “You are so absolutely right.” She has a wonderful story that she talks about — the fact that she always believes the role she won it for had been written for me, but she got it. I didn’t know this, but both she and Marla Gibbs tell the same story. I’m like, “Well, how did I forget that?”

Did you ever audition? Why didn’t you end up in the role?

I haven’t the slightest idea, but I do remember somebody saying something about the fact that I did not feel that I would have been in that position in that neighborhood for whatever reason. I was like, “Well, people end up in a lot of places for a lot of different reasons. What does that mean?” But anyway, I didn’t get it. She got it and she won, and 35 years later I got exactly what was for me. Thank you, Quinta Brunson, and here I am.

Ralph accepting the Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy series on Sept. 12.

Ralph accepting the Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy series on Sept. 12. Michael Buckner/Variety/Getty Images

We’ve seen the teary exchange you had with Oprah after the win. Who else has reached out to you or had particularly kind words to share?

It has been absolutely amazing. Let’s see. Lena Waithe, Cynthia Erivo, Hannah Waddingham, Yvonne Orji, Beyoncé sent beautiful flowers with a beautiful note, Kid Cudi. There’s just so many. To have so many young artists reach out to me saying things like, “Thank you for your career, thank you for being you, thank you for what you said” — it’s been wonderful. Issa Rae! To get flowers, literally and figuratively, wow.

You’re a Halloween costume now, you’re appearing in a Rihanna fashion show, you met the vice president of the United States.

Who I knew before. Listen, I was on the Kamala [Harris] train when there were very few people on the train. I had to tell people, “This woman is going to be, if not our president, then our vice president.” And I’ve had many times in my life when people told me I was crazy, but this was one of those times when I was crazy-right.

Things have shifted for you, and I wonder whether you feel that in a material sense. Obviously you’re getting a lot of praise and warmth, but what do you think it bodes professionally for you?

It’s so interesting because, first of all, yesterday’s price is not today’s price. Aha! That changes immediately. There are doors that have probably been closed that on September 13th [the day after the Emmys] flew open, and people want you to know that the door was open. People have been very, very direct in saying things like, “This is the best time in your whole career; ask for what you want and don’t be shy about it.” To hear people say to you, “It might have been good for you before, but it’s about to get a whole lot better,” it’s been absolutely amazing.

You got to make the first season of Abbott Elementary in a vacuum. No one knew what the reception would be or whether the show would catch on. Then you come back for season two, at which point it’s an Emmy-nominated show and a megahit that critics adore. In light of all that, what’s different once you’re no longer doing it in that vacuum?

In many ways, nothing has changed. We’ve always had a great writers room. We’ve always had a great leader in Quinta and Patrick [Schumacker] and Justin [Halpern]. All they’re doing is what they’ve done before. People love to ask us about our scripts: Are we improvising? And all we say is no. We really rely on our writers and their talent. Yeah, you might feel a certain way about something, but for the most part, there’s always someone there who gets you and gets your voice. It’s worked out well for me. People always ask me, “What more do you want?” and I say, “I want more of what I’ve been given.”

It does feel like Barbara is getting bigger moments in season two: The great cold open where she confuses the names of Black actors, the plotline with Barbara’s daughter and Gregory, and the great scene where you’re belting “Happy Birthday” to the kids. Not that you didn’t have big moments in season one — they won you the Emmy — but do you think you’re getting meatier stuff in the wake of that Emmy?

No. The writers do not think like that. They’re a group of young people. We might put a lot of emphasis on an Emmy win, but they’re not putting emphasis on an Emmy win. They’re putting emphasis on making a great show. That is really all they care about.

Do you think there’s a generational divide in how much the industry cares about awards like that?

Everybody is very aware that you can win a lot of awards, but when you win the Emmy, the Grammy, the Oscar or the Tony, you have won. You are absolutely one of the best, hands down. And just getting nominated for any of those things, you are still one of the best. I remember sitting there that Emmy night and Oprah walked out onstage and said, “Only one in 300 million people will win one of these, so the odds are very high that you won’t be one of them.” That just about says it all. I don’t think it’s that they don’t appreciate it; they’re just not geared toward that.

Now that we know Barbara is as good a singer as Sheryl Lee Ralph is, how much do you think Barbara indulges her singing gifts outside of Abbott?

I think she probably directs the church choir or the children’s choir. I think she probably wakes up and sings into the mirror. I think sea Barbara is different than land Barbara [in season two episode one], and she’s just going to let it loose.

Her demeanor on campus is serious. She’s there to get a job done. So to see her burst into song is a little contradictory to the Barbara we usually see throughout the workday.

And I really wanted her to be over-the-top with it. Who does that with “Happy Birthday” and those kids? I believe that Barbara — and I think you’re probably going to see it at some point — is a nuanced character. Anybody who leans so much on one thing, like her church and the godliness, you know she’s been through something. What keeps a teacher like that rooted in a school? You know she’s been through something.

Is that how you’re playing her? Do you have a sense of what that something might be, even if it’s not in the scripts yet?

My very first film was called A Piece of the Action with Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. I played a very raw juvenile delinquent by the name of Barbara Hanley. Somebody made the connection and said, “Barbara Howard is such a dedicated teacher because she used to be Barbara Hanley and she knows what it’s like to have a great teacher have an impact on her life.” So, I like that. I like the idea that she knows what it’s like to have the worst and not be given the best, to have a teacher come in and not give up on her.

How do you find yourself interacting with kids on the set? Some actors say never to work with animals or kids.

Anybody who tells you not to work with children or animals really doesn’t have a handle on their own skill. Kids are wonderful to be around, and animals are wonderful because those animals are trained very, very well. I have acted with orangutans and I have acted with dogs, and the only thing I could say about the orangutan was, “Why did the orangutan like me?” I worked with an orangutan in the Flintstones movie, and they said, “Just don’t look the orangutan in the eyes because if they like you they’re going to hold on to you.” You know how sometimes with children they just have to look at you? This little orangutan must have thought I was related to her! I was like, “Honey, I don’t know you!” But it was a good one. Working with children is like working with the future of the industry. I know that 10 or 20 years from now these kids are going to say to me, “Mrs. Ralph, I got my start on Abbott Elementary.” Some of them belong in show business, and it’s really, really great to see that. I have very few problems in my classroom.

Earlier this year, you were part of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Blackfamous Roundtable. You talked about projects you had been part of over the years that didn’t catch on, and I wonder what you think it says that Abbott Elementary did catch on.

Abbott Elementary is the perfect show for this time that we are in: the way it talks about the real-life struggles of educators who love their job and the children and communities that they serve. We all learned through the pandemic just how underappreciated teachers really have been for years. People thought, “How hard can it be to teach the ABCs? I’m trying to teach my child to read, and I had no idea what it is you all go through. I’m sorry I didn’t show up for that parent-teacher meeting.” We heard all of that, and now we know what teachers go through. Why is it that teachers are having to pay for supplies in their classrooms? Why aren’t they getting the help that they deserve? Why is it there are teachers carrying student debt and only being paid $40,000 in America? That’s the best you can do for people who have dedicated themselves to our country’s children? Come on. We can do better than this, and this is the perfect show for this time to shine a light on those educators, all the way from the janitor to the principal to the no-nonsense teacher Barbara Howard.

Janelle James (left) and Sheryl Lee Ralph in ABC’s Abbott Elementary

Janelle James (left) and Sheryl Lee Ralph in ABC’s Abbott Elementary Courtesy of Gilles Mingasson/ABC

Which of your co-stars cracks the most during takes?

Everybody! Because sometimes Janelle [James] will say or do something and you lose your mind. Sometimes Chris Perfetti with his perfection is just out of this world. Sometimes there’s Tyler [James Williams] with his reactions. It’s just a lot. And then there is Quinta laughing at what she has written and she can’t believe she wrote that for herself to say. It’s like, “Quinta, you know you are afraid of heights! Why did you write getting up on top of this ladder and now you can’t get down?” So it’s everybody.

I was leafing through old photos of you on Getty, and I came across a shot from a gala in 1989 where you are holding Donald Trump’s hand and laughing very animatedly, as many people did circa 1989. What do you remember about meeting him?

Back then — and I don’t want to talk disparagingly of anybody — he had a certain reputation. But he was the guy of the city, so everybody wanted to take pictures with him. He lived up to his reputation, and that is all I can say about that.

When you say his reputation, what do you mean?

He was a bad boy in New York. He lived up to it. In fact, I did a film with Robert De Niro called Mistress, and there is a scene where Robert De Niro is angry with me. He grabs me and he turns me around, and I look at his hand on my hand and I said, “Don’t play Donald Trump with me.” Everybody knew. That was quite a movie. People play that scene back and they’re like, “Whoa.” It was just the moment. It was the ’90s. It was affluence. It was New York at its brightest and shiniest, and this man was supposed to be putting the polish on the city.

Abbott has given you a meaty, zeitgeist-y role at a time when people are hungry to see Black performers get their due. Who are some actors you’ve worked with who you would like to see get that same type of role?

Wow, I’d have to really think hard on that because my friends and peers are doing very well. Loretta Devine in her latest, P-Valley: some amazing work. The work Jenifer Lewis has been doing. Obba Babatundé won an Emmy for one of the soap operas. So, a lot of the people I came up with have been doing pretty well in this time. There are so many young people coming up who are doing such beautiful work, and I know that their time is coming. They won’t have to wait this long. Maybe that’s why they’re not so excited about it, because they don’t know about the journey it has taken to make sure they were included at this time.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.



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