Sheryl Lee Ralph on the ‘Abbott Elementary’ Character She Originally Wanted to Play, and the Director’s Note That Led Her to an Emmy
When Sheryl Lee Ralph first read Quinta Brunson’s pilot script to “Abbott Elementary,” she knew exactly which character she wanted to play: Ava Coleman, the inappropriate principal who only seems to have her own best interests at heart.
But Brunson had another idea. “She was just short of [saying,] ‘Oh, hell no!’” Ralph says. “She said, ‘We need a queen for Barbara Howard. And you are that queen!’ And I was just like, ‘Baby, if you put it that way, How do I say no? What else do I need to know about that? I’m going to be the queen. I love it. Yes, I’m ready.’”
Janelle James wound up being cast as Ava, and landed an Emmy nomination this year for the role. But tapping Ralph to play Barbara, the no-nonsense, seen-it-all veteran teacher in “Abbott Elementary,” also turned out to be the right move. On Monday night, Ralph was rewarded with an Emmy for outstanding actress in a comedy series.
COVER STORY: Quinta Brunson on Winning Emmys With Sheryl Lee Ralph, Why ‘Abbott Elementary’ Wasn’t Ready to Be Named Best Comedy Yet and Changing the Stakes in Season 2
“I am on another planet,” Ralph tells Variety on Tuesday morning, just hours after her win. She’s still in her same hairdo from Emmy night, including the sparkling jewels that adorned her head. The reality of the TV honor is just now hitting her.
“I think I’m on the planet 999,” she says. “I feel like I’m just still floating up there. Like I’m having an out of body experience. I know something has happened because the glitter has come off of my face. But the response has been crazy. My husband and I were in the hotel and he got up and he turned on the TV. And I opened my eyes. And first of all, there was Emmy, right by the bedside. But I could hear these reporters talking about me. I could hear myself singing as they were talking. And I was like, ‘What happened in the past 12 hours?’ Everything happened.”
Ralph’s acceptance speech was one of the night’s most memorable, as the one-time Tony nominee (“Dreamgirls”) opened by singing Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species.” Ralph is just the second Black woman to win supporting actress in a comedy series. Jackée Harry was the first in 1987 for her role on “227.”
“Jackée tweeted at me,” Ralph says. “I was like, ‘Girl, you should have just called me!’ Who knew that that role of hers in ‘227,’ that the network wanted me. Maybe I just completely forgot all about that. But she was just like, ‘No, they wanted her for the role, but I got it and I won the Emmy. Now she’s got her own.’ That’s right! I got my own. But I’m just feeling like, thank you, god. Thank you.”
Ralph’s mother is from Jamaica, and she spent much time there in her youth. Ralph says she immediately heard about celebrations in the island nation after her win. “Jamaica lost its mind last night,” she says. “It was as if, for a moment there, I was Usain Bolt. It was crazy. The past prime minister was calling me, the minister of arts and culture. I couldn’t answer their phone calls. But I did get the texts. I mean, it was too crazy. And now when I go back for Heroes Weekend, I will be ‘The Honorable Sheryl Lee Ralph Order of Jamaica.’”
Variety spoke to Ralph and “Abbott Elementary” creator/star Quinta Brunson at the Warner Bros. lot’s commissary executive dining room as they were both still a bit bleary-eyed and hoarse from the Emmy celebration the night before. Not only did both stars win trophies, but they immediately took part in a photo shoot for this week’s issue of Variety magazine.
“Sheryl comes in and lights up our set every morning, and the people who have their day made by her being so wonderful are going to just feel so happy that she won,” Brunson says.
There’s no rest for either, however, as the cast and crew of “Abbott Elementary” are already back to work with a table read and the start of production on a new episode later that day.
“’Abbott’ takes no tea for the fever,” Ralph says. “’Abbott’ was like, we don’t care you won an Emmy last night, there’s work today! Bring yourself here today for work! There are no days off, no time off. Let’s get back to the work of making America’s new favorite TV show.”
Ralph’s Emmy win came following a busy weekend that also included being recognized by the Creative Coalition at its annual Television Humanitarian Awards luncheon. Besides “Dreamgirls” and the resulting Tony nomination, the star’s tremendous career includes “Search for Tomorrow,” “It’s a Living,” “Moesha,” and an Independent Spirit Award in 1990 for the film “To Sleep With Anger.”
But now, her “Abbott Elementary” role has won her a new generation of fans — and an Emmy.
“[The character of] Barbara Howard has been an incredible gift for me,” she says. “And the interesting thing about playing the role is I did not think I would be seen. I thought it would be around me. And I was going to be there to give support. And then when people started to see things, I was just like, ‘What the hell is happening?’”
Ralph says the best direction she got in playing Barbara was “do nothing.” It’s the silent strength of Barbara — a character who sometimes says everything with just a look — that has made her a key part of the show’s success.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’m a very accomplished actress, I can do stuff.’ It’s the strangest thing, [but] it was the absolute perfect direction,” Ralph says. “I really try to keep that in mind every time Barbara comes to life. Just bring it down. Just deliver it. And so many teachers, oh my god, the way they’ve been responding to the character. They say they feel seen. They feel respected.”
The hardest part of playing Barbara? “I’ve had to embrace sweater sets, which has been quite a journey,” she laughs. “I’ve had to really release the need for hair. She is the second or third character that I’ve played that is in the short hair style. And pearls. She’s a ‘clutching the pearls’ kind of woman. I’m enjoying the gift of Barbara Howard.”