Something to you need know about Sheryl Lee Ralph; she leans in when she talks to you. She brings you into her circle, embracing you with her words but also making sure that conversation is between you and her.
Ralph was always destined for a stage, be it theatre, film or television. From her early days growing up in Long Island, New York, Ralph began her acting career with a part in her high school’s production of Annie. From then on she collected honors and trophies; being crowned Miss Black Teenage New York in 1972 and, at 19, becoming the youngest woman to ever graduate from Rutgers University.
While Ralph booked television guest spots on shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons, it was in 1981 that found her on the Broadway stage, Tony Award-nominated for playing the original Deena in the Tony-winning musical Dreamgirls. Although she wouldn’t return to the stage until years later, she came back to television to carve out some its most iconic and memorable characters, including Ginger St. James in the 1980s comedy It’s a Living and of course, Dee Mitchell in the 1990s hits Moesha and The Parkers. Film also called her name whether it was her riveting and Spirit Award-winning turn in 1990s To Sleep with Anger or the broad comedy and chanteuse vocals of Florence Watson in 1993’s Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
But in 2021, while Ralph had been working steadily for going on 45 years, she got a call from Quinta Brunson, with whom she had worked with on HBO’s Emmy-nominated sketch comedy A Black Lady Sketch Show, that changed her life. Bringing in a new generation of followers and fans (“Miss Ralph, I have been watching you my whole life,” remarked a child actor from Abbott Elementary), Ralph is enjoying a golden age of her career not everyone is afforded, and she’s the first to let you know that. If anything reads through stronger in talking to Ralph it’s her humility, grace and respect for the things she’s been given, and the things she’s earned.
In my conversation with Ralph we talked about the joy of working with Quinta Brunson and the cast of Abbott Elementary, recalled the guidance of her educator father, reminisced about her dance single “In the Evening” and I even got a peak a Barbara Howard’s new look for season two. But you’ll have to wait to see that.
Erik Anderson: Hello. Hello.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Hi. How are you?
EA: Good. How are you?
SLR: Oh man. I’ve had something that’s very rare. We had a short day today. I actually broke at about, what? Two o’clock, 2:30. I was like, oh my God, thank you.
EA: I know they said, “can you do 3:30?” And I was like, wait a minute. Is that a half day?
SLR: Oh, I’m so happy. And I’m glad it all worked out.
EA: I am too. I mean, thank you so much for taking some time because I know you guys are deep into season two production.
SLR: We sure are. And it’s so good to just carry on with these great scripts. I’m really happy. It’s so good. It’s so good.
EA: This is a 22-episode season instead of 13. It’s the back nine. I don’t know if the kids know about the back nine.
SLR: Well, because we were a mid-season show, we did the 13. If you were to get what they call a full schedule, your full season, that would be at the additional nine to 22, which would be a full season. So now we’ve got the half season and now we’ve got a full season, which is so great.
EA: It is. And I’m very excited myself and I think everybody else is too.
SLR: Thank you. It is such a blessing to be on a show where you can meet all kinds of people, all kinds of people, and they look at you and they’re like, I love that show. I love you on that show. Oh, that show is so good. A little girl said to me, “Miss Ralph, I made a deal with my mother that if I did good in school, I could stay up till nine o’clock to see you on TV.” Oh my gosh. It’s just, it’s the best. It’s the best. I love it.
EA: I feel like you could ask 10 different people, what’s your favorite thing that Sheryl Lee Ralph has done, and they would all have a different answer. They’d be like the original Deena, Dee Mitchell, Sister Act 2. I mean, it just would keep going.
SLR: Yeah. I’m telling you. And what I love about that is it makes me generational. You’ve got people in one generation for Dreamgirls. You’ve got people in another generation for Moesha. You’ve got people close to them for Sister Act 2. And then another group of people for Ray Donovan and a new group of people for Abbott Elementary. It is absolutely crazy, but I’m so, so thankful. I’m so thankful. And Everybody says, well, it should have been this. It should have been that. No, it should have been exactly what it is, which is right now. Yeah.
EA: I love that. Things do happen and unfold in a way, so that now, is what it is.
SLR: That’s it.
SLR: This is the perfect time because in some way, I think people needed this show. People needed a show that could give them a place to, in some ways, see themselves in the everyman sort of characters that they see in the show that help them understand somebody else’s journey, help them learn about something they didn’t quite know about before. And that’s an awful lot to getting in 21, 22 minutes of a show [Ralph leans in] every Wednesday night at nine o’clock on ABC starting on September 21st. Yes.
EA: Right. That is right. And I think too, teachers are very literally and figuratively, under fire right now. So, to have some kind of positive representation for them, as well as for students to see is a great thing.
SLR: It’s a great thing. And I’ve been doing a lot of speaking engagements talking to, different teachers and educators’ unions, and who the heck knew there were so many of them? I mean, they’re millions. I always say, if half of you watch the show, we will be a big hit for years to come.
EA: That’s right. That is right.
SLR: And they love the show so much. That’s also another good get. Ugh. It’s great.
EA: It is. You worked with Quinta Brunson on A Black Lady Sketch Show.
EA: Amazing show. And here you are together again. What has been your close working relationship with her on this and how does it differ and is similar to Janine and Barbara?
SLR: You know something? There are so many great qualities about Janine and Barbara, Sheryl Lee and Quinta. And they all make me feel very good. It is so easy for people not to know about somebody and their work, not to know where they’ve been, not to know what they’ve done and to have a young person know exactly who you are, exactly what you’ve done, write a show that is perfect for you and fight hard enough to make sure that they get you. I don’t think it gets much better than that. I really don’t think it does. And we work well together. That has been wonderful. There’s just so much to be thankful for. Plus, they’ve also sainted me. I mean, I know you’ve not using the video, but look at this, [Ralph holds up a candle with her image on the front] it’s a prayer candle for Saint Barbara.
EA: That’s incredible.
SLR: Oh yeah. I mean, I get to be the queen and the saint on the show. So, I’m happy. I’m happy.
EA: And deserved.
SLR: That too.
EA: The mockumentary style of the show is different in that so many of the comedic beats come from, breaking the fourth wall, and looking right to the camera. Was that challenging compared to other comedies that you’ve done?
SLR: Believe me when I say, this industry, we’re doing a one camera sitcom, but not really because it’s a one camera documentary film, short film every week. And there’s one style of acting for a sitcom that is totally different from what we’re doing with this style of show. So I find myself sometimes saying, oh no, remember. Remember what we’re doing, remember what this is because okay. Something as simple as a cue. If you’re doing a four-camera show, when you deliver your line, you’ll pause before you say your line and you’re pausing to give the camera time enough to turn or move to find you, so you get your whole line and on this, we still have all the cameras, but it’s the fact that they’re always working and they’re all seeing.
So, we really have to just deliver lines, like we’re making a film or we’re on stage. It’s nonstop. But every now and then, I find myself with that pause for the camera. So yeah, it’s ramping up for a new way to do your art and to always be aware, okay, what are we doing?
EA: Yeah. And speaking of lines and knowing that you improvise the “Sweet baby Jesus and the grown one too” line gives me endless joy because it’s one of the most quotable lines of the season.
SLR: Thank you. It’s so wonderful that first of all, like we said, it’s great when you have shows that people remember you by, but to have lines that people remember you by. Whenever I’m talking about Dream Girls, somebody will always say wonderful, what can I say but wonderful? And then when we talk about Sister Act 2, they’re singing “does not put food on the table,” singing they’ll go through the lines. And now when they see me, they’re like, ‘Sweet baby Jesus and the grown one, too.’ I’m like, wow, this is really great. This is good.
EA: When you just started singing there in preparation for this, I was looking into your history and then my own knowledge of your history and remembered your cover of “Here Comes The Rain Again” and it’s happening. And I listened to those all day yesterday. I put them on my playlist. And I was just like, I remember these, and I need these right now.
SLR: Oh, thank you. I was talking with a young producer, record producer the other day and he was like, oh my God. He was like, “That “In the Evening,” that was really a great song.” He says, “I think you are ahead of your time because now with Beyoncé and “Break My Soul,” I think you need to redo this song again now is the time.” And I was just like, wow, who knew? I feel like, I don’t know whether I’m a Renaissance woman. I don’t know whether it’s a resurgence. I don’t know, it’s just the confluence, everything’s just coming together at this time. I don’t know. But it’s all good. It’s all very good.
EA: I think it’s because art is cyclical all the time.
SLR: If you’re fortunate.
EA: Yes. Yes, of course.
SLR: If you’re fortunate. Yeah.
EA: Anyway, go stream “In The Evening,” everyone. I’m just saying, put that on your playlist, it’s amazing.
SLR: Thank you. Thank you. You can get it anywhere music is now just put in Sheryl Lee Ralph and all the Broadway stuff. And then “In The Evening” will come up.
EA: Your Emmy submission is the episode “New Tech,” where Barbara has to use a tablet, AKA “the latest doohickey” for lesson tutorials. It is a great episode in that, it plays with some classic comedic ideas of older generation and tech, but it has such great heart. And it’s really Barbara’s first vulnerable moment of the season.
SLR: Yeah. And when I got that episode, I just leaned into the fact that kids grow up with certain technology and they know how to do it, but they wouldn’t know what a record player is. They wouldn’t even know what a Walkman is. And I just said to myself, you know what? Be patient with yourself and try and get this thinking for the character. And try and get it. And she was so defeated when she felt like a fool. She could not get this. Thank God, at the end of the episode, you find out that it wasn’t her. It was actually the application itself, but it was just the fact that she also did some things that she would never do. And she told a lie and that was… I just was like, oh my God, what it had to take for her to just do all of that and the heart, I made a mistake. I didn’t get it. And anyway, let’s move on.
SLR: Yeah. I loved it.
EA: Yeah, I did too. I think it’s the part of the journey that Barbara takes through the season of letting down some of those shields and guards and letting herself be seen a little more.
SLR: Because sometimes I think that Barbara is… she’s not… The only people that she really cares about seeing her are her students. That’s it. And her students will never, ever forget her. She might forget them, but they’ll never forget Ms. Howard. I think we’re very fortunate if we get a teacher like that.
EA: Did you either have a teacher or bring some of your own personal school experiences to Barbara?
SLR: I would have to say, first of all, I’m surrounded by educators, teachers, my whole life. But my dad was an exemplary educator, and my dad was always encouraging me to be a life learner and then never stop learning as you live your life. And that, oh my God, books and life and traveling and the people that you meet and the stories that you’ll be able to tell, all of that was important to him as an educator. Making sure that his students knew that they were seen and to see them go on and make their dreams come true. I remember he had some students, he started out as a music teacher and ended up a professor, college professor, but music was always in my father’s life.
And he had some students that wanted to play Carnegie Hall, but just thought they would never, ever get to Carnegie Hall. And my dad said, “oh, you’re going to Carnegie Hall.” And they prepared their concerts. He rented out, they have studios there, where you can rent the hall and they got to play Carnegie Hall. And I was just like, now, if that’s not a magical teacher, I just don’t know what is. So, I’m always fascinated by my dad’s commitment to his students.
EA: That’s really beautiful.
SLR: And all true.
EA: One of the things that’s wonderful about Barbara as a character is that she gets to interact and have even side stories with so many of the other teachers. And I keep coming back to, you are an LGBTQ+ community icon. And Barbara has that kinship with Jacob who comes out in the most nonchalant of ways on the show. But you have-
SLR: Don’t you love that?
EA: I have to tell you, I loved it so much because as much as I love a great coming out story and that you always kind of need them just to kind of slide in there and do it without doing it.
EA: I loved it.
SLR: I loved that so much. It’s like, yeah. This is who I am. Okay. What are we doing next? I love that.
EA: Your work with Chris Perfetti and the garden project and everything was, yeah. There are so many wonderful metaphors at work and at play with nurturing and gardening and everything that just all come together really well.
SLR: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Yeah. I enjoy working with, Chris is a real professional. He loves what he does. Me, I might come in, my script will be on my phone. So, I’m always on my phone. My phone is always with me. He’s got his stage binder, the one that you get when you’ve done that certain play and they emboss your name in it in leather, and you slipped your whole script in there and he’ll be there with his script. And I’m just like, I love this guy. Oh my God. I just love this actor.
EA: Well, you’re from the stage. I imagine that just speaks to you really well.
SLR: Yeah, it does. I appreciate it. I appreciate his process.
EA: Barbara’s at a bit of a crossroads at the end of season one and at her most vulnerable, probably in the whole season. I know you’re in the middle of production, but what do you want for her in the new school year?
SLR: Honest to God, that is really hard for me to say, because I’ve been asked a question about being seen. I did not expect at all to be in the position that I’m in now, with the whole Emmy nomination and all of that. I was not expecting that. So, I’m not going to say what I would like to see for the character because Quinta had this all together in her mind and she made it happen in my mind. I’m just going to continue to say whatever it is she is thinking for Barbara, I’m sure that will be the right path for Barbara. And I’m just going to keep going down on that path. I really… What else could I add to it? Because anything else for me right now is going to be that cherry on top of a fabulous ice cream sundae.
EA: Yes. I can’t believe I didn’t write at the top, congratulate you on your Emmy nomination. And here we are.
SLR: Thank you.
EA: And happy anniversary too.
SLR: Thank you. I had a great time with my anniversary with my husband. It was so funny. Everything just came in together and for our anniversary, he gave me this bag and on it, it said nomination and inside, there was a beautiful bracelet that he had gotten for me, but he had picked it up in May when we were in Italy, and he kept it. When he gave it to me, he said, “I knew I was going to be giving this to you. I knew it.” I was just like, I’m so happy he knew it because I didn’t know it. I did not know it, but I’m glad everybody else around me knew it.
EA: Yes, definitely. I’m not sure if you remember a few months ago we met at the Hotel Roosevelt.
SLR: On the rooftop.
EA: Yeah. After the panel and you and I and Lisa Ann were sitting down and we were talking about everything; awards, clothes, the state of the world and you both made such a point of going over to stop and talk to the fans that were right outside the area, kind of looking in. I loved that moment. And what has your fan base meant to you in the past and now, with the newfound attention?
SLR: I am so thankful that people are so happy and watching the show. The fact that they have stuck with me for their generation or four generations or four years, although there was another child who looked at me and said, “Miss Ralph, I have been watching you my whole life.” And I said, “Thank you for those good five years.” I am so thankful that people know me, know my work, love me, appreciate me, vote for me. Do great things like that. Like you remembering me and writing about me. I mean, it’s just like, wow, this is amazing. Oh my God. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m just like, yeah. I’m Sheryl Lee Ralph. Yeah.
EA: It does sort of feel like the golden age of Sheryl Lee Ralph right now.
SLR: Oh my God. And it’s just man, oh man. I think about it. I’m very blessed. I’m very happy. And people say, well, we’ll see what happens on that night. And honest to God, I feel I got the golden ticket. So, whatever happens on that night, I feel like, hey, we all already won. It’s already great. How much more could it be? Because this is pretty doggone great. This is pretty great.
EA: It is.
EA: I think that’s a wonderful place to end and again, thank you so much for giving me just a little bit of time in your really wild schedule.
SLR: Thank you. Thank you very much. And I’m glad we got to sit and have that talk at the Roosevelt.
EA: I’m telling you that was so fun.
SLR: That was so fun. And that was the last event that actually had really good food.
EA: That’s how I lured Lisa Ann over because I had that big plate of food, all the brussels sprouts and the hotdogs. And she was like, “I’m looking for brussels sprouts” and I’m like, “I got you. Come over here.”
SLR: There you go. Come on over, come on. Let’s chat.
EA: It was the best.
SLR: There you go.
EA: I wish you best of luck. I wish you the best of everything.
SLR: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
EA: I’ll talk to you later.
SLR: Take care.
Sheryl Lee Ralph is Emmy-nominated in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for the episode “New Tech” of Abbott Elementary, which is currently available to stream on the ABC app and on Hulu.