Sheryl Lee Ralph has been one of the most cited highlights of the breakout first season of Abbott Elementary, collaboratively killing it alongside showrunner and star Quinta Brunson, and supporting standouts Janelle James and Lisa Ann Walter. Heralded for her ability to balance both her character Barbara’s no-nonsense attitude and her brilliant bursts of hilarity that arise when we least expect them (“Sweet baby Jesus and the grown one too!” anyone?), Ralph’s longtime and respected teacher Barbara Howard provides no-nonsense zingers and warm wisdom in equal measure. However, this isn’t her first brush with fame, as Ralph has also been a mainstay in television for decades, earning acclaim in It’s a Living, Moesha, and, most recently, Instant Mom.
But, she is undoubtedly best known for originating the role of Deena Jones in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls – for which she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical – which led to a notable and illustrious career on stage as well. And, if her success with TV and theater wasn’t enough, Ralph has also made an impression in film as well, in movies like Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and To Sleep with Anger, for which she won the Indie Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female. As we – and she – wait to see if Emmy success also awaits this year for Abbott, we talked with Ralph about the staggering success of the show and the best parts of playing Barbara.
Zoë Rose Bryant: The first question I want to ask is about the insane success of the show and how big it’s become. I’ve asked a couple other of the cast members this too, but did you have any idea reading the script or taking part in the production that Abbott would become the phenomenon that it has?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I had every expectation that this was going to be a great show. How great it would become? I don’t think I was ready for that. This has been an amazing journey. I’ve said it before – it’s like capturing the golden ticket. Every actor would like to have this. We got it, and it feels so good.
ZRB: It’s so deserved. It’s such a spectacular show.
SLR: Oh, thank you. People say things like that, and you say to yourself, “Wow, that’s amazing.” It’s amazing for people to feel like that when you’ve got something that you love and it’s actually doing very well, and just have people love it back with you. It’s crazy good.
ZRB: What drew you to the project, and how did you become involved with it?
SLR: I got a call from Quinta, and she said she had a script that she wanted me to read. She said, “Ms. Ralph, I know you’re at that point in your career where people offer you things, and that’s exactly the way it should be. I would really appreciate it though if you would read my script. Then maybe we can talk about it. Then maybe you might want to meet the people involved.” I was like, “Oh my goodness gracious, how does one say no to all of that?” So, it was a little bit of a difference in the casting process for me.
ZRB: That’s so sweet. I love how Quinta really respects what you’ve brought to art over your career so far and gave you that opportunity to join on your own terms.
SLR: Exactly. It was very sweet of her.
ZRB: What was your relationship with Quinta like ahead of time? Did you guys know each other at all personally? Had you seen her in anything?
SLR: Quinta and I worked together on a series called Black Lady Sketch Show. But I also ran into her once on the Radford Lot. I was doing a series called Fam, and my daughter was just like, “Mom, that is Quinta Brunson, and she’s going to be big.” I’ll never forget this. And I said, “Well, she’s mighty tiny for going to be so big.” But my daughter was right. She is tiny and mighty.
ZRB: She does such a good job ideating and leading the show. But I also think one of the greatest strengths is the cast and it’s camaraderie. I’m curious what it was like establishing that chemistry with your co-stars, and if you knew any of them beforehand as well.
SLR: I knew Tyler from before. I had worked with his brother on another series called Instant Mom. So, I knew the family from that. Stan and I worked together on Ray Donovan. Quinta, I had worked with. I had never worked with Lisa, and I hadn’t worked with Chris, but we all just hit it off.
ZRB: That’s so cool, especially because I think you and Lisa have such a good little repartee between the two of you. That’s so impressive that it just came about on set.
SLR: It literally just did.
ZRB: That’s awesome. And for your character Barbara, I’m curious if you were drawing on any experiences with your own mom or other teachers that influenced you kind of like Quinta has with the series when bringing her to life? What goes into creating that character?
SLR: I have been around so many Barbara Howards in my life, so many wives and wonderful women who have stood the test of time, especially in the educational system. They’ve been churchgoers. They’ve been teachers. They’ve been friends. They’ve been family members. But I knew this woman. I knew this character, and I was so happy that she was given to me to give life to. It’s been a great meeting of the minds, Barbara Howard and Sheryl Lee Ralph.
ZRB: I think that really comes across because how she acts and how she speaks feels really “real.” It does feel like she’s a character from the real world, and that you’re taking direct inspiration. It’s great.
SLR: Thank you very much. We didn’t want people to look at caricatures. We didn’t want people to look at it like, “Oh, this is how that character would work.” No, we wanted people to feel these people.
ZRB: Absolutely. Do you have a favorite Barbara line or moment that has stuck with you?
SLR: You know what, there have been a few, but the one that seems to have stuck with everybody is, “Sweet Baby Jesus and the Grown One too.”
ZRB: Yes, yeah. The desking episode, that’s one of my favorites.
SLR: You even know which episode. I love it.
ZRB: Oh, yes. I’ve got all my house and all my friends on this show too. It’s amazing.
SLR: Let me tell you, I went to the mall. It was maybe two or three weeks after the show wasn’t running anymore. I was like, “Why are all these people staring at me? What in the world?” And it’s the popularity of the show. It just changed everything. I was in Italy, and folks came up to me in Italy saying, “We love that show.” I was like, “Oh my God. This is crazy good.”
ZRB: It’s insane how far its reach has really broadened over the course of the show’s run. I think social media is to credit for a lot of that too, because you saw the fandom erupting in real time, and the black community especially rallying around it and really supporting Quinta, and everybody in the cast. It’s really exciting to see something that organic.
SLR: It really is. It’s like bringing new light to sitcoms. It’s like a whole different thing. I’m like, “Wow, this is great.”
ZRB: You’ve had such a long and iconic career, not just in television, but in film, and on the stage too. I’m really curious, do you prefer one certain medium over the other? How do you compare those experiences?
SLR: Listen, whatever I’m doing at the moment, that’s my favorite. So right now, I am crushing on TV. I’m so thankful that ABC, Disney, and Warner Bros. I love TV. Now, maybe on hiatus one of these years, we might be able to go back to Broadway or produce something again on Broadway. That would be nice. Or make a movie! I have a movie coming out in the summertime. I’m like, “Hey, thank you God. Bring it on. Bring on more. Let me continue to do what I do best, and that’s that.”
ZRB: Exactly. That’s so exciting. Speaking of the future, what do you see for the show and for Barbara in season two?
SLR: More. More of everything. More of everything the people love. Just more. I’m so happy with what has happened with the character for me in the show. I don’t need to tell anybody anything because they’ve got their finger on it and they know. So, I’m just going to let them do their thing because they’re going to take good care of me.
Sheryl Lee Ralph is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for Abbott Elementary.
Photo: Scott Everett White/ABC