For Sheryl Lee Ralph, ‘Abbott Elementary’ Has Been A Dream Come True

As the hit ABC comedy wraps its first season, the veteran actor reminisces on this “sweet surprise.”
Sheryl Lee Ralph plays Barbara Howard on "Abbott Elementary."
Sheryl Lee Ralph plays Barbara Howard on "Abbott Elementary."
Gilles Mingasson/ABC

Join us after the “Abbott Elementary” finale tonight at 9:30 p.m. ET to talk with five Black educators about what the show gets right and wrong. Sign up to be notified when the Twitter Spaces begins.

In Hollywood, it’s not often that a veteran actor can find a game-changing role later in her career. And yet, Sheryl Lee Ralph, the original “Dreamgirl,” has found just that in ABC’s popular comedy “Abbott Elementary.”

Created by Quinta Brunson, this mockumentary-style sitcom takes place in a predominantly Black elementary school in Philadelphia and follows a group of teachers — some new and naïve, others wise and weary — as they navigate the realities of being underfunded and having a principal like Ava (Janelle James), who is nothing short of a terror. Ralph plays Barbara Howard, a no-nonsense, God-fearing veteran kindergarten teacher with decades under her belt. Along with fellow teacher Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), her experience keeps the kids on track, and teachers — forever optimist Janine (Quinta Brunson), well-intentioned yet annoying Jacob (Chris Perfetti), and the unenthusiastic substitute Gregory (Tyler James Williams) — from burning out.

But the beauty of the show isn’t solely in that mentor dynamic. Whether admitting her faults, learning how to use a tablet, or shaking down a board member to get a school grant, watching Barbara’s character grow outside of her rigid ways proves that age doesn’t have to be an obstacle to personal and professional growth. It’s no surprise that with its perfect blend of humor and heart, “Abbott” has become a ratings hit, was renewed for a second season, and is sparking well-deserved Emmys chatter. And despite Ralph’s impressive 40-year career, she doesn’t take the show’s success or the opportunity to play Barbara for granted.

“It’s been such an amazing experience,” she said. “I’m just so thankful that I have been able to last like this in my career to enjoy this show at this time. It’s a sweet surprise.”

As the season finale approaches, the Tony-nominated actor talked to HuffPost about what drew her to this role, the evolution of Janine and Barbara’s relationship, and the importance of valuing teachers in real life.

I cannot believe the first season of “Abbott” is over! What can you tell us about the finale?

No spoilers from me, but it will literally take you to the sky!

One of my favorite moments came in “Open House,” when Janine and Barbara finally bond. Why was that necessary for them? It was a long time coming.

Of course! I believe that Barbara sees herself in Janine. She remembers when she was that young, wide-eyed woman, and at that moment, she’s still optimistic, if not a little bit more than Janine is right now. After all, she did everything Janine was doing without technical support. [Laughs]

Speaking of tech support, in one of the funniest episodes this season, “New Tech,” we saw your character really struggling with her tablet. In real life, are you savvier than Barbara?

Most definitely. Just so you know, I did a talk show with Quinta, and she said, “Sheryl is so much better at this than I am.” [Laughs] It’s the truth. I’m a lifelong student, so all you have to do is teach me, or I’ll learn from YouTube, and then I’m going to move ahead with it.

Ralph as Barbara Howard, a no-nonsense, God-fearing veteran kindergarten teacher, on "Abbott Elementary."
Ralph as Barbara Howard, a no-nonsense, God-fearing veteran kindergarten teacher, on "Abbott Elementary."
Temma Hankin/ABC

While “Abbott” plays on the notion of generational rivalries — boomers vs. Gen Xers vs. millennials — your age is not the butt of the joke. Your character and Lisa Ann Walter’s character (Melissa) are treated with respect. Why is that balance important?

I am a mother, and my natural instinct is to try and understand my children and the children after them. These conversations about generational gaps have been going on for years. My father talked about his parents not understanding their dances, their music, and how they wore their hair when they were young. So, none of this is new. My whole thought is to give the generations the respect that is due.

I want to try and understand, and my ability as an elder is easier because I’ve been there before. It’s harder for [younger people] because they don’t know what I know. They don’t know what I’ve seen. They don’t believe me when I say, “If you’re going to go down that road, stop at 100 feet because if you go 110 feet, you will drop in a hole. And I’m sick and tired of coming to pull you out of the hole.” [Laughs] But we don’t know everything, and what I love about “Abbott” is instead of it being the older teachers teaching the younger ones or vice versa, it’s both teaching and learning from one another. We learn together by respecting each other’s journey and trying to work through it.

With live and playback ratings, “Abbott” is giving “Grey’s Anatomy” numbers, along with the show being one of the most tweeted comedies on TV. Looking back, did you ever think the show would be this big?

You know what? It’s interesting because I knew something was going to happen. At the time, I was doing a cable series, and one day, I was standing there freezing in the cold. And I just said, “Dear God, celestial mother, please give me a show that has something strong to say and will not have me in the cold for 10 days. And God, add some kids in there, then I know I get to go home early at least a few times.” [Laughs] The very next week, I got the call from Quinta regarding “Abbott Elementary.” I was like, “Oh Lord, give me a break. I mean, you can’t be answering with such perfection so quickly!”

It was absolutely amazing. Quinta was so purposeful in what she saw for the show. I knew if all I got to do were the pilot with her, I would be doing something very special. I just had no idea it would be this good, all at one time. And people love it! It’s funny because I still have to fly for work, so I’m wearing a mask and people don’t recognize me. But I can hear people around me talking about the show. It’s so crazy and wonderful. I’m just so thankful that I have been able to last like this in my career to enjoy this show at this time. It’s a sweet surprise.

I interviewed Quinta earlier this year, and she told me you were the only one she wanted for this role. How did that influence you to take this role?

Quinta was absolutely not going to let me think of any other role, and I loved Barbara. But I was also drawn to the role of the principal, Ava, to completely break away from how people would see me. Quinta said, “Nope, you are Mrs. Howard. I need a queen to play her and that is you.”

Oh, my God, the way she said it because she absolutely meant it! We needed this character to come correct, to come wise and wonderful. We need her to heal some of the other characters’ bad feelings about teaching at an underfunded school. So, I was ready, and then we got to set. Randall Einhorn, our executive producer who was also [a cinematographer] for most of “The Office,” directed the first five episodes of “Abbott.” He told me, “You come with so much. Now do nothing. Just think about the character. Think about where this comes out of you. That’s all you have to do. Don’t think about adding anything more.”

It took me a minute because I was like, “Wait a minute, I’m not doing anything.” [Laughs]

From left: Chris Perfetti, Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter in "Abbott Elementary."
From left: Chris Perfetti, Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter in "Abbott Elementary."
Bonnie Osborne/ABC

Oh, you and Barbara are doing all the things.

It’s interesting because she never raises her voice — she’s very calm. Any time she opens her mouth, you know she will drop some truth and tell you which way to go. Because she is surrounded by love, that’s what she’s going to give you. It may be hard to take, but she sees the possibilities in you. That’s why she’s such a great character.

Looking over the entire season, “Abbott” is such a tender love letter to teachers. Honestly, it couldn’t have come at a better time, especially during COVID and watching teachers unions demand that we recognize how much they give and how little appreciation they get in return.

Yes! Teachers feel underappreciated because they always have been underappreciated. And it’s because we have underpaid them for so long. They are now standing up and not making it easy for people to ignore them anymore. Listen, we have not paid attention to them the way we should. I come from a family of teachers. My husband, Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, has been talking about the plight of teachers and students in the classroom for years. So, if it will take a show like “Abbott Elementary” for people to zero in and focus on what’s really going on in certain schools in America, then God bless it because it has been needed for years. Now is the time.

Looking back at your career, who were your mentors and what lessons do you still carry with you today?

One of my greatest mentors was an actress by the name of Virginia Capers. She won the Tony [in 1974] for “Raisin” the musical. She was also a well-known TV actress [Hattie “Grandma” Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”] and played Diana Ross’ mother in “Lady Sings the Blues.” She knew me from when I was 19, and would always tell me, “Sheryl, be as kind as you can to as many people as you can for as long as you can, because the same ass you kicked today, you may have to kiss tomorrow.”

That one is so right because I remember when Mara Brock Akil used to bring me coffee as a production assistant on “Moesha” and look where Mara is today. When I look at Quinta, who I met on the set of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and she looked at me, just studying me, and then called me 18 months later to say, “I’ve got a show for you.” So, yes, just be as kind as you can for as long as you can because you just never know. Never, ever know.

Finally,Abbott” was renewed for a second season. How excited are you, and what do you believe the future of the show holds?

It’s far more exciting than you can imagine. This is actually a dream come true. So, here’s to many, many more renewed seasons.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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