Abbott Elementary Star Sheryl Lee Ralph Carved Her Own Hollywood Path : NPR


Sheryl Lee Ralph stars as kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard in the ABC/Hulu comedy series Primary Abbott.

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Abbott Elementary Star Sheryl Lee Ralph Carved Her Own Hollywood Path : NPR

Sheryl Lee Ralph stars as kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard in the ABC/Hulu comedy series Primary Abbott.

Matt Sayles/ABC

Veteran actress Sheryl Lee Ralph has been nominated for an Emmy for her role as a tough but loving kindergarten teacher in the comedy series Primary Abbott. With just a glance, Ms. Howard can get an unruly class to sit quietly or line up in single file – and Ralph is no slouch when it comes to class management either.

“It’s about letting [kids] know that the limits are there for a reason,” Ralph says. just talk to them that way and we talk to each other and my set is always ready to go.”

Ralph got his first big break in Sidney Poitier’s 1977 film A piece of the action, and an even bigger break came in 1981 when she starred in the hit Broadway musical dream girls. After the success of dream girlsRalph moved to Los Angeles but found there were few roles available for black actors.

She recalled a casting director in the studio telling her, “‘Everyone knows you’re a beautiful, talented black girl, but what do I do with a beautiful, talented black girl? I’m putting you in a movie with Tom Cruise? Is he kissing you? Who’s going to see this movie?'”

But Ralph kept pushing for a place in Hollywood. She won an Independent Spirit Award for her performance in the 1990 film Sleep with anger, and, from 1996 to 2001, played Brandy’s stepmother on the popular sitcom Moesha. And then there’s his current Emmy nomination for Abbott.

“Whether I get this trophy in my hand or not, I already feel like a winner,” she says. “The love that was shown to me, showered on me, the flowers that were given to me, literally and figuratively. I feel like a winner. And forever after that, I’ll always be a Tony nominee, Emmy nominee. Lee Ralph. Oh my God! I feel so good and so happy and so excited.”

Interview Highlights

On almost giving up playing

About 15 years ago, things weren’t going the way I thought. …And then I had a run-in with a casting director who was dropping off her daughter at the same school as my daughter. And she said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, actually, I don’t do too much.” And she basically stopped dead in her tracks and said, “It must be because you must not be trying too hard or you’ve forgotten who you are.” And I was like, “Wow. What a perfect moment.” And it really took that moment to re-examine my career, re-examine who was representing me and go out and get better representation, which I did with my current manager, Lisa Wright. And what she was able to do, with the trajectory she was able to put me on, is exactly where I am, exactly where she told me I deserved to be.

On what she learned on the set of Sidney Poitier’s 1977 film, A piece of the actionhis first big break

I learned a lot. … But when he left that set, he gave me this little makeup box that had everything in it so that I could continue to learn how to do my makeup and all the things that we might need as young actors of color. Because he said, “They’re not ready for you. They’re not ready for you. So you’re going to have to be ready yourself.” That’s why I always said “I stay ready” – because he really, really taught me that I had to stay ready because they weren’t going to do the job for me.

On her love of ’60s black girl groups

How could I not like a good girl group? And they kept coming at me. I loved The Supremes. I loved The 5th Dimension. I loved Les Trois Degrés. Oh my God! All the different shades and beauties of black women. Just singing and a voice that I could represent and recognize – and I loved that. I loved their clothes. I loved their hair. I loved everything about them!

On the development of anorexia during dream girls broadway run

Abbott Elementary Star Sheryl Lee Ralph Carved Her Own Hollywood Path : NPR

Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine appeared in the Broadway production dream girls, which debuted in 1981.

Martha Swope/New York Public Library


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Abbott Elementary Star Sheryl Lee Ralph Carved Her Own Hollywood Path : NPR

Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine appeared in the Broadway production dream girls, which debuted in 1981.

Martha Swope/New York Public Library

I think it was the fact that I started to feel like I was invisible. I started to feel like I hadn’t really been seen. As an actor, you create a character in your own right. And then there are people who want to say, “Well, you can’t sing.” And it’s like, it’s not that I can’t sing, it’s that my character isn’t supposed to sing with the same kind of pain and feeling and power that Effie does! …I’m more pop. I’m more the cheerleader with the velvet hammer: “Let’s be beautiful. Let’s put on our dresses. Let’s go out there and entertain the people. None of our pain needs to be shared with our audience. it’s up to us to be fabulous.” and beautiful,” which in some ways is also Sheryl. My pain is not for the public. My pain is for me. And I think what happens when you develop things like anorexia, which we didn’t know nothing at that time, it’s because you feel out of control. You feel like you can’t control it and what’s going on around you, but you can control yourself. And what I could control, it was my body and what I ate – and therefore I didn’t eat.

On the impact of losing so many friends in the theater community to AIDS

It was truly a shock to my humanity. It was a shock to the little church girl in me that people could suffer, people could die, and human beings find it easy not to care, not to love. You would have families throwing their dying children on the steps of the church stairs as if they were bags of used clothes for a jumble sale – and that was OK. The great evangelists and Christians were okay with going on TV and saying the most horrible things about human beings, just because. And for me, it was an assault on my humanity. And that’s why I got involved by just daring to care. And I was shocked to be literally challenged to take care of other human beings.

On his son who survived the shooting in Philadelphia

My son graduated from Drexel and [went to] one of those pre-grad parties, too much booze, ended in the wrong neighborhood. And someone used it for shooting practice. Shot him three times. …And one day I was talking with Trayvon Martin’s mother and we were talking about gun violence. And she looked at me and she said, “I wish my son was still alive.” And I was so sad at that time because you can’t help but get scarred by those things. But I look at my son every day and I know what a miracle is because my son is alive. And by the grace of God, that bullet, he’s got a scar on his forehead, but he’s still got his leg and he’s alive.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Ciera Crawford adapted it for the web.


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