The morning Sheryl Lee Ralph learned she had received her second straight Emmy nomination for supporting actress in a comedy series for ABC’s Abbott Elementary, she spoke on the phone with her co-stars — well, her co-stars over the age of 40. The rest she texted with. “All the young ones, they don’t get on a phone, they don’t hear voices,” she says. “They text and they use emojis and signs and things.” She adds: “I miss the phone.”
At last year’s Emmys, Ralph won for her portrayal of veteran schoolteacher Barbara Howard in the Quinta Brunson-created sitcom, but she has not grown jaded in the slightest since, saying she felt overwhelmed upon hearing about her nod. It’s an overwhelming time in general. Ralph is on the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee (along with Abbott co-star Lisa Ann Walter) and spoke with THR just days before her union went on strike. She talked through her season two journey as Barbara and explained that one of the show’s viral bits was based on her own flub.
How do you feel about your second Emmy nomination for Abbott?
I feel like I’ve been hit with a bag of emotions, and most of them are so wonderful. You know how in the cartoons they get hit with a balloon, and all the hearts and flowers pour out? I feel like that animated character. I’m so happy, but I’m shocked at the same time. For me, this does not get old. This will never get old.
How do you think you grew with Barbara Howard now that you’ve played her for two seasons?
When I got this role, she was such a subtle character that I didn’t know if anybody would see my work. I literally thought that I was going to show up to work and just be there. So this year, with people paying attention to my actual work — the way we do things subtly, the way we get to take those words and deliver them in a way that has an impact on people — those are usually the things that people don’t find engaging. They usually want to be hit with the line. So to be given a role that people have connected with on a human, emotional level, it hardly happens. I started reacting out of my fear of not thinking I would be seen, and [director and EP] Randall Einhorn looked at me and he said, “Sheryl Lee Ralph …” And I love it when he calls me by all of my names. He said, “You can do anything. Do nothing with this character. Just tell her story. Because when she speaks, she speaks to all of us.” And I was like, “Oh my God. What?”
I always tell actors, sometimes you have to listen to a director and maybe rethink what you thought, because he made me go right back to my skill — just act, just be. And it has made all the difference for me in this character. And then for them to show the cracks in what seems like a perfect personality, to see that she struggles like everybody else, no matter how perfect she seems to make it … Oh my God, these are great gifts. I mean, Quinta and our writers have changed my life. They’ve changed my artistic life.
What was it like showing her vulnerabilities this season?
I didn’t want to be a joke, I didn’t want to be embarrassed. But when I basically just showed what this woman is dealing with — her husband’s possible prostate cancer; the fact that she’s dealing with her sleep apnea and she doesn’t want anybody to see her not at her best; the fact that she felt that she didn’t have anything to give young people because she did it on her own but then realizing, “My God, I have so much to share with them, and if I don’t share, then they won’t know.” Those are wonderful little lessons that carry us through life, and I get to play that.
The trait of Barbara misidentifying Black and white celebrities went viral online. Did you have fun with that?
The fact that that was based upon something very true just makes me laugh every time I see the episode. I’m the only person that thought Orlando Bloom was a Black football player. I’m the only person that thought that — oh my God, what’s his name? The creator of Sex and the City.
I’m the only person in the world that thought that Darren Star was a young Black creative. I mean, when you hear those names, do you not see Black people? (Laughs.) We were talking about that one day, and Quinta said, “No, Ms. Ralph.” Now that was when she [still] called me “Ms. Ralph.” She said, “No, Ms. Ralph. Seriously. Orlando Bloom?” I said, “Now, you know that’s a football player. I know who Orlando Bloom is.” And she rolled out in the most delicious laughter until I was made out to be a fool. Then I go to work, and there it is — a whole episode. But it comes out of truth.
What was it like doing the episode where we meet Janine’s mother, played by Taraji P. Henson, who also got a nom this morning?
That’s just a beautiful setup there. I love it and I’m happy for her. When I tell you the character Mrs. Howard sees herself in Janine? Barbara saw her own mother come to the college campus. Now, this is me creating backstory: [Her mother] came to the college campus to tell Barbara what she couldn’t do. When [Barbara tells Janine], “She will sacrifice herself for you,” I know that because I would’ve sacrificed myself for my family. It fills my heart.
I know I pick out the weirdest moments, but at the end when Barbara picks up her bag and [tells Janine], “Girl, now listen, when you take this trip, you can’t go alone. You got to have this. In fact, let’s just go to the Ross [department store]. Let’s just go.” It just made me so happy. It’s the same moment at the end of season one, where [Janine] and Barbara walk out and I say, “Let’s go have dinner.” Oh my God. It just fills me up emotionally. Those are the things that a lot of our audience holds on to, little ways that their emotions are met by the small kindnesses we can give each other, just by being seen, just by being heard, just by acknowledging other people on their journey.
Did you have a favorite moment to play with Barbara this season?
When I’m on the set as Barbara, I love Janine. As character to character, I want to see her succeed. Because as quiet as it’s kept, I see myself in Janine. And she has some moments of growth that just fill my heart, and when I see her succeed, I’m so happy. But I think that’s also the mother in me. I’m like that with my own kids. When I see them succeed, I’m like, “Damn, I’m good. Yes. I’m good.”
Last year when you won the Emmy for supporting actress, you sang an incredible song, “Endangered Species.” Do you think if you win again, you might be possessed to sing another song?
Listen, I have to tell you, when I sang onstage, I sang because I had to center myself, because I was so lost in emotion and I didn’t want to stand onstage and be a blubbering idiot like I am this morning. And so I went to the thing that I knew, that I knew that was mine, and that was my song. That song was written by a friend of mine, Dianne Reeves. I had been singing it for so long — at least 10 years. I got on that stage, and it said everything about who I am. As a woman, as a Black woman, I’m an endangered species, but I don’t sing any victim song.
I know how hard and difficult this journey is because [on] my first film [1977’s A Piece of the Action], Sidney Poitier schooled me and told me. He told me how hard it would be. He told me it wasn’t going to be easy. He told me the industry didn’t have a place for me and I deserved it, but he said, “It’s your dream and you won’t let it go because I see great things for you, Sheryl Lee Ralph.” He said that to me. I’m a woman, and I know it’s hard for women in this industry, but I know where my voice belongs.
What does it mean to share this complicated moment, with both the nominations and the strike, with all of your castmates?
I remain thankful. I remain grateful. And I believe that going through things like this, you have a deeper understanding of what it is we do — not just as stars, not just as celebrities, but as human beings. And sometimes, like I say, you’ve got to use your platform the way you want to use your platform. I use my platform the way you’ve seen me use it my whole career. I’m just being who I am. And others will come to discover exactly who they are in this. I will know at 999 years when I finally decide, “Maybe I’ll retire,” I will have done something. That’s it. That’s all.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.