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There’s nowhere else to go but up for multi-hyphenate Sheryl Lee Ralph. During Ralph’s 46-year career, she’s been a trailblazing force. Since her debut in Sidney Poitier’s A Piece of the Action or her lauded turn in Dreamgirls on Broadway in 1981, which landed her a Tony nomination, Ralph’s been making a major impression. These days, she’s back to school on ABC’s mockumentary Abbott Elementary. Her role as the wise and wise-cracking teacher Barbara Howard earned Ralph her first Emmy win, making her the second Black woman to win for Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She discusses the joy of playing Barbara Howard and their personal connection.
DEADLINE: Barbara’s progression between seasons is more dynamic, from protecting Janine [creator Quinta Brunson] from her estranged mother to concealing her stressors from her colleagues. What storyline resonated with you most?
SHERYL LEE RALPH: For me, this season was interesting because I am so well supported by a room of incredible writers. I thought last year the work I was able to do was wonderful. And, of course, being recognized with the Emmy win. But to hear people say, “We thought you were great last year; how has it become greater this year?” I have to say there’s a combination between the writers, the actors, the storylines, and for me, it has been amazing to see all these layers pulled back. In the islands, we do many things intergenerationally, so the fact that I can have this relationship where I’m able to care and help this young woman find her way in life, I love it very much.
Also, I like to connect dots. So, I look back at my first job, a film called A Piece of the Action with Sidney Poitier. I played a young raw child of poverty named Barbara Hanley. And I always say Barbara Howard is a stellar committed teacher because she was Barbara Hanley. And in going through everything she went through via her own character development, she now has the ability to look at Janine and see herself and know, I have got to help this young person be all they can be. Because if Barbara Howard and Barbara Hanley could do it, she could certainly do it to help Janine. I tweeted once: it hurts my feelings when they hurt Janine or when anything happens to Janine because it’s like, I just want Janine to thrive. And that’s why I need her to get into therapy before she takes this relationship with Gregory further.
DEADLINE: What are your thoughts on the Gregory-Janine season finale? Do you want them to get together?
RALPH: I used to. But when all of it started to add up, and then that near kiss during that winter episode? My god, that was so beautifully written and directed. I know I’m in the show, but watching it, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this [would make] such a great movie.’ And the love between them? I just wanted to shout, ‘Yes, man, go on and kiss the girl.’ But that is not what happened. It didn’t work out that way. I honestly feel that these are two young people who definitely need therapy. I don’t know what the writers have planned, but if they were real people, I would say, ‘Look, you two young people, you need some therapy. You’ve got some issues that you need to work out, and that’s what you need to do before you take any of this further.’ Janine has mommy issues, and Gregory’s got daddy issues. Lord have mercy [laughs].
DEADLINE: Going back to Sidney Poitier, you’re very forthcoming about rewatching your past work online. Not a lot of actors are comfortable doing that. Why
RALPH: You know something? I really don’t want to watch my old work. But it’s gotten to the point now, like the other night, I was sitting down flipping through channels, and it was like, ‘Oh, there I am. It’s Sister Act 2. Let me watch it.’ And then it’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I really love this movie.’ I love the relationship between Lauryn Hill’s character and my character. The mother was such a dream killer. And there’s so much about that in my book [DIVA 2.0: 12 Life Lessons From Me For You!]; don’t let somebody else’s lies or negativity become your truth. Don’t carry that with you. Know that a ‘no’ today can be a ‘yes’ tomorrow, and you’ve got to live your own dreams. So I think part of what I truly love sometimes about watching the work is, when I happen to see A Piece of the Action on TV, I’m just like, ‘Wow, my god, who would know that all these years later, I would still be doing the work that I love as an artist, as an actor, and that I would have grown so much as a performer.’
DEADLINE: What has your life been like since winning your first Emmy? And do you have a contingency plan in place for the possibility of winning a second one?
RALPH: Don’t put a Kinehora [jinx] on it! [Laughs] Everybody keeps asking me, ‘What are you going to do next?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God’ people, first of all, I was so frightened by the first one, I was speechless. I was shocked. I could not believe that it was happening to me. If it happened twice in a row… I’d probably stand there looking like a fool. I don’t know if anybody is experiencing what I’m experiencing because it’s amazing. Once, I got off of a plane and walked through a crowd of people also getting off of a plane [internationally], and these people, in all the ways they could, were putting their words together to stop and talk to me about my role on Abbott Elementary. I was like, what in the world is this?
Recently, I was in the teacher appreciation room event with Becky Pringle, the president of The National Education Association in D.C. And just the way that teachers expressed what they felt about the character, what they felt about the show, it’s like getting caught in my throat, the things that they say to me, the way they express their feelings to me talking about their teacher, and then telling me about their Barbara Howard.
I’m like, my God, all of this and an Emmy too? I’m just the blessed one. God has been good to me by being able to let me be here at this point in my career to experience this. To have other younger actresses come up to me and say, “I see what it means, Ms. Ralph. I get it.” The whole Zendaya of it all or to the actresses in P-Valley, White Lotus, it’s just like, whoa, what in the world? At the beginning of last season, I would say that we are the number one television show in the world, and the more I travel, I realize we are the number one TV show in the world. People are watching, and they love it. And it doesn’t get much better than this. And I’m so happy and blessed to be a part of it, I really am.
DEADLINE: You’ve had such a storied career and are certainly reaping the rewards of that in this era, and you still have so much more left to do. But what do you want your legacy to be?
RALPH: I think that legacy for me is so many things. My children — I have two children — and I wrote in my book, “I know that when I leave the world, I will leave at least two people who will be able to carry on in my name, to speak my name, the memory.” Working with my daughter, who’s given me a renaissance in my whole look and what it is I present to the world on these different red carpets. And my son has helped me craft my message of inspiration through my social media and all of that. And what he has been able to do to develop his own nonprofit, working with the family around health and wellbeing, being able to carry on and raise up the conversation around education, and educating all of America’s children with my husband, Sen. Vincent Hughes, out of Philadelphia. All of that is legacy to me.
Now, when we start talking about what I want to do and lead in show business, I would like to continue to encourage young artists to find their voices and put it where it belongs. I made certain choices in my acting career not to play certain roles because I wanted young talent behind me to realize that just because this is being offered to you, it is not who and what you need to put your stamp on. You can sit down and write, create and develop other layers of people of color. [Roles] for Black people during my time was just a ‘whore’, ‘a drug-addicted woman’, or ‘a big mama’ on the couch. That wasn’t for me. I wanted to be a different image. And after all of these years, the choices that I made in doing that, I’ve heard from the young artists that said, “I get it. I see it. I’m writing, I’m creating.” Which is why the whole relationship with Quinta is important for me, because, as an artist, when the next generation extends a hand and says, ‘I see you, I get it, auntie-mother, take this walk with me,’ that speaks volumes. To me, that’s legacy. That says that every choice I made was worth it, because here she is now, with an ability to actually take flight to higher heights because I know of those who came before me and just dreamed about this moment.
My God, I know the journey, I know the road. I know what it took and how for many, it was backbreaking; it was spirit-breaking for some of them. But guess what? I’m here. I see it. And I can say their names, I can talk about their journeys, and I can say to my next generation, my children, my nieces and nephews: fly, soar, your crown’s been paid for, so put it on. Take your wings and fly because that’s what we all put the work in for, for you to fly. So that’s legacy to me.
Now, if I get to make some great movies, I get to produce and take showbiz to different parts of the world and see us grow in places where they say we can’t grow… They still want to hang on to the idea that we can’t have too many people of color because they won’t buy it in other parts of the world. I say, children break these barriers because there are dark people on every continent, and they want to be seen too.