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Interview: Sheryl Lee Ralph Gives Sound Advice To Young Black Actors In Hollywood

The Emmy-award winner and her co-star Lisa Ann Walter also give insight on how Quinta Brunson pushed to highlight teacher friendships on ‘Abbott Elementary.’

Sheryl Lee Ralph has given the world four decades' worth of onscreen memories from being our original Deena Jones in the Broadway production of Dreamgirls, Dee Mitchell in Moesha, and even playing Lauryn Hill’s mother Florence Watson in the classic Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.

While the world is finally learning who this superstar is, we’ve known how much of an impactful actor Ralph has been from the very beginning. Ralph has received worldwide appraisal for her current role as Barbara Howard in the Emmy Award-winning series Abbott Elementary.

When creating the show, series creator Quinta Brunson pitched Ralph to participate and even promised to win her an Emmy if she decided to join the series. After years of proving herself in Hollywood and showing fans on Tuesday nights how brilliant she is, with the 65-year-old earning her first Emmy for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series”.

The Moesha alum gave a powerful speech at the ceremony, belting lyrics from the famous "Endangered Species" song by Dianne Reeves.

"To anyone who has ever—ever—had a dream, and thought your dream wasn't, wouldn't, couldn't come true," she expressed,

"I am here to tell you this is what believing looks like. This is what striving looks like. And don't you ever, ever give up on you!”

Looks like all she had to do was dream.

BET.com chatted with the Emmy Award-winner and co-star Lisa Ann Walter about the second series, how their characters Barbara and Melissa serve as a voice for an underrepresented community on television, and Ralph giving her “Divas” a piece of life advice that will go a long way.

BET.com: Barbara and Melissa are a dynamic duo in the series. How will their relationship grow this season?

Walter: It’s so lovely of you to ask Ty — one of the things teachers and our audience responds to is oftentimes on television, there’s a woman of a certain age who comes in and lays down the truth to the youth, do a funny scene here and there and leave. She usually doesn’t have a friend or counterpart like the Golden Girls. Think about the last time you saw a pair of women be besties and share screen time. This was a purposeful decision from Quinta Brunson to show the truth about female friendships who aren’t in their 20s or 30s who have a strong lifetime bond, especially within the teacher community.

Ralph: There’s more to come, and it lies in the mind of Quinta. Barbara is based on Quinta’s mother, who was Ms. Howard and she had an excellent friend like Melissa. I know stories like these are there to be told, and I know they will be good.

BET.com: Growing up in different locations since you were younger can make anyone adaptable. Playing Philly’s toughest teacher Melissa, how much more did you adapt to the role of Melissa from season one to season two?

RELATED: Sheryl Lee Ralph Says She Had Emmys Speech Prepared Since She Was 5 Years Old

Walter: Being from DC and having parents in New York helped me with creating Melissa. I brought my Maryland accent to do the character — physicality is essential when you’re an actor. When I tap into Melissa on set, I begin to sit with my legs more open and my body leaning forward, which is opposite of me. I feel even more comfortable playing the character now, as it’s becoming easier. The one thing that didn’t have to work too much on was the chemistry between Melissa and Barbara, as it was one of the easiest things to do because there was no acting. I genuinely like Sheryl and feel so safe with her.

BET.com: Barbara wasn’t the most tech-savvy we saw in season one, but it seems like Sheryl can teach her a thing or two, especially on Twitter. What’s one thing you would teach Barbara on how to navigate the Twitter space?

Ralph: Be true to who you are Ms. Barbara Howard. Keep it cute because there are many people with nonsense and nothing to add to more significant, deeper conversations. Don’t let anybody drag you, and don’t you drag anybody. Turn it down or shut it off when the fire gets too hot. Also, don’t answer people because not every comment is worth a response.

BET.com: Kids prepare for the first day of school with supplies. What should an actor come with on their first day on set?

Ralph: A sound, clean mind ready to learn, participate, and listen — half of the job as an actor is to listen. Acting is athletic because breathing is essential as an actor, as I incorporate different gym methods to help control. Also, come prepared to work because some people come to play — we want to do our jobs and go home.

BET.com: You always give the “Divas” life advice. Sheryl, give our “Divas” at home one piece of life advice that has helped you?

Ralph: Remember Divas, God can do in 60 seconds what you can’t do in a lifetime. Give God the wheel.

Now that’s how you end a conversation.

Be sure to catch Lisa and Sheryl as Melissa and Barbara on the second season of Abbott Elementary on ABC Wednesdays at 9:00PM ET.


*This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Ty Cole is a New York-based entertainment reporter and writer for BET.com who covers pop culture, music, and lifestyle. Follow his latest musings on Twitter @IamTyCole.

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