Sheryl Lee Ralph has had a storied career in entertainment. From debuting the role of Deena Jones in Dreamgirls to being a scene stealer on Ray Donavan, the actor is only getting busier after four decades in the industry. You can catch her next in ABC’s Abbott Elementary, which premieres Dec. 7 and will pick up again on Jan. 4 2022. Ahead of the show’s premiere, she talks all about the Quinta Brunson-helmed series, the power of educators and her decades-long fight against HIV/AIDS through the Diva Foundation.
How does it feel to be so close to the premiere?
I've got to tell you that from day one, this show has felt good to me. Usually you have to hope and pray that things will work and the people you work with will be good people. I was actually on the set of another show and you know things are going the way they can go sometimes, And I said, “You know what, God,”—because I like to talk to God sometimes in out-loud conversations— “God, this is what would be perfect for me: a comedy with a bit of drama that's got a point of view, that is important with something to say, with people that I would love to go to work to see and leave at the end of the day so that I can wake up wanting to see them again. And if you could, God, just add some children in there.” When the children are in the show, that means you will have some days where you cannot work too late. And a week later, I got the deliverance of the Abbott Elementary pilot and it has just been so good to me.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your character, Barbara Howard? She’s described as the teacher you never forget.
She's the one that might have been tough on you, but it was only because she saw the possibilities in you. She wanted you to rise to the occasion of your own life, even if you were only five or six years old and didn't know what that meant. But you knew that this teacher was there for you. And maybe if you couldn't talk to your mother, you could talk to Mrs. Howard because she would understand. I just loved playing this character. Quinta has given me a great gift because I get to act while being parts of myself, parts of people in my family because I come from a long line of educators. But I also get to play a character that is not Sheryl Lee. When you see me as Mrs. Howard, that's one thing. And then when you see Sheryl Lee, you realize that those are two very different people.
I teach kindergarten/first grade. So fun. Those are some of the great years because the kids in my class are amazing. I literally have a class of students, and they're just so funny. On the first day, one of the little boys came up to me, and he said, “Miss Ralph, I have been watching you my whole life.” And the little girl next to him says “Yes, and I've been watching you since I was a baby.” And I was like, “Oh my God, these kids are just hilarious.” They are already funny.
I saw on Instagram that you said, “We're about to make you love TV again.” Why?
I think what makes the show so great is that we pay attention to something that is so very needed, and that is the education of all of America's children and the teachers that go about the business of loving children to learning every day.
There's just so much that needs to be paid attention to and we do it with laughter. It's so interesting that this show can make you laugh and cry and then be inspired all at the same time. That's a lot, and we need it right about now.
Do you remember great teachers from growing up who had an impact on you?
I was very, very fortunate. My dad was an educator and, through my dad, I met so many teachers. And because my dad was the principal of the neighboring high school, there was always something different about my relationship with teachers and I really always wanted to be the best that I could be. But I had an art teacher who said something to me, and I've never forgotten it, and she said “Sheryl Lee Ralph, your problem in life will be figuring out what you want to do because you are so good at so many things. And make sure you are not a jack of all things and a master of none.” I've never forgotten that. Never forgotten that. Or Mrs. Hunt, who was a phys-ed teacher who was always making me aware of the fact that I had a potential to do something more than just be in life, that I had the potential to make real change in my life, with my life. And I’ve never forgotten that. Oh my gosh. And there was Dr. John Benton Bender. Dr. Benton Bender saw me as a freshman actor at Rutgers University and he told me the career I was going to have. And he said, “I am so happy that Yale rejected you and you have come to Rutgers because you are going to make the difference for us.”
You work in all sectors of entertainment, but since we’re talking most about TV, what do you enjoy about TV?
I just love the fact that there is TV. I’m a TV kid. I'm that child of the ‘60s watching Tinkerbell wave her magic wand around the steeples that I believed at that time were Hollywood, believing that I'm going to Hollywood and I'm going to drive a Mustang. I just love the fact that there was TV on Sunday night that took me into what has become my life. And here I am working with the Disney corporation with ABC and Freeform on both series that I'm doing currently now. I just love TV. I love how TV can inspire. I love the fact that as an actress, I'm playing this teacher who is so unlike me in some ways, but like me. And then on Freeform and Motherland: Fort Salem, I'm playing the 45th president of the United States and in an alternate world, saying some things that are so impactful. It's just such a gift, and I love that TV has the power to inspire, to entertain, to educate, and I get to be a part of all of that right now. It's a great gift. My childhood self is like, “Yeah, you just had to be patient!”
Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day and marked the 40th anniversary of AIDS in America. Given that your organization, the Diva Foundation, supports the fight against HIV and AIDS, what has it been like to witness the impact of this epidemic? And, now four decades on, do you feel optimistic about where we are now?
Not only do I feel optimistic, but I wished people had learned more from the past of AIDS in America so that we could grow quicker into conquering COVID. But we didn't pay attention during the AIDS epidemic because we were just so set on hating some people, a group of people who were marginalized and stigmatized, that we pointed fingers and said, “That's their problem. That's got nothing to do with us.” So we get people to get tested back in the day. They were slow to get tested. And when they did get tested, they didn't come back for their results. It's like people now. We can get them to take the vaccine, but there are a lot of people who have not taken the second vaccine. And because they're slow in doing this, the virus mutates, just like the HIV virus mutated back in the day.
Back in the day, trying to tell people: “Use a condom. It is a known barrier against the transmission of the disease.” Could we get people to use condoms and take condoms seriously? No. Just like we cannot get people now to accept the science behind the known barrier that we know as masks. [Now] they don't want to take the vaccine. If they do not take the vaccine, we're right back to the strains mutating, mutating and mutating because people refuse to accept the gift of a vaccine to protect themselves. So, I say all of that to say, I remember what it was like 40 years ago with that first pandemic. I can compare the two. And yes, I have hope, but people are going to do what they want to do, and very often people bet against themselves. And that is a detriment to us all.
The parallels are so clear.
There are moments where I tell you, I just have to let my feelings out and cry. Because it's so much easier. It doesn't have to be this difficult. There is no reason for us as people to have become our own enemies over the healing of each other.
Every year [with Divas Simply Singing,] I continue to be dedicated to raising awareness and we usually do a live event, bringing singers out, one singer at the time to raise their voice. So now, we're not just focusing on HIV alone, but we're including other life-threatening diseases, including racism and poverty and gun violence because these are all life-threatening diseases, and they need to be paid attention to. And we're focusing on three organizations within the L.A. area and the country that are doing the good, on-the-ground work. Everybody thinks you have to do huge, big things, spend a lot of money. Sometimes you need to just do what you need to do— turn your passion into purpose, turn your pain into purpose, and make a difference. Just make up your mind to be the good thing that the world needs. So we'll be doing that and we'll be centering it around some of the greatest performances we've had in the show over the years, and it'll be live streamed, as well, and we're just going to continue to do the good work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. You can also catch Sheryl Lee Ralph on Freeform’s Motherland: Fort Salem. Her book, Redefining Diva 2.0, is now available on Audible. You can stream the Divas Simply Singing special on its website.
Photography by: Jeremy David