Abbott Elementary's Sheryl Lee Ralph: How Quinta Swayed Me to Play Barbara
Sweet baby Jesus! Sheryl Lee Ralph has received critical acclaim for her portrayal of Barbara Howard on ABC’s Abbott Elementary — but that wasn’t always the role she wanted to play.
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“When I first read the script, I wanted to play [the principal], Ava,” Ralph, 66, exclusively revealed to Us Weekly at the 2023 PaleyFest red carpet on Saturday, April 1. “And [series creator] Quinta [Brunson] was just, like, ‘Absolutely not! We need a queen for Barbara and that is you.’ So I was like, ‘Well, alrighty then. Thank you.’”
Ralph eventually realized that Barbara was a perfect fit — while Ava Coleman belonged to Janelle James — and the Connecticut native went on to win her first Primetime Emmy in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series category in September 2022. Four months later, she took home the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
Now, the Moesha alum — who has spent more than 40 years working in Hollywood — is shining in the role, and gushed to Us about everything that makes her character such an essential part of the Abbott Elementary family.
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“I think it’s really the fact that Barbara is committed to human beings. Her love of her job, the love of the students that are entrusted in her care, every year,” she explained, joking that the elementary school teacher is “the kind of person that would agree to disagree, but trust me, in the end you’re going to agree with her.”
She added: “I just love that about her. She’s a wonderful human being.”
The most seasoned and longest-working teacher at Abbott, Barbara is revered by the other teachers as a mentor and inspiration. Ralph, for her part, portrays the character as someone who commands respect — and puts the education of her students before anything else.
“I love the way — even though it’s difficult — she looks out for the younger ones,” Ralph told Us on Saturday. “That’s so important. I cannot tell people enough, you have got to pay more attention to young people. How in the world are they going to learn?”
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The Sister Act 2 actress isn’t the only one who has skyrocketed to stardom following Abbott Elementary’s success. The ABC sitcom — which features stories about teachers in a Philadelphia public school — has become critically acclaimed in its own right, winning multiple Emmys, SAG Awards, Golden Globes and more since it premiered in December 2021.
Tyler James Williams earned his own Golden Globe win for his portrayal of Gregory Eddie earlier this year, while Brunson, 33 — who created the series, serves as showrunner and stars as second-grade teacher Janine Teagues — has also garnered her own Emmys, SAG Awards and Golden Globes for her work on the hit comedy.
“If [Quinta’s] not doing the scene with us, she’s in between set looking at guest stars or looking at wardrobe for episode 3 or looking at set design and just working, working, work and then goes back to the writer’s room while we finish shooting,” Lisa Ann Walter, who plays second-grade teacher Melissa Schemmmenti on the show, said during Abbott’s PaleyFest panel on Saturday. “She’s the best boss I’ve ever had.”
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Ralph, meanwhile, knew that Brunson had created an instant hit.
“When we were shooting the pilot, Tyler and I had a moment where we looked at each other and he literally said, ‘You feel it, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, I feel it. Something is going on here. Something is happening,’” she recalled to Us last month. “Going into the first season — the first 18 episodes — we were not shocked at all. We knew we were doing something very special.”
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