The “Abbott Elementary” star is fresh off an Emmy win that was a long time coming.
Credit…Michael Tyrone Delaney for The New York Times
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LOS ANGELES — Sheryl Lee Ralph has a tendency to break into song.
The “Abbott Elementary” star teems with energy, often vacillating between channeling her inner Broadway diva — occasionally belting a sentence to drive home a point — and her inner church girl, emphasizing her words with that sing-songy whooping tone that many Black preachers love to use. It’s as if she’s addressing an invisible 200-person congregation.
And Reverend Ralph had some advice:
“You have to go for it!” she said, punctuating each word. “Imagine if you have a map? Ask yourself: ‘How do I get from Point A to Z?’”
There was a dramatic pause — she seems to love those — before she drove home the point: “You have to know exactly where it is you’re going so you can see your trajectory.”
It was a month before the Emmys, and Ms. Ralph had been nominated for her first major award in 40 years.
Our first interview ended on a cliffhanger, of course, though she was already planning our second conversation, after the Emmys.
“And you know what I’m going to tell you?” she teased.
“I was a winner going into it. And I’m a winner coming out of it,” Ms. Ralph, 65, said. “I got to this place at this time in my life and everything always works out for me. So whether that trophy is in my hand or somebody else’s hand, I am still a winner no matter what. And if I lose, this time, maybe it wasn’t for me, but it will be for me some other time.”
“And if I’m the winner, I’m going to say to you: I told you so. Everything always works out for me.”
Ms. Ralph has a party trick. She can guess your age based on what TV show or movie introduced you to her.
I was introduced to her as Deidra Mitchell on the UPN sitcom “Moesha.”
“So, you’re … 32 to 35,” she said, confidently. (I’m 32.)
Ms. Ralph has been consistently booked — rare for a Black woman in Hollywood — since her 1975 graduation from Rutgers University.
“I’ve felt ever-present,” she said. “It feels good.”
Right after college, at age 19, Ms. Ralph did a tour with the U.S.O., performing alongside Anneka di Lorenzo, that year’s Penthouse Magazine pet of the year. At the end of the tour, Ms. Ralph was flown back to Los Angeles in a military aircraft before a scheduled transfer to a commercial flight for her return to New York City.
“They told me not to get off the plane,” Ms. Ralph said. “But, of course, I took my bag and got off that plane.”
She entered the terminal in Los Angeles, found a phone booth and called her father, who was expecting her across the country.
“Get back on that plane!” he implored her.
Undeterred, she said, “Daddy, do we have any family in L.A.?”
She had no plan, but she had a feeling: She was supposed to be there.
Her father was silent for a long, terrifying moment, she said. When he finally broke the silence, he told her that he’d recently spoken with a distant cousin with whom he hadn’t been in contact for years. Her name was Mabel, and, hours later, Ms. Ralph was standing outside her apartment, waiting for Mabel to throw a key to her building down from a window.
That evening, as she checked her phone message service, she noticed multiple missed messages from Chris Kaiser, her former acting teacher and an associate producer of the Sidney Poitier film “A Piece of the Action.” He wanted her to audition. She was in front of Mr. Poitier at the Warner Brothers Studio lot the next day, and later was offered a part in the movie.
After filming, as she was leaving the set for the last time, Mr. Poitier pulled Ms. Ralph aside to say, “‘You’re so wonderful, you’re so talented. And I’m sorry this industry has no more to offer you.’”
Over a decade later, in an oft-retold tale, she had a similar conversation with Robert De Niro on the set of the 1992 film “Mistress”: “‘You deserve to be seen,’” he says in her retelling. “‘But Hollywood is not looking for you. They’re not looking for the Black girl. So you better climb that mountain and wave that red flag and let them know that you are here.’”
Ms. Ralph recalled these conversations as highlights of her career. “All I needed to hear was that I’m good,” she said. “You think I’m going to be stopped because maybe these people can’t see me? The industry just hadn’t caught up with how good I am.”
The year that Ms. Ralph was nominated for her first award was a blur, she said. In 1981, after four years of acting workshops — and another U.S.O. tour — she found herself starring as Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls,” the Broadway musical that made her a star. She was 24 at the time.
The work environment was, at times, toxic: The show’s producers had pit her against her co-star, Jennifer Holliday. AIDS was just beginning to ravage the theater community, and Ms. Ralph’s first recollection of the 1980s was the volume of death.
She was nominated for the Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a musical, and while she relished the praise, she realized she was wasting away. “One time, during ‘Dreamgirls,’ I realized things were not good for me because I’d look in the mirror and I saw a giant. But I was literally shrinking,” she recalled.
During the production, Ms. Holliday’s weight fluctuations were often the subject of tabloid fodder, but much of the cast felt the pressure to be unrealistically thin. As Ms. Ralph continued to lose weight, producers began to order food to her greenroom, in hopes that she would have at least one meal a day.
Once, she walked out of the stage door and was greeted by her parents waiting in a car. They took her to a treatment center in Neversink, N.Y. She was there for two weeks, with nurses monitoring her food intake and doctors encouraging her to find a “meditation” practice. “I guess we didn’t know much about anorexia then,” Ms. Ralph said. “But I just knew I was so out of control of my life and what was going on around me.”
Now, when she looks back on photos from her first Tony Awards ceremony, “I can see the problem right there on me,” she said.
“Being on Broadway in ‘Dreamgirls’ was almost like a master class in all of the things that were coming, and all of the things we had to expect as Black women in Hollywood,” said Loretta Devine, another co-star in the show. “It was constant giving of yourself without knowing what you were going to receive.”
Ms. Ralph said: “I remember thinking, ‘Hmm, this will not be me again, this will not be me again.’ Everybody else was telling me what to do and how to be and how to act, which is why I’m fiercely in charge of my own life now. Because that broke me.”
Last week, when Ms. Ralph won her first major award, the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy, she broke into song, belting “Endangered Species” by Dianne Reeves. She didn’t have a speech planned. “That was just how I felt,” she said. “I wanted people to know: I’m a woman. I’m an artist. I’m here. I’ve been here. This woman that you are awarding tonight is the woman that I’ve been growing into my entire career.”
She was also excited to talk about her “children”: Issa Rae, Cynthia Erivo, Lena Waithe, Gabrielle Union and, of course, Quinta Brunson — Black women who have, undoubtedly, benefited from the doors that Ms. Ralph’s presence in the industry has opened for them. “It’s been my job to hang in there,” she said. “For them.”
“It’s my job to lay the concrete. Pave it over. Let them have a smoother drive in their cars. You prepare well for your children. You want them to do better than you.”
Ms. Ralph is only the second Black woman — after Jackée Harry — to win the Emmy for supporting comedic actress. Accepting her trophy, she said: “To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream, and thought your dream wouldn’t — couldn’t — come true. I’m here to tell you, this is what believing looks like.”
Ms. Harry said that she didn't want to use the word “‘unsung,’ because that is definitely overused for Black women. But she is what patience looks like. And now, she has such an opportunity to get this younger generation to see what happens when you put the work in.”
When Ms. Ralph first read the script for “Abbott Elementary,” she believed that her character would be “invisible.”
But she trusted Ms. Brunson’s vision. “And for me to be able to have my children send the car back, pick me up and get me the big award? Does it get any better than that?”
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The “Abbott Elementary” star is fresh off an Emmy win that was a long time coming.