Sheryl Lee Ralph explains why she almost left showbiz — and what kept her going
She was the first to play the role of Deena Jones in the original production of Dreamgirls on Broadway; the second Black woman to win an Emmy for supporting actress in a comedy; and most recently, the third to perform “Lift Every Voice And Sing” at the Super Bowl.
So, it’s kind of hard to imagine that about 15 years ago, actor and singer Sheryl Lee Ralph had considered walking away from show business. Opportunities had seemed to dry up. She was focusing on her family life.
But then she tells the story about a chance run-in with a casting director who told her to get back in the game and remember who she is.
“You know, the reason I tell people, you’ve got to believe in yourself, is for that time, I stopped believing in me. I stopped believing in my ability,” she told NPR’s Juana Summers.
Ralph spoke about how she rediscovered her ability, what playing Barbara Howard in Abbott Elementary means to her, and how she thinks about the success that has followed.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On performing at the Super Bowl
Oh, my God. First of all, it’s like being in the Colosseum. This is like being in the middle of this massive gathering of human beings and just them, the 70,000 of them in that one space, there’s almost a deafening din, you know, that sound. And I got up there and sang my song. And I loved the moment. I loved the moment.
On what made her consider stepping away from show business in the early 2000s
You know what, it was so strange. I had gone through a divorce, and I was definitely going through that, and my children, you know — you want to keep your children stable. And for some reason, after [the TV show] Moesha, things just kind of slowed down. And I thought, well, you know, maybe this is where I quit. And, you know, I’ll be that person, the one that used to be. And I had that fateful run-in with the casting director who said, “You’ve obviously forgotten who you are.” And I was, really, I was like, wow. Wow. But the moment I doubled down and started to believe in myself and dreamed bigger dreams for myself and put in the work towards making those things happen, wow, everything is very different, very different.
On how she channels her no-nonsense character of Barbara Howard in Abbott Elementary
OK. I’ll tell you this because this is true. Every time a character and I connect, their voice and demeanor come right off the pages and into me. And sometimes when I look at the screen and I see Barbara Howard, I’m like, look at that woman — because she’s certainly not me. You know, I look at that wig. I look at the sweater sets. Oh, my God. Sometimes my head swirls within the things that she chooses to wear. I mean, Barbara Howard and her comfortable shoes, oh, my God. It’s funny to me. But I love her so much. And you got to give the character the respect that they deserve because they will demand it from you. And she’s a very demanding character.
On the Blackness in the show’s humor, and whether that was something Ralph was searching for before she took the role
You know, something for me, I come from a time when I was first starting out where I was told by a producer, literally, I was fired from the job for not being Black enough. And I could not understand what he meant by that statement. I just wasn’t Black enough. But to now have a young woman in [Abbott Elementary creator] Quinta Brunson look at me and say, “Ms. Ralph, they’re sleeping on your talent, but I’m not,” and I am exactly what they needed just the way I am, just the artist that I am, just the woman that I am — it is all what is needed.
On how she thinks about the recognition she is getting in the later part of her life
I love it. OK. I’m going to tell you this. Do you remember that movie, Titanic? At the beginning of the movie, there is this very old woman telling a story. That woman was an actress. She hung in there, and she got her break at 90 years old. I loved that story. So for me to be here in my 60s, making it — and I mean really making it — I’m like, I don’t know what is going on right now, but thank you, God. I receive it. But I realize it is definitely not just for me. It is for others to know if I can do it, you can do it. I sometimes look at people, and I’m like, “Oh, my God. You have no idea the possibilities of your own life.” I mean, I’ve had to sit with people sometimes and wake them up to who they are, just like that casting director woke me up to who I am. Sometimes you just got to know you are enough. Now, carry on with that. You are enough, yes.
Sheryl Lee Ralph’s new book, “Diva 2.0: 12 Life Lessons From Me To You,” is out March 14.