This story about Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lisa Ann Walter, Tyler James Williams and “Abbott Elementary” first appeared in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
If Quinta Brunson is the heart of “Abbott Elementary,” the Emmy-winning ABC comedy she exec-produces, writes and stars in, the show’s supporting cast is its soul. Set in a struggling Philadelphia public school, the series has been praised for its realistic depiction of America’s education system, while also finding humor and hope hiding in plain sight.
The show’s first two seasons worked hard to elucidate the plight of the American schoolteacher, but that’s far from the only lesson that “Abbott Elementary” has been serving up to viewers. Forget about English, say “see you later” to math, because according to its cast, the series is all about chemistry.
“Chemistry is an amazing thing. Either you have it or you don’t,” Sheryl Lee Ralph, who won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy last year for her portrayal of veteran kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard, said. “You meet some people and you immediately do not get along. You meet some people and you immediately click and it’s just magic. And for all of us, we clicked and it was magic.”
Ralph and her fellow supporting cast members play brilliantly off Brunson’s eternally optimistic second-grade teacher Janine Teagues. There’s Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), a buttoned-up first-grade teacher with a crush on Janine. He was in line to be principal but was bounced out by Ava Coleman (Janelle James), the most proudly self-absorbed public servant ever known to the state of Pennsylvania. Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) is a tough-talking second-grade teacher whose family is possibly full of connected guys. Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti) is a sixth-grade teacher forever tripping over himself to prove his white ally bona fides. And Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis) is the custodian who rolls in and out to deliver killer deadpan.
“It takes every single person being on their game for this show to work,” Williams said. “Yes, there are clear lead storylines, but we function as an ensemble. And it’s one of those ensembles that you rarely see. That’s not something I’m saying just because I’m a part of it, but because I watch these people work every day.”
“We had a beautiful chemistry, obviously, in the first season,” Walter added. “That’s part of the reason people came to it. The interesting thing is that in many shows, people fall in love with a show after a great Season 1, but then it hits a sophomore slump. We never had that. It got better in Season 2. We would read scripts and go, ‘Holy s–t, this is the best one yet!’”
As the show has settled into its second year, the cast is relishing exploring more unexpected stories. While the will-they/won’t-they tension between Janine and Gregory has been present from the very first episode, a surprising variation on that dynamic developed more recently. “I didn’t even realize it until the last episode as we were shooting it, but for me, Season 2, from Gregory’s perspective, is the will-they/won’t-they of his friendship with Jacob,” Williams said. “Looking back over the course of the season, they were setting this up little by little. And I think it’s one of the more beautiful story arcs that we’ve had.”
None of the crackling interpersonal energy that drives “Abbott Elementary” would work if the actors weren’t so fully committed to their characters. “This is a love relationship,” Ralph said of her connection to Barbara. “This is one of the best love relationships ever. For me to be able to have a character that I love and respect, the kind of woman that shows up every day, knowing that it’s going to be a challenging situation, but she is up to the challenge for the sake of the children that she works with. I don’t know if it gets much better than that.”
For Walter, playing Melissa has offered her an opportunity to inhabit a character that is perhaps closer to her heart than any before — including those from shows that she created herself (like the 1996 ABC sitcom “Life’s Work”).
“Weirdly, in a character that I didn’t create but that I read fully formed the first time I got the script, there were elements of myself that [I recognized but] I had never put into my own characters,” she said. “A lot of those have elements of my background, which is Sicilian.”
Once this clicked into place, Walter knew how to make Melissa come to life. “To the credit of Quinta and the writers, some of the things that I brought to the character, I said, ‘Look, any time you have a chance for this character to be pessimistic, to distrust people, to lash out if she feels there’s been a lack of respect, those things are so culturally right on the money with her.’
“They’re not necessarily me, but they’re people that I love and people in my family,” she added, then paused. “And some of them are me.”