Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: With an eclectic career that dates back to 1977, Sheryl Lee Ralph has already accumulated enough stories to last a couple of lifetimes. There simply isn’t much that she hasn’t done, hopping seamlessly from the Broadway stage (which earned her a Tony Award nomination for Dreamgirls) to television, to film, to a South Central club to perform comedy. Ralph has done it all.
That isn’t to say that she’s anywhere near finished: Even after reminiscing about her turn as an original Dreamgirl and the way she became a permanent cultural fixture thanks to Moesha, the actor still talks about new and potential projects—like Zahir McGhee’s family restaurant drama series pilot for ABC, Harlem’s Kitchen—with the infectious zeal of someone just starting in the business. “It’s what Black folks need,” Ralph gushed readily. “If you love Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, or Grey’s Anatomy, this show is serving it all up on a Harlem plate of grits and chicken.” Ralph talked about many other projects with similar affection in her Random Roles interview with The A.V. Club.
Motherland: Fort Salem (2020)—“President Kelly Wade”
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I love the fact that somewhere in the writer’s mind they saw that the country would be led by a woman, understanding that in this alternate world the fighting founder of freedom in this country was a bellwether—and that bellwether was a Black woman. She is bold and, as Shirley Chisholm would say, she is unbought. She is unapologetic and she leads all the people, whether they believe her ideology or not. She’s found by rule of law to represent all of America. And I love that.
A Black Lady Sketch Show (2019)—“Asia’s Mother”
The A.V. Club: We haven’t had many opportunities to see you in sketch comedy.
SLR: Believe it or not, I used to do a comedy sketch show with Robin Harris at this comedy club down on Crenshaw in South Central, Thursday nights. So I’ve done sketch and improv before, and I actually love it! There’s something wonderful about being able to use what you know about the world and bring that to life through comedy. And with Black Lady Sketch Show, did you know that it had been years since I had cursed on screen?
AVC: Yes, there was something deeply satisfying about seeing Sheryl Lee Ralph dance, smile, and then say the word “fuckboy.” It is very rare that we get to see you let go in that fashion.
SLR: That was a career choice for me. I’ve been reading my book [Redefining Diva: Life Lessons From An Original Dreamgirl] nightly to an audience and in doing so, I’ve become more aware of my life as an artist. I made a choice to be the best me I could possibly be because the industry just seemed so determined to cheapen me—Black me, Black woman me—and say, “She [can play] nothing but a hoe, a druggie, a big mama on the couch. What can we do with this woman?” And I’m influenced by the women who came before me, like Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll, Pearl Bailey. These are all my mother actresses, and they were trying to forge something different. I decided carry the choice on from my mothers, my aunties.
AVC: So what made you decide to let go this one time?
SLR: I was just like, “Oh my god, what the heck?” After a while the virgin has to say, “What am I saving it for? I’m 60!”
AVC: Between Claws and Motherland, you’ve appeared in two Eliot Laurence-created series. Is there something specific about his scripts that you find particularly attractive?
SLR: It was such a challenge because they wanted me to play this Haitian woman who was carrying many secrets. We didn’t get into all of the secrets of that character, but it called for me to learn a new accent and play an older woman in a wheelchair. It was so many different things that I had to learn as an actor. It was something else, but I enjoyed it! When that was over, I got a call from [Laurence] and he said, “Look, I’m doing this new series and I can think of no one better to play the president of the United States.” I find in my career some of the best roles I’ve ever done were a challenge.
AVC: Matilde is involved in a truly complex mother-son relationship. What was your first thought when you learned of their uncomfortably close dynamic?
SLR: I was like, you know what? What the heck? Go for it. Who knows, maybe it’ll make people think, or we’ll learn something new. And I was excited, and I enjoyed every episode. But I was sad that we didn’t get to see everything.
AVC: What didn’t the audience get to see?
SLR: The fact that she was a play on so many different [pop culture] moments. There was a scene where I’m wheeling down that hallway yelling for my brother, reminiscent of The Shining. We didn’t get to to experience that because there was no time. So I feel sad about things like that, but that happens in TV. It’s like getting to do a scene in The Photograph with Issa Rae, and the movie comes out and the scene’s gone. Those things happen in film.
One Mississippi (2017)—“Felicia Hollingsworth”
AVC: In the season two One Mississippi episode “Who Do You Think You Are,” there’s a scene where your character Felicia and Bill (John Rothman) are sitting at a dinner table at this fancy manor-turned-restaurant and you’re talking about the legacy of slavery.
SLR: I loved that scene. I was so happy, and they gave me a little leeway to make little changes in it in order for me play even stronger, even more intense. I remember saying to myself, “My god, I’m going to get to look right at this white man and tell him exactly what I think about his art and hopefully he will understand exactly what it means to me.” But in the end she didn’t give a shit whether he understood it or not, cause she was going to tell him exactly what she felt. It was liberating.
Smash (2013)—“Cynthia Moore”
AVC: On Smash, you played a mom-slash-manager who wasn’t an overbearing presence, but someone who cared about what was best for her child and client. Did you take any personal experiences with “momagers” into account while playing Cynthia Moore?
SLR: Most mother-managers that I had met before had been awful representations of themselves and their career. I had to look at this child who I felt was an absolute gem of a human being and think about all the things that we had gone through together to get to this point. We were going to be successful together. I wanted my child to come out of it a whole, healthy, happy child. And those things are very difficult in show business.
AVC: Did you have to advocate for that type of tenderness or was it something that was already baked into the script?
SLR: It’s very interesting. I was talking to a friend the other day and I said that in all of my relationships in Hollywood, one of the ones that I miss the most is the relationship with the director. I never really have relationships with directors anymore. They usually let me come into it as I am and go from there. There’s not a whole lot of conversation between us. The only time I remember real conversation between me and a director was on Ray Donovan. But with Smash, I remember all I had to do was just bring to it what I wanted to bring to it.
AVC: Can you remember any conversations with the director on Ray Donovan that you found especially resonant?
SLR: Oh god, yes. The first one and the very last one. In the very first one, I went in and I started to do what I do and the director looked at me and said, “You know you can do everything. For this, I want you to do absolutely nothing.” I got confused for a moment; I felt like it was the universe coming for me. I’ve had all these directors my whole career and none of them have told me anything. This one’s going to tell me do nothing after acknowledging that I can do anything? So when I processed that, my shoulders went down, my [character’s] anger absolutely went away and I brought an indifference to Claudette. Indifference is the worst emotion ever, because you don’t care. I don’t need to yell at you. I don’t need to comfort you. I don’t need to hear from you. I don’t need you. Somehow it just made the relationship between Mickey and Claudette deeper because you realize there’s something about her that does need him.
For the last scene, my son can’t be found. I beg Ray, who has deep issues with me, to go and find him. I know he’s ultimately going to handle it, but he’s dismissive of me at first. And when he hangs up the phone, I just let out a long “Motherfucker.” In my mind, that was the release I wanted with this character. I had no idea they would keep it! I went in to do looping, which is when you go in and fine tune your audio. The director had me do it again and was like, “Oh yeah, we’re keeping that.”
Young Justice (2011-2019)—“Amanda Waller”
Justice League Unlimited (2004)—“Cheetah/Barbara Ann Minerva/Teacher”
Static Shock (2002-2003)—“Trina Jessup”
Justice League (2002)—“Cheetah/Barbara Ann Minerva”
Wonder Woman (1979)—“Bobbie”
AVC: You’ve had a presence in the DC universe since 1979.
SLR: Yes! I loved Amanda Waller [in Young Justice] because the voice has been played by so many very distinct and powerful Black female actresses. I mean, Alfre Woodard, C.C.H. Pounder, Angela Bassett, myself… And I had no idea what Amanda Waller looked like, so when I did the voice and then I saw the character, I thought she was very interesting.
AVC: Did you have a prior interest in comics?
SLR: I’m one of those comics kids. I’m that kid that had a box of comics underneath the bed and had to save that quarter to go buy the new comics.
AVC: Did you have a favorite?
SLR: I loved Wonder Woman. I also love to see Catwoman portrayed as a Black woman when I saw it on TV. That lit my world up. When I saw those things I thought, “Anything is possible.” I’m really looking forward to getting the chance to play a superhero. I don’t even care if I’m 90 years old. I know it’s going to happen because I am a superhero.
AVC: Dee Mitchell is definitely part of the pantheon of Black sitcom moms.
SLR: My son just put out his senior thesis, which was on the lack of true Black situation comedies and how we learned through laughing. [Moesha] was so great because it really had an impact on people. I’ve had people say to me, “You helped me raise my children. I didn’t realize that I could like talk to them like a human being because my mother yelled at me all the time.”
That was another incredible working environment until it wasn’t any longer. I was free to be an artist. It was a great learning experience for me, and an incredibly human one, as well. One of the greatest lessons I ever learned from it was knowing when it’s time to leave the room. I believe in the power of a warm and wonderful Black family, because it is something we do not get to see enough. And for them to take that family and literally just ruined the family by calling the father a liar [by revealing past infidelity]… why do this? Why destroy this family? There were people within the group that said, “Oh no, we’ve got to destroy it because these people are just too goody-goody. We don’t have Black people like that.” They had drank the Kool-Aid. But oh my, when it was good, it was great.
SLR: I get a call asking me if I’m interested in going back Broadway to do Wicked. When I get there for the first group rehearsal, they all freak out. And I was thinking, “What the hell?” They all start reciting the scene: “I SAID THE CHOIR IS OUT.” I had no idea! And they all just went in on Sister Act 2. So now I realize that if people talk to me about certain things, I can tell about how old they are. At this point in my life, anybody in the business between 30 and 40 is going to give me something wonderful because they love [that movie].
Designing Women (1992-1993)—“Etienne Toussaint Bouvier”
SLR: So I get it in my head that the governor of Arkansas is going to be the next president of the United States. At the time I was part of a group that then-mayor Tom Bradley [of Los Angeles] put together of young Black professionals who he felt were going to have an impact on the city in years to come. I convinced them that we had to do a fundraiser for the governor of Arkansas. We put together a slamming event, honey. The evening comes, I’m hosting, and entering through the back door behind the candidate is [Designing Women co-executive producer] Harry Thomason. I remember taking that man by the collar and saying, “How could you be doing Designing Women in Atlanta and not have those women know one Black woman?! It’s unacceptable! These are the ’90s, you need to have a Black woman somewhere in the mix. And Anthony needs to get married!” That man peeled me off of him—because I’ve got him by the lapels of his very expensive jacket—and asked me for my name. I said, “I am your hostess for the evening, Sheryl Lee Ralph.” He said, “Well, Sheryl Lee Ralph, have your people call my people tomorrow and we’ll talk further about this.” And that’s how I landed a part for two seasons.
SLR: Here I am with Robert De Niro. I think I’m about 33 now, I’m doing this film, and expecting my first child. I have this monologue and I go in on him. We’re sitting in a car waiting for the setup for the next scene. He turns to me and he says, “You’re like really, really good. You’re great. The sad thing is, Hollywood is not looking for the Black actress. You’re going to have to climb that mountain, wave the red flag, and let them know that you’re there because you should be seen.” I’ll never forget that for as long as I live.
AVC: You did an interview three years ago with Tiffany “New York” Pollard. During the interview you talked about Dreamgirls and you said, “The more I say ‘I was not playing Diana Ross,’ the more people seem to think I was playing Diana Ross.” Has that problem ebbed at all, or is it something that you still experience?
SLR: I don’t think it’ll ever go away because it just seems to have been passed down in people’s minds. People want to believe what they want to believe, but I’m a child of the ’60s. A child of my generation loves and adores Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and we were sad to lose Florence Ballard go because we never really got to know her.
When I got my chance to meet [Ross] as I was ascending in my stardom, she wasn’t open to that because she felt that we had ripped off her story, and we had not. I was given very clear instructions: “You can love and adore Diana Ross all you want, but you cannot play her because if you do, we will get sued.”
Years later she did a concert in Jamaica. They wanted me to introduce her and I said no, because I didn’t think she’d be happy with that. On the plane ride back, we were all in first class and she was sitting up front with her daughter and her young who said, “Mom, she’s right there!” I remember thinking, “Oh, I love the innocence and the power of children.” It was basically cleared up. We’ve talked, she’s got her children. You can always tell how wonderful a woman is when you look at her children, and she’s had nothing but incredible children. It ended up fine, but the stories never go away.