Jennifer Garner’s first starring role in a television series, as a butt-kicking spy in 2001’s Alias, propelled her to international stardom and launched a film career that has included 13 Going on 30 and Electra . And Sheryl Lee Ralph has spent decades building an impressive roster of acting credits on television — from the ’80s soap opera Search for Tomorrow to Moesha — but she’s finally being honored as motherly teacher Barbara Howard on Abbott Elementary honor bestowed. Garner, whose family members describe themselves as “Abbott” fans, recently returned to the big screen as stepmother Hannah, where she struggled with her husband’s disappearance in “The Last Thing He Told Me” on Apple TV+. Days after Garner’s birthday, the two discuss their favorite topics: motherhood, generous co-stars and dessert.
SHERYL LEE RALPH: Happy Birthday. did you have cake
JENNIFER GARNER: Of course I have.
RALPH: did you have ice cream
GARNER: I did.
RALPH: Did you party with your kids?
GARNER: I had cake, ice cream – and several times children.
RALPH: We have so many things in common. With all the fame and all, I feel like I’m living a very normal life and I think you have a similar vibe. And we love our children.
GARNER: And the whole mess of parenting. It is a present.
RALPH: And we both went through a divorce. You did what I did: maintain a healthy relationship with my ex to ensure the health and well-being of my children. Because we’re constantly in the spotlight, that can be difficult at times.
GARNER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
RALPH: But when I look at my kids, when I look at you and your kids, I’m like, “Girl, we did that.”
GARNER: We do it! We have so much in common. We’re both from the theater. Everyone says you started out with Dreamgirls, but your first hit was a Sidney Poitier film, A Piece of the Action. You were such a peanut. You just graduated from college very early, didn’t you?
RALPH: That’s right. I realized that I would not live my mother’s dream for myself. I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I didn’t want to be a doctor and I wasn’t going to marry anyone. My father said to me, “You will come into this world with your mother, but you will probably go alone, and you better go knowing that you made some good choices.” I had to live my life.
GARNER: And how did you get that first job?
RALPH: It turned out that my drama teacher was one of the producers of this film along with Sidney Poitier. He had called and called me. But I was gone six weeks and on the last day he said, “Sheryl Lee Ralph, you have to be at Warner Bros. tomorrow.” I asked my cousin Mabel to drive me. She hadn’t driven in about 10 years. And it took us an hour to get to Warner Bros. from Hollywood and Highland.
GARNER: Bless Mabel. People have no idea that they are the crucial link in getting you started. I worked at summer camp every summer. I would hang the lights, build the sets and sell the tickets. I was fired from the costume department earlier and they sent me to design. I was sent back to costumes. They sent me tickets. I might as well be a performer, and I better be nice about it because I know I can’t do those other jobs.
RALPH: That’s why I’m standing in the middle because I know I can’t do a background. Just let me play the lead.
GARNER: You won an Emmy for Abbott Elementary, you just got up and threw it out, and the whole hall went nuts. I’ve probably seen you sing that speech ten times. Congratulations on redefining what that joy and that ownership looks like.
RALPH: That’s because I understand the grunt work. I know what it’s like to hear no after no and some of those no’s were for absolutely no good reason. Someone once told me, “You didn’t get the part because you reminded me too much of my ex-wife.” And she was a white woman!
GARNER: Can we talk about Abbott Elementary? My mother taught remedial English at West Virginia State College. She always said, “There should be a sitcom about what happens in the staff room.” She loves Abbott Elementary. She says, “That’s us.”
RALPH: I always tell young artists that an educated artist is a far more interesting artist. All America’s children deserve a great education.
GARNER: And Barb is determined to give it to them.
RALPH: I know Barbara Howard and Barbara Howard’s wig very well. We all have a teacher with this wig. I tell people, “I am what mentoring looks like.” I am what other people’s faith looks like.” I think of my Aunt Carolyn, a reluctant teacher, and how she struggled to convey to her students that there was more and better things in the world. When I think of The Last Thing He Told Me, girl, you’re struggling with that stepdaughter! I wanted to say, “Tell the kid to stop right now!”
GARNER: Angourie Rice plays Hannah’s stepdaughter. She’s a great actress and it was a real challenge for me not to play her mother. That’s the relationship I know. I know when to give them space. I know when to bend over a little. But Hannah never intended to have a child. You have no choice but to be patient.
RALPH: Do you read your script when you receive it? episode after episode?
RALPH: I don’t We sit down and read at the table.
GARNER: And you discover it in the table read? I couldnt do that. I read the script for The Last Thing He Told Me 50 times before sitting in the backyard with our showrunner and the book’s author. We read the scripts out loud. Wrestled with them. gone back Read the first one again. Then we did it again and added our director and then Angourie. It was the most luxurious process.
RALPH: I didn’t take a walk into the writers’ room. Everyone always says, “Are you asking about this or that?” I’m like, “You know what? I won an Emmy. I don’t charge anything because they’re doing very well.” On The Last Thing He Told Me, every time you touch the pillow and he’s gone, it’s a great thing. How did you come up with that?
GARNER: It happened naturally. It’s the first time she goes into her room. Hannah doesn’t know how long he’s been gone, where he is, if he’s safe, if he’s still alive. He was there just this morning. He just lay on the pillow next to her.
RALPH: Sometimes in work it’s not the big things that we do with the characters. Sometimes it’s the little things.
GARNER: My ex-boyfriend, played by Geoff Stults, we’ve never had a scene together but we do have some really crucial phone calls. Geoff came to San Pedro so kindly and got under the camera for me all day. He said, “I need to be here with you.”
RALPH: Isn’t it wonderful when you find a giving actor? They understand how important it is to whoever is in front of the camera, even when they are not in front of the camera. Back then you had Alias and now you’re doing The Last Thing He Told Me.
GARNER: What I love about television is that I love being with a character. The richness of these relationships over time is reflected in the work. It was really a pleasure to do The Last Thing He Told Me after all these years on Alias. By the way, it’s been 17 years since we finished and I still have some people from this show that I do with me in everything I do. My stunt double who just started the fourth episode of Alias, we’ve been together ever since. I’ve had the same deputy for just as long. I’ve had the same client for just as long.
RALPH: With everything that’s been happening around Abbott, one person came up to me and said, “No new friends.” If they didn’t know you before, they can’t know you now.” I was just like, “But I love the people so much!”
GARNER: I think you can have new friends. I met you!
RALPH: How about that?
GARNER: we have each other
set design: Lucy Holt; Produced by Alexey Galetskiy/AGPNYC
https://variety.com/2023/tv/features/jennifer-garner-sheryl-lee-ralph-abbott-elementary-emmys-divorce-interview-1235631828/ Jennifer Garner and Sheryl Lee Ralph on Abbott Elementary Emmys, Divorce