BWW Interviews - Sheryl Lee Ralph Talks Guest Spot on Tonight's SMASH
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by Caryn Robbins
Sheryl Lee Ralph guest stars on tonight's episode of SMASH as Veronica Moore's (Jennifer Hudson) over-bearing mom-ager. A triple threat dreamgirl, Ralph is an acclaimed veteran of film, television and the Broadway stage. Her award-winning work includes creating the role of Deena Jones in the legendary Broadway musical, "Dreamgirls," and earning Best Actress nods for Tony and Drama Desk Awards. Recently, she returned to Broadway for a 12-month stint in the Tony-award winning musical, "Thoroughly Modern Millie,' portraying the sassy chanteuse Muzzy Van Hossmere.
Currently, she is touring the one-woman play, "Sometimes I Cry," a production written and performed by Sheryl Lee Ralph, which explores the lives, loves, and losses of women infected and affected by HIV.
No stranger to television, Sheryl Lee Ralph credits include "It's a Living," "Designing Women," "The District," and most notably, "Moesha." On the big screen, she has appeared in "The Mighty Quinn" "Mistress" and "To Sleep With Anger" for which she won a Best Supporting Actress award at the Independent Spirit Awards for her performance. The talented actress spoke about returning to her Broadway roots on tonight's episode of SMASH.
As a stage performer how do you feel SMASH captures the process of mounting a Broadway show and performing in a Broadway show?
Well you know it's television so a bunch of it is - a lot of it is glamorized but it's glamorized to people interested and audience with a basic understanding of just how a musical does get launched. You know, things have changed greatly since the beginning of stage productions so there's always a different way to launch a show but from what I see they're doing a pretty good job.
I understand that you're going to play a powerful mom in tonight's episode. Could you tell us what she's like and if you're able to relate to her and understand her a bit?
First of all I love this character. This is a woman who is so comfortable in her well-earned Manolo Blahniks that it is a joy just to get to play her. I was there on set and one of the execs came over and they said my God, the last time we saw a woman like this it was Dominique Devereaux. And for those of you who remember Dominique Devereaux she was a powerful woman played by Diahann Carroll and I was just like, "Wow I take that as a supreme compliment."
Are you going to sing?
Yes Jennifer and I sing together just a bit but it's a good song and it's a good moment together.
In taking on a role like this, what did you like about the dynamic between mother and daughter?
You know, as I said the two of us - you know how it is sometimes when you're a strong mother and you raise your child and then your child one day turns around and they are everything that you have raised them to be.
Sometimes you have to rethink real quick how do you hold on to what you raised. So I love that dynamic between the two of them. And even when things get a little bit testy there's still that foundation of love. And I'm so thankful to have a character and a relationship written like that especially for women of color.
Can you talk a bit about working with Jennifer and your initial thoughts of her as a talent?
Let me tell you something, I walked into my dressing room and inside the room was the hugest, grandest, most beautiful arrangement of flowers I have ever seen. In fact they were so big that either the flowers had to go or I had to go. And when I opened the envelope and saw that they were from Jen, I walked over to say thank you and she looked at me and she said, "Miss Ralph, you don't have to tell me thank you for anything because you are all that I ever really want to be." I was like, "Oh my God." It just made me feel I can't even explain it but I was like, "Wow what a moment, what a moment."
What is the best part about being a guest star on the show?
Oh my gosh, I guess the best part of being a guest star on that show is that you know you're probably going to get to do something great that's basically a theatrical stretch but onscreen. And for me it was the fact that when they called me in they said, "Look are you interested in playing the mom to Jennifer Hudson on Smash?" And this was coming from my agent. I told my agent that is not funny, do not punk me, and I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone!
He called me right back and he said, "No, no, no I'm serious. They're offering you this like right now. Do you want to do it? Oh honey please, I had say yes so quickly it was unbelievable. I was so happy. I was like oh my God I can imagine the clothing, I can imagine the words and what will be the song. So I was excited.
Do you know how many episodes you're going to be doing?
You know, I only got to do the one episode as we're waiting to see what's going to happen but the door was open for the possibility of more but one never knows does one?
Oh wow let me see. You know, it's really interesting because I was thinking about that myself and when I really looked at all of the young women that I've played mother to it's an incredible group of talent. Let's see there was Brandy on Moesha but before Brandy there was Sister Act 2 and my daughter was -- why am I blanking on her name? Sister Act 2... oh my gosh.
Lauryn Hill! Lauryn Hill, Brandy and then let's see my other daughters, I just wrapped a pilot with Tia Mowry and then the mom for Jennifer Hudson. So my God if you just consider the four of them it's an incredible group of young women and all of these mothers are so very different. I love this mother on SMASH because she's so grounded in the church but at the same time she knows how to handle the world. You can tell that she's been under the leadership of a strong bishop or two you know? And I love that about her. But then at the same time when I was doing the mom in Moesha she was a stern but loving stepmother so she had to really tread lightly when it came to the kids but at the very end, you knew that they grew to love each other so deeply and it's just so interesting. And in the piece that I did with Tia Mowry oh my God, this mother can drink, she can dress but she loves her daughter. They're all so different.
You had the iconic role of Deena Jones in the Broadway play and Jennifer Hudson had the iconic role of Effie in the film. Did you two ever have any conversations about Dreamgirls?
Absolutely and she said something to me that - I mean she was just full of great conversation but she said, "Miss Ralph I really wish you had been on that set. I really wish that you had been there." And I was just like wow. And all I could do was say thank you for that, thank you because heck I wish I had been there too myself.
Could you shed some light about your pilot with Tia Mowry?
The pilot with Tia Mowry's called Instant Mom and she's a real, real party girl who marries a doctor and inherits three children, all kind of by accident because the mother had the kids but then again her mother gets sick so she leaves to take care of her mother and she ends up with the kids. And I end up a mother with a daughter who has children because of course I am glamorous, I will never be grandmother.
Do you think the American public is still having trouble with accepting a TV show with a musical concept like SMASH?
I think that it's just one of those things that is always evolving. Musicals have been around since the beginning of time. Musicals are not going anywhere and I think as you see how musicals especially the kind that we've been seeing televised have grown and have changed, this particular show is like you just said, taking it another step forward for the greater good. I love it. It's serialized. I love the characters. Every now and then though I look at something and I say, "I don't know if that would really happen," you know, what's going on with that director and the girl and they meet on the street. I said, "I wonder would that really happen." But I love it for the drama of it all.
First of all it was great to be there. It was great to know that there were so many little - well okay let's put it this way, in L.A. you walk into these sparkling stages that have their own ghost and all of that but we were literally shooting in a tricked out warehouse in Queens and I was like oh my goodness. If you would drive by this building you would never know all of that magic was taking place inside of those doors. So I was just like oh my goodness. That was the one thing. The next thing would be the hours. I mean, it was like - it was an intense schedule, a really intense schedule and it was all day baby. But I did love it. It felt good. It was like a hot shot of adrenaline and then you got to sing too. Oh it was great. Great wardrobe, great set, great songs, great cast. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so very much.
Are you still involved in theater?
I would love to be involved in theater much, much more but there seems to be lesser and lesser roles for woman of color and that has been a great challenge because sometimes I feel like I'm being shut out of an industry that I absolutely love because there just seems to be a lack of roles unless there's a specialty piece of theater developed and that's hard.
With such a successful career in stage, television, music, what advice would you give someone who wants to follow their dream?
You know what, I've got to tell you I graduated from Rutgers University and we now are home to one of the leading theater arts programs in the country in the Mason Gross School of the Arts and I was one of the first students there for that. And part of my whole learning experience I reached out to every theater festival there was. I did as much acting as I possibly could have. I got into some of the best classes that I could find.
I'll never forget winning the Irene Ryan Theater Festival Award for acting and I write about that in my book Redefining Diva, about what it was like as a young person going Out There trying to pursue your dreams. And it's not always easy because there's so often a lot of people around you want to tell you why you should not pursue your dream. So it sometimes takes a great deal of heart to go for it, to try, to practice, to learn, to discover new things. So I say if you can do that as a young person that's what's going to give you the foundation you're going to need to carry on in this business because this can be a lowdown rough business baby and it is not for the faint of heart.
Why do you feel you play such strong motherly roles over your career?
I think because I've had an excellent example of a mother in my life and it's not just a mother as mentor, female mentors in my life. I often write in my book Redefining Diva the women that came before me were so wonderful in sharing what they had learned with me that it just - oh it just helped me in ways that I see coming true now about holding on in times of disappointment, celebrating in times of true happiness. Those are learned things. Those are learned choices, the choice to be happy no matter what is going on. I have a great mother in my own mother, a strong West Indian woman, Jamaican to be exact, and I had an incredible grandmother from the south. Both sides of my family were full of the most incredible women. So I really think my ideals of motherhood come from the mothers that have been placed in my life.
I'm sure most of your scenes are with Jennifer Hudson on SMASH but was there anybody else you got to share a scene with that you particularly enjoyed?
Megan Hilty! Megan and I worked together before on a workshop musical called It's On and we had such a ball working together. And when I got to the set she was like, "Oh my God are we going to get to do this musical together?" So she and I are really hoping that the musical goes and who knows, in her hiatus we might be able get that musical on its feet. We had such a ball so it was great to see her and work with her even if it was just a little bit.
Do you think SMASH will help rejuvenate people's interest in going out to the theater more, being that it's on TV?
Absolutely. People love the theater. They love the theater. So I think this is absolutely bringing more interest to the show. And I look forward to the next thing will be SMASH the musical on Broadway.
You never know.
Oh baby, stranger things have happened but I can tell you I would BET on that!
On tonight's episode of SMASH titled 'The Song', Derek (Jack Davenport) calls in help for a special event, but Jimmy's (Jeremy Jordan) pride might get in the way of a huge opportunity Karen (Katharine McPhee) orchestrates for him and Kyle (Andy Mientus). Peter (guest star Daniel Sunjata) challenges Julia's (Debra Messing) pride as they continue to work together. Meanwhile, Ronnie (guest star Jennifer Hudson) struggles to assert her independence from a powerful mother (guest star Sheryl Lee Ralph), as Eileen (Anjelica Huston) finds herself at a moral crossroads with huge ramifications for "Bombshell." Christian Borle and Megan Hilty also star. Jennifer Hudson, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Daniel Sunjata guest star.
The episode airs tonight, February 26 at 10 PM on NBC.
Photo credit: Will Hart/NBC