Sheryl Lee Ralph: ‘You Gotta Have Guts to Live’

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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If a single word could be used to describe Sheryl Lee Ralph, it would be effervescent. She’s vibrant, radiating a positive, infectious energy that translates across every platform that’s lucky to have her—not the other way around.

When we meet on Zoom, Ralph is as animated and gracious as she was when she ascended the Emmys stage to accept her award for best supporting actress in a comedy in 2022, bringing the house down with a rousing speech about the art of chasing a dream, no matter the obstacles. Though she’s recovering from a respiratory illness when we talk, she’s still the picture of good health: laughing loudly, breaking out in song when the mood strikes, and telling sometimes-heavy stories about her life and career without a hint of sadness or regret. She’s alive, gratefully so—and, as long as she is drawing breath into her lungs, she knows she has more to offer to herself, to her community, and to the world.

In a society that often expects women to seek eternal youth, Ralph, now a proud 67 years old, has seemingly mastered the art of aging authentically. In fact, she’s embracing getting older with as much fervor as she’s embraced every transition in her life: “You have a choice. You can live or you can die,” she tells me with laughter in her voice. “I mean, is there anything in between?”

The confidence that oozes from Ralph’s pores—whether she’s playing educator Barbara Howard on ABC’s hit show Abbott Elementary, now in its third season, or sitting opposite Oprah Winfrey on Super Soul Sunday—is well-earned and unshakable. During a career that’s spanned nearly five decades, taking her from Hollywood to Broadway and back again, Ralph says she has encountered racism, sexism, loss, and a lack of opportunities. (She says Robert De Niro once told her, “You’re a damn great actress, and that is too bad because Hollywood is not looking for you, so you better wave that red flag and let them know you’re there.”) Though she didn’t have the easiest path, she was sustained by her belief in herself and her commitment to her craft. “I think about what it takes to carry on when everybody’s telling you, ‘You should quit. There’s not a whole lot of room for you’” she says. “But guess what? If there’s no room for you, you gotta build your own house.”

“It can be difficult, but I’ve maintained and”—here she breaks into song—“On my momma / On my hood / I look fly / I look good.”

Ralph’s presence, on Abbott and in real life, is equal parts elder stateswoman and preacher. During our conversation, she offers up a sermon about self-love, self-worth, and staying the course, no matter how old you are. It’s a lesson she learned as a child growing up in Hempstead, Long Island, from her parents—her mother immigrated to the US from Jamaica and married her father, an American-born college professor—who exposed her to the beauty of the Black diaspora from an early age.


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