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Sheryl Lee Ralph Wanted One Christmas Song. She Made An Album

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Sheryl Lee Ralph considers her entire life a song. The 65-year-old actress has spent over four decades making a name for herself in the entertainment industry. Her first film, A Piece of the Action, was directed by Sydney Poitier, one of her instructors was famed German actress Uta Hagen, and her roles have consistently received critical acclaim for her full-bodied performances. But Ralph’s longevity in the industry and devotion to her craft has rarely been rewarded equal to the praise her white and male counterparts have received — the lack of consistent recognition could be enough to drive an actress to quit entirely. While there were moments Ralph thought about leaving the industry, she says she has continued to grow in fame and recognition by simply refusing to give anything except excellence.

“I have never, ever felt pressured to do anything in my career except for excellence,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Except to continue opening doors, not just for myself, but for others. I don’t feel that pressure. At this point in my career, I’m just going to keep on doing what it is I have been doing because obviously, it has served me well.”

Ralph currently plays Barbara Howard on ABC’s school sitcom Abbott Elementary, a role that seems both handcrafted for Ralph’s sharp delivery and to draw a direct line to her status in real life as a revered trailblazer. In September, the actress took home her first Emmy Award, for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, and went viral for her emotional acceptance speech. After belting out lines of Dianne Reeves’s “Endangered Species” to a riotous standing ovation, Ralph echoed an encouragement that has driven her career: belief.

“To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true, I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like,” she said onstage, as the audience stayed on their feet. “This is what striving looks like, and don’t you ever, ever give up on you.”

As videos of Ralph kept going viral over the next several days, Ralph’s children documented flower delivery after flower delivery from celebs like Kid Cudi, Oprah, and even Beyonce — all telling Ralph how happy they were to see her still shining. But finally receiving long-overdue praise hasn’t turned Ralph sour about the past. The actress is too busy completing every passion-project she thinks will bring people joy. On December 2nd, she’ll release her Christmas LP, Sleigh — her first music since 1999. Produced by Ralph and Grammy-nominated producer B Slade, Sleigh is what Ralph calls an “edgy and modern take on the holidays.”

“I’m just so thrilled,” she says. “I am on top of the world. I am enjoying the view. I am loving what I see. But even though I’m on the top of the world, I see other planets out there and can’t help but think ‘Let’s go there!’ I mean, I just can’t stop.”

Ralph spoke with Rolling Stone about how she accidentally created a Christmas album, why she’d love to play Barbara Howard forever, and shared an exclusive first listen to her Christmas song “Holiday Cheer (We Made It).”

What made you want to create this Christmas LP? What were some of the inspirations behind it?

I’m always excited when music is involved. I mean, if there is absolutely one universal language, I would have to say if it’s going to be music, especially when people love it.

Last year, during the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade, a young man that was on the float with me said, ‘Miss Sheryl don’t let next year come and you don’t have a Christmas album, or song to sing in the parade.’  He was so serious. Then time got away, the show was doing great, the Emmys, and all of that. Finally, my friend calls me up and said, ‘If you’re going to spend time doing a Christmas song, why not just do a Christmas album?’ I was like ‘honey, please Who has time with all of this?” because it was going to leave us only two months to do it. Anyway, guess what? We did it. We got it done. 

What were some of the musical inspirations? The songs definitely have a sexy vibe.

Being someone of my generation, The Jackson Five Christmas album is something I will never forget. Mariah Carey, the moment the clock strikes Nov. 1. Nat King Cole. Oh my gosh, there’s some Christmas things that just will never be forgotten.

I love the fact that [the album] has a few sexy, wonderful sing-alongs. Why not have a pop feel to Christmas songs?  Plays are updated. Why not update songs and feelings?

Everyone loved your Emmys acceptance speechand you have a lot of upcoming projects already in the works? Do you ever think you might want to go all the way and win an EGOT

Oh my goodness. It’s not so much that I consider it. It’s ‘Does God have it in the making?” Yes, I am one of the producers ofthe Ohio State Murders which is now on Broadway and starring Audra McDonald. There has been an amazing response from audiences. Could that be a Tony winner? Absolutely. It could. That’d be wonderful, but it’s really about what God has in mind for me. 

You’ve been extremely vocal about how difficult it was in 2014, when your son Etienne was robbed and shot. Now, A huge part of your online presence are the clips shared by your family, and specifically Etienne. How does it feel to have your family be so involved and supportive of your career — especially since there was that scary moment when you thought your son might die?

The fact that I could have lost my child. The fact that I could have had a grief that I could never have let go of haunts me in some ways… But the balance for me is when I look at my son, I know what a miracle looks like. Because I see him.

I don’t think it gets too much better than that. They’re my kids. They’re my joy. They’re my laughter. You know, they’re there everything for me and I love the fact that we are able to work together and miss the fact that they no longer live here. 

Where do you think this kind of enthusiasm and poise that you’re known for comes from?

Well, thank you for that. First of all, I am so thrilled with life. I am so thrilled just being alive. I mean, it’s so simple, but you and I both woke up this morning. There are so many people who didn’t. We woke up and we carried on doing what we’re doing. I’m thrilled by that. It makes me happy. I think that has to do with the way I was raised by my parents, you know the fact that they always felt that manners really matter. Kindness really matters. How you speak to people, how you comport yourself in life, stuff like that really matters.

Is it hard to have that type of optimism in the face of a world that is rarely kind?

Listen, I’m a child of the Sixties. Life was hard. Life was difficult. People had no problem being hateful toward you. I know what it is like to have terrible things happen in your life. But I still have hope. I still have faith. I still have belief. You know, I know what it’s like to lose almost lose a child. I know what it’s like to have violence come into your home and kill people. I know what that looks like. But I have hope. I am optimistic. Even still, I have faith.

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Sheryl Lee Ralph and Quinta Brunson in ‘Abbott Elementary.’Gilles Mingasson/ABC

You recently walked in Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty show, which is always extremely purposeful about showcasing different body types. Is that something that you think is important to you? Do you think Hollywood’s relationship with body image and size has changed throughout your career? 

Oh my god. I will never ever forget one time you know, I was young and coming off of Dream Girls. And we were looking for style houses to dress me right. One particular design house said I didn’t look like their type of woman with my body and all of its ins and outs. They felt that it was too voluptuous. But a lot of that has changed because you’re seeing not just Rihanna, but you’re seeing Lizzo, the whole body positivity and respecting different body types. 

Did that experience make you want to change the industry for other women coming up after you? 

I think for me it was consistently letting you know women know you know like in writing my book if you’re perfect the way you are and what somebody else thinks about you should not be your problem or a hindrance for you. That’s them. That’s what they’re thinking. What you think about yourself is what’s really important. 

How do you approach your acting career as a whole catalog?

When I look at my career, so many of the characters that I have played are so different from me and yet I’m able to give them life. That’s an art form. Not everybody can do that.

You’ve become a breakout star on ABC’s Abbott Elementary as teacher Barbara Howard. Why do you think people respond so strongly to her as a character?

That’s something I have been asking myself over and over. But if there’s one thing I’m certain of, is that there is a great love for Barbara Howard. She’s a no-nonsense type of woman. She’s been there, done that got the t-shirt and the hat. She can tell you a thing or two and but in my mind, she’s only going to help you get better. She doesn’t want to hold you back. She wants to see you move forward and succeed. And the people she works with revere her. I love it. Yeah, that’s a character to play.

Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with filming season two of Abbott, and what you want to bring to the character of Barbara in the future?

I just want to keep leaning on our writers’ room. Our writers’ room has done so well by me. You know, there are moments where I think, ‘Well, what am I doing?’ I’m just here.’ But one of my writers said, ‘What you don’t understand is even in your silence, you speak volumes.’ So I really am at that point where I’m just getting comfortable with them and what they’re doing with me — because it’s working.

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If you could play Barbara forever, would you?

Listen, if I could play her forever and that’s what God and Quinta Brunson have in store for me, I am all the way there for it. Because I’m very happy doing the role. I’m so in love with my cast and my crew. We are exactly what you think and feel we are and it translates to the show and all the love it gets. So yes, I would [play Barbara forever] but I honestly have to say I’m gonna leave it up to them. They’ve got that well in hand and I’m just so happy right now. It’s great. It’s just adding more music, more lyrics to the great song of my life.

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