Janelle James admits being scared of embarrassing herself in front of Abbott Elementary costar Sheryl Lee Ralph
"Tyler [James Williams], who plays Gregory, the two of us just had a moment where we looked at each other and he said, 'You feel it, right?' And I said, 'Man, you feel it too, don't you?'" Ralph recalls of the ABC comedy created by and also starring Quinta Brunson, on the latest episode of EW's The Awardist podcast. "We both felt that we had something very special. The whole feeling that, wow, you had six people [in the cast] who actually really got along, who actually fit like a zipper and made everything that Quinta had created just come alive. And it was absolutely magical."
Ralph has been part of several popular titles in her 45-year career, but she admits Abbott feels very different. "As amazing as Dreamgirls was, it's definitely not quite like this. As much as people love Sister Act 2, it's definitely not like this. People really love Moesha too, but it is definitely not like this," Ralph, who plays longtime teacher Barbara Howard on the hit comedy, says. "This feels like a warm hug from even some of the most unexpected people and it happens at the most random times. ... It just feels so good. I was saying to some friends, 'No one should have as much joy as I'm carrying around inside of me being a part of this cast, doing this show.'"
The show has been a star-making platform for Janelle James, who steals every scene as Abbott's unqualified principal Ava Coleman. She excels at social media and teaching the after-school step class — and just generally saying ridiculous things — but pretty much nothing else related to running the school.
"I don't really have a technique or preparation," James admits of her acting approach. "But I feel like that kind of lends to this character — that she's unprepared maybe. I'm prepared by being unprepared. I really don't have any [pre-conceived] notions about what acting is supposed to be. I just really felt like this is a person that I know and I get her motivation."
But it's James' natural approach that is of great appeal to Brunson. "One thing that I think continues to make Janelle so compelling on screen [is that she is] just so raw," the showrunner/actress says. "I look at Ava as like a brand new archetype on television."
Adds James: "One day I told Quinta I was going to get acting lessons because I was intimidated standing next to Sheryl Lee and I didn't want to embarrass myself. She basically told me not to. ... All I heard was less working and less money spent for me, so I didn't."
As for the rest of their ensemble, Brunson says there was actually a seventh teacher who she eliminated during development. Aspects of that character, Blair, still ended up in the show, specifically in Chris Perfetti's Jacob being gay. "I wanted to have queer representation with one of our characters and I always thought that Jacob as a character would be next in line [after Blair] for that," Brunson explains when asked if that was always the intent with his character, or if that naturally evolved. "Before we started fully writing the first season, I brought that into play and all of our writers agreed. Then, it was a conversation with [Chris] because that wasn't there when he auditioned so I wanted to make sure that that was something that he was okay with. And he was absolutely down. It's something we kind of knew from the moment we started the writers' room. So, in a way, it was always there, but it wasn't. It just came about for his character when we started writing episode 2."
Elsewhere in the podcast, EW's Kristen Baldwin chats with Dr. Death star Joshua Jackson, who plays now-imprisoned former neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch in that Peacock limited series.
"It took a while," Jackson admits of how long it took to get past his personal judgments about Duntsch, whose negligence resulted in the further injury of dozens of patients and death of two under his care. "After I had signed on, the first couple of months that I was working on it and really diving into the research materials that [creator Patrick Macmanus] had provided me, it was hard for me to let go of my judgments of the character. And then when we got deeper into the rehearsal period and I started working with [director/executive producer Maggie Kiley], some things that Patrick was saying to me, that I intellectually understood but emotionally hadn't gotten to that place yet started to click in and it really unlocked the writing for me once I was able to recognize that from his perspective and to make that choice that this man really believes himself to be the heroic center of this story. So once I was able to get out of my own way and start there, it kind of unlocked everything else."
After fully realizing the extent of Duntsch's narcissism and how he had "gone to absurdist levels to try to maintain his sense of self," the Affair and Fringe alum took a two-direction approach to the character, part of which meant losing 20 pounds to play Duntsch in flashback: "Inside out, trying to come to an emotional understanding, an intellectual understanding of the man; and then outside in, because there's this giant span that we go with him, and he underwent a pretty massive change."
His go-to weight-loss method: "stress and anxiety," he says with a laugh.
Listen to our full interviews with Brunson, Ralph, and James, as well as Jackson, in the podcast (below), where we also break down the supporting actor and actress in a comedy categories.