As President Kelly Wade in Freeform’s hit drama Motherland: Fort Salem, MADAMENOIRE recently got the chance to speak with Sheryl Lee Ralph about her role in the series, and interestingly, how the star is currently bidding for the spot as Vice President of the L.A. chapter of the SAG-AFTRA Union in real life.
MN also had to chat with the legendary actress and performer about the viral video she posted of herself in a bikini back in May — a clip later dubbed as the official beginning of this year’s “hot girl summer” and talk about her latest role as a teacher in Quinta Brunson’s new project for ABC, Abbot Elementary.
From the magnitude of her character as a female Black president in Motherland: Fort Salem, to the importance of being empowered as a Black woman to run for office and “take up space,” read MN’s one-on-one with Ralph down below.
MADAMENOIRE: I’d love to get started by talking about your work on Motherland: Fort Salem. What was it like collaborating with Eliot Laurence again? Can you share how you guys decided to get you into the role of President Kelly Wade?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: You know it was interesting … I was working on Eliot’s last show, Claws, and I played a much different character. I played a Haitian woman, Madame Ruval. It was so interesting for me because I said to myself, “How in the world does he see me like that?”
And then when he said he had a new show in development and I would be a perfect fit, I asked him what the role was and he said, “President of the United States of America.”
Sometimes people say things like that and then you never hear from them, but the show got picked up and I got a call and I became Present Kelly Wade, the 45th President of the United States of America in the alternate universe that is Motherland: Fort Salem.
I was like [laughs] this man just sees me in so many different ways, you know? And that was that. Eliot Laurence saw me in the role and he created it. He continues to write wonderful and challenging things for me as a performer.
MN: And you filmed during the pandemic right? How was that?
Ralph: You know what? I think they really started to lay the groundwork of what it’s going to be like in the future when filming during a pandemic.
We were always masked up, always.
Nobody congregated in small tiny groups — you know, as actors we usually keke and talk and all that. Being close with each other and all of that. There’s none of that anymore.
We filmed Motherland before the vaccine was available so everybody had to stay in their own place. And because we shoot in Canada, I had to spend two weeks in isolation when I went up there. That was very difficult.
And I love the show right? So I did it the first season and I was like okay, that’s it, I won’t do it again. And then the second season came and of course, I did it again. So, I really do love doing the show.
MN: Yes! And you know we love to see the representation you display in the series. You portraying a Black female president isn’t a super common role viewers get to see on their TV screens.
I know that in real life you’re currently running office within the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) local L.A. chapter, could you tell us more about that?
Ralph: Well, I’m running for Vice President of SAG-AFTRA in the L.A. local chapter, it’s 80,000 members strong.
I was concerned about how things were going with the SAG-AFTRA union and I was complaining about how people were kicked off. You know Lunell the comedienne was talking to me about how she lost her insurance in the middle of the pandemic because of that.
I was so upset about it and my friend was like, “Well if you’re so upset why don’t you do something about it” — so I decided to run.
We talk about voting, we must vote. We must always vote. You know people are always trying taking to take our voting rights away. Black women turned around that last election with the power of our vote. With the power of our influence to get others involved. We must not wait another four years to vote, we must get involved now.
Every four to six months there is an election taking place in America. Get involved and vote. And by all means, run for office! Represent your community. Take up space, and use your voice. Just like with Motherland: Fort Salem, it is a woman’s time right now. Use the power of your voice.
MN: Speaking of it being “woman time,” I have to ask you about the viral bikini video you posted at the top of the summer [laughs]. I’m curious to know what you thought the response was going to be when you posted it — did you know it was going to blow up?
Ralph: First of all, I had absolutely no idea that anybody would be paying that much attention to it. I was literally thinking — I was looking at myself in the mirror in the bikini thinking to myself, “I look good. I really look good. I don’t know how much longer I will look this good.”
We were doing a shoot for Appleton Rum in Jamaica for their social media and it was a wonderful experience. I just said to my daughter Coco, “Take my picture, take this video — I’m just going to walk!” And the ground was hot so I was up on my tippy toes and everybody knows when you walk on your tippy toes it just makes those legs look great and it tightens up your behind.
The next thing I thought was Naomi Campbell — what would Naomi Campbell do with a walk around the tub in a bikini? And it all just came together. It was literally just one shot. I did not know over a million people would find it interesting. I did not know that I was the kick-off to hot girl summer [laughs], I had no idea.
MN: [laughs] You definitely were, it was all about the bawdy, and you brought it!
Ralph: Thank you, my husband was a bit upset but anyway [laughs]…
MN: And as we’ve mentioned, that clip got things set in motion for the summer this year. What else have you been up to over the last couple of months?
Ralph: It’s been amazing for me. I shot a pilot called Abbott Elementary for ABC and the it’s has been picked up. We’re getting ready to go into production. It’s written and produced by a wonderful young artist by the name of Quinta Brunson. She’s just amazing. She comes from that generation of young Black people that watched Moesha growing up.
She had this idea and she called me up and she said, “Mrs. Ralph, I’ve got something special for you and it is just for you.”
I play a teacher, Barbra Howard, and she’s the teacher you’ll never forget from when you were in school.
It’s just such a great role, a great cast — I’m so, so, excited to be a part of it. It’s starting off to be just a great symbiotic relationship and I’m very happy to work with Quinta. She has a great book out called She Memes Well, so there’s that too.
During quarantine, I was reading my book, Redefining Diva 2.0, and the audience demanded that I update it. So I worked on that and I did an audio version that’s available on Audible now.
So there’s all of that. Also Kandi Burruss and I are producers on one of the first plays to open back up on Broadway. It’s called Thoughts of A Colored Man.
And I was thinking to myself, here it is. 40 years ago I came to Broadway in Dreamgirls. It was a feminine-powered musical that changed Broadway in many ways, especially for women of color. 40 years later, I’m now a part of the production team for a play that goes into the mind, and feelings, and sentiments of Black men in Thoughts of A Colored Man.
I thank Brian Moreland for bringing me onto the team.
… so to answer your question, I’ve been doing quite a bit.