Exclusive: Lisa Ann Walter on Abbott Elementary for ABC, and Melissa’s ‘ride or die’ Barbara Howard

Lisa Ann Walter
Lisa Ann Walter is Melissa Schemmenti on ABC’s new hit, Abbott Elementary. Pic credit: Lisa Ann Walter

Multihyphenate talent Lisa Ann Walter is that bright spot of many great projects, from The Parent Trap remake with Dennis Quaid to blockbusters such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.

Now, cast as wizened public schoolteacher Melissa Schemmenti on ABC’s runaway hit series, Abbott Elementary, this redhead is on fire serving out lines like a Sicilian Nonni spooning baked mostaccioli at a St. Joseph’s Table feast in Little Italy.

Lucky for us, the showrunner Quinta Brunson and her other E.P.’s saw the perfection that Walter brings to this tasty table.

Brunson also stars in the series and plays Janine, with Tyler James Wiliams as Gregory and Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara Howard, who introduces herself in the premiere with regal pomp and flair. 

Our setting is Philadelphia’s Abbott Elementary. Conditions at the school are austere at best, and most teachers do not last. They work with experienced kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard, second-grade teacher Melissa Schemmenti (Walter), and school principal Ava Coleman.

This mockumentary sitcom television series created by Quinta Brunson for ABC is a genius ensemble workplace comedy that resonates with part The Office and even part iconic 1970/80’s sitcom Barney Miller for the seamless chemistry between a diverse cast. 

But Abbott Elementary is not without loftier purpose either, acting as a Trojan Horse of deep appreciation for the entire nation’s hardworking teachers, including Walter’s late mother, a former Washington, D.C. public school teacher. 

Walter’s stand-out performances include Chessy in The Parent Trap with Dennis Quaid and Bobbie in Shall We Dance opposite Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, and are the tip of the creative iceberg for this comic and producer who created a great reality series, Dance Your Ass Off for Oxygen. 

In addition, Walter co-created, produced, and starred in several network sitcoms. Among her other film credits are Drillbit Taylor with Owen Wilson, Eddie with Whoopi Goldberg, and The Trouble With Dee Dee, which earned her six Festival Best Actress Awards.

She is currently Creator/Writer and Executive Producer of her new half-hour single-camera series Bitter. She’s very proud of co-starring in The More Things Change and Everyday Trans Woman, a half-hour comedy where she also served as Executive Producer, which debuted at Outfest 2019. In addition, she recently directed and starred in the comedic short, Jersey. 

Her secret weapon and winning charm are thanks to her unpretentious approach to fame, motherhood, and boss b**ch style. Walter’s comedic memoir, The Best Thing About My Ass Is That It’s Behind Me (Harper Collins/Harper One), is a comedic look at an ordinary woman navigating a size zero Hollywood. But Walter is most proud of being a working mom of four with “One foot on the Red Carpet…The other at Costco” and that her stomach is still reasonably flat after being the “clown car they all came out of,” in her words.

Monsters & Critics had the best chat ever about Abbott Elementary, her character’s special bond with Barbara Howard, and the code of omerta, the Sicilian “keep your mouth shut at all costs” rule that she was able to work into the script. 

Exclusive interview with Lisa Ann Walter

Monsters & Critics: You have a tiger by the tail with this character and this cast. The ensemble, Abbott Elementary, is such a great comedy surprise. How did you flesh Melissa Schemmenti out? Did you have any input into this incredible character?

Lisa Ann Walter: The truth is that she came entirely from the brilliant brain of Quinta Brunson. It just happened to be when I read the pilot script. I was like, how’d they write me? Without it being like, ‘oh, we’re basing this on you, Lisa.’ My mom’s family is Sicilian. For decades, she was a school teacher in a downtown D.C. public school. 

And a lot of the stuff that I put right in there, here and there, little Sicilian words and hand movements, comes directly from my family. 

And [in the script] they’re always talking about members of my family and the various scripts will mention a cousin, my uncle, or my aunt, and I give them names that come directly from my family, cousin Annette, my uncle Dom. So I temper it with the truth, which is always the best way to create a character. 

I’m just channeling my family for real. And, the name ‘Schemmenti,’ it’s funny you bring that up because my mom is Sicilian. She always told me the rules of that language and names. They’re generally two syllables, Rossi, Rizzo, Russo. 

So when they said Schemmenti, I said, ‘I’ve never even seen an Italian name like that.’ And [Quinta] said, ‘Well, there’s someone in our writer’s room who is Italian whose father swears that is a legit name.’ So I said, ‘Okay, who am I to argue?’ So there you go.

M&C: How did they know to come to you and get you in this role? Because you’re perfect.

Lisa Ann Walter: Thank you so much. I’ve heard Quinta tell this story many times, so I’m just going to go by her reporting. She had a few people that she went directly to because she was like, ‘That’s the person I want for Ms. Howard.’ That was Sheryl [Lee Ralph]. She had worked with her on Black Lady Sketch Show. So she knew her work, obviously. 

And she knew that’s who she wanted to go with, and there were a number of us that she had in mind, but we also auditioned. She knew my work from The Parent Trap and a few other things, but they sent me the script. I fell in love with it. It made me laugh and cry. And I said, ‘Yeah, I own this character. I have no worries about presenting myself.’ 

And so what Randall Einhorn—our director on most of our episodes and who is an executive producer along with Quinta, Justin Halpern, and Patrick Schumacker—he came out of the office with them. According to Randall, he said they saw 30 seconds of my tape and went, ‘that’s it, we’re done. She’s it.’ And I had no idea, but I was the only choice when they went to network. You know, it would be so nice if you knew that, but they never tell you until afterward.

M&C: You are a comic, you’re a writer, you’re a producer. It’s hard sometimes when you have that much talent to stay in your lane. Do you get to add some flavor to Melissa?

Lisa Ann Walter: Well, with this first season, I don’t know what the next seasons will bring, but she’s getting to learn us and hear our stories on set. 

And when we’re just talking and sharing, Quinta is an incredibly collaborative and open-minded creator, but she had this first season mapped out. So I think it’s part of the reason why they didn’t get in her way. And they approved all of her stories and supported her so beautifully, both at Warner Brothers and at Disney, which I’ve created series sitcoms, and I know how rare that is. 

And the fact that she was young and a woman of color and they went, ‘Okay, we’re going to trust that you know this world from your mom being a Philly public school teacher and you knowing these characters and understanding them, we’re going to let you go with this.’

And so all the stories that she had planned melded together. So they were great puzzle pieces that came together at the end of the season, which the audiences will have to wait to see how they made out. 

And even as a performer, sometimes we didn’t know. And I would have to say, ‘Okay, look… is my character X, Y, and Z? Because I’m trying to create her still and figure her out. And I need to know that.’ So I can’t just play words as an actor; you play the truth of the character. 

So I needed to know, and she said, ‘yes, this and this will happen by the end of the season. This is the direction you go in.’ 

But I think what they were open to is when there was something that I felt strongly [about] that maybe the character wouldn’t do or because of her Sicilian background, it would be weird, and they let me buy it back. They had a couple of lines where I was offering up. It’s very funny. I shouldn’t give you the lines. She’ll be mad that I spilled it. 

But my character likes to eat—much like Lisa likes to eat—and loves food and loves to feed people and share food with people. And there was one scene where she brings in chicken to bribe us because she wants us all to share and become a closer work family. 

So there’s a great chicken place in Philly. And I just want the chicken. So she’s like, ‘Everybody has to tell the secret about themselves.’

I believe my line was, ‘My cousin turned out the hit on Bobby Kennedy. Can I get the chicken now?’ And it was brilliant. It was hilarious. Right? 

But I said, ‘okay, listen, a Sicilian never says that stuff like that. That’s breaking omerta.’ So later, the line was beautiful, so I didn’t want to change it. But in a couple of lines later, I said something like, ‘I can’t believe I broke omerta to get the chicken.’  

They’ll let me do stuff like that because it’s pertinent to the character’s background. But the writers don’t need a lot of my help. They’re a wonderful group of writers. And some of them are quite young. It’s so wonderful to see so many diverse voices get a chance and an opportunity to have their work on television. I’m thrilled to be part of it.

M&C: That baked ziti line laid me out in the rug transaction scene.

Lisa Ann Walter: Oh yes! I have to tell you about that line in particular. Because by that time, I think I had already brought in some baked ziti and meatballs and sausage that I made at home, and I shared it with all the cast and producers. I bring in stuff for the crew also. Justin Halpern’s mom is Sicilian. 

And so I started improvising the phone call with the guy, ‘Hey Tony, you big stronzo. You’re still working at stadium build?’ So I started walking down the hall, which wasn’t in the original script. And he [Justin] came over to me and said, ‘okay, why don’t you throw in before you start the phone call, ‘I might have to bake a ziti.” So that was him. It was perfect. I was like, ‘yes, yes.’ It was great.

M&C: Barbara and Melissa are a tribe of two. Barbara Howard and Melissa Schemmenti, discuss.

Lisa Ann Walter: My hands-down opinion is we are ride or die [friends] in the workplace. I think partially why is that built on Quinta’s mom’s relationship with the Sicilian friend she had at work. 

Lisa Ann Walter (R) as Melissa, with her "ride or die" Barbara (R) played by Sheryl Lee Ralph
Lisa Ann Walter (R) as Melissa, with her “ride or die” Barbara (R) played by Sheryl Lee Ralph. Pic credit: ABC

But it’s also Sheryl and me. We had only met one other time from minute one, but of course, I was aware of all of her work, and she knew my stuff. I dragged her into union work, and by the end of the pilot, I’m like, ‘I’m making you run for office. You’re going to be at least vice president.’ We just got along. 

We went shopping when we went on location to do one of the later episodes, and it was getting up close to Christmas. And we run over to the outlets, and by the second store, I’m like, holy sh** someone who shops just like me. 

We went from the front of the store right back to the clearance rack. We pulled all of the stuff. We did not stop for a drink, for the bathroom, for water, for nothing. We worked every store and just wrung them dry. 

And I thought, ‘okay, she’s an animal like I am, I love her.’ And we just laugh. She’s an incredible force of nature, and I adore being with her. 

So sitting next to her felt natural and feeling—not that she needs my protection because she doesn’t—but we are. So I think we’re very similar-minded. And in the story, Barbara and Melissa, I think, have fought a lot of good fights together, and we know when to expend the energy and when not to, or at least we think we do. 

But let anybody else come at Janine or any young teachers, and we’ll take them down too. So it’s just being warriors together and not taking anybody’s mess. 

And that’s how I feel about Sheryl and [her character] Barbara Howard. She also reminds me of my favorite teacher growing up, Ms. Davey, back in Montgomery County, Maryland. She was one of the first students to go to a desegregated school, she busted the color lines in the south, and she took education seriously and spoke in that similar gravitas like Barbara, when you say ‘W’s, you have an H in front, you say the H, and that’s what Sheryl’s [performance as Barbara] reminds me of.

We were watching a new episode last night. My kids were in the room, and when Sheryl came on, my son, who’s a singer, he said, ‘Oh my Lord, that voice.’ I said, ‘It’s like butter, isn’t it?’ And he was like, ‘yes. I feel it in my chest.’

M&C: I know you’re a working mother of four, and you’re in Hollywood. How did you do this?.

Lisa Ann Walter: Yes, comedy is hard, and I’m back to doing it again. I have a couple of spots at the Laugh Factory [comedy club] this month because just like when I started doing standup, there’s still stuff that I have to say that is for—as I say—grown women. And nobody else is going to tell it if people like me and [comedian] Monique Marvez don’t, so I’m back to doing it. 

I’m scared to death of COVID, and I’m bringing my own mic sock and, and it’s doing it all. It’s four kids that I know of, as I like to say, the busiest uterus in town. I couldn’t be happier that I have these kids. I understand comics who choose not to because you spend a life on the road, and there aren’t that many dads that would pick up the slack. 

I was lucky in that regard. My first ex-husband helped support me. And I would not have a career if it wasn’t for Sam and he’s still my best friend, we spend every weekend together. We watch 90 Day Fiance together. He’s my biggest supporter and cheerleader. So I love him. We spend all holiday days together. He’s the best, and I have to give him props. 

Abbott Elementary airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC. Past episodes are streaming on Hulu and on-demand.

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