Sheryl Lee Ralph is a renowned star of stage and screen, having played the role of Deena Jones in the original Broadway production of “Dreamgirls”, before moving on to major roles in projects as varied as “Moesha” and “Sister Act 2.” Tonight, she joins the cast of “Smash”, playing the mom/manager of Jennifer Hudson’s Veronica “Ronnie” Moore. Last week, Ralph participated in a conference call to discuss the role, as well as her experiences on set, and her relationship with Jennifer Hudson.
On how “Smash” captures the feel of mounting and performing a Broadway show:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Well you know it’s television so a bunch of it is – a lot of it is glamorized, but it’s … glamorized to people interested … with a basic understanding of just how a musical does get launched. You know, things have changed greatly since the beginning of stage productions so there’s always a different way to launch a show but from what I see they’re doing a pretty good job.
On her role as Jennifer Hudson’s overbearing stage mom, Cynthia:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: First of all I love this character. This is a woman who is so comfortable in her well-earned Manolo Blahniks that it is a joy just to get to play her. I was there on set and one of the execs came over and they said my God, the last time we saw a woman like this it was Dominique Devereaux. And for those of you who remember Dominique Devereaux she was a powerful woman played by Diahann Carroll and I was just like, “Wow I take that as a supreme compliment.” But also I had to stir in a little bit of a “Momager” [combination of "mom" and "manager"] … just to make sure she had some authenticity.
On whether or not she gets to perform with Hudson in the episode:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Yes, Jennifer and I sing together just a bit but it’s a good song and it’s a good moment together.
On what she liked about the dynamic between mother and daughter:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: You know, as I said the two of us – you know how it is, sometimes when you’re a strong mother and you raise your child and then your child one day turns around and they are everything that you have raised them to be? Sometimes you have to rethink … how do you hold on to what you raised? So I love that dynamic between the two of them. And even when things get a little bit testy there’s still that foundation of love. And I’m so thankful to have a character and a relationship written like that, especially for women of color.
On getting to work with Jennifer Hudson, and her opinions on Hudson as a talent:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Let me tell you something, I walked into my dressing room and inside the room was the hugest, grandest, most beautiful arrangement of flowers I have ever seen. In fact they were so big that either the flowers had to go or I had to go. And when I opened the envelope and saw that they were from Jen, I walked over to say thank you and she looked at me and she said, “Miss Ralph, you don’t have to tell me thank you for anything because you are all that I ever really want to be.” I was like, “Oh my God.” It just made me feel — I can’t even explain it — but I was like, “Wow what a moment, what a moment.”
On what was the best part of being a guest star on the show:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh my gosh, I guess the best part of being a guest star on that show is that you know you’re probably going to get to do something great, that’s basically a theatrical stretch, but onscreen. And for me it was the fact that when they called me in they said, “Look are you interested in playing the “Momager” to Jennifer Hudson on Smash?” And this was coming from my agent. I told my agent that is not funny, do not punk me, and I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone!
He called me right back and he said, “No, no, no I’m serious. They’re offering you this, like, right now. Do you want to do it?” Oh honey please, I had say yes so quickly it was unbelievable. I was so happy. I was like “oh my God I can imagine the clothing, I can imagine the words and what will be the song.” So I was excited.
On how big her role is in the season:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: You know, I only got to do the one episode as we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen, but the door was open for the possibility of more. But one never knows, does one?
On the difference between her motherly role on “Moesha” vs. her mother role on “Smash”:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh wow let me see. You know, it’s really interesting because I was thinking about that myself, and when I really looked at all of the young women that I’ve played mother to, it’s an incredible group of talent. Let’s see there was Brandy on “Moesha” but before Brandy there was Sister Act 2 and my daughter was — why am I blanking on her name? Sister Act 2… oh my gosh … Lauryn Hill! Lauryn Hill, Brandy and then let’s see my other daughters, I just wrapped a pilot with Tia Mowry and then the mom for Jennifer Hudson. So my God, if you just consider the four of them, it’s an incredible group of young women and all of these mothers are so very different. I love this mother on “Smash” because she’s so grounded in the church, but at the same time she knows how to handle the world. You can tell that she’s been under the leadership of a strong bishop or two, you know? And I love that about her.
But then at the same time when I was doing the mom in “Moesha” she was a stern but loving stepmother, so she had to really tread lightly when it came to the kids. But at the very end, you knew that they grew to love each other so deeply and it’s just so interesting. And in the piece that I did with Tia Mowry oh my God, this mother can drink, she can dress but she loves her daughter. They’re all so different.
On whether she ever had a conversation with Hudson about “Dreamgirls”:
Sheryl Lee Ralph:Absolutely and she said something to me that – I mean she was just full of great conversation — but she said, “Miss Ralph I really wish you had been on that set. I really wish that you had been there.” And I was just like “wow.” And all I could do was say thank you for that, thank you because heck I wish I had been there too myself.
On her upcoming pilot with Tia Mowry:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: The pilot with Tia Mowry’s called “Instant Mom” and she’s a real, real party girl who marries a doctor and inherits three childrenm all kind of by accident, because the mother had the kids, but then again her mother gets sick so she leaves to take care of her mother and she ends up with the kids. And I end up a mother with a daughter who has children because, of course, I am glamorous, I will never be grandmother.
On working on the set of “Smash”:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: First of all it was great to be there. It was great to know that there were so many little – well okay let’s put it this way, in L.A. you walk into these sparkling stages that have their own ghost and all of that but we were literally shooting in a tricked out warehouse in Queens and I was like oh my goodness. If you would drive by this building you would never know all of that magic was taking place inside of those doors. So I was just like oh my goodness. That was the one thing.
The next thing would be the hours. I mean, it was like – it was an intense schedule, a really intense schedule and it was all day baby. But I did love it. It felt good. It was like a hot shot of adrenaline and then you got to sing too. Oh it was great. Great wardrobe, great set, great songs, great cast. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so very much.
On her current involvement in theater:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: You know what, I would love to be involved in theater much, much more but there seems to be lesser and lesser roles for women of color. And that has been a great challenge because sometimes I feel like I’m being shut out of an industry that I absolutely love, because there just seems to be a lack of roles unless there’s a specialty piece of theater developed and that’s hard.
On the origin of her significant gay following, and her charity work with AIDS research:
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Sheryl Lee Ralph: Dreamgirls. Dreamgirls. You have got to read my book “Redefining Diva”. … I write in the book that we immediately had a huge gay following. In many instances they were the backbone and the support of moving that musical forward. And for me, what really solidified the relationship was that there we were – Dreamgirls for me was like the best and the worst of all time, and in the best times you’re singing and dancing with somebody on stage one night and the next night they’d be fighting for their life. And as a performer and as friend to some of the most incredible men ever, I saw them die on the stigma, shame and silence because of AIDS. And that’s how that relationship came together because, as a preacher’s kid, a Christian kid, I said “How can I turn my back on my friends? We have to do something.”
…You know, the “Divas Simply Singing” is the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country. And when I created that I really just wanted to have – I wanted to have a living, breathing memorial of the many friends that I lost while doing Dreamgirls on Broadway. Of all the great things we’ve ever done, people hardly ever mention that we lost close to one-third of our original company to AIDS and that’s why I created “Divas Simply Singing.”
Sheryl Lee Ralph guest stars on “The Song,” the latest all-new episode of “Smash,” tonight at 10/9c on NBC.