Sheryl Lee Ralph knows something about what it takes to keep family together, and in her case it’s houses on both coasts and plenty of frequent-flier miles.
An actress, author, and now podcaster — Diva Defined with Sheryl Lee Ralph premieres Thursday, Jan. 10, the same day as her new CBS sitcom, Fam — Ralph married State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties, in July 2005.
She’s been commuting for work ever since. In the last year alone, her TV appearances have included roles in CBS’s MacGyver, TNT’s Claws, BET’s The Quad, and the Freeform holiday movie No Sleep ‘Til Christmas.
In Fam, which is shot on the West Coast, Ralph, the original Deena in Broadway’s Dreamgirls, and another Broadway veteran, Brian Stokes Mitchell, play Rose and Walt, parents of Nick (Tone Bell) and future in-laws of his fiancee, Clem (Nina Dobrev). For Clem, who lost her mother young and whose father (Gary Cole) didn’t exactly step up for her and her younger sister, Shannon (Odessa Adlon), Rose and Walt, however quirky, represent the stability she never felt growing up.
In an interview this week, Ralph talked about why she sees herself in Rose, the joys of a commuter marriage, and what, besides seeing Hughes, she loves most about her times at home in Philadelphia.
Here, edited and condensed, is our conversation:
Going back and forth is what I have to do. When I married the senator, I said to myself: “You know what? Maybe I can settle down in Philadelphia, maybe do a local news show, and that would be that life, that transition." And my husband turned to me and he said, “Oh, no, sweetheart. You keep doing what you do, the way you do it. That’s what works for this family.” And he’s absolutely right. That’s what works for this family, and I’m so happy to be able to make the commute work.
It’s a lot of plane rides, but I love my Diamond status on Delta, and I love Platinum Plus on American.
I think Rose is probably very much like me. I believe I’m going to be a great mother-in-law. Because the only thing I care about is that my son, my daughter, that they’re happy. Which means that they’d better be on point knowing that I just might kill somebody for my children, so don’t mess with my children. With Rose and Walt, they love their son so much, so when he brings home Clem, all that they care about is making sure that their child is happy. That’s what’s going to make them happy.
In our minds, we met in one of those artistic psychology arts programs that was part of my graduate studies [in psychology]. He was the actor who came in to create the program. Sparks flew and they have not gone out. She’s the brains in the family. He’s the beauty. She’s a psychologist [but] you don’t get that until later on.
There is nothing like someone calling you up and saying, “You’re who we want for this project. Would you like to do it?” It doesn’t get any better than that. And when you realize that you get to play a fabulous, compassionate, funny woman in Chanel shoes every week — I can do that.
I get a lot of input in the wardrobe, and when they let you keep it, it’s even better!
It’s the very first time, and I don’t know how or why Brian Stokes Mitchell and I have not been paired up together before this. That’s somebody I’ve always wanted to work with. But my mother used to say that to me all the time: “All things in God’s time.” And now here we are together, and we’re the perfect couple on TV, and it just works.
We go through songs all the times. I do this big event called “Divas Simply Singing” and I was looking for what song I should sing [last month at the annual HIV/AIDS benefit concert] and he would always have a great suggestion for me.
We bought that house. That house is sitting right there because that in itself became a sitcom. There was a [movie] that Cary Grant did, [Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House], and he and his wife [Myrna Loy] had to get on the same page. Well, this was Diva Hughes' dream house, and I had to get my husband on the same page with me to realize this is a good move. I find folks in Pennsylvania, they like to live the way they like to live. You all have the rowhouses, and you love that. He’s like, “You’re trying to turn me into the Fresh Prince.” He says, “I’m not going to Bel Air!”
He didn’t want to move. Still own the house. I said to him, “Don’t make me move into that house by myself.” You know I can’t do that. But now he’s moving more toward my side. That’s the Rose in me: You have to be patient with people. You can’t push them further than they want to go. And as long as you love them, you just hang in there with them, and move forward, doing what you need to do.
No, I’m getting what I want in both places. One just isn’t as big and detached as I would like it to be.
I love the fact that there is a Saks in walking distance. I love the fact that you have one of the greatest museums ever. That museum is wonderful, complete with a Rocky statue. I love looking out from the top of those stairs. I love that if you go in City Hall and you look up at some of the sculpture, you can see some of the greatest art in America. I love that if you take a walk further down, past the new upcoming retail mall that they’re trying to put up there [on East Market Street], you can find the start of American history. There is so much in America’s first city.