Jennifer Garner and Sheryl Lee Ralph Bond Over Divorce, Losing Roles for the Wrong Reasons and Rising From ‘Grunt Work’: ‘We Have Each Other’

Jennifer Garner’s first starring role in a TV series, as a butt-kicking spy on 2001’s “Alias,” made her an international star and launched a movie career that includes “13 Going on 30” and “Electra.” And Sheryl Lee Ralph has spent decades building a formidable list of acting credits on TV — from the ’80s soap “Search for Tomorrow” to “Moesha” — but she’s finally getting her due as the motherly teacher Barbara Howard in “Abbott Elementary.” Garner, whose family members count themselves “Abbott” fans, recently returned to the small screen as a stepmother, Hannah, dealing with the disappearance of her husband in Apple TV+’s “The Last Thing He Told Me.” Days after Garner’s birthday, the two discuss their favorite topics: motherhood, generous co-stars and dessert.

SHERYL LEE RALPH: Happy birthday. Did you have cake?

JENNIFER GARNER: Of course I did.

RALPH: Did you have ice cream?

GARNER: I did.

RALPH: Did you celebrate with your kids?

GARNER: I had cake, ice cream — and kids many times over.

RALPH: We have so many things in common. With all the celebrity and all of that, I feel like I have a very normal life, and I think you have that similar sort of vibe. And we love our kids.

GARNER: And all the mess of parenting. It’s a gift.

RALPH: And both of us having gone through divorce. You did something that I did as well —maintain a healthy relationship with my ex for the health and well-being of my children. With the spotlight on us all the time, sometimes that can be difficult.

GARNER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RALPH: But when I look at my kids, when I see you and your kids, I was like, “Girl, we did that.”

GARNER: We’re doing it! We do have so many similarities. We both are of the theater. Everyone says you started with “Dreamgirls,” but your first rattle out of the box was a movie directed by Sidney Poitier — “A Piece of the Action.” You were such a peanut. You had just graduated super early from college, had you not?

RALPH: That’s right. I realized that I was not going to live my mother’s dream for me. I was not going to be a lawyer, I was not going to be a doctor, and I was not on the path to marry one. My dad said to me, “You will come into this world with your mother, but you will probably leave by yourself, and you better leave knowing that you made some good choices.” I had to go live my life.

GARNER: And how did you get that first job?

RALPH: My acting teacher turned out to be one of the producers of this movie with Sidney Poitier. He had been calling me and calling me. But I was gone for six weeks, and on the last day, he said, “Sheryl Lee Ralph, you need to be at Warner Bros. tomorrow.” I got my cousin Mabel to drive me. She hadn’t driven in maybe 10 years. And it took us an hour to get from Hollywood and Highland to Warner Bros.

GARNER: Bless Mabel. People have no idea that they are the crucial link to you getting your start. I worked in summer stock every summer. I would hang the lights and build the sets and sell the tickets. I’ve been fired from costume departments before, and they sent me to construction. I got sent back to costumes. They sent me to tickets. I might as well be a performer, and I better be nice doing it, because I know I can’t do those other jobs.

RALPH: That’s why I stand in the middle, because I know I can’t do background. Let me just sing lead.

GARNER: You won an Emmy for “Abbott Elementary,” and you just got up and blasted it out, and the whole place went bananas. I’ve probably seen you sing that speech 10 times. Congratulations for redefining what that joy and that ownership looks like.

RALPH: That’s because I understand the grunt work. I know what it’s like to hear no after no, and some of those noes were for absolutely no good reason. Someone once told me, “You didn’t get the role because you remind me too much of my ex-wife.” And she was a white woman!

GARNER: Can we talk about “Abbott Elementary”? My mom taught remedial English at West Virginia State College. She always said, “There should be a sitcom of what happens in the teachers’ lounge.” She loves “Abbott Elementary.” She says, “This is us.”

RALPH: I always tell young artists that an educated artist is a far more interesting artist. All of America’s children deserve a great education.

GARNER: And Barb is determined to give it to them.

RALPH: Barbara Howard, and that wig of Barbara Howard’s, is something I know very well. We all have a teacher with that wig. I tell people, “I’m what mentoring looks like. I’m what the belief of others looks like.” I think about my Auntie Carolyn, a reluctant teacher, and how she strived to make sure that her students knew that there was more and better in the world. When I think about “The Last Thing He Told Me,” girl, you are struggling with that stepdaughter! I wanted to say, “You tell that child to stop right now!”

GARNER: Hannah’s stepdaughter is played by Angourie Rice. She is such a fine actress, and it was a real challenge for me to not play her mom. That’s the relationship I know. I know when to give them space. I know when to lean in a little bit. But Hannah never planned to have a kid. She doesn’t have a lot of choice but to be patient.

RALPH: When you get your script, do you read it? Episode to episode?

GARNER: Mm-hmm.

RALPH: I don’t. We sit down and we have a table read.

GARNER: And you discover it in the table read? I couldn’t do that. I read the script for “The Last Thing He Told Me” 50 times before I sat in the backyard with our showrunner and the author of the book. We read the scripts aloud. Wrestled with them. Went back. Read the first one again. Then we did it again, adding in our director, and then Angourie. It was the most luxurious process.

RALPH: I’ve not taken a walk into the writers’ room. Everybody always says, “Are you asking for this or that?” I’m like, “Guess what? I won an Emmy. I’m not asking for anything, because they’re doing very well by me.” In “The Last Thing He Told Me,” every time you touch the pillow and he’s gone, that’s such a great thing. How did you come up with that?

GARNER: That happened pretty naturally. It’s the first time she’s gone up to her room. Hannah doesn’t know how long he’s been gone, where he is, if he’s safe, if he’s alive. He was just there that morning. He was just on that pillow next to her.

RALPH: Sometimes in the work, it’s not the big things we do with the characters. Sometimes it’s the small things.

GARNER: My ex-boyfriend, played by Geoff Stults, we never had a scene together, but we have some really pivotal phone conversations. Geoff so kindly came to San Pedro and walked under the camera for me all day. He said, “I need to be here with you.”

RALPH: Isn’t it wonderful when you find a giving actor? They understand, even though they’re not on camera, how important it is for the one who is on camera. You had “Alias” back in the day, and now you’re doing “The Last Thing He Told Me.”

GARNER: What I love about television, I love hanging with a character. The richness of those relationships over time are reflected in the work. That has been really joyful about doing “The Last Thing He Told Me” after all of those years on “Alias.” And by the way, we finished 17 years ago, and I still have several people from that show with me on everything I do. My stunt double, who was just starting out the fourth episode of “Alias,” we’ve been together since then. I’ve had the same stand-in just as long. I’ve had the same costumer just as long.

RALPH: With everything that’s happened around “Abbott,” one person came up to me and said, “No new friends. If they didn’t know you before, they can’t know you now.” I was just like, “But I love people so much!”

GARNER: I think you can have new friends. I met you!

RALPH: How about that?

GARNER: We have each other.

Set Design: Lucy Holt; Production: Alexey Galetskiy/AGPNYC

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