Quinta Brunson created and stars in this year’s breakout comedy, ABC’s Abbott Elementary, about a group of teachers trying their best at an underfunded Philadelphia elementary school. Speaking with EW, she reflects on the show’s freshman year with costars Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays longtime teacher Barbara Howard, and Janelle James, who steals scenes as their inept principal Ava Coleman. By Gerrad Hall
Cover illustration by Natalia Agatte
Tyler James Williams, Quinta Brunson, Chris Perfetti, Lisa Ann Walter, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Janelle James, and William Stanford Davis on ABC’s ‘Abbott Elementary.’
| Credit: Temma Hankin/ABC
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did each of you realize the show was a hit? Was there an obvious moment?
SHERYL LEE RALPH: For me, it was during the shoot of the pilot. Tyler [James Williams], who plays Gregory, the two of us just had a moment where we looked at each other and he said, “You feel it, right?” And I said, “Man, you feel it too, don’t you?” He said, “Yeah.” … We both felt that we had something very special. The whole feeling that, wow, you had six people who actually really got along, who actually fit like a zipper and made everything that Quinta had created just come alive. And it was absolutely magical, and he and I felt it at the same time.
JANELLE JAMES: I knew from the time I read it that it was a good show. I don’t know if I was predicting that it was going to hit — much less hit in this way — but I knew it was a good show and was hoping for a hit. Everybody, it seems, agreed with me that it was a good show and it was a fun experience. That’s what I was feeling more than thinking about whether it’s a hit or not. I was just like, “This has been great. A great experience shooting this show with these people.”
QUINTA BRUNSON: For me, it was probably when watching or hearing people, everyday people, talk about the show. I think that means that you’ve done a good job making a network television show. When people were telling me, “I’m at this random restaurant and people are talking about Abbott next to me.” Or I had a friend who was at a resort, and someone was talking to about the show next to him. To me, that started to feel like, “Okay, the word of mouth is happening. People are talking about the show. The word is traveling.” When other people are saying, “You need to see this,” that’s when I felt like we had done our job.
Sheryl Lee Ralph, Janelle James, and Quinta Brunson on ABC’s ‘Abbott Elementary.’
| Credit: Ser Baffo/ABC
Sheryl, I really can’t imagine anyone else playing Barbara but you. What have you found yourself latching onto most? And are there things you get to do here that previous roles didn’t afforded you?
RALPH: I think it’s the being of it all. Sometimes I would be doing what I think is absolutely nothing and then Quinta or Janelle might say to me, “Now that was everything.” And I’m just like, “Really? I was literally just here.” For me, it’s a very relaxed situation. From my comfort shoes to my twin sets to the pearls — it’s a very relaxed way of approaching a character. I don’t have to be “on” at all, but I have to be on my game for this character, for this woman. The placement of her voice. The actions. The fact that she doesn’t always need to talk to let you know exactly how she feels. So that’s a whole other thing. I really think I’ve been given a gift from Quinta in playing Mrs. Howard.
Janelle, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that “school principal” was probably not on your bucket list of roles that you wanted to play. Did you audition? And what burning questions did you have about her?
JAMES: I did audition, and I did get called back. That’s why I’m here. But as far as whether principal was on [my bucket list]… I didn’t have a bucket list of anything that I wanted to play — and I think that helps me in acting, that I don’t have any expectations. I just look for stuff that seems in my wheelhouse and would be fun to do and people I want to work with. [With Ava,] I felt like I knew who she was, and so I just did it. I don’t really have a technique or preparation. I’m just doing. But I feel like that kind of lends to this character: that she’s unprepared, maybe. I’m prepared by being unprepared. I really don’t have any [preconceived] notions about what acting is supposed to be. I just really felt like this is a person that I know and I get her motivation and I’m going to do it.
Janelle James on ABC’s ‘Abbott Elementary.’
| Credit: Scott Everett White/ABC
Quinta, you’ve created a show with diversity and representation in terms of race and sexuality. What are you hearing from people in those regards?
BRUNSON: It feels wonderful that people are feeling represented in this show. But, I will say that in creating Abbott, weirdly, my goal was not diversity. It was just, “These are the people that make up Abbott Elementary. These are the people who work at this school as a predominantly Black teaching group and a predominantly Black student body population.” Ultimately, I feel that the key to more diversity in television is not just sticking characters into a white world, but actually green-lighting the stories that naturally bring those people to the forefront. We weren’t worried about diversity at all while we were making this show. We were worried about being funny. And that’s because we didn’t have to do the task of sticking people in to fulfill some quota. We already brought everything that’s being looked for so hard to the table. So it just goes to show, if more shows like this are brought to the forefront and green-lit, we won’t even have to have those kinds of corny discussions anymore about, “Where’s the diversity in this thing?” Honestly, don’t stick me in Mrs. Maisel. I’d rather see a show that’s about our people.
Speaking of being funny: desking? Where did that come from?
BRUNSON: We made that one up. We were last-minute trying to find a new episode because one of our episodes… it was very similar to another story we had, so we threw it out. But I very quickly came up with the idea of desking — just the notion of it — and the writers’ room helped build it out. I had seen kids online who were stealing paper towel dispensers from their classrooms. This was a TikTok trend. I’m like, “This is probably driving the teachers crazy, but I’m only seeing the kid end of it, which is like, they were stealing it to show off on TikTok.” I was like, “What if something similar like that happened that Abbott? What would that mean for our team?” That wound up being one of my favorite episodes. I know it’s one of the [writers’] room’s favorite episodes because we got to be so silly. I feel like everybody’s on fire in that one. Like Janelle and Lisa [Ann Walter] in that. It’s so good.
Is the season 2 writers’ room open yet?
BRUNSON: It is! And we are so excited. We are so excited with what we’re doing already. Sheryl and Janelle don’t know yet, but we’re just so, so excited. It feels so wonderful to get back in the room. Everyone is firing on all cylinders. All of our old writers came back, and we have one new writer who, coincidentally, is named Ava Coleman. I know that’s so weird.
BRUNSON: It’s very weird. What’s funny is she was someone I wanted for season 1. I didn’t even realize that I had named the character the same name as this girl that I knew.
JAMES: That’s crazy. I didn’t know that.
BRUNSON: I know. It’s so funny. And she’s fitting right in, bringing new juice to the room. We are already so excited for what we get to do. We’re losing our minds. And that’s a good feeling to come back feeling that way, because it can be easy to be plagued by a good first season and almost be intimidated by having to do it again.
Last question: What grade would you give this interview?
BRUNSON: Actually, a nice firm A.
Oughta Get a Nod: Hamish Linklater for Midnight Mass
Hamish Linklater as Father Paul in ‘Midnight Mass’
| Credit: Netflix
Does the awards community need to up its dose of Ginkgo Biloba? September 2021 wasn’t that long ago (8 months and 14 days, to be precise), yet very few Emmy prognosticators seem to remember this simple fact: Hamish Linklater absolutely killed it — in more ways than one — as an intensely devoted man of God in Netflix’s Midnight Mass.
This collective amnesia is particularly odd given that Linklater delivered a pair of distinctly excellent performances in two recent limited series: As Nixon lackey Jeb Magruder in Starz’s Gaslit, and doting fangelyne/personal assistant Rick Krause in Peacock’s Angelyne.
For the purposes of this plea, though, let’s focus on Midnight Mass. Linklater stars as Father Paul Hill, a young priest who arrives in the small fishing town of Crockett Island after the church’s elderly clergyman falls ill. Father Paul is congenial and unassuming, a gentle man who just wants to watch over the island’s Catholic flock until the Monsignor returns. Or so he says. Midnight Mass only works if the viewers, like the citizens of Crockett Island, are mesmerized by Father Paul — and thanks to Linklater, it works miraculously well. Fusing aw-shucks wit with fiery religious zeal and an almost palpable benevolence, the star makes us believe that Father Paul is acting out of a deep devotion to his God and a profound love for his parishioners, even though what he’s asking them to do is terrifying and patently insane. When the priest finally realizes the gravity of his sin, his last words — “forgive me” — will hit you square in the soul. —Kristen Baldwin
Anatomy of a Scene: Euphoria
From a faulty penis prosthetic that wouldn’t always pee, to his character Cal Jacob’s “epic soliloquy,” Eric Dane unpacks the scene that he calls a career highlight. By Sydney Bucksbaum
He learned the scene was coming at a table read
“My reaction was, ‘Okay, this is going to be fun.’ It was slightly terrifying, but it was written so well, and [showrunner Sam Levinson] didn’t want me to change anything from what we had at the table read. The monologue is an exponential rise, and it’s a pretty smooth trajectory. I made sure that I knew what I was saying so that I could forget about what I was saying and not have to worry about what I was saying. I didn’t want to have to act, I wanted it to just be natural and real.”
He interpreted the scene as Cal’s big epiphany
“Last year, Cal was so contained and composed and restricted. After I read this, I said to Sam, ‘Wow, we get to see a whole different Cal. This guy’s finally cut loose.’ We get to essentially create a whole new character. I think he’s still searching for who he really is, but I know he’s let go of who he was. He is starting from ground zero now. He has shaken off the past and he’s living his truth. I hope that people feel differently about Cal as a person after this; they saw him be human and broken and beaten down, and maybe the audience has a little empathy for him after that.”
He focused on the action while filming the scene
“I found it to be very liberating. All the action in the scene was there to create these obstacles, like peeing in the foyer and moving up the stairs and going to confront the kids upstairs and pulling this picture off the wall and going back down the stairs. I found that focusing on that stuff allowed me to more or less let this thing fly.”
But one thing kept getting in the way
“Honestly, the clamp on the prosthetic was the biggest challenge. To get that thing to pee was a challenge unto itself. At the same time, you’ve got to do this scene and you can’t be caught up trying to figure out how to make this prosthetic work. I didn’t really care whether it worked or it didn’t — I wasn’t going to be distracted from what I needed to do because of a prosthetic rig. [Laughs] We’re trying to shy away from this, but let’s not: Trying to make the penis work couldn’t be the no. 1 priority. I mean, I saw the pee come out of the prosthetic most of the time. If it didn’t happen, I was still going through the motions of peeing in the foyer. I’m done with the prosthetics! Let’s retire the prosthetics, but it was fun while it lasted.”
His line delivery of “I am who I am” went viral on TikTok
“That’s so weird, because that was one of the lines I wished I would’ve done differently. I thought there was a better way, or maybe more decisive. It’s interesting that’s one of the lines that ended up going viral, but I’m happy that was the outcome. I don’t know what’s best for me. I’m my own worst critic.”
Why he loves this scene more than anything he’s done before
“This scene had so much in it. I’ve never been given such a dynamic piece to work with. It’s usually pretty binary, somewhat linear, and this one just moves so well and it’s all over the place, and I love that about it. I was willing to have it be as messy and sloppy as it could possibly be because that’s where Cal was at the time. It’s a hard thing as an actor to go, ‘I don’t give a s— if I fall on my face and I look bad,’ but I really had to lean into that with this piece. There’s no vanity with this character, especially in this moment. I hope Cal gets an epic soliloquy every season.”
Watch Eric Dane and his onscreen son, Jacob Elordi, discuss their season 2 relationship in the video below.
Spotlight: Pam & Tommy star Lily James
Lily James strips down the most pivotal ‘mic drop’ moment for Pamela Anderson on Pam & Tommy. By Sydney Bucksbaum
Lily James had the “first day from hell” while filming Pam & Tommy. Instead of easing into the story behind the nonconsensual selling of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape, the very first scene she shot with dialogue turned out to be one of the most pivotal moments for her take on the Baywatch star.
At the very end of the Hulu series’ third episode, “Jane Fonda,” Pamela meets with her new publicist to go over the promotional plan for her film Barb Wire. While the conversation starts out light, it quickly takes a powerful turn as Pamela details why Jane Fonda is her career role model. It’s the first time viewers see the actress’ passionate determination brewing under the surface.
James knew how important this moment was for the character, as it’s the first sign that there’s more to Pamela Anderson than people may assume. “The point of it is to shock and surprise the audience, like, ‘Were you underestimating me? Well, here we go,'” she says. “It’s such a slam dunk, mic drop moment. It really shifts everything, and I do like how the writers made it like a Trojan horse. You think of it as one thing, and then it becomes something else. The publicist — who I think is supposed to be the audience — is sort of patronizing her, and so then she comes out with this big speech and you understand her depth and intelligence and her commitment and passion and what matters to her. It’s just such a cool moment.”
That said, filming it first “added an absurd amount of pressure,” James admits. “I’d only been dressed in the character like three times. And then suddenly, I was doing this huge monologue. I was so nervous. I was just thrown into the deep end, and it was pretty terrifying. Of course, I was completely paranoid that we didn’t get it. I didn’t want to f— up. I didn’t want to get fired on the first day.”
James credits director Craig Gillespie with getting her into the right headspace for the scene. “He’s so alive and fiery and passionate, and he gives you a little smile and it fills you with confidence,” she says. “And he really lets you play. He only said ‘action’ like twice and basically just lets it run, which I love, because saying ‘action’ often snaps you out of it. By letting you just do take after take and resetting in your own time, it feels more relaxed. I actually did loads of improvising in the scene, and they didn’t put any of it in. I was kind of bummed about that, but it turned out great.”
While her first day started with a challenge, that first scene showed James that her North Star was how she related to Pamela. “There’s this new path that Pam is taking with Barb Wire, and everything feels so scary. I’ve definitely felt patronized in rooms and slightly diminished and wanted to be more direct like she was,” says James. “I started to relate and understand it from my own perspective. It’s like your most authentic voice just comes out of nowhere and these words spill out of you. And as that’s happening, it becomes really easy.”
As James stopped focusing on all the prosthetics and started focusing on the emotion and message behind Pamela’s big speech, she stopped feeling nervous and started feeling inspired. “I just think that what she’s saying matters so much,” she says. “Every actor — more so actresses, I think — faces this thing of being boxed in and typecast and ‘you can only be this one thing,’ especially when it comes to your sexuality, how that’s weaponized and demanded of us, but then put down. Everything in the scene was just exactly what I wanted to be exploring and talking about. It’s so powerful.”
Heat Index | Contender or Pretender?
With the nomination voting window quickly approaching, we take a look at some categories to see which performers and shows are up, down, or holding steady. By Gerrad Hall
Selena Gomez | Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
Kate McKinnon | Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Giancarlo Esposito & Jonathan Banks | Better Call Saul (AMC)
The Disney+ series’ creator Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron break down an epic episode 5 fight where dozens of Loki variants let the knives come out. By Maureen Lee Lenker
Tom Hiddleston, center, as Loki variant President Loki.
| Credit: Marvel Studios
When Alligator Loki chomps off the hand of President Loki, all hell breaks loose. Waldron conceived this Captain Hook nod as the fight’s inciting incident — and bringing it to life required a stuffed alligator on a plastic stick and massive commitment from star Tom Hiddleston. “We had it fly across the room and Tom would catch it,” director Kate Herron remembers of the alligator. “But he let out this wild scream when he caught it. Everyone was trying not to laugh.”
Fighting With Yourself
For Hiddleston to double as President Loki, he had to, as Herron puts it, “Parent Trap himself.” Hiddleston would act opposite a body double, with Herron reading lines off-camera. “You have to film it once with Tom as our Loki, and once as President,” she explains, “and it was tight on time because it takes a long time to get those horns on properly.” Adds creator Michael Waldron: “It’s incredibly complex stuff to be doing on a television schedule.”
Magic To Do
As the trickster god, Loki has magic at his disposal, but only Classic Loki (Richard E. Grant) uses it heavily in the fight. That was essential to set up his powers for the show’s climax. “That’s the early hint of his projection power,” Waldron says, “which he’ll later do on a much grander scale to trick Alioth.”
A Mischief of Lokis
Costume designer Christine Wada helped Waldron and Herron devise the fight’s gang of apocalyptic Lokis, including one with horns made from bicycle handles. “She had a lot of fun building the horns,” says Herron. “Maybe some of them had to rebuild them in the void — and how did they fight with them? You give the roadmap to your stunt coordinator and designers and build it with them.”
The vast majority of the fight was shot in-camera, featuring stunts coordinated by Monique Ganderton, which was a deliberate choice to reflect Loki’s core identity. Says Waldron: “If you watch how Loki fights throughout the movies, he’s magical — but he’s always keen to use his daggers and his fists. He’s not afraid to scrap it up. So, it’s cool to show that side of all these Lokis fighting.”
A Slippery Guy
The protagonist version of Loki is intent on avoiding the fight and escaping the hideout, picking his way through the brawl with a mischievous slink. “The fun in this episode is you see who he could have become, and who he once was,” notes Herron. “With the jumping through the fight, Loki wants to get out of there. He’s got a very clear mission. That movement, Tom did that in rehearsal, and I found it very funny. It felt emotionally true.”
Cannes-tenders: 5 potential Oscars breakouts from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival
After solid debuts in France, these movies could make headway in the race for Academy Awards. By Joey Nolfi
There’s always gold to be found at the Cannes Film Festival, from the glistening sunshine kissing the shores of southern France to movie stars shepherding their latest prestige projects into existence. Over the last 75 years, the annual cinema event has evolved from a congregation of global tastes to full-fledged celebrity spectacle — one that typically aligns significant Oscars contenders for gilded runs through the awards race ahead. This year, glowing reviews for stars including Anne Hathaway, Song Kang-ho, and Toms of all sorts (looking at you, Cruise and Hanks) entered the hunt for potential glory as the Academy Awards race stretches its legs in Europe. Read on for five Cannes projects that could make headway at the Oscars as the year progresses.
‘Armageddon Time’ cast poses with James Gray at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
| Credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
If actual Armageddon looks anything like Anne Hathaway on the Cannes carpet for the premiere of James Gray’s new film, bring on the apocalypse. The Devil Wears Prada star and Les Misérables Oscar winner eyes a potential bid for another nomination in the celebrated filmmaker’s latest. The coming-of-age tale set in 1980s Queens also features awards heavy-hitters like two-time Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins and Succession‘s Emmy-winning Jeremy Strong. As Licorice Pizza and Belfast proved earlier this year, the Academy is still hungry for chronicles of formative youth, and reviews touting Gray’s unique approach to a formulaic genre that’s been done to death on the big screen could be enough to sustain interest in a time-tested genre.
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in ‘Elvis’
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Yes, the Academy is diversifying its voting ranks, but nothing will stop Oscar from loving biopics — especially when said biopics are about straight white men whose stories unfold against the backdrop of a visually enticing historical period in American history. According to early reactions out of Cannes, director Baz Luhrmann’s latest eye-popping spectacle checks all of those boxes as he vividly recounts the life of Elvis Presley, with Austin Butler leading the cast and Tom Hanks providing strong (heavily accented) support. After the Presley family’s emotional reactions to the project stamped it with an enthusiastic endorsement from those who knew the central subject best, it’s safe to assume Elvis will play to a wide range of American audiences at the box office, becoming a likely commercial hit that could walk the same path to the Oscars as Rocketman, Walk the Line, and Ray before it.
Decision to Leave
Park Chan-wook’s ‘Decision to Leave’
| Credit: Cannes Film Festival
While glistening studio vehicles and their starry casts have stolen the mainstream spotlight from some of Cannes international offerings, the festival has shepherded eventual Oscar players like Isabelle Huppert’s French thriller Elle, Bong Joon-ho’s Korean Best Picture winner Parasite, Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s dramatic Japanese epic Drive My Car into the awards conversation in big ways. Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave could follow the path forged by those films, as the Stoker and Handmaiden director’s latest mystery earned near-universal praise as a standout entry among the celebrated helmer’s filmography. In particular, there has been kudos for the film’s direction and story — meaning that, much like Hamaguchi, the writer-director could be looking at dual nods among the increasingly worldwide scope of the Academy’s directing and writing branches.
Dong-won Gang and Song Kang-ho in writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘Broker’
| Credit: Eontalk Media
Following their breakout success at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Parasite star Song Kang-ho has again found a hit in the hands of Neon, which acquired distribution rights to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker just ahead of the annual event. With a Best Actor prize for its leading man at Cannes, coupled with significant box office returns in South Korea, the film — which weaves together various narratives relating to babies being left in boxes for strangers to care for — is shaping up to be another prestige favorite from Asia on the global scene.
Top Gun: Maverick
Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’
| Credit: Paramount Pictures
With the global market favoring tentpoles more than ever before, the runway has cleared for high profile out-of-competition premieres to take flight at Cannes. Ahead of his biggest opening weekend at the domestic box office, Tom Cruise landed sky-high reviews for his highly anticipated sequel Top Gun: Maverick, which Cannes critics praised as an emotional nod to nostalgia laced with the kind of spectacular action synonymous with big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. While the film’s technical elements are likely to land on Academy radar, Lady Gaga’s soundtrack tune “Hold My Hand” also looks to capitalize on the first film’s winning legacy: Berlin’s iconic 1986 hit “Take My Breath Away” from the first Top Gun film dominated the American charts and the Best Original Song category.