‘Abbott Elementary’ Cast Talks Changing ‘Hearts & Minds’ With the ABC Comedy

Abbott Elementary - Sheryl Lee Ralph, Chris Perfetti, Janelle James, Tyler James Williams
ABC/Gilles Mingasson

Abbott Elementary won’t be back until later this fall, but its cast is eager to get back to work on the grade school-set comedy, which took ABC by storm this spring.

TV Insider caught up with a few of the series’ principal players at the 2022 Disney Upfronts, where they discussed the effect this show has had on them personally as well as the influence they’ve seen among audiences.

“It’s what I love to do,” says Tyler James Williams, who plays Abbott’s newest teacher, Gregory Eddie. “I’ve never been an actor who’s out to make a lot of money. I need to be [telling stories that] affect change in people’s hearts and minds. This is one of those shows.”

Abbott Elementary Season 1 Tyler James Williams

(Credit: ABC/Gilles Mingasson)

“If, when somebody goes to drop their kids off to school tomorrow, they’re a little nicer to the teachers because they understand them a little bit more. If I can do that [with the show], then I’m happy,” Williams adds.

As fans already know, Abbott Elementary is a workplace mockumentary-style comedy chronicling the day-to-day challenges faced by the faculty at one of Pennsylvania’s underprivileged inner-city schools. Williams’ Gregory enters the scene as a long-term substitute who, by the end of Season 1, decides to stay on as a full-time teacher.

At the heart of it all is series creator and star Quinta Brunson, who plays optimistic teacher Janine Teagues. When Gregory arrived, Janine worked on convincing him that Abbott was a special place, and softened him up to the idea of teaching despite wanting to be a principal. Instead, that job goes to the supremely underqualified Ava Coleman, played by Janelle James.

Abbott Elementary Season 1 Janelle James

(Credit: ABC/Bonnie Osborne)

“I feel — not to be corny — blessed to be part of something that seems to make people so happy,” James muses. “That’s the most feedback that I get from the show, that it’s their feel-good show, and it makes them feel good in bad times.”

And Ava’s certainly a character that can elicit a laugh with her inflated ego — such as when she spent vital school funds on an unnecessary decorative banner featuring her face. “She was a standout type of role and stand out person,” James recalls of her initial reaction to reading the part.

James also assures that Ava couldn’t be farther from her onscreen persona. “Even though people think that it’s a lot like me, it’s not. I wanted to play against type. I’m way more reserved than she is,” the actress shares.

Abbott Elementary Season Sheryl Lee Ralph

(Credit: ABC/Scott Everett White)

As for Abbott’s seasoned educator Barbara Howard, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph says, she was sweetly surprised by viewers’ thoughts on her firm but fair character. “[It’s] heartwarming for people to say to me how much they respect the character that I play. I’m so stunned,” Ralph says, before adding that, similar to James,  she’s “so different from Mrs. Howard,” but “the fact that I’m able to bring her to life with such love has been wonderful.”

Most importantly, she says, “It’s amazing that I hear from so many teachers who feel like, ‘Finally, we’re heard. Finally, we’re seen for what it is we contribute to the lives of America’s children.'”

And thankfully that impact is going to continue as Abbott Elementary gears up for its second season. “Expect more from the characters that you love,” Ralph teases. “Expect to see and understand them more. Once you think that you know that character and what they might do, and then you say, ‘oh, I knew nothing at all.'”

Catch up with the faculty of Abbott Elementary by streaming Season 1 and don’t miss Season 2 when the hilarious comedy returns with more trials and tribulations for these teachers.

Abbott Elementary, Season 2, Coming Fall 2022, Wednesdays, 9/8c, ABC (Season 1, Streaming now, Hulu)