Lisa Ann Walter is busy cooking dinner while we talk on the phone.
“Wait a minute – I want to throw my rigatoni in the pot, and I don’t want to talk about it!” The Abbott Elementary actor laughs in mid-answer to a question. “Tomorrow I have people from the cast over and some from the crew. Quinta is coming over if she gets back from New York in time, and I promised her meatballs. Baked noodles, meatballs and sausage.”
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In Season 2, Episode 4 of Abbott Elementary, entitled The Principal’s Office, her character Melissa Schemmenti invites Janine (series creator Quinta Brunson) over for a cooking lesson. They cook an Italian meal together, and Walter is aware of the irony that she is in an interview about the episode while doing the same. Moments like this actually caused her to adjust her approach as an actress.
“The abbreviation for this is ‘the green umbrella’, a technique of Stanislavski. It’s more outward looking than I usually do, but in Melissa’s case, because there are so many similarities between her and me,” she says. “So there’s a few clothes and physical things I do to get into the role. One is the glasses on your head. I don not need you.”
(In a very schematic aside, she adds, “I had Lasik surgery 20 years ago, and God bless, it still works. But every once in a while, reading glasses don’t hurt. You know when you don’t? I don’t want to blink and get more wrinkles on my face.
“She also sits less consciously than Lisa [in public]’ says Walter. “She sits like me at home: one leg up or one leg open. Lean forward without worrying about whether her back is straight. Almost the opposite of Barbara Howard [played by Sheryl Lee Ralph]. She puts her hand in her head. It’s all about feeling good. She doesn’t mind taking a seat.”
And then there’s the South Philly accent, which Walter passes off as her own: “My parents are from New York and I grew up in DC, so if you split the difference, that’s Philly!” People ask Philly about the secret, and I’m like, ‘Put your mouth out. Put your lips together and say everything out of your mouth.’ Things like that are very Melissa. I just think she’s the best of my most interesting cousins.”
Episode 4 marks the first time that Abbott Elementary travels out of the school and into a character’s home on a major scale. It was important to nail the aesthetic of Melissa’s South Philly abode, particularly to support Walter’s technique of using physical detail to reach the emotional. A large, inviting couch with a plastic cover anchors the set, accented with framed photos of Walter’s real family on the walls. “It felt very homey to me,” says Walter. (See diversity‘s interview with Walter and set designer Cherie Ledwith about putting the living room together.)
“The other really important part was the kitchen,” she adds, “because Melissa cooks and I cook. I needed to know where everything was. As an actor, that’s very important. You can’t walk into a kitchen and not know what’s in the drawers and not know where you stand as a chef in that room.
“What is your position? Where do you reach when you need the oil or the knife? I had to check all of these things, and thank God it was a very small setup — like the kitchen I’m in right now,” Walter continues. “Everything within reach of your hands. I would say: ‘That’s not right, that’s too fancy, it has to look like this.’ And the props department would say, like magicians, ‘Boom, there you go.’ And the right grater would show up in my hand.”
Walter’s comfort with the space helped calculate the right performance dynamics for the kitchen scenes. When Janine starts asking one question too many about Melissa’s family life and meddles in age-old conflicts, Melissa’s mastery of the kitchen creates an image that underscores her stubbornness.
In the season 2 premiere, Melissa learns that after years of teaching second grade, she will be merging her class with a third grade as the teacher shortage affects Abbott Elementary School (and the rest of the country). Episode 3 entitled “Story Samurai” follows her through this fight. Headmistress Ava (Janelle James) offers to hire an assistant, but Melissa is a tough, self-sufficient woman who often refuses help. But she’s pushed to her limits, and Walter, the daughter of a public school teacher who later took her own children to public schools, has a strong relationship.
“Here’s what I know as a mother in this country. There are way too many kids in every class. Many states have more than 40 kids per class, and California is one of them,” she says. “I went into my own twins’ classrooms and saw that a third of the class was sitting on the floor because they didn’t have enough space in the class for all the kids, let alone enough desks.
“My boys were all very energetic. There are teachers who say, “Your child needs medication.” But that’s because no teacher can handle 40 children!” She continues. “You obviously look at the guys who are incredibly active. Not all of them will sit still with their hands neatly folded – and I’m not just talking about the boys. I still can’t sit still to this day. Just ask in the hair and makeup department! They’re like, ‘Oh my god, just let her do her own eyeliner.’”
Knowing how normal it is to run a full classroom, Walter felt protective of her character and wanted to put more emphasis on the fact that Melissa was being forced to teach two syllabuses at once.
“I said, ‘We need to stop telling 30 kids it’s a killer. Because all over the country, teachers have to deal with more than 40 children. So let’s not make Melissa look like she’s inadequate. It’s not that she couldn’t handle a few more kids. It’s the merging of classes in one room.
Walter calls shooting with a bigger class this season “a nice, messy mess.” “The kids are such professionals. When they hear “Camera up,” shut up,” she says. “They talk about their brothers and sisters and what pets they have and all the things that kids do when they become best friends in 30 seconds and then the camera’s up and they’re all quiet.
“But in those particular scenes, I didn’t want them to be quiet,” she says. “And if you ask kids as young as 9 to make a little noise, get kids to go, ‘Aaaaah!’ to say, or you’ll get something nonsensical, ‘Blah, blah, blah.’ You are 9! They only got into the business about a week ago, so they’re not exactly good at improvising. So I said, ‘Don’t say ‘Camera’s up’. Don’t let ’em know we’re rolling I know we started but the kids won’t know and they’ll just speak in a normal tone of voice.’ We did this all day and it worked beautifully. They really were themselves, normal kids. I was so proud.”
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