role call

Sheryl Lee Ralph Answers Every Question We Have About Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit

On working with a teenage Lauryn Hill and how her own “strong immigrant” West Indian mother informed Mama Florence. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Touchstone Pictures

Sheryl Lee Ralph is reveling in a career renaissance. A lot of life has happened since she captivated audiences with her breakout role as background singer turned lead Deena Jones in the 1981 original Broadway production of Dreamgirls. Since then, Ralph has nourished her creative appetite across mediums. She’s gone toe to toe on the big screen with cinematic faves like Sidney Poitier in A Piece of the Action, Denzel Washington in The Mighty Quinn, and Robert De Niro in Mistress. And she’s a veteran of the small screen, too, from her regular role on the ’90s sitcom Moesha to her Emmy-winning portrayal of Philadelphia kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard on Abbott Elementary.

But it’s Ralph’s character in the Whoopi Goldberg–led Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit who evokes perhaps the strongest reactions from strangers, even decades later. In the 1993 sequel, she played Florence Watson, a tough-as-nails, “I said what I said” single mother who staunchly opposes her talented teen daughter’s musical ambitions. (That daughter was played by a pre-Fugees Lauryn Hill, then only 16 years old.) For Ralph, the role was an amusing departure from her real life as a Broadway star. But for many of us in the audience, seeing Ralph and her onscreen daughter bump heads left us feeling sour. Why was Mama Florence so unreasonably mean? As Ralph shares, there was always more depth — and pain — below the surface of her character than there appeared to be.

What did life look like for you when Sister Act 2 came into the picture? 
Oh my gosh, my son Etienne had just been born and was going to set with me. I was so happy knowing that I was somebody’s mother, just loving that more than anybody can ever imagine. If I’m not wrong, before Sister Act 2, I think I had done Distinguished Gentleman, so there was a string of movies where I played all these different kinds of women.

With Sister Act 2, I met with Bill Duke, a great director. I look at the role, and here she is — I won’t say she’s the evil mother, but she’s very much hurt by what has happened to her with her husband trying to live his dreams and being an artist. Now here comes her daughter and she wants those same dreams. Florence just doesn’t know where it’s going to end up, and she does what can happen sometimes: She starts to kill her child’s dream. I read it and I said, “Okay, there are a whole lot of mothers like that, so let’s see if we can bring some life and difference to this one.” And I think we did because she still lives on in people’s minds to this day.

Did you have to audition for the role?
At that time, it was basically they were sending you the script to read to ask you, “What did you think about the character, blah blah blah, are you interested in doing it?” It was a process of reading it, loving it, and accepting it.

We get introduced to your character, Florence Watson, in the movie when she’s sternly shouting out of a window for her daughter, Rita, to come inside while she’s in the middle of talking to her high-school friends —
“Rita Louise Watson, if you don’t get in here …”

Yes! It was a memorable introduction to their mother-daughter dynamic. Was there a person from your life you kept in mind when playing Florence? 
Oh, definitely a bit of my mother. My mother is that strong immigrant West Indian mother who wants you to do the absolute best. But she wants you to do things the way she wants you to do things because that is definitely the best way. [Laughs.]

And Lauryn Hill was a baby.
She was only 16!

This was before the Fugees and her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but it was clear even then that she was a star. What was it like working with her at that stage in her career?
It was wonderful for me because, I got to tell you, 16-year-old Lauryn Hill had a very good idea of who she was. She would sit at that piano in between takes, lunch time, and she would play and sing. I remember one day she said, “Ms. Ralph, I’m gonna have a band and it’s gonna be called the Fugees.” And I was just like, “The Fugees?” I said, “Baby, you might want to rethink that.”

She said, “Ms. Ralph, Re-fu-gee, you oughta get it, you oughta know what I’m talking about.” And I was like, Oh my god, first of all I love that this young woman is looking at me saying, “You get it, you’re supposed to get it, I know you get it.” And guess what? She was absolutely right. She was gonna be a star with her band the Fugees, and the rest is musical history.

I don’t know if I ever realized that “Fugees” is short for refugees.
Uh-huh, that’s what she told me.

I think it tickled people to see you play a character who seemed so far removed from your public persona. Florence is very anti-singing, and then in real life you’ve done this iconic Broadway musical. Was there any nervousness going into the role?
No, not at all. For me, the greatest thing that I have been able and allowed to do in my career as an actor is I get to act. I get to play people who are different from me, and I get to bring them to life — and a long life at that. I think that’s part of longevity and remaining relevant: being able to provoke visceral feelings when people see your work.

There’s all this tension and awkwardness when Florence first meets Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Sister Mary Clarence, who teaches choir at her daughter’s school. She’s coming to your door while you’re in the middle of doing hair, and she’s trying to convince you to let Rita join the choir and you’re just not having it. Did you two rehearse that scene before filming?
No. Not at all.

You just dove in and —
We shot it. That was it. I remember the first time, Whoopi was like, “Well, damn.” [Laughs.] Whether you agreed with Florence or not, this was her child and she was going to do the best she could do for her child. Now, what you wanna do with yours, that’s your business, but this is her child.

Is there a scene that comes to mind as the most challenging to film? 
No — this wasn’t a challenge, this was a joy. This was me being able to bring my talent and the timing of the work, the art, the character together in a way that just made for perfection. You know there’s a thing about being ready, and I was ready for that moment.

I’ve heard some actors talk about having an actor’s toolbox, so to speak, where they keep little quirks like a twitch or a distinct habit, which they then apply to new characters when it feels fitting. Is that something that works for you?
I have to say, I have a different experience with characters. When I read a script, if that character just comes up off the page and tells me exactly who they are, I’m like, It won’t get any better. Well, it could get better, but I haven’t discovered it yet because it’s pretty doggone good right now, you know?

Do you feel that this role changed your career in some way?
No, because what happened after that — I think I ended up doing another film, but this time with Robert De Niro. It was a very different character, different woman, different role. I have been very fortunate in that I have not been typecast. I have been given roles based upon my ability to act, and that does not happen very often.

Is there any one scene you remember needing lots of takes to nail down?No, but there’s one scene that I remember being a long, arduous process, and that was the “Joyful, Joyful” scene. I was on a different side of the camera, so for me it wasn’t that bad. But that scene did take all day. We were on location, and location shooting always tends to take a bit longer. Those scenes with the different choirs took time. The “Joyful, Joyful” song itself took time. But the time it took was so worth it! Every time I see the movie I remember how much I enjoyed making it. My son was a baby, and he also enjoyed being on set in his stroller, listening to the music.

Is that the scene at the end when they’re at the choir competition? And finally Mama Florence comes around and there’s this really sweet embrace?
Yes. That was my favorite scene for me, when I came around and said to my daughter, “You are — [deep exhale] — you’re wonderful.”

Mama Florence was so hard on Rita.
She was. She was very hard on Rita. She didn’t take the time to realize that her life journey was not necessarily the life journey of her daughter. And that her daughter needed something different. When I look at the movie and Lauryn says, “Mama, do you know that I can sing?” And then the mother responds, “Yeah, so could your Daddy, and look what happened to him.” As if just because it happened to her father it means it’s gonna happen to her. So sad.

It felt like there was a lot of pain and trauma in that response from Florence. 
That’s right.

I’m curious: Did you, on your own or with the director, flesh out a backstory for Florence that put her anti-singing stance into perspective for you?
You know, there wasn’t a whole lot of time. So we were really just working: Hit your mark, you’re on camera, go. Bill might have a different memory when it comes to me, but that’s what I remember.

Was it refreshing playing a character who wasn’t preoccupied with being likable? So many of us get tangled up in not being perceived as mean by other people.
This was a woman who was standing and living in her truth. “Look, don’t come knockin’ on my door trying to get me to change my mind about something that I said regarding my child. I told you it’s no, and I meant no.” Right or wrong, she loved her child. She wanted to do the best for her.

A lot of people nowadays don’t raise their children anymore. They don’t have anything to teach their children; they don’t have anything to share with their children. And because they don’t raise their children, their kids end up telling them what they’re gonna do. That wasn’t gonna happen with Florence and Rita. It was like, “I’m your mother, this is what I said. First thing you’re gonna do is learn the boundaries.” But then, you know, you got that child who’s just as strong as the mother and had to step on out and live her life, and I respect that as well.

When Rita forges her mother’s signature, I was like, Ooooh, Rita. You about to get an earful and be on punishment. How do you think you would react if your teen child forged your signature after you gave a firm no?
I would be so angry because in my mind, the moment you start to think like that, anything can happen. All bets are off. Oh my God, I would be so angry. Because you have to have trust with your kids, and when your kids do something like that, it’s a break of trust. These are partnerships that you have with your children, and to think that I couldn’t trust you, oh, that’s terrible. That means they’ll be climbing out of windows at night, throwing big parties; that means they’ll be doing anything. But once again, you have to, as a mother, work with your children, because sometimes they make poor choices — but then they turn out to be great adults, so who knows.

But Florence comes through in the end and gives Rita the approval she’s been longing for. Do you remember what the vibe was when you and Lauryn Hill were filming that scene? 
Well, once again, we were up against the time crunch. So that’s me and that whole thing about being prepared, because there isn’t always time for the deep thoughts about, Well, what is this character thinking? You just have to be ready to hit it. And it just so happened that working with Lauryn for me was perfect — we had absolutely great chemistry. It was easy.

Are there any scenes you were really fond of that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film?
You know, it’s 30 years later, so not that I remember. When I look at the character of Florence Watson and what I see in Sister Act 2, I am so happy. The only thing I was ever sad about was the fact that I didn’t get to be in the closing credits. It was that wonderful dance across the screen. But other than that, I did my job.

Do you keep in touch with anyone from the film?
I’ve spoken to people over the years. The only person I’ve spoken to more than the rest would be Whoopi, who is just great. I’ve seen Lauryn about twice and it’s always been a magical, wonderful reunion. I’d see Bill around L.A., and we were talking about working on another idea for a while. That cast of young people was so impressive because so many of them have actually gone on to have careers, whether it’s in music or on the TV screen. I was really moved by their talent. Even Whoopi’s daughter was in the movie. Such a sweet girl. Now she’s a mother; she might even be a grandmother. I loved meeting her. If you ran down their names, it’s amazing — they’ve done good things with themselves for the most part.

Yes, Monica Calhoun was in Player’s Club and The Best Man franchise, Maggie Smith was in Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter movies, Alanna Ubach is on Euphoria and was in Legally Blonde
It’s crazy. Oh, wait a minute, we have to talk about the fact that when I did the Super Bowl, the number of memes that were created saying, “Wait a minute, singing doesn’t pay the bills …” 

I love that you’re tapped into the memes.
[Laughs.] How can I not be? The internet will always win.

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The Distinguished Gentleman is a 1992 political comedy starring Eddie Murphy as con man Thomas Jefferson “Jeff” Johnson, who finesses his way into Congress. Ralph plays an employee in Jeff’s office. Florence tells Rita that her father “died still trying to make it” as a singer, leaving her with the emotional and financial responsibility of raising their daughter. Ralph played De Niro’s character’s mistress, Beverly Dumont, in the 1992 dramedy Mistress, about three businessmen who agree to bankroll a movie so their mistresses can be in it. The film also stars familiar faces like Jean Smart, Laurie Metcalf, and Christopher Walken. After the box-office success of the original 1992 Sister Act, Disney wanted a sequel to capitalize on the film’s buzz. That resulted in a tight production schedule for Sister Act 2, which was released in theaters only a year and a half after the original. Ralph opened the 2023 Super Bowl singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn that is commonly known as the Black National Anthem.
Sheryl Lee Ralph Answers Our Questions About Sister Act 2