Without its perfect ensemble, Abbott Elementary wouldn’t be such a runaway smash. One of those standout players is Lisa Ann Walter. You might know her as Chessy from The Parent Trap, whose oversized denim shirt and warm embraces made her a generation’s dream nanny, but Walter has been a stand-up comic, sitcom vet, and character actor (see: Shall We Dance?, Bruce Almighty, GLOW) for the better part of three decades. As Abbott’s Melissa Schemmenti, an intrepid second-grade teacher who seems to have a mafia-related connection on standby to solve any passing hurdle, she finally gets what has often eluded her: a TV hit with staying power.
Walter, who co-created the short-lived ’90s critical darling Life’s Work and appeared on the short-lived not-so-critical-darling Emeril, feels she couldn’t be better suited for the role. “They practically wrote me!” she says of Abbott creator Quinta Brunson and her colleagues’ approach to Melissa, an Italian-by-way-of-South-Philly pragmatist. With Abbott returning from hiatus tonight, Walter spoke with Vulture about her career turns, slogging through the sexist comedy world, and the joys of being Chessy.
Abbott Elementary was an immediate phenomenon. At what point did you and your castmates realize you had an actual hit on your hands?What’s odd about doing projects right now is that there’s such a bounce from social media. You can literally see what’s trending, and you can also see what people are talking about. However — and this is my natural Sicilian cynicism — you’ll see people promoting projects but they’re all saying the same thing, and I think, That’s a paid support campaign. But this is actual human beings out there in the world seeing it and loving it.
People, first and foremost, said it’s funny AF. And the second thing is, there’s a recognition of subject matters being tackled that are maybe not discussed elsewhere — but Quinta and her writing staff are doing it in not a ham-fisted way. I’ve seen her on set saying she doesn’t want anything cloying where the message gets wrapped up neatly in a bow. It’s slid in there, and you go, Whoa, did they just do something about the school-to-prison pipeline? Is this about how we pick kids to be the “smart kids” and how that might affect kids throughout their entire lives?
What we saw is people recognizing all of that and talking about it with each other. It was really after the first episode. Personally, I saw in the execution of the pilot exactly what I envisioned when I read the script, which made me laugh and cry. It’s not usual for a network sitcom to do that. I’ll usually read something and go, I don’t know how they’re getting this made, but okay, God bless.
You’re often doing scenes with a gaggle of kids around you. How much do you have to take on a teacherly role outside of the lines you’re given?Honestly, they kind of don’t know the difference. One day I walked into my classroom and I got to know all the students. It was the first day standing in front of my class, and I started to ask them questions. My mother was a teacher for 30-something years in D.C. public schools, and she taught at home. She taught me to read when I was 3, she taught us math in the grocery store. And I have four kids — that I know of. For me, teaching is natural. Sometimes I text my kids toddler videos and say, “All right, I need some grandbabies. Y’all are being selfish. You’re getting a Ph.D.? Whatever. Make me a grandbaby.” So being around all these kids was a total blessing, and keeping control of them was not a problem for me because I’m loud, I’m a Leo, and I’m bossy.
Melissa has a guy for everything. What do you have a guy for?
Everything. Honestly, I’ve got to have a deal or I’m not happy. This is how Sheryl Lee Ralph and I first bonded. We went shopping together for Christmas down at the outlet mall when we were on location together. We’d go right to the back of the store and check the clearance racks first. But she was looking for a car, and I was like, “Let me call Ralph at Speedy Lane.” You’ve gotta have a guy! I have my person at the bank I always talk to, and that’s the only person I talk to — “You gotta make this happen for me.” And you know what? Here’s the secret: When you go into a restaurant or anywhere, I slip them a little $5 or $10 or $20 bill. That’s a little New York Italian tip. And acknowledge someone for the job they’re doing if you don’t have the money for that, because not everyone’s got a $20 bill to throw around.
You had a presence in network sitcoms for a number of years. Between then and now, things have really shifted toward HBO and streaming, where everything is more prestige-y and adult. Abbott Elementary is sort of an anomaly. What has it been like to observe that transition?When the last show I co-created and executive-produced, Life’s Work, aired on Tuesday nights on ABC, it was the last year of Roseanne, which we all called the Viking funeral. I mean, bless her. If there were no Roseanne, I never would have gotten a show, so I always throw her props.
Life’s Work was part of this wave of stand-up comics being handed opportunities to create their own shows.
I used to say, “You get off a plane if you’re a stand-up and they hand you a sitcom.” That’s not really true, but I started as an actress. They got me an acting teacher, and it was somebody who trained people on the movie Striptease. I was like, “I do Shakespeare, motherfucker. I do the Greeks.” That’s what I thought I was going to be: a theater actress in a repertory company.
The last thing I did before I moved to New York was A Streetcar Named Desire, but after I had a baby, I started doing stand-up in the late ’80s. I would go to clubs around the country when I was headlining and be told, “Well, we don’t let women work blue here.” I had to fight to do what I do. I had to fight owners who put their hands up my shirt and down my pants when they were trying to pay me. This was not a time when women were accepted in stand-up. It’s basically what you see on Maisel. I was the only mother I knew who was working the road, and that’s because I had a husband who was willing to stay with my kids. It was 20 years before Ali Wong got onstage. All of that to say: That’s the reason why I got that show. Other people weren’t talking about being a working mom.
How did you process what happened with that show? Eventually Emeril came around, and that didn’t last long either.
No, but we didn’t necessarily think it would. I loved doing it because Emeril Lagasse is the nicest guy in the world and Bob Urich was just a dream. I got a chance to work with Sherri Shepherd, who I knew from stand-up. What was weird was that in between all of that, people do deals with you. CBS had wanted me when we did the ABC deal, so then they picked me up afterward. We worked with a showrunner and shot something, but the showrunner and Les Moonves had an issue with each other. Somebody told me afterward that when the showrunner on my show pushed back against him in a casting session they knew that minute that my show was dead. But I didn’t know! It’s weird what you find out way after the fact.
What was the premise of that show?
It was called Late Bloomer. I was a mom and a housewife who went back to work and the job is being a voice of the people on a morning show.
But a couple of things were going on at the time. Just before we started doing Life’s Work, my ex came out to me. He’s my best friend, he’s at my house every weekend. But it was a difficult time, and I saw myself doing what my mother did after my dad left her for his secretary, which was relying on alcohol as a crutch. I was trying to combat anxiety, which I’d had as a teenager. I just felt, Am I alone now? Do I have to find a mate in this godforsaken hellhole of a town where you can’t ever trust anybody? I think I was self-medicating to a degree, and I figured it out. I stopped completely.
What was important to me in creating that sitcom was being a voice to women I thought were underrepresented. When I first went to pitch a show, I said, “Look, I want to do a show where you have a real voice of a working mom, like Roseanne but she has a job she gives a shit about.” My mother always said I should be a lawyer, which I think was not a compliment.
There’s a whole desert in the middle of the stuff they were doing in the ’90s and what they started to do with Wedding Crashers, where you never saw funny women as the leads of movies. I wrote this long op-ed that I sent to everybody I knew in the business, like Judd Apatow. I was like, We had Whoopi and Goldie and Dolly and Lily and all of these great comic voices anchoring movies, and they’re gone. They made First Wives Club, it was a monster hit, and then the response was, “Never do another funny movie with a woman again.” Because they would come to me and say, “We’re going to offer you this part. You’re a grandmother.” I was 35! And because I’m a big-mouth feminist, I would say, “Is there something in the script that says I had the kid at 15?” I said to my people, “I’m not going to tell America this is what you’re supposed to look like when you have a 25-year-old kid.”
It’s part of why I love working on the show with Quinta being the boss and a mostly Black cast, which I’m very comfortable in because that’s how I grew up in D.C. There was no push to lose weight or have a different body type. That’s been the truth of my entire career, certainly when you were the lead. I had just come off of watching Margaret Cho be on a diet so harsh for All-American Girl that her kidneys bled.
A fan of Abbott posted a story with pictures of me being hot and said, “Nah, Lisa Ann Walter’s always been a baddie.” And I was like, I think that’s good, what they just said. I reposted it and said, “This is blowing me away. Why did I let Hollywood make me think I was fat?” Ashley Nicole Black, who writes for Black Lady Sketch Show and Ted Lasso, was like, “The ’90s were just a horrible time.” And it really was. As women, we thought we’d always be chased around desks and try to laugh it off. We never thought it would change.
What did The Parent Trap do for your career?
When Parent Trap happened, the response was kind of like Abbott. And it was multigenerational. That movie would exist as a rom-com if you slightly edged it to the parents’ stuff. They were hot, and people were in love with them getting back together. For as weird a concept as it is, people loved the fairy tale of it. It’s Nancy Meyers! It looks beautiful. I had no idea it was going to last.
About five years ago for the anniversary, I saw more and more people going, “You were my comfort when I was young. I wanted you to be my nanny!” And the gay community saying, “I discovered my queer self in your character.” The enormity of being that for this generation surprised me. When the first checks for the VHS residuals came in, I was like, Thank you for loving this movie! We don’t get paid like that anymore. People are like, “You must get a million dollars because it’s always on TV.” I wish. That’s not how it works.
Is there a show or a movie from around that time that you wish you could have gotten your hands on?
After I did The Parent Trap, Disney came to my people and said, “We want to offer you a deal.” There was a TV show they were developing about a female shock jock. In the pilot episode, she was engaged to this guy and he leaves her and she’s broken-hearted. I had an audition, and they were laughing and crying. I killed it, and the showrunner didn’t want me. It was perfect for me.
I assume that show didn’t make it to air.
Let’s put it this way: They shot the pilot, recast the lead, did episodes with the new lead, and I don’t remember if it made it to air, but it was not memorable. It was my part.
It’s funny because when you go into a room, especially as a character actress who’s a certain type, you see everybody you know. It’s all the funny women in L.A., and now it’s great because that pool is broadened. It’s not just the funny white women; it’s everybody. I think it was Kristen Johnston who told me, “Somebody’s playing your role.” It was the funny chick in a rom-com, and it was Kathryn Hahn. And I went, “No, that’s her role now. That was my role ten years ago.” Of course, she’s exploded. I met her at a political thing. She said, “My son thinks it’s me in The Parent Trap.”
I used to think it was Kathryn Hahn in that movie too, even though it makes no sense because she was too young at the time. I would say it’s a compliment to both of you.
I think so too, and if anybody thinks I could be her, or vice versa, it’s wonderful.
I recently rewatched Shall We Dance?, which I hadn’t seen since it first came out.
That white-blonde hair will throw you off.
How was it dancing with Jennifer Lopez?
A dream. And Richard Gere! He studied for months before I came on the project. Jennifer, I would just sit on the floor and watch her work and just cry. She’d come over and pat my head. She was glorious. She glows like she’s lit from within. I have been blessed to work with some of the most talented, magnificent artists with longevity in their career. They last forever for a reason. There’s a reason Tom Cruise has been around forever, because he’s been adored by everyone on the set and in the crew. I’ve seen it up close. Jen Aniston was a delight, and Jennifer Lopez was a delight. And Whoopi! My first and foremost co-star, and she picked me for Eddie. She said, “Why can’t my friend be a white girl?”
On Abbott, I heard at the premiere we did at Disney that they brought no other people in to the network. I was it! I thought, I could have asked for more money!
Now you have a bargaining chip for season two.
Well, I’m not going to be a jerk. I’ll let my people be jerks.
As a testament to Quinta, she had a very clear vision of what she wanted. She knew the voice she wanted for each character. She was absolutely spot-on. One of the reasons the show is a success is our chemistry. It’s like a choir, and we’re each taking different pieces. She was spot-on about Janelle James. She went to Tyler James Williams and Sheryl ahead of time and said, “That’s what I’m hearing when I write this.” As a writer, I know what that’s like. And I know she was a fan of The Parent Trap. When we’re on set now, the little kids will go, “You were the nanny in The Parent Trap!” She’ll turn around and say, “That is an entire baby that knows you.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.