Lisa Ann Walter is busy cooking dinner as we talk on the phone.
“Hang on one second — I wanna flip my rigatoni into the pot, and I don’t wanna talk over it!” the “Abbott Elementary” actor laughs in the middle of answering a question. “I’m having people over from the cast tomorrow, and some of the crew. Quinta, if she gets back in time from New York, will come over, and I promised her meatballs. Baked pasta, meatballs and sausage.”
Titled “The Principal’s Office,” Season 2 Episode 4 of “Abbott Elementary” sees her character, Melissa Schemmenti, invite Janine (series creator Quinta Brunson) over for a cooking lesson. Together, they cook an Italian meal, and Walter is aware of the irony that she’s in an interview about the episode while doing the same. Moments like this have actually caused her to adjust her approach as an actor.
“The shorthand for it is ‘the green umbrella,’ a Stanislavski technique. It’s working from the outside in more than I usually do, but in Melissa’s case, because there are so many similarities between her and myself,” she says. “So there a few wardrobe and physical things I do to get in character. One is the glasses on the head. I don’t need them.”
(In a very Schemmenti aside, she adds, “I had Lasik surgery 20 years ago, and god bless, it still works. But every now and again, a pair of reading glasses don’t hurt. You know, if you don’t want to squint and get more lines on your face.”)
“She also sits in a less aware way than Lisa sits [in public],” Walter says. “She sits like I sit at home: a leg up, or leg open. Leaning forward without worrying about if she has her back straight. Almost the opposite of Barbara Howard [played by Sheryl Lee Ralph]. She rests her hand in her head. She’s all about being comfortable. She doesn’t mind taking up space.”
And then there’s the South Philadelphia accent that Walter passes off as her own: “My parents are from New York and I grew up in D.C., so if you split the difference, that’s Philly! People ask the secret to Philly, and I say, ‘Put your mouth forward. Put your lips together and talk everything out the front of your mouth.’ Stuff like that is very Melissa. I just think she’s the best of my most interesting cousins.”
Episode 4 is the first time “Abbott Elementary” has significantly traveled outside of the school and into a character’s home. Nailing the aesthetic of Melissa’s South Philly abode was essential, especially as a way to aid Walter’s technique of using physical details to help achieve the emotional ones. A big, welcoming couch with a plastic cover over it anchors the set, accented with framed photos of Walter’s real family on the walls. “It felt very much homey to me,” Walter says. (See Variety‘s interview with Walter and set decorator Cherie Ledwith about putting together the living room.)
“The other piece that was really important was the kitchen,” she adds, “because Melissa cooks and I cook. I needed to know where everything was. It’s really important as an actor. You cannot go into a kitchen and not know what’s in the drawers and not know where you stand as the cook in that room.
“What’s your position? Where do you grab when you need the oil or the knife? I had to check all that stuff out, and thank goodness, it was a setup that was very small — like the kitchen I’m in right now,” Walter continues. “Everything within the reach of your hands. I would be like, ‘This isn’t right, this is too fancy, it needs to look like this.’ And the prop department, like magicians, would be like, ‘Boom, here you go.’ And the right grater would show up in my hand.”
Walter’s comfort with the space helped calcify the correct power dynamics for the kitchen scenes. When Janine starts asking one too many questions about Melissa’s family life and meddling with age-old conflicts, Melissa’s command of the kitchen creates a visual that underscores her stubbornness.
In the Season 2 premiere, Melissa learns that after years of teaching the second grade, she’ll be having her class combined with a third grade class due to the teacher shortage that’s affecting Abbott Elementary (and the rest of the country). Episode 3, titled “Story Samurai,” follows her through that struggle. The principal, Ava (Janelle James), offers to hire her an aide, but Melissa is a tough, self-sufficient woman who often refuses help. But she meets her limit, and Walter, the daughter of a public schoolteacher who later put her own children in public schools, heavily relates.
“Here’s what I know as a mother in this country. There are way too many kids in everybody’s class. There’s upwards of 40 kids per class in many states, California being one of them,” she says. “I’ve walked into my own twins’ classrooms and seen a third of the class sitting on the floor because they didn’t have enough room in the class for all the kids, let alone enough desks.
“My boys were all real high-energy. There are teachers that say, ‘Your child needs to be medicated.’ But that’s because no teacher can handle 40 kids!” she continues. “So of course they’re looking at the boys who are incredibly active. Not all of them are going to sit still with their hands folded neatly — and I’m not just talking about the boys. I can’t sit still to this day. Just ask the hair and makeup department! They’re like, ‘Oh my god, just let her do her own eyeliner.’”
Knowing what she knows about how normal it is to run a packed classroom, Walter felt protective of her character and wanted to place more emphasis on the fact that Melissa was being forced to teach two sets of curriculum at once.
“I said, ‘We need to stop saying 30 kids like it’s killer. Because all over the country, teachers are dealing with more than 40 kids. So let’s not make Melissa seem like she’s inadequate. It’s not that she can’t deal with a few more kids. It’s the combining of classes in one room.
Walter calls shooting with a larger class this season “a beautiful, chaotic mess.” “The kids are such pros. When they hear ‘Camera’s up,’ they shut up,” she says. “They’re talking about their brothers and sisters and what pets they have and all the things kids do when they become best friends in 30 seconds, and then the camera’s up and they’re all quiet.
“But in these particular scenes, I needed them to not be quiet,” she says. “And if you ask kids that are 9 years old to make a little noise, you get kids going, ‘Aaaaaah!,’ or you get something kind of being nonsensical, ‘Blah blah blah.’ They’re 9! They just got into the business, like, a week ago, so they’re not really necessarily adept at improv. So I said, ‘Don’t say “Camera’s up.” Don’t let them know that we’re rolling. I know we’ve started, but the kids won’t know, and they’ll just be talking in a normal tone of voice.’ We did that for that whole day, and it worked beautifully. They were really themselves, normal kids. I was so proud.”
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