First impressions are extremely important, particularly with actors. The moment their character arrives on screen or stage, that initial glimpse sets up what is to come. That’s why Sheryl Lee Ralph wanted to make sure the moment her character of President Kelly Wade shows up in the next episode of “Motherland: Fort Salem” that it was just right.
Her arrival and the bombshells her character drops can be seen in the final two episodes of the second season of the Freeform series. The series airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on the cable channel. New episodes are available via Hulu on the following day.
“I wanted to get across that this was a woman you do not ‘F’ with and if you do, there will be consequences,” Ralph says. “She shows up unexpectedly. The general is expecting the Vice President who is a man. She knows she can handle him.
“When you know the history between the general and the President, you know the general is thrown a bit off guard.”
“Motherland” is a one-hour drama set in an alternate, present-day America where witches ended their persecution 300 years ago by cutting a deal with the U.S. government to fight for their country. It follows three young women from their days in basic training to learn combat magic into their early deployment.
In the season finales, distrust in Alder grows as Tally (Jessica Sutton) and Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams) pressure those in power for changes. Raelle (Taylor Hickson) gains a deeper understanding of the Mycelium and its purpose for her. And, the Camarilla brings the fight to Fort Salem. Raelle, Abigail, Tally and their allies are forced to make impossible, world-changing choices.
“Motherland: Fort Salem” shows that the world would end up in a very similar shape whether men or women were in control. Ralph points out it’s the approach that makes what men and women achieve so different.
“Men will use the power they have physically. Women will use the power they have emotionally and magically,” Ralph says. “I love seeing that.”
Ralph knew that she would one day play the 45th President of the United States in this alternate timeline while she was working on the series “Claws.” That series and “Motherland” are both the creations of Eliot Laurence.
Normally, Ralph spends a lengthy amount of time building a backstory for the characters she plays. In the case of President Wade, Ralph was comfortable just depending on what Laurence was giving her through the scripts.
Whether it is her own work or that of the writer, Ralph has been building characters for decades making her screen debut in the 1977 comedy “A Piece of the Action.” Her other credits include “To Sleep with Anger,” “The Mighty Quinn,” “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” “MacGyver” and “Instant Mom.”
Her stage career also spans decades as she appeared on Broadway and won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls.” In 2016, she was on Broadway playing Madame Morrible in “Wicked.”
Ralph has a good idea what kind of President she would be. In a small way art is imitating life as Ralph is playing a politician in the series and she is in the middle of a real election to be the vice president of the local Screen Actors Guild.
“I realized right away I want more and I want better. I want stronger negotiations. I want better contracts,” Ralph says. “I want people to get rid of ageism. You can’t tell people who have been in the industry all these years that we can’t give you health care anymore.
“I want all of that to stop because it is ridiculous.”
It has not escaped Ralph that five years ago, the idea of a female President – particularly a person of color – would have seemed as magical as the witches in “Fort Salem.” After the recent election, that no longer seems like an unreachable goal.
“That’s another thing with Eliot Laurence and his brain. He can see these things. When he was talking to me about it, I was deep into the workings of now Vice President Kamala Harris,” Ralph says. “He said ‘Why vice president? President.’
“I actually don’t think it is too far off.”
Taking on the role in “Motherland: Fort Salem” is a bit of an acting full circle for Ralph. Freeform is owned by the Disney Company and one of Ralph’s earliest acting jobs was as the voice of Rita in the 1988 Disney animated film “Oliver and Company.”
Ralph points out her Disney ties are only getting stronger. She is one of the stars of the new ABC comedy “Abbott Elementary” set to launch on the network in the fall. ABC is also part of the Disney Company.
The legacy Ralph is building with the Disney Company is with both dramas and now a comedy. She loves doing both and is happy that a little more drama is being added to “Abbott Elementary.”
“You have to have comedy in drama because it makes it hit more. You have to have drama in comedy because it can make the laughter deeper,” Ralph says.