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Lisa Ann Walter on Abbott Elementary, Bradley Cooper Cameo

Lisa Ann Walter on Abbott Elementary, Bradley Cooper Cameo

Lisa Ann Walter has brought a lot of herself to her portrayal of tough-as-nails Melissa Schemmenti on Abbott Elementary, particularly her Sicilian upbringing and the experiences of her teacher mother. This latest season also saw her character get closer to fellow instructor Jacob Hill, played by Chris Perfetti, whom Walter has invited over for holidays. 

The most recent batch of episodes packed in a lot of plot given the reduced order as a result of the strikes, and for Schemmenti that means a deeper exploration of romantic entanglements, including rejecting a proposal from vending machine guy Gary (Bruno Amato) and getting it on with a fire captain (Mike O’Malley). Walter, in the middle of making banana cake, hopped on a Zoom with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss accents, Bradley Cooper, and being embraced by Philly. 

Did you feel anything new starting season three, or had you already found your rhythm? 

We all pretty much had a beat on our characters from the beginning. It helped that [show creator Quinta Brunson] knew exactly who these people were and communicated that to us. There are things that we each bring individually to the characters. Personally, for me as Melissa, I am Sicilian, so I was able to zhuzh some of the slang. I always wanted to give my relatives a name when they would say, “My cousin blah, blah, blah.” I’m like, “Can it be, like, ‘My cousin Frankie’?” And I kept using names of my actual family. I like to say I never thought I’d be a movie or a television actress. I thought, if I was lucky, I’d go work at the Guthrie or the Arena Stage. I’d be a member of a great repertory company. And this is like working with the best repertory company out there week after week, episode after episode. We’re bringing all the authenticity that we’ve brought to the characters, but now these characters know each other. When we’re on set, we’re playing as those people, and I think it allows for freedom.

We saw more of Melissa’s love life this season. She turned down a proposal, then hooked up with a firefighter. How has that been? 

I get very personally invested as an actor and as a human with the people playing love interests. I got to do some really good work, and, truly, I can access my emotions easily. You want to be nuanced. It was an acting job. I don’t think I’ve ever broken up with anybody. I’ve ended two marriages. The joke version is the first one: too much in common — he also liked guys. The second was a cheater, which is not technically a religion, but he practiced it like it was. But I was not the one to say, “Hey, we want different things.” That was a real find for me. I was worried [about Melissa rejecting a proposal]. I was like, “Is the audience going to be OK with that, a woman of my age going, ‘Nah, not you’?” Here’s what’s funny: We did the episode where [Mike O’Malley] shows up. We did the line [and I flirted back a little bit]. It was like a sparkle eye. It was no more than that. I thought, “Look at me being an actor and coming up with these moments.” Quinta is like, “Yeah, you guys are going to get together.” I’m like, “Nobody told me ahead of time. I literally thought I created that.” Who knows? Maybe I did. 

What has it been like to play Melissa’s friendship with Jacob this season?

One of the great things about Abbott is that we’ve all watched sitcoms where we understand the dynamic. They’re the ones that are less nuanced. If we had just stayed who we are with the Melissa-and-Jacob dynamic where she was just, “You’re not going to be here long, kid. You’ve got great ideas. Why don’t you shut up?”, it would’ve been stagnant. There wouldn’t have been anywhere to go with it, and we already know what’s going to happen. Could they write funny lines around it? Absolutely. That’s what our writers do. They’re funny. They write stuff that makes people laugh, but it wouldn’t be the dynamic, authentic show that it is, where people evolve and change and you learn about them. In real life, I adore Chris Perfetti. He comes over to my house to get ready for the awards shows. I get a big platter of Hank’s Bagels and force-feed him. He’s come over for different holidays and had Sunday dinner with us. He’s away from family, and until he got more dialed in to living in L.A., I felt very protective of him as a fellow East Coaster making the big move out here. I love that our dynamic is that we know more about each other, and we’re in on each other’s business a little bit more. It’s certainly different for Melissa, because one of the things I really try to maintain the truth about her character is a Sicilian’s natural reticence to let anybody but family know anything about them.

No one else on the show is really doing a Philly accent. How did you develop yours?

I’ve been obsessed with accents since I was in college. I would’ve been a dialectician if I wasn’t an actor. It is really easy for a character written like Melissa to go right into Brooklyn because that’s my other go-to. Philly is specific. For me, it was really important out of respect for the Philly community, and South Philly in particular, to honor that, to be accepted by those people. I wasn’t prissy about it. I’m like, “Yeah, if I’m doing something wrong, tell me,” but I studied. I watched phonetics studies. I watched dialecticians. I watched Bradley Cooper interviews where they would ask him to do the accent.

What was it like when Bradley came to set for his cameo? 

It was crazy good. I loved it. I saw his Philly accent come out when we were doing the scene. When I wasn’t busy being hypnotized by those eyes, I was picking up the little accent that was increasing. I told him that I learned a lot watching his videos. He said when he goes home, it happens. To me, it’s incredibly complimentary that Philly has embraced me the way they have. Last summer, when I went out and did my stand-up, we sold out every show. Everywhere I went, people hugged me. Every­where I went, people were offering me food. They told me when they came to the show, “We didn’t want to like you because you were not from Philly, but now we love you and thank you for the work you do to embrace the community.” I’m like, “Yeah. I love the Eagles now, and I grew up in D.C.”

Chris Perfetti’s Jacob and Lisa Ann Walter’s Melissa in Abbott Elementary.

Gilles Mingasson/Disney

What has your experience been with the actor kids in your class?

My mom was a public school teacher in D.C. I think having four kids myself, I took a lot of her traits in just teaching whenever and wherever. She didn’t have to be in the classroom to teach. When I’m on set, the kids are doing a worksheet and they’re asking me questions. Wrangling them when they have their little fights — which, by the way, is hilarious. Last year when we went on the field trip, there was one kid who brought another little girl a bouquet of flowers because they were all of 8 years old, but he loved her. Then the girls started getting together and gossiping. I had to stop the gossip mill because they were trying to talk her into not liking him. It was like a whole Real Housewives episode. Then they got over it by the next day. I’m refereeing trips to the bathroom. I’m a teacher in front of them, and it’s wonderful. 

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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