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Sheryl Lee Ralph says her iconic Emmys acceptance speech was all improvised

Ralph opens up about playing Barbara Howard on "Abbott Elementary" in an interview with TODAY.

Sheryl Lee Ralph is a humble queen just happy to be in the mix. But lately, she’s more like the moment.

The 65-year-old actor plays Barbara Howard on ABC's “Abbott Elementary," a role for which she won her first Emmy. Her acceptance speech, in which she belted out Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species,” went viral that night. Ralph told TODAY she improvised the whole thing.

The Emmy is one marker along Ralph's surging career right now. She has a holiday album coming out called "Sleigh" and she's producing a new Broadway play, "Ohio State Murders," which previews Nov. 11 and officially opens in December. The original "Dreamgirl," who's been in the industry for 50 years told TODAY it "is a gift" to reach such a prominent level of stardom.

Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara in "Abbott Elementary."
Sheryl Lee Ralph has earned acclaim for her role as Barbara on "Abbott Elementary."Gilles Mingasson / ABC

"I don’t know if you’re ever really preparing for this — I think most of the time you’re just doing the work and hoping that you’re doing good work for it to be seen," she said. "For me to be one of the 3,000 that is an Emmy Award-winning actress  — come on. Now that is nothing but a gift and a blessing from God. That is something wonderful and special in my life. And I’m so blessed to be experiencing it now and all the good things that comes."

'It was all ad-libbed'

Ralph's now-iconic Emmy's acceptance speech didn't exist before she hit the stage.

“Oh, it was all ad-libbed," she said. "Everything that I ever thought that I would have said as a child of 5 and 6 years old watching Tinkerbell — that was gone. That was just a gone, and I didn’t want to stutter. So I just wanted to say what I believed. I just wanted to say what I felt, and that is don’t stop believing.”

Before getting to the stage, Ralph was so shocked, "my brain just went to mush, literally. It just got muddled," she said.

"I can remember my husband's hands on my arm like he was trying to get me up. But I heard Quinta and Tyler say, 'Get up, get up' and I  — I got up. I don't remember getting on the stage. I really don't," she recalled.

"But when I got to center stage, I knew that I had to center myself. I had to calm down and I was about ready to burst into tears. And I could hear my father saying, 'Get it together. Get it together. This is your moment. Let them see who you are' and I went to what I knew, and that was a song."

Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara and Tyler James Williams as
Gregory Eddie in "Abbott Elementary."
Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara and Tyler James Williams as Gregory Eddie on "Abbott Elementary"Gilles Mingasson / ABC

'Abbott Elementary'

Ralph's co-stars Lisa Ann Walter (Melissa Schemmenti) and Quinta Brunson (Janine Teagues) recently joined her on "The Kelly Clarkson Show" and said Ralph confusing two people in real life ended up being a theme in Episode Two of Season Two. Ralph told TODAY that may not be the only storyline she's inspired.

"I haven't the slightest idea" how many stories are from her life, she said. "All I know is: Don't make a mistake around Quinta, or any of the writers, because they will remember it and they will write about it," she said, still defending herself from the mixup.

The show is a mockumentary, so the cast will look into the camera in reaction to something that happened and the glances usually make viewers laugh. Ralph said she doesn't have to worry about cracking a smile when she's not supposed to because "if you notice, my character does not look into the camera very often because it's about 'This is serious'" and Mrs. Howard is more so a lighthearted release to balance the more serious moments.

Sheryl Lee Ralph and husband Vincent Hughes at the 74th Emmy Awards on September 12, 2022.
Sheryl Lee Ralph and husband Vincent Hughes at the 74th Emmy Awards on Sept. 12, 2022Evans Vestal Ward / NBC

Plus, perhaps more importantly, "I believe Mrs. Howard still believes that the camera does not belong in the school, that there should be some privacy and that this is an obstruction. Thank you," she said in her Mrs. Howard voice.

Mrs. Howard had a critical experience at the end of Season One in which a kid goes missing while the school is on a field trip and she springs into action with a plan of how to find him. It's one of many times she's acted like the principal (because who knows where Ava is right now?), but without the title or the pay.

Ralph said she doesn't know about a principalship, per se, but she definitely sees a promotion in Mrs. Howard's future.

"I don't know if Barbara even wants to be a principal, who knows? Maybe she wants to run a school. Maybe she wants to be the superintendent. Maybe she wants to really make a difference, who knows? Maybe she wants to be mayor."

Becoming a local politician would be relatable for Ralph. Ralph is super civically engaged and she's married to Vincent Hughes, a state senator in Pennsylvania. Midterm elections are Nov. 8 and Ralph said she is voting via mail-in ballot in California and that she votes every year because her parents instilled it in her.

"My parents took me to vote over and over as a child and used to go into this little box, and they'd press the lever, the curtain would close, and my father would take my hand and let me vote. So I've been voting since a child."

Sheryl Lee Ralph accepts the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series award for "Abbott Elementary"
Sheryl Lee Ralph accepts the outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series award for "Abbott Elementary" at the Emmy Awards on September 12, 2022.Chris Haston / NBC

Modeling habits for future generations is something Ralph said she takes pride in. For example, she's built a career off playing wholesome, lovable characters, such as Mrs. Howard and Dee in "Moesha" and Deena Jones in the Broadway musical "Dreamgirls."

Ralph said she's "been strategic about taking certain roles and not taking certain roles (because) I do it for the generations that are yet to come. I want young women and younger to be able to look at me and say, 'She did that. I can do that.' I want my church to be able to say, 'that's Sheryl Lee Ralph.' I want my children to be able to look and say, 'that's our mother.' I want my husband to be able to look and be proud of me. I do it for my community."

At the same time, "I need to be a villain," she said, adding that she'd make a great Cruella.

"Part of me wants to play a villain. Believe it or not, I wanted to play the principal. I wanted to play Ava. But Quinta was just like, 'Absolutely not. We need a queen and you are that queen.'"

See that queen in new episodes of "Abbot Elementary" on Wednesday nights.