‘Abbott Elementary’ Actor Lisa Ann Walter On Her Mother’s Inspiration

For the last three decades, the multi-hyphenate Lisa Ann Walter, who began her career in stand-up comedy, made her mark as a character actor in films such as Bruce Almighty, Eddie and Shall We Dance? However, for most millennials, Walter is best known for playing Chessy, the beloved nanny in Nancy Meyer’s The Parent Trap. These days, nearly a quarter of a century later, Walter has emerged in the spotlight on ABC’s award-winning mockumentary Abbott Elementary, where she plays the Italian-American spitfire Melissa Schemmenti, a second and third-grade teacher at an underfunded Philadelphia public school. Here, she discusses the joys of playing the elementary school teacher and her own educational upbringing.

DEADLINE: You’ve returned to doing stand-up recently. How has it been going back on stage versus being behind the camera on Abbott Elementary?

LISA ANN WALTER: I was a stage actress first in musicals and plays. I never thought I would do TV and movies, and I thought if I was lucky, I would become part of a really great repertory house like Arena Stage or the Guthrie, and that would be what I would do. Comedy came about because I moved to New York to act but got pregnant immediately, right out of college. It was a foreign experience to the college-educated people I was friends with, but that was my life, so I started talking about it. I’d always been sort of extemporaneously funny. Making people laugh is what I did, if there is a god and he gave me a gift, that was it. When my parents split up, my mom was very sad, and I wanted to make her happy, so, as a kid, I made her laugh and memorized all of Richard Pryor’s albums, which I was not supposed to have in the house. But when it made her laugh, I went, “Oh, being funny lets you get away with so much.” So, comedy was a very purposeful thing that I did coming up. So, when I had a baby at the height of the comedy boom, I had some actor friends, Nora Lynch in particular, who still does comedy, who encouraged me to do so. I started writing, and right after my son was born, I got up and started doing stand-up. 

I very purposefully talked about things that I had only seen male comics talk about at that time. When I was little, I watched Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller—we didn’t get to see Moms Mabley because she was a blue nightclub act. Most of the female routines were “I’m so fat and ugly” because that’s what sold for women in those days. And I just wanted to do the experience of my generation of women, the plate-spinning act of trying to do it all: raise a family, find a cure for cancer, have a flat stomach. This is why we’re angst-ridden bitches all the time because we can’t do it all, and the bill of goods we were sold in the ’70s wasn’t working. I was trying to reach a wider, underserved audience of women that I know are coming to my shows all over the country. Some would come up to me afterward saying, “It’s like you’re in my head,” and guys were saying it too, “I don’t usually like female comics, but I like you.” Because I was telling the truth, and that’s what I’ve done my whole career. Now, at this point in my career, the great part of doing stand-up right after the first season of the show that I love is that I get to meet audiences, which is really important to me. I love that they have loved me since The Parent Trap and since my ABC show [Life’s Work] back in the day. 

So, the freedom that comedy has given me in my TV work is like working with the best repertory company in the world. I’m with these phenomenal actors week after week, episode after episode, learning more and developing the characters. 

Lisa Ann Walter in Abbott Elementary

Lisa Ann Walter as Melissa Schemmenti on Abbott Elementary

ABC/Gilles Mingasson

DEADLINE: After Season 3 of Abbott, are you still learning from your coworkers? Or is it a pretty well-oiled machine at this point?

WALTER: Every episode we learn something new, and part of it is that we are not a formulaic show. It’s not just the mockumentary style that informs how we’re set apart. I think it’s also the fact that we’ve got incredible actors, and their take on something might be different this time. It might not be what you expect, but it’s Quinta and the writers. They are selling a story that we don’t see coming. I go to a table read with the script, and I read it over once, but the way the actors are playing it by then might change by the time we take it on the floor. Sheryl [Lee Ralph] is hilarious because she doesn’t read the script before we do the table. She likes it to be fresh, so she responds in real time like she’s the audience. 

DEADLINE: Melissa is such a tough broad, but I feel we’re getting more glimpses of her vulnerabilities this season. What’s your take on her journey so far?

WALTER: What’s wild is that the women on our show are all alpha. They take turns, but none of us are like, “Here’s the shy one.” And when I read the script, I noticed, you know, if you’re the white woman on a predominantly Black show, it might be a choice to make her either, ‘I’m racist, but I don’t know it,’ or she’s weak. And that’s not what Quinta wrote. Quinta wrote the broads I know in my family. They’re tough cookies. But as we all know, tough people are tough to cover the other stuff. And once you let people in… the person that Melissa didn’t ever have to be tough around was Barbara. She can also help Barbara when she needs it, and that’s rare for Barbara to need from anybody. Last season, Melissa helped a little girl who has dyslexia, and she cried through a breakup. There are these soft moments in looks and little tiny beats. She’s not just one thing. We’re family to people now. The audience knows that Melissa might turn around and take her earrings off and start a fight, or she might start crying because something touched her. 

DEADLINE: Your mom was a teacher. How did you lean on those experiences with your mom to help develop Melissa?

WALTER: She had a lot of different teaching experiences. She started in a one-room schoolhouse in Philadelphia where they had an outhouse. They didn’t even have a bathroom. Kids came in from the fields, and during harvest, they didn’t come to school. It was backwoods. Then she went from there to teaching in downtown D.C., similar to Melissa, the way my mom was with those kids, the protectiveness, the insistence on their excellence, that’s who she was. She was always teaching. There was never a time when she wasn’t. If we were watching a TV program, she would be telling us about the time period, and I’d be like, “Mom, I’m trying to listen.” And she’d be like, “No, you’re going to get a whole story of what was happening during Henry VIII’s time and how the intermarriages were working.” Her love of giving somebody a story, something they didn’t know yet, was the reason I won Celebrity Jeopardy. It could even be math. Because we would go to the grocery store, and she would be like, “OK, now how much is that per ounce? Because that will tell you whether or not that’s a better buy than this one.” That’s how I learned about everything, listening to talk radio and having my mother then do the lesson on it. 

So, when I’m on set playing Melissa, the kids crowd around my desk because they’ve all literally done the worksheet that we handed out as props, but also to keep them busy when we’re playing a scene. They come up and somebody’s got their answers wrong, I’ll help and show them between takes and teach them math. We’ve got whatever the set decorators have written on the board for me that week, that’s the stuff I’m talking to the kids about in between takes. They’re doing stuff about spelling or parsing sentences. That’s what I’m teaching them. It’s incredible.

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Emmy Comedy magazine here.

DEADLINE: What scenario would you like for Melissa in Season 4?

WALTER: I let the writers come up with the story. I will say that having been a mother for as long as I’ve been an adult, it has been one of the acting challenges of my career to not be a mother in this character. If you think about it, my other best-known character is Chessy in The Parent Trap, who was technically not a mother. But honestly, in my playing of that character, she was that little American girl’s mom because that was the only mom she knew. So, I think there could be a future where we discover Melissa gave a baby up for adoption. You never know, and I don’t know what Quinta has in mind for Melissa. I’m sure it’s going to be interesting. I wouldn’t mind her taking on some big challenge, not necessarily going back to school, but a side gig that she decides to do. A restaurant? Who knows? Or at least a hoagie shop.

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