‘Abbott Elementary’ Star Lisa Ann Walter Has Done It All—Here's How

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

When she was studying acting, Lisa Ann Walter got a piece of advice that would inform her entire career: “Use all of you.” She let her experiences guide her as a standup comedian and as the star of two 1990s sitcoms, “My Wildest Dreams” and “Life’s Work,” which she also created. These days, Walter plays wisecracking teacher Melissa Schemmenti on ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” The series won outstanding comedy ensemble at the 2023 SAG Awards and is nominated again this year. Here, Walter discusses the formative moments of her career.

What made you want to pursue acting?

I went to the Catholic University of America. I was studying with Arena Stage, and I did “A Streetcar Named Desire.” One of [my teachers] was Stanley Anderson. We went through the scenes, and he said, “I wanted to know what you think of yourself. Do you think you’re funny?” And I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “You know who you are; use it. You’re funny. You’re sexy. You’re smart. Use all of it. What happened to the girl who came in on the first day and bent over in a miniskirt and high heels and had everybody laughing about her ass?” I said, “But ‘Streetcar’ is drama.” He goes, “Use all of you. Always.”

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What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t drink as much. Going into my second TV show, my ex came out to me, and I had two young children. I was starring in a show and had co-created it. I was in the writers’ room. I was promoting it. I started to do what I used to watch my mother do, which was to rely on alcohol; and I wish I hadn’t. I quit drinking, and I’ve been sober 20 years; so, I’m happy. The part that I was proud of that I would not redo was the fact that I broke rules. I wasn’t trying to do an act that would get me a TV show. I wasn’t trying to do an act that would make me likable. I was very purposeful about doing stuff [where] the women would go, “She’s one of us.”

Lisa Ann Walter on Abbott Elementary

You were part of the SAG-AFTRA Negotiating Committee during last year’s strike. How did you first get your SAG card?

I spent six months in Cape Cod waiting tables to raise enough money to move to New York. There was a movie shooting at the time called “One Crazy Summer,” [directed by] Savage Steve Holland and starring Demi Moore and John Cusack. I waited on them all the time. The director had a crush on the hostess. He said, “Would you introduce me?” So, I introduced him. They wound up dating. I said, “Don’t tip me anything. Give me a line in the movie.” I had been doing background work. The next time I was doing background, he said, “I need Lisa to say…” I got Taft-Hartley’d, and that’s what got me in the union.

Which role shaped you most as an actor?

The movie “Shall We Dance” was huge for me. I always loved dance. The education that I got doing that movie…was life-changing. But also on the movie, Richard Gere said something to me. Not even a year before, my knee was replaced. We were trying to do this scene running across the floor; and it was sticky because they put this lacquer [on it] to make it shiny, and nobody could run on it. I’m like, “I’m gonna blow my knee out.” Richard said, “We all put so much importance on getting it just right, pleasing the director, making sure that [we’re] perfect. It doesn’t have to be what you’re doing that’s perfect. It can just be the experience of you being you, and how that affects the people around you.” I’ve kept that with me ever since.

What performance should every actor see and why?

On social media, I connected with J. Smith-Cameron because we both referenced a performance: Derek Jacobi in [the Broadway run of] “Cyrano [de Bergerac].” The [Royal Shakespeare Company] was in New York in [1984]. It was the single best stage performance I have ever seen.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of Backstage Magazine.