Lisa Ann Walter has the kind of energy that feels like a warm hug. It’s evident even from the opposite end of a Zoom call, as she calls me “hun” in her cozy gray sweater and jokes about her kids being unimpressed with her recent success. For the better part of the last three decades, the multi-hyphenate, who began her career in stand-up comedy, has created and produced her own shows and honed her craft as a character actor in Bruce Almighty, Shall We Dance? and War of the Worlds. But for almost an entire generation, she is best known for playing Chessy, the beloved nanny and housekeeper, in Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer’s The Parent Trap.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Walter has stepped into the mainstream spotlight again in Abbott Elementary, the Emmy-winning ABC mockumentary about a group of passionate educators—and a slightly tone-deaf principal—at an underfunded Philadelphia public school. Walter stars as Melissa Schemmenti, a second-grade (and undeniably Sicilian) teacher who seemingly has “a guy” to help fix any hurdle in the school system.
The actress may play a tough-as-nails schoolteacher, but offscreen, she’s attentive and comforting with a personal connection to the show’s subject matter. “I’ve watched my four children struggle in different ways in schools. I’ve dealt with their teachers; my mom was a teacher [in Washington D.C.],” Walter tells ELLE.com in a recent interview.
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“I think that there are ways that we respond to things that maybe come from our backgrounds, but what drives [us] may be the same,” Walter adds. “‘I’m here to protect you. I want the best for you. I want you to be safe. I want you to be happy. I want you to make good choices so [that] you have a better life.’ And in my experience, a lot of that came from being a mom. But in Melissa’s case—well, we don’t know yet.”
Below, Walter talks about the show’s subtle exploration of the major challenges facing public school teachers in America, the legacy of The Parent Trap (and the intentional nod to the movie in a recent episode of Abbott), and her long-standing relationship with former co-star Lindsay Lohan.
How would you describe Melissa’s relationships with the other characters at Abbott? What do you want to convey in the moments between the lines to show how each relationship is different?
That is a great question. I was at an event last night, and one person who was complimenting the show said this wonderful thing: “It’s like you’re all different satellites that are spinning in your own little orbits, and you will kind of ping off each other. And when this planet hits this satellite, it’s a different energy.” … That was a great way to describe it. When the different characters are mixed, they create an entirely new experience that is just singular to that relationship—and it’s different from the next pairing or trio.
Barbara [Sheryl Lee Ralph] and Melissa can have an entire conversation without speaking a word to each other. They have lived next to each other in those seats in that break room, walked to their cars, and [sent] short text messages that words are hardly needed. I think that’s the reason people respond so much to that relationship. They call us work wives, and that’s what it feels like both in the characters and in life. Sheryl and Lisa will send a text that’s just like, “Did you ever…?” [And the other] responds, “Girl.” And we know exactly what that entire conversation meant, and I think that is their special little love.
It’s very interesting because there are four kinds of alpha females all in one show, and I cannot tell you how that is different from any show experience I’ve ever had, even if they write strong women—and we’re all strong in different ways. To have four women who are completely confident and secure in their abilities and their power is incredibly important to me as a feminist, and as an actor who gets to play that with these other women, it’s incredibly exciting. Melissa and Ava [Janelle James] have some of the most bizarre interactions. In “real” Melissa/Ava life, there’s posturing and then eye-rolling. But when they get into [a situation] where they’re like, “Let’s pretend” in their “make-believe” world, they’re like kids … and they’re both really nutty.
I adore Chris [Perfetti] so much. He’s my little, long-lost Italian son. I can’t wait when he comes to the house—I just feed him as many meatballs as I can stuff down his throat. Right now, Melissa and Jacob tend to be a lot of Melissa tolerating Jacob or swiping at him a little bit. They’re kind of trading back and forth with the learning moments, but their relationship right now seems to be, “Who’s teaching, and who’s learning [from the other]?” I love hanging out with Mr. Johnson [William Stanford Davis]. I feel like any chance I get with Stan to grab him and start dancing, even if it’s just a little slow kind of movement, he and I just love having a little silly fun together.
Melissa and Gregory [Tyler James Williams] haven’t had that much together, and honestly, I can’t wait for that. Tyler is such a fine actor. … I’ll text him and say, “This beat you had in this last episode, my God, you were good. Who’s your teacher? I gotta go take lessons.” I will tell you that working with Quinta [Brunson] is my entire heart. I love that Melissa as a character doesn’t have a lot of time for shenanigans. But when Janine stops her in a moment of need or in a moment of being ridiculous, and Melissa deals with it with heart, those are some of my favorite moments on the show.
In the first few episodes of this season, Melissa is overworked—not because she isn’t capable of teaching a split class, but she is essentially forced to teach two curriculums—to the point that she agrees to accept help from a teaching assistant named Ashley (Keyla Monterroso Mejia). As the daughter of a former longtime school teacher, what nuances did you want to capture about the realities that teachers face in these situations?
Teachers are dealing with myriad problems. One of the main ones that I’ve seen, as a mom bringing my kids into classrooms, is classroom size. There are often upwards of 40-plus kids in classes, at least in this state, and they’ll say, “Oh, we have a lot of boys that have ADHD.” My mother used to say, “An entire generation of boys didn’t get sick overnight. You have 40-plus kids in a classroom. There is no teacher that can handle 20 kids bouncing around, whether they’re boys or girls.” A lot of times, boys tend to have a lot of that energy, but I was that kid. I bounced around, couldn’t keep still or keep my mouth shut. And what teacher can handle that, let alone doing two different curriculums at the same time?
When we were shooting those scenes, the kids needed to just be themselves, because they’re so good and they actually behave. So I said, “Don’t let them hear, ‘Camera’s up.’ Just leave the room, and I’ll know we’re rolling.” And that’s how we got them just behaving like kids. I said, “Just interrupt me. Today, you get to be rude, you don’t have to be your polite selves and wait [for someone else] to finish. If I’m answering this kid, you start talking already—just raise your hand and talk at the same time.”
That just put me into being a mom of four with my twins, who used to double team—one on each side—[by] firing questions without waiting for me to answer each one. It was non-stop, just making me nuts. When Melissa comes out [of the classroom in a scene], I said, “There’s gotta be a reason for her to come out and punch a cardboard character and take its head off. Otherwise, America’s going to be like, ‘Okay, we’re worried about the kids. Somebody call Child Protective Services.’” You have to know what is making her crazy, so I think we captured that.
Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of The Parent Trap. Why do you think that movie continues to have such staying power, and what do you find fans often saying to you when they want to discuss that project?
[The fans] are not always younger, sometimes they’re in their 30s, but girls—not always but mostly—come up and are very emotional and say, “You don’t understand that you were my life. If I felt bad, I’d put this on, and you’d make me feel better.” … This younger generation had so many things that I never had to think about growing up and never had to struggle with. There were always kids that were struggling when they wanted to come out and didn’t feel like they had any safe haven or anybody to talk to. But for some reason, they thought, “Maybe Chessy knew a secret about the twins and helped them and loved them.” And part of that, I think, was what made queer kids feel accepted and loved.
Life is so much more different now, and [it’s comforting] to have a character who just wants to love you, hug you, and give you food. [People] will say, “Oh my God, I always wish you were my mother.” And I was like, “Shut up. Your mother’s probably reading this! You can’t say that.” The reason you feel that about somebody else is nature makes it so that oftentimes we can’t communicate with our parents, because … your parent is the one who’s nagging you about stuff you don’t want to hear. Somebody on TV who is just loving and wearing comfy clothes is a sort of “wish fulfillment parent.”
The reason the movie, I think, does so well is that there’s a lot of us coming from divorced homes, and to have this fairytale idea of uniting a family and happiness at the end of it, and the kids getting their way, is child wish fulfillment. It’s safe. It’s funny. It’s a beautiful looking movie, because it’s Meyers/Shyer, and they make beautiful looking movies where everything is perfect. So I just think I’m very lucky to be a part of it. I always go, “You think you’re bothering me by saying you love me? No, it doesn’t bother me. Let’s take a picture, and I’ll repost it.”
Whose idea was it to have Melissa wear a denim shirt at home in Abbott that is similar to the one Chessy wore in The Parent Trap?
That was mine. [Smiles.] I went to Susan [Michalek], our costume designer, and I don’t think she’s seen The Parent Trap. I think she told me that afterwards, and I was joking with her: “Are you American? What’s wrong with you? Get on that.” But I said, “Here’s the picture,” and she went and got a whole bunch of them, and it just had to be big and comfy. She knows I don’t normally like to wear giant shirts for the same reason I was worried about it in The Parent Trap—that was just my own body image issues. A lot of the shirts were nicely fitted, and I was like, “No, no, no, it’s gotta be big.” So then we got that one, and it was perfect.
People love it, and I give her credit. Honestly, she does such an amazing job with creating looks for all the characters. Everything that Janelle James comes in, you’re like, “Oh my God. That’s so Ava.” Even in the first season, I was saying to Quinta, “People are going to start dressing like you for Halloween. You are going to be a big Halloween costume.” I saw a baby who was Mr. Johnson! [Laughs.] It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen—a little baby with his little Abbott lanyard and his little green outfit.
You’ve spoken glowingly in the past about working with Lindsay Lohan on The Parent Trap. Have you kept in touch with her at all over the years, and do you plan to watch her Netflix holiday movie?
Yes, and about time! When she was shooting it, I know she reached out. I’ve had breakfast with her dad in New York when I’m there, and we’ve kept in touch through him. Sometimes, she’s like, “Oh, you’re with Lisa? Tell her I said hi,” or he’ll put me on the phone. And when she was out on location, she called me and I was on set, so I couldn’t pick up. So I missed that call, and she went back to Dubai. But we message each other all the time through Instagram, and I said, “Everybody on our show loves you,” and she was like, “Tell them I said hi! I love the show.”
I just told her how proud I was of her, that she’s coming back to work. Her dad was saying, “You gotta talk to her about what you can do with this property that she owns.” And I was like, “You gotta start creating projects. You’ve been in this business your whole life. You know what it is. Get a book, get a property you love, and spearhead it. Start producing. As a woman in this business, you can’t just wait for people to pick up the phone and call you. You gotta make your own content, you gotta start making your own stuff, because then you have longevity.” I’m so glad she’s working again, and I can’t wait to watch it.
Assuming that Abbott will last for many years to come, I’m hoping that Lindsay will have time to guest star on the show for at least an episode or two.
You never know! She could be a long-lost relative. We both have red hair. She could be one of those cousins that Melissa is always talking about.
In this week’s episode, the teachers are appalled after a commercial airs in support of charter schools that criticizes Abbott Elementary. And when students begin to transfer schools, Jacob, Ava, and Melissa invite the leader of the charter school organization, played by Leslie Odom Jr., to Abbott and ask him to take down the ad. What can you preview about this episode?
The teachers are in a little bit of a different place. You normally see us as teachers being up against stuff—we don’t have supplies, the lights shut off, we don’t have enough money. In this one, it’s kind of a bigger deal. We’re not used to seeing the teachers with no idea of what they’re gonna do. [They’re] trying to work together, scrambling and, of course, blaming each other. [Laughs.] Melissa is kind of surreptitiously accusing Barbara of having an “in” with the enemy. It’s a lot of fun. It’s kind of reflective of some of the stuff that’s going on in the country these days in terms of how schools get or don’t get funding.
The great thing about Abbott is, even when there are episodes that make strong points, that really have a point of view that makes you think about stuff that’s going on in our real world, it doesn’t hit it with a hammer. It’s not like, “… And here’s the message!” I would not love it if it was cloying and message-filled. It’s like, all of a sudden, you’ve watched the whole episode, you get to the end, and you go, “Oh my God, that’s what that line was about. That’s what that joke was.” They just do funny [episodes] that sometimes are really reflective of some crazy stuff that’s going on in our communities, and that’s why I love it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Max Gao is a freelance entertainment and sports journalist based in Toronto. He has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Beast, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Men’s Health, Teen Vogue and W Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @MaxJGao.