There’s a bit of healthy competition between the second grade teachers during the midseason premiere of Abbott Elementary on Wednesday.
Janine [Quinta Brunson] and Melissa [Lisa Ann Walter] are going head-to-head to see which of their classes can read the most books during their annual read-a-thon. Janine is still desperate to prove herself as a newer teacher, but reigning read-a-thon champ Melissa isn’t going down without a fight.
But Melissa encounters a bump in the road when she discovers one of her students might be struggling more with reading than she is letting on. After a discussion with her student’s parents that proves to be unproductive, Melissa takes matters into her own hands, deciding that she’d rather foster her students’ love of learning than win the competition.
The episode culminates in a heartfelt moment where Melissa admits to her student that she, too, struggled to learn to read.
“In Melissa’s case, one of the things that is true is that she’s feels very connected to this little girl because she also had a reading disability growing up, so she understands it and wants to protect her,” Walter said. “So that’s a beautiful place to see a different side of her.”
And, in a victorious twist of fate, Melissa’s combined second and third-grade classroom comes in handy, as she’s able to leverage both classes’ totals to win the read-a-thon once again. Walter spoke with Deadline about seeing a softer side of Melissa during this episode, her budding friendship with Janine, and what’s in store for the rest of Season 2.
DEADLINE: I feel like editing makes such a huge difference with this show. How do you feel watching these episodes back and seeing how they’ve structured a scene, especially those between Melissa and Janine?
LISA ANN WALTER: I don’t know what they’re going to pick, necessarily. For example, when [Janine] comes up and she’s all feisty and all in Melissa space… Initially when we shot it, it was just she just says something [simple] and then she leaves and I say something to Barbara like. But at one point when we were shooting it, she juked me and I was just like, ‘What the — ?’ And Barbara is like, ‘Did she just —?’ I’m so happy they kept that. And her running down the hall just killed me. Then they went back to that shot with her continuing to run. It’s hilarious. So there’s stuff that goes on that I don’t know what they’re gonna use or I don’t remember exactly what I did. And then when I see it, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s good. I’m glad they did that.’
DEADLINE: So, how much are you improvising versus going directly off the script in those scenes?
WALTER: Well, what’s funny is we always do what’s in the script. We always do that numerous times. Sometimes we’ll get into something and we’ll have an idea or they’ll come to us to try something new. But sometimes we’ll just say something that may not be in the script, but it’s just kind of a real reaction. If I’m standing next to Cheryl, and I turn around and [point and nod in agreement], obviously that’s not in the script, but that might be where we cut out on the scene, because you don’t have time for that entire back and forth dialogue and that pretty much gets the point across. So sometimes the playing around is not necessarily purposeful. It’s just actors’ instinct within the scene, but they’ll like it and they’ll go with it.
DEADLINE: We saw a softer side of Melissa in this episode. How have you felt about uncovering both sides of her character and discovering her more vulnerable side?
WALTER: Well first of all, I think it’s beautiful. I’m very happy that Quinta is a fan of my serious work. She’s a fan of my work before doing the show, like The Parent Trap and Bruce Almighty and things where there is the laughter into tears. The moments that are more nuanced, and she likes to see me do that stuff because she knows I can. So when she writes towards it. Also, with any character that comes off tough like that, there’s a reason for it. Tough is a protection. So anytime you’re protecting something, it’s because there’s something to cover, there’s a vulnerability. So in Melissa’s case, one of the things that is true is that she’s feels very connected to this little girl because she also had a reading disability growing up, so she understands it and wants to protect her. So that’s a beautiful place to see a different side of her. But for me personally, I never had a problem with reading. I was a fat kid in school. So I felt very vulnerable for that reason, in terms of being teased by other kids and feeling like I had to make up for it in some way. In my personal case, it was being tough and being funny.
DEADLINE: She’s becoming a lot softer toward both Janine and Jacob, too. Why do you think that is?
WALTER: Well, unlike Lisa, Melissa is not accepting of any new person immediately. They’re all to be distrusted. They’re all suspect. ‘I don’t know you, and so therefore you’re probably up to something. I’m just gonna figure out what it is.’ So she’s not really somebody to open up. Me personally, I want to embrace everyone, especially a young person because I want them to feel safe and happy and loved and all that. It’s also very maternal. I think Melissa is maternal with her children, but with anybody else, she’s seen how you’re probably going to leave. The other young teachers that have come along lasted this long, and then they leave. So because she’s been there so long with Barbara, I think both of them are looking at all these newcomers like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see.’ But now that they’ve stayed, and now they’re committed, and they’re actually getting better, and they’re listening a little bit to the older team. I think that’s what it is. I think some of it is a protectiveness that comes with ‘You’re now part of our team, our tribe. So you’re one of the pack and we’ll protect you.’
DEADLINE: Melissa and Barbara can often come off as cynical, but never completely jaded about the education system. What do you think keeps them going even though Abbott is so underfunded?
WALTER: I honestly think that it is what you saw in this episode. It’s the one student. This little girl might have given up entirely on school because she couldn’t figure out what this river of words that was migrating on the page — ‘I can’t make sense of it, I hate school. Or somebody sat me down and gave me the tool, and now I can do anything.’ So getting one child to maybe change the trajectory of their whole life might happen once every other school year, but it keeps them going.
DEADLINE: I think we have to finish by teasing some of what’s in store for the remainder of Season 2.
WALTER: Well, I mean, everybody wants to know obviously about the romance. I will say that there were a couple of interesting romantic moves that happen before the end of the season. I’m not going to say what, but I think the audience is going to be really happy. Also, they’re just gonna be enthusiastic. Last year, when people were saying, ‘What do you want to see happen?’ and I gave a scenario…that’s gonna happen and I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s coming up and I loved the episode. It was a big episode. I think it might be my favorite episode this season.
DEADLINE: So, is Quinta just reading your interviews?
WALTER: No. First of all, she is planning in advance. If I was going to ask her for something, I literally have to be now going, ‘Okay, so next year, do you think we could…?’ But she’s already got stuff planned out. My joke is that when she sat down, she had five years planned. But not every little thing. They sit in the writers room and they break the story, and they come up with different things. What’s interesting is that they’ll come up with stuff based on, you know, we’ll have a kid that’s wonderful. We don’t know what we’ll get back, if they’re going to be a fantastic actor that everybody loves, but they are. Then the writers go, ‘Oh, there’s this great dynamic in between this kid and Mr. Johnson. Let’s bring that back in the middle of Season 3.’ So you never know when it’s going to show up. But little things with the different kid actors or small bits between the teachers will come back and we don’t know when it’s going to happen. She might read the interviews, but I think this one that I’m talking about was probably planned. It was kind of a no brainer. If you tell me three scenarios, I’ll tell you if it’s one of those.
DEADLINE: I’m not sure anything I can think of would be as good as whatever Quinta came up with.
WALTER: That’s kind of how I feel. I mean, I’m a creator. I’ve written stuff, and I’m creating stuff. So I definitely have ideas, but I learned in this one to just let go and let Quinta. I let Quinta handle it because she’s gonna come up with some great stuff. The writers and executive producers are pretty darn good.