Sheryl Lee Ralph talks inclusion, navigating grief in new Hallmark Christmas movie

EXCLUSIVE: The actress/singer spoke with theGrio about her latest holiday film, "Christmas in My Heart."

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Sheryl Lee Ralph has mastered several lanes in her career. She conquered the stage as the lead in the smash Broadway musical Dreamgirls. She joined the elite club of TV moms during the six-season run of Moesha. And over the last few years, she’s become a queen of Christmas movies.

Since 2012, the actress/singer has appeared in four holiday films: Christmas in Compton, Christmas at Holly Lodge, Christmas Hotel, and Christmas Comes Twice. This holiday season, she hits number five with Hallmark’s Christmas in My Heart.

Sheryl Lee Ralph thegrio.com
Sheryl Lee Ralph attends Lexus Uptown Honors Hollywood at Neue House Hollywood on February 05, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

Ralph is a big lover of Christmas and has been most of her life.

“I love Christmas just because one: it’s Christmas and all it represents. And two: my birthday is five days later,” Ralph told theGrio. “So it’s always a week of great celebration for me, and I’ve always, my whole life, had fun during the holidays.”

Christmas in My Heart tells the story of Sean (played by Luke Macfarlane), a famous Country music singer who retreated from the public eye after the death of his wife. Sean finds inspiration when he meets Beth (played by Heather Hemmens), a violinist who’s in town to visit her father for Christmas following the death of her mom, a beloved local school music teacher. When Sean’s daughter needs violin lessons for the Christmas pageant, Sean turns to Beth for help and they all find healing along the way.

Ralph plays Ruthie, mother-in-law to Sean, who’s white, and grandmother to his daughter, whose mother was Black. She was pleased to be involved with a film that’s progressive in dealing with families with mixed backgrounds.

“I had a conversation about how wonderful it would be if these heartwarming Christmas movies were more inclusive of all kinds of people that are the gods and goddesses children in our world,” Ralph told theGrio. “It’s been a wonderful change to see more and more people of color, different sorts of marriages, young and old, all coming together and especially the color Black, which sometimes is very hard for people to see.”

Ralph enjoyed the attention to inclusivity throughout Christmas in My Heart. Beth is the product of mixed parents, and as a skilled violinist, she takes on a musical occupation and identity not usually captured in films. In addition, Ralph insisted on having a scene added to the film in which Sean’s daughter Katie (played by Maria Nash) needed her hair done-up for the pageant, alluding to wanting it straightened because it looked more “professional,” to which Ruthie told Katie that her hair was beautiful in braids, natural and any other way.

Ralph was adamant about being in a film that was more racially and spiritually inclusive.

“We are not a monolithic people,” she said. “There are many different level-shaped shades and vibrations that go along with that. And I’m very happy that you were able to pick up on that one in the movie.”

Ralph also enjoys the relatability of Christmas in My Heart — specifically, Katie’s need to relate to Beth, who is mixed and lost her mom as well.

“There’s a very interesting part where [Sean] is not letting [Katie] talk to [Beth], and she says to her father, ‘She understands me. She knows what I’ve been through. We can talk about things,”’ Ralph said. “And I was like, wow, that’s so sweet to say ‘I need to.’ There’s also another line that really struck me, when the daughter says, ‘Dad, sometimes I feel closer to mom, and you’re the one that’s here.’ And I was like, Wow, that is so deep. You know that he had really come out of his grief and really deal with the living.”

Ralph is fully aware of how much the holiday season can trigger grief and depression in people, and she wanted to make sure that this film tackled that issue head-on. In one scene, her character Ruthie speaks to Sean about how he’s been using his grief as an excuse to stop writing and releasing new music. As Sean’s departed wife was Ruthie’s daughter, Ralph explained that her way of dealing with grief was to continue on with life as best as possible and that Sean should do the same.

“I also loved what it said about growing wiser in life, not growing older and the fact that you just have to keep it moving,” Ralph said of that scene. “And this whole decision that once you reach a certain age, you need to stop. When my character says, ‘No, no, I’ve got to keep going, there’s more life in me and I’ve got more to do.'”

Christmas in My Heart presents a story of mixed families, blended families and blended faiths with the message of the importance of leaning on people in your time of mourning because they might relate more than you know. Ralph was pleased to be a part of the project that goes far beyond simple Christmas tropes.

“I think I’m a humanist at heart, and it was great to be able to give that to more than just the characters on the screen, but to the audience in general,” she said.

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