In The Sex Lives of College Girls, we meet Sherri Shepherd’s and Alyah Chanelle Scott’s characters inside a black SUV. Senator Chase (Shepherd) is dropping off her daughter, Whitney (Scott), for her freshman year. When the single mom questions why she’s chosen a school so far away, Whitney responds, “It’s almost like I did that on purpose.”
The mother-daughter pair’s alternately tense and warm relationship is one of many appealing bonds on the Mindy Kaling–created show, and in real life, Shepherd and Scott have become close, too. Whitney is Scott’s first television role, so on set, she looks to television veteran Shepherd, who co-hosted The View for seven years, starred in Less Than Perfect and 30 Rock, and will debut her own talk show, Sherri, in the fall. “If I start getting anxious about anything, I’d go talk to you and say, ‘Sherri, I’m feeling like this. What are your thoughts?’” Scott says.
Sherri Shepherd: This was your first television role?
Alyah Chanelle Scott: I’d never been on a set before. I didn’t know anything. It felt like everyone talked in code. It was like, “Yeah, I’m going to do the ten four.” All the words meant nothing to me. I was like, “Just tell me where to go and I’ll be there, but I am so lost.” It was a crash course in TV, acting, comedy, and all the things.
S.S: The very first sitcom that I ever did was called Cleghorne! I had been a legal secretary before that.
A.C.S.: When you were a legal secretary, were you trying to be an actor as well?
S.S.: I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then I went to a comedy club, and seeing Eddie Griffin and Andrew Dice Clay onstage for the first time just opened up that comedic world for me. Later, my friend Jamie Foxx said, “I’m going to this audition for In Living Color. Are you going?” I went and got three callbacks. I ultimately didn’t make it, but it opened up my world as far as acting. On Cleghorne!, they would say, “Go stage left, Sherri,” and I’d just stand there. When we met on the set of The Sex Lives of College Girls, I gave you a little bit of advice on some little things because I appreciated it when actors helped me out. I was afraid to ask because I didn’t want to appear like I didn’t know.
A.C.S.: I’m the opposite. I’m like, “I want you to know that I don’t know so that this way, you can help me. I’m clueless here.” Luckily, our set was full of people who were willing to do that on a daily basis.
S.S.: One of the things that I admire about you is your fearlessness, whether it is real or you talk yourself into it. It comes across onstage, and it comes across on the camera. I loved watching you. Sometimes I would lose my place and I would be like, Alyah was talking. I was so into the scene, I almost forgot it was my line.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you in starting out? Is there something that you wish somebody would’ve told you?
A.C.S.: It’s funny that you say I was so fearless because I just remember being so stricken with fear the entire time. I know what I want, but asking for it is always so scary. So I think something that I wish I had known earlier is just asking for what you want and doing it respectfully and kindly.
S.S.: You grow into knowing what your worth is. For me, when I walk on a set, I know what I contribute. I know what I’m bringing. I can play around with the tone, and I’m very open to you telling me what you’re looking for, and I can adjust. But on the whole, when I walk on a set, I know exactly who I am. And I know exactly what parts I’m pulling from to play a particular role.
A.C.S.: Jeez, that just sounds so far away. I guess the more you do it, the more you learn. But how long did it take you to really get that sense of knowing?
S.S.: Every single time you do a project, it becomes a win for you. Even in the moments where there are losses and you feel like, Oh my gosh, just this wasn’t the day, that is also how you learn who you are. And for me, an example is my talk show, Sherri, that I have coming out in the fall.
But I say that to say it’s been 18 years. Eighteen years ago, I did a pilot for a talk show with a big company that wasn’t picked up. When I did it, I was so thankful. Everything that they gave to me as a suggestion, I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it,” because I wanted to be seen as a team player, not letting people down, being difficult. So I did whatever they told me to do. And they kept coming in my room, the big executives, and they kept saying, “We want that Sherri we see onstage, which was a persona that I took on — that bossy, sassy person.” I didn’t know who I was. Eighteen years later, I know now when people come to me with ideas, I go, “That’s not me. That completely is not going to work for me.” Embrace your power of saying no. Because “no” to me means, “It’s on.” This is why I love your generation of women because you go, “Why? Why should I? Why do I have to?” Before, that was seen as difficult. I’m loving this new generation of y’all that are coming forth going, “We’re not going to be silent. We are going to ask. We’re going to demand.”
A.C.S.: It took the work of your generation doing what you had to do in order for us to take that space. So it’s all connected in that way. There is such a huge learning curve and lesson in access. I went to college for acting, for musical theater, and when I got there, I still felt far behind. Everyone else had gone to private art schools. And I was in public schools. I had never taken an acting class before going to college, and people were on Broadway. And it’s just like, Man, I’m about catching up, catching up, catching up. Do you think there was a moment when you felt like you reached your ambitions, or do you think they are always changing?
S.S.: Girl, no. I would be scared if I heard somebody say, “I’m at the pinnacle.” As you evolve, your ambitions change. The one thing I will say to you, Alyah, is because I am a mother, my ambitions have changed and my priorities have changed. Success takes on a different meaning at my age than at your age. Because you don’t just have to worry about yourself. When I was younger, I lived, ate, and breathed my career. And if I felt like I missed out on something, I was a crying fool to my girlfriends. Now I know my lane, and I don’t envy other people.
A.C.S.: A saying I was told was “What is for you will never miss you.” That’s what I feel and what I think when I go into auditions.
S.S.: It is such a joy to look on that screen, big and small, and to see so many Black people, specifically Black women. Because literally there was a saying when I was coming up, “If you see one, that was it.”
A.C.S.: You told me that. I mean, you’re friends with all of the Black actresses your age. You would go to auditions together, see each other, and be like, Well, it’ll be one of us.
S.S.: As a young actress now, what do you see for your future? The sky’s the limit.
A.C.S.: I learned so much on the show not only about acting but the industry as a whole. Now producing, directing, and writing is in my scope of things that I want to do because I just saw the lack of a presence of people like me. Not specifically on our show, but everywhere. Walking the Warner Bros. lot, just peeping in soundstages and just being like, We’re not here. Maybe we’re here behind the scenes and on the desks and doing the work, but I don’t see us in space as much as I would like to see us. It’s that thing of, If you want to see it, do it. What about you? What is still on your list of things to achieve and things to do?
S.S.: I want to create spaces for women of color. I think in front of the camera, it’s becoming really great. Behind the camera, people in power, you don’t see people who look like us. I’m in the place where I can say, “I need somebody here who is Black.” This is why I love Mindy Kaling. It was a joy to walk in and see a female director, as a woman of color, using her platform to tell complex stories. How did you feel when you heard that the show had been picked up for a second season?
A.C.S.: Everyone had been like, “You’re going to get picked up.” I’m such a skeptic. I’m like, “No, we’re not. It’s not happening until someone calls me and says it’s happening. And actually, until I sign a contract, it’s not happening.” It was huge to hear, and I’m excited to be able to have a second chance at Whitney. I got a new acting coach. I’m trying to do better and learn more. I look at it as an opportunity to just keep growing, which is such a blessing to be able to do in this space and in this capacity.
S.S.: I’m so excited that it is coming back. I was on the phone with my agents going, “If y’all don’t call and see if I’m in this second season …” I’m sitting here like, “Call me back. I’ll be right here on the phone.”
A.C.S.: I just can’t wait to keep going.