‘Abbott Elementary’: Tatyana Ali on Crystal & Ava’s Epic Playground Relay Race

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[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Abbott Elementary Season 3, Episode 13, “Smith Playground.”]

Abbott Elementary took the action outdoors in its latest episode, “Smith Playground” as the school headed to a park for a local field trip. The only catch? They had to share the space with Liberty’s students and teachers, leading to some hilarious tensions among the adults.

In charge of Liberty’s kids and teachers is Principal Crystal (Tatyana Ali) who was introduced earlier this season as Ava’s (Janelle James) frenemy and former sorority sister. When Ava realizes that the tensions her faculty complained about during the field trip are related to Crystal, she spearheads a competitive relay race on the playground where the dueling school teachers could participate for a chance to win the park to themselves for the rest of the afternoon.

While Abbott reigns supreme in the competition, the teachers from both schools quickly learn that their disagreements don’t have an effect on the kids who come together to share the playground space for fun and games. In other words, these teachers could learn a lesson or two from the students.

Tatyana Ali and Janelle James in 'Abbott Elementary' Season 3

DISNEY/Gilles Mingasson

Below, Tatyana Ali opens up about going toe-to-toe with Janelle James onscreen, reveals inspirations behind her character Crystal, and teases hopes for a return. Plus, she shares what it’s like coming into a show with so many young stars having grown up onscreen as Ashley Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

How did your guest role as Crystal come about?

Tatyana Ali: It came about through an audition. The writing’s amazing. It’s an incredible show. I’ve been a fan of it, and I just took it as an awesome opportunity. Crystal just jumped off of the page for me.

Crystal and Ava have such an antagonistic dynamic, what was it like getting to go toe-to-toe with Janelle James?

Shortly after I got [the part], I realized that Crystal was a character mentioned in earlier seasons as a sorority sister and sort of nemesis. But I didn’t really understand the full extent of it until I met with costumes and the hair and makeup and even down to the nails, just how much of a foil she is for Ava. And then Janelle and I just hit it off. We both have Caribbean roots and we just had so much to talk about. We had a really great time together.

Tatyana Ali and Janelle James in 'Abbott Elementary' Season 3

DISNEY/Gilles Mingasson

You’re a Harvard graduate, and we know Ava embraced the Ivy League lifestyle earlier this season. Would you like to see that pulled into Crystal’s backstory as well?

Yeah, it’d be fun to see how long this competition has been going on. I think what’s really cool is we know that they’re sorority sisters. It’d be nice to know a little bit more about that history. And then also, I don’t know, there’s something there about them, especially in this last episode I did where they’re foes, but I think they really like each other deep down inside.

Things get pretty competitive on the playground. Was it fun getting physical outdoors for the relay race?

It was so much fun. We were at the park and there were about 400 actual kids there, so we had so much fun. I got so into it that I did things I haven’t done in so long. [I] jumped from heights I have not jumped from, and I felt it the day after. I don’t know about anybody else, but I definitely felt it.

You’re a former child star working with a great ensemble of kids in this series. Does approaching a role like this feel different than it did when you were younger? Does it bring up any memories?

I love working with kids and it does take me back to my childhood working on set. And I just remember very fondly, beyond Fresh Prince even, in theater all of the incredible work and fun I had. They taught me how to play cards and chess. And so when I’m on set with kids I actually spend time with the kids and play with them and talk. They’re awesome. They’re amazing. It takes a very precocious child to be an actor.

Tatyana Ali and Janelle James in 'Abbott Elementary' Season 3

DISNEY/Gilles Mingasson

How long did it take to shoot this episode?

I was there for three days. And I’m just in that third act. So, even though it might fly by when you see it on screen, all the kids, all of the different physical activities, all of that choreography, it takes time.

What was it like getting to work with the rest of the Abbott team?

It was fantastic. I told my family this when I got home. It’s like they’re comedy scientists, and so I just got to see them do what they do as a team together. I got to see Quinta Brunson work [and see how] in command she was with the show and this world that she’s created, which was such a blessing. And to be honest, it’s my first time on network TV in a very long time, and it was nice to be back in the lab again. It was fun at such a high level.

Was it fun riling all the other characters up?

Oh, absolutely. The lengths [Crystal] will go, I don’t think there’s any space too low. She’ll go under the bar. It was fun. Riling up the teachers was fun. Riling up the kids was fun. They got really riled up. There was a point where they were just kind of ad-libbing on their own. We had to kind of bring ’em back down.”

Were there any inspirations behind your portrayal of Crystal?

There are a couple of women in my life that I definitely used as models for Crystal. I won’t say their names. But then I also found something in this last episode about her [and how] she knows every hair on every child in her school. I kind of discovered that about Crystal in this episode. It just kind of happened in one of the scenes, and I don’t even know if anybody ever got to see that. But there’s something kind of classic about it, and some people in my real life. Then I was a little inspired by some of Shelly Long’s characters too, actually.

Abbott Elementary, Wednesdays, 9/8c, ABC

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