‘Abbott Elementary’: Quinta Brunson Fought ABC to Cast Janelle James Over ‘Bigger’ Names

The ABC comedy Abbott Elementary earned Emmy nominations for much of its cast, including Janelle James. James plays principal Ava Coleman. Now it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Ava but Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson reveals she had to fight to cast James. 

'Abbott Elementary': Janelle James holds her hands in front of her stomach
Janelle James | Bonnie Osborne/AMC

Brunson was a guest on Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men podcast on July 19. Discussing Abbott Elementary’s Emmy nominated cast, Brunson shared the story of how she fought for James to play Ava Coleman. Abbott Elementary Season 2 premieres Sept. 21 on ABC.

‘Abbott Elementary’ creator Quinta Brunson pushed back on this network note

With Abbott Elementary, Brunson created the show she was passionate about. That’s not to say it was without healthy conflict. Brunson recalls ABC brass suggesting famous actors for Ava to anchor the show. 

“She was the one that was a little bit teeny bit of a pushback with the network like, ‘She’s unknown. Maybe this can go to a bigger person,’” Brunson said on Little Gold Men. “And I was like no, actually, I think a bigger person would make it more unlikeable.”

‘Abbott Elementary’ only worked when Janelle James played Ava Coleman

Brunson called Ava the toughest role to cast. The principal whose big ideas actually make the teachers’ job harder could have become the villain of Abbott Elementary. Brunson didn’t want that. 

“I would say the Ava character was the hardest to nail down because I think people can read her lines and create something very unlikeable,” Brunson said. “They might not be trying to but that’s how it comes off. That was the importance of Janelle. She auditioned and I was like this is it. I’m watching her, I can’t stop watching her, I love her, I love to hate her. She gets all of it.”

Other casting considerations

Brunson did include name actors on Abbott Elementary. Tyler James Williams was already known from Everybody Hates Chris and Sheryl Lee Ralph was a well-established name. 


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Sheryl was the last cast member added. I thought of Sheryl from the beginning but I didn’t think we’d be able to get Sheryl. She’s always working. She was on a show. She just so happened to be available. That was the first part of when Sheryl realized things would be different here. Sheryl’s offer only but I called her and I said, ‘I have to hear you read. I’m sorry, I love you and want to do this show with you. But I cannot not have you read and if you don’t want to that’s fine. We’ll move on.” But she was like, ‘Actually, you know what? I will.’ And boom, perfect, but it is with mockumentary, you’ve got to see people read. Offer only is really hard. Offer only is a weird thing anyway.”

Quinta Brunson, Little Gold Men, 7/19/22

Brunson was also cognizant that she did not want to do the Hollywood version of a public school. 

“The other thing I was looking for were people that looked like real people too,” Brunson said. “I didn’t want this overly beautiful cast although don’t get me wrong, I find every person in my cast to be super attractive. But I didn’t want the typical network glossy look. I wanted them to feel and look like real people.”