What It’s Like to Direct All Those Cute-as-Hell Kids on ‘Abbott Elementary’

One of the show’s directors, Randall Einhorn, explains how they wrangle its youngest actors, in all their goofy, exuberant glory.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
abbot elementary child actors quinta brunson

My mom, a retired teacher, is the person who turned me on to Abbott Elementary. She described it as a sweet, funny show about a Philadelphia public school that reminded her of her decades of teaching (even though, per her, they spend “an unrealistic amount of time talking in the hallways”). It makes sense that my mom would relate to it—Quinta Brunson, the show’s creator, writer, executive producer, and star, has said multiple times that her own mother’s years as a teacher in Philly inspired Abbott Elementary in the first place. 


Of course, not everyone who loves the Emmy-winning show has the same personal ties to teaching—but nearly everyone knows what it’s like to be in school. Abbott Elementary recreates that experience in a way that’s both funny and genuinely moving, largely thanks to the best ensemble cast of child actors I’ve ever seen on TV. Whether they’re stealing Halloween candy, wandering off at the zoo, or jumping from desk to desk in TikTok-challenge fashion, it’s so refreshing to see child actors who act like normal kids in all their goofy, exuberant glory. 

Executive producer and director Randall Einhorn, who honed his mockumentary skills as a cinematographer and director on The Office, said that realism is exactly what he and the rest of the Abbott Elementary team aim for. “I care about the comedy, but it’s absolutely secondary to authenticity,” he said. “The comedy will come, because we’re all good at our jobs, allegedly. It’s really about getting it real.”

How do you pull that off when you’re managing the hundred-odd child actors who make up the fictional school’s student body? Especially when simulating a learning environment that, thanks to COVID, most of those actors hadn’t spent time in for more than a year when the show began shooting in August 2021? Einhorn and I discussed “the babies,” as he called them, and what it takes to make Abbott Elementary so special for actors of all ages.


VICE: What were you looking for when choosing the cast of kids for this show?

Randall Einhorn: We cast the show out of people who are not necessarily actors, because I think in children actors, what you get quite often is this Disney-style sensibility, where things are ingrained in them that I don’t think are necessarily... they’re just a little too cute. Because this is a mockumentary, I prefer more grounded and real. And they’re cute anyway! I’m far more interested in an authentic performance than I am in a comedic performance. 

How do you create the kind of environment where child actors are able to give these really organic performances?

The teachers [on the show] help us do that a lot. In the pilot, it was the very first scene, and the kids were just going crazy—they hadn’t seen each other for ages, they’re all really loud, and the assistant directors, we’re all like, “Guys, you gotta be quiet, can you please be quiet, excuse me, please, can you quiet down?” And then, Sheryl Lee Ralph walks into this scene—it’s the scene where she needed to quiet the class down, because Janine couldn't. She walks in the room and says, “Good morning, class. I am your teacher, Miss Howard. What do we do when we say, ‘Be quiet?’” And all the kids are like, “Be quiet?” I turned to Quinta like, “Oh my god, we did such good casting, this is amazing!”


That was a learning curve for us: The teachers need to appear to be teachers to them. Not only are they acting with the kids, but they need to personify teachers. And the kids respond to that. They don’t respond to continually, “Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, be quiet,” they respond to a person saying, “Scuse me, hands up,” someone resetting things. We work with a lot of literal teachers, their teachers, who help us get there as well. 

They make our actors feel like teachers, too, so it works both ways. Our teachers are making them feel like students, and they’re making our actors feel like they’re teachers, and that’s cool. That’s real. You can feel that. 

Actor Sheryl Lee Ralph pals around with a student.

Actor Sheryl Lee Ralph pals around with a student. Photo by Gilles Mingasson.

How do you know when one of the kids is ready to take on a bigger role in the show? 

Kids that can listen when they’re not in a scene are kids that are going to listen in a scene, when you’re acting with them. You identify the kids who, it’s like, “This kid’s really making eye contact with me,” or, “This kid’s helping shush another kid.” You’re like, I want to give that kid a line. And that’s really, really fun.

There was a kid in the pilot, where one kid kicked another kid and Janine tells that kid, “Apologize! Andrew, I’m counting to three. One, two…” and the kid just goes like this: [Einhorn crosses his arms against his chest and turns away from the camera.] That was a real kid who just made the choice to do that! I was like, OK, that guy’s great, he gave me great stuff there, and we’ve used him throughout. It’s really cool when you get to see someone who’s been in the background, when they get a line, it feels like it's from the family. It feels more authentic, rather than some kid who just appears who can “nail” the line. 


That moment, where the actor turned away from Quinta, reminds me of something in the Halloween episode that made me laugh so hard—she’s asking a girl, “What’s in your mouth?” and the girl just drools out all these Skittles. It's such a funny image. How much of that is direction and how much of it is letting the kids improvise?

It’s a bit of both, because what you’re asking from them may not work for them. It’s the same with an adult actor; you want that kid’s spin on it, even though they're not a trained actor. We’ve seen her, we know who she is, and we knew that she could do that job. She's gonna get a line one day, for sure.

Quinta Brunson finds out what's in her student's mouth. (It's Skittles.)

Quinta Brunson finds out what's in her student's mouth. (It's Skittles.) Photo by Gilles Mingasson.

Has anything been especially fun to shoot so far?

We’ve got an episode called “Egg Drop” coming up, and it's about the science experiment where you need to get the eggs to land gently. When we were shooting that, the kids were actually seeing the things that they created—they got to build stuff, and then they got to see how their egg drops worked or didn't work! Sometimes, the kids would react to what actually happened, and then I’d need to go back and say, “OK, here’s what happened, it crashed, awwww!” Or, “This one's like, ‘Ooooh, splat,’” just to get real, specific reactions from them. I had like 85 kids in that scene, all reacting in various ways to what they saw.


I personally come to work and I’m here to play. That’s what we get to do every single day, is just play and laugh. I’m a lucky guy! We try to keep our set in control, but light and fun. If it’s not fun, it comes across in the comedy, and that's something I try to do in everything, but in particular with kids. It has to be fun, otherwise it's not going to be funny. 

Actor Tyler James Williams dances with students in Abbott’s auditorium.

Actor Tyler James Williams dances with students in Abbott’s auditorium. Photo by Ser Baffo.

Is it ever difficult to work with such a big cast of young actors? 

We always need to keep in mind who we’re working with. When we shot the pilot, it was during COVID. Ninety percent of those kids had never been on a film set before, but 100 percent of those kids had not been in a classroom with other kids for, like, a year and a half! You had these kids that were coming to this new thing and a place that they hadn’t experienced for ages, so they were all like, “Oh my god! This is amazing!” and they were full of energy. It was cool to see, but tricky to work with. Still, it was amazing how patient and quiet they were—and we really recognize the use-by date of how long you can ask a 6-year-old to be quiet when other people are filming a scene.

All of our assistant directors are really good at managing the kids and making sure it doesn’t feel like they’re being disciplined. We give them goals, like, “If we do this scene for 15 minutes, you guys are gonna get a sticker!” Or, “We’re gonna go break for lunch, so we just need to get through this!” We never reprimand, we’re never disciplinary here. If one kid’s acting up, we’ll attend to it, but we need to keep it fun. Otherwise, why do this? Why should they do this?

We spend so much time with these kids, we get to know them, we get to know some of their stories at home. Quinta knows practically all their names. Even though it needs to stay in this mode of, They’re working, I’m working, you can’t help but form a relationship with them.  Because they’re gorgeous.

Katie Way is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.