The Abbott Elementary actress, 65, called her show a "freshman mega juggernaut hit of a series" as she arrived on the red carpet Monday.
Ralph, who is nominated for outstanding actress in a comedy series, told PEOPLE and EW's Red Carpet Live preshow co-hosts Janine Rubenstein and Jeremy Parsons that she had "no idea that people would see the subtleties" in the Quinta Brunson-created ABC comedy.
"Believe it or not I didn't sink my teeth in at all. I was just doing my job," Ralph told PEOPLE. "Because I felt like that, that I thought I was just going to be there collecting a check, I had no idea that people would see the subtleties in the work."
"It's very easy for people to miss the layers that you put in sometimes as an actor, and they saw it all!" Ralph added.
Ralph, who told PEOPLE last Saturday that she and an Abbott Elementary castmate chose the same dress, so she has collaborated with an up-and-coming designer instead, told PEOPLE on the red carpet "five days ago I had no gown" until a stylist named Brandon Blackwood collaborated with Ralph's daughter, Ivy Coco, and another artist to create her Emmy night look.
"That's how family works, even extended family," Ralph said as she walked the red carpet in a black dress with studs adorned in her hair. "I now have family I didn't know was my family the way they have come through for me."
Asked about continuing to work decades after she initially started performing on the stage, Ralph shared an inspiring anecdote from working with Robert De Niro on a past film.
"One day I was shooting a movie with Robert De Niro, the great Robert De Niro, and in between shots he looked at me, and he said 'You are great. You're like really DGA, Damn Great Actress,'" Ralph told PEOPLE. "''But Hollywood's not looking for you, they're not looking for the Black girls, so you better wave that red flag and let them know you're there because you deserve to be seen.'"
RELATED: See PEOPLE's 2022 Emmys Portfolio
"Thirty years later, I am seen with my Emmy nomination," Ralph added. "And thank God I didn't give up on me because it's been a rough climb, but it's worth every step."
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up to date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.
The 74th Primetime Emmy Awards are being broadcast live on NBC from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.