Emmys: 'Black-ish' Star Tracee Ellis Ross on History-Making Nom, How She Avoids "Traditional Wife" Role

ABC/Kelsey McNeal

The actress reveals her favorite episode this season and her surprise at learning her character is pregnant.

On July 14, Tracee Ellis Ross was sitting at home watching her television husband Anthony Anderson on TV. It wasn't their ABC sitcom Black-ish she was tuning in to this Thursday morning but rather the live announcement of the 2016 Emmy nominations, which Anderson hosted alongside Lauren Graham. "I was hoping that exactly what happened would happen," Ross tells The Hollywood Reporter — and by that, she means she was crossing her fingers that she'd hear her name, Anderson's name and the show itself read aloud. But when her wishes came true, she couldn't believe it. "As a kid watching awards shows before I even decided to be an actor, you always imagine yourself up there," says Ross, who plays the charismatic Dr. Rainbow Johnson on the sitcom. Ellis spoke to THR about making history with her nomination, how she keeps from playing the "traditional wife" role and her favorite episode this season.

This being your first nomination has to feel particularly special, yes?

At 43 years old, to have something as exciting and validating as this to occur is just really special. And to be nominated for this show in particular — not that I feel more proud of it than other work that I've done, not more proud of it than Girlfriends — but there is something very, very specifically special about what we're doing [on Black-ish]. So being nominated feels like a reflection of what we do as a show.

You also made history with your nomination. When did you find that out?

I didn't know that in advance. I actually found out when someone tweeted it in one of the congratulations tweets, and I was like, "Wait, is that really true?" and then I went and researched it. I went on Wikipedia — and Wikipedia tells the truth. (Laughs.) But yes, the added historical aspect of being one of only five African-American women to ever be nominated in this category and the first in 30 years, since Phylicia Rashad was nominated for Cosby, it just adds this whole other layer to this experience.

Why do you think television seems to be doing a better job of telling inclusive stories?

I don't know. Maybe because there are more stories, it's easier? But I think the whole point is not who's doing better but how can we move in the right direction. I don't think any of us are doing [the best] job at this. I don't think our culture, as a whole, is doing a good enough job of equality in general. And yet, I'm grateful to be a part of the right direction around this on television.

It has to be all that more exciting knowing that you're nominated alongside your co-star Anderson and the show itself, right?

At awards shows, I'm always like, "What's the special part?" Other than getting dressed up and wearing a pretty dress, the point is that you get to thank the people that make it possible because the bottom line is none of us do this alone. As an actor, we might be the front face, but, like most art forms, television is collaborative — and it gives you an opportunity to actually thank the people that make it possible. And for me, the fact that the show and Anthony are nominated make it only that much sweeter because we get to share in the excitement and the joy of it.

The show strikes a balance of dealing with intense social issues while also maintaining a sense of humor. Is it difficult to play that?

One of the things that I feel so proud of about our show — which really is nothing that I can take credit for — is the writing. They have found this beautiful tone of being a multigenerational, character-driven family comedy that deals with race, identity and what this family actually would be walking through currently. How do you raise your kids when they have more than you [did], in a different world than you have [known], and pass on to them what it is that you want them to know and to have in their lives? And it's not just race and culture — I really think that our show deals with gender and that "wife" role on television in a really wonderful way. This is not a story that's told through the wife's eyes. To a certain extent, it's the traditional wife role, but that is not the way I play it nor is it the way that it's written. That's also very topical for what is happening in terms of feminism and how women are being portrayed, matching the way we are in our actual lives.

Your character is newly pregnant in the show. Were you surprised to find that out?

Yes, I didn't know I was going to be pregnant until I got the script. That's one of the joys of not being a writer and getting the script because it's like Christmas!

What was your favorite episode to film this past season?

I know objectively that our "Hope" episode was the most powerful. I think that unconsciously and for me the most exciting in terms of women's issues was the episode about the name — that I didn't take Dre's [last] name. That was the first time that we got to say that Bow was a feminist, and then I got to sort of pull that apart and say what that means is that I believe that everyone should be equal and we should all have a choice. I love the way we are dealing with these heavier, larger issues without making fun of them. That episode was really fun to play. And more than that, it was interesting to push forward some ideas that are not always unpacked in that way in sitcoms around gender norms and gender expectations and courageously push through the dominant discourse around the way we normally would take for granted that a wife would take the man's name. It just sort of alluded to a larger conversation around it.

How are you different from your character?

Rainbow is pretty different from me. I don't have children, I'm not a doctor, I'm not married — so all of those things are different, but I have a very mothering part of me. It's really incredibly well written. Every once in a while something might snag me, and usually that means that I don't totally understand it and it just requires some question-asking. I'm a very process-oriented person. I like to work things and really understand the larger picture of what I'm saying and what I mean. It's pretty seamless. A lot of what I do on the show is react, which is really fun. 

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.