“We are in a segregated industry,” says actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who is best known for playing Dr. Rainbow Johnson on Kenya Barris‘ groundbreaking ABC sitcom Black-ish, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “There’s a reason that I am the first black female actress nominated for an Emmy [for best actress in a comedy series, in each of the last two years] in thirty-some-odd years [since Phylicia Rashad was nominated for The Cosby Show in 1986] and I am the first that won a Golden Globe in thirty-some-odd years [since Debbie Allen won for Fame in 1982]. You know, I think that’s a comment on many pieces of our industry and our world.”
Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 176 episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Emma Stone, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Reese Witherspoon, Harvey Weinstein, Natalie Portman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Taraji P. Henson, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Moore, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Helen Mirren, Denzel Washington, Brie Larson, Aziz Ansari, Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Warren Beatty, Jessica Chastain, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Sting, Tyler Perry, Amy Schumer, Jay Leno, Mandy Moore, Ricky Gervais, Kris Jenner & Jimmy Kimmel.
Ross, 44, is one of the daughters of pop star Diana Ross and former music manager Robert Ellis Silverstein, and was born in Los Angeles but raised around the world. “My mom felt very strongly that if she had to work and base herself in a place, that we would go with her,” she explains. A “very shy” kid growing up, she realized during high school, that she “started to come alive in front of an audience,” singing in talent shows, acting in school plays and even modeling professionally. She went off to Brown University, where, she says, an acting class “lit me up,” and her major, or concentration, became theater. After graduating, she briefly worked as a fashion editor at a couple of magazines, but realized, “I’m a performer at heart — I liked being on stage and in front of people,” and began focusing full-time on pursuing an acting career.
In the early days of her career, Ross struggled to find work. “I think what happened, truthfully, if I look back now,” she says, “is that I was going into those auditions trying to get people to tell me that I was good enough — I was looking for external validation — and that was creating a pressure that not only is that where I can get that answer, but it was creating a pressure that made it too scary to do what I was supposed to be doing.” A low point came when she was dropped by the Gersh Agency — “They said I didn’t pop when I went in a room,” she recalls, which left her in “a lot of tears” — but she kept plugging along and ultimately landed small jobs that led to bigger ones.
“The big moment,” she says emphatically, was when she landed a starring part on Girlfriends, a comedy series about a group of female friends that often was described as “a black Sex and the City” and that ran between 2000 and 2008, first on UPN and then on The CW. For 172 half-hour episodes, most shot in front of a live audience, she played a neurotic lawyer and got to display a wide array of comedic chops. “I became a seasoned pro, and I did not walk into the show that way,” she says. “It was a huge part of my career and life. I became a woman while doing the show. Those were pivotal years.”
After Girlfriends came to an end, Ross took off some time, waited for another good opportunity to come around and acted only occasionally, mostly in TV movies and in guest arcs on TV series. Then came a call from Barris, who had been a writer on Girlfriends, and who told Ross that he had written a part for her — that of a wife, mother and working mom called Dr. Rainbow Johnson, loosely based on his own wife, Dr. Rainbow Edwards-Barris — in the pilot he had written called Black-ish. And on Valentine’s Day of 2013, she came in to read for the part opposite the prospective male lead, Anthony Anderson.
Ross did so with some reluctance. “I did not like Anthony,” she confesses. “I had worked with him in the past. I thought he was an asshole. If you know Anthony, he has a gruff exterior, and he does not have an inner-governor, and Anthony says stuff that is not that appropriate all the time. Like, everybody knows it’s part of why he’s funny, it’s part of the ace in his deck, but it’s also, like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And if you don’t know him, it can come across rudely. And he had said some things to me in the past that I did not like, and I didn’t like him. I didn’t like him. But I knew Kenya and I knew all the other people involved, and I was like, ‘I will go in.'” But, she says, her feelings about Anderson quickly changed. “From the moment I walked in to that audition, I was like, ‘Oh, there’s magic here. Like, magic,'” adding, “I will tell you, I was wrong — or not that ‘I was wrong,’ but I have a different experience of him now. He is one of my absolute favorite people. I love working with that man so much.”
Black-ish went on the air in May 2015 and quickly began building up a following that included, as Ross puts it, “all different kinds of people, all different colors, all different shapes and sizes, all different economic backgrounds” — including President Barack Obama, who referenced it in his 2015 address to the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. “The timing somehow was just perfect,” Ross says, alluding to the racial questions and tensions that were reaching a crescendo at end of Obama era, throughout the 2016 presidential contest and continuing into the Trump era. Many compared the program to another that had centered on a black family decades earlier, The Cosby Show, but Ross bristles at that idea. “I think our show is more in the vein of a Norman Lear show than The Cosby Show,” she says. “The thing that’s interesting to me about our show is it’s from the inside. This is not somebody telling you who this family is; this is us being this family.” She continues, “We are a black family, but our show is not about us being black. We just deal with whatever this family would deal with, but we’re also pushing the envelope on everything.” Episodes have dealt in humorous ways with the n-word, police brutality and mixed-race relationships (Ross’ Emmy submission this year is for “Being Bow-Racial,” in which her character, a mixed-race woman like herself, has reservations when her son brings home a white girlfriend) — all on a broadcast network, where controversial things generally are avoided.
Less discussed, but just as important to Ross, is the unusual, quietly revolutionary nature of her own character on the show. “There is a way that I am very consciously, specifically playing Bow, that really is expanding the way ‘the wife role’ is in a traditional sitcom,” she explains. “This is a traditional show. It is told through Dre’s [Anderson’s character’s] eyes — it couldn’t be more clearly told through his eyes, he does the voiceover — and usually that means that the wife becomes wife-wallpaper, and she is a prop in his world, and she is an extension of his story. But although the stories are still told through his eyes, Bow is a very full person. It’s not interesting that she’s a wife, it’s not interesting that she is a mother, it’s not interesting that she is a working mom or that she works or that she’s a doctor. What’s interesting is that she is all of those things. And what I consciously try to do when I enter a scene, when I am in a story, is know that I have a story that wasn’t on the screen and make sure that I bring that to the moments when I am on the screen.” She adds, “I just ask ‘why’ a lot so I’m not just doing something to service a story. I’m doing something to service my character’s point-of-view.”
For her efforts on Black-ish, Ross has received greater acclaim and attention than ever before, including back-to-back Emmy nominations and, earlier this year, an historic win at the Golden Globes over, among others, Veep‘s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose record-setting streak of consecutive Emmy wins Ross is hoping to stop at five on Sept. 17. “It was amazing,” Ross says of that night. “But the truth is that my personal feelings about it and my personal experience sort of took a backseat to the historical context of what was happening and the larger meaning of what was in that experience for me, which is why I think what came out of my mouth came out of my mouth.” She summarized her acceptance speech, “I stand on the shoulders of so many and I stand shoulder to shoulder with so many that are not only deserving of this [sort of recognition], but make it possible for me to be in this place, that never had any light shined on them.”