Tracee Ellis Ross
Photo by Austin Hargrave © August Image

Tracee Ellis Ross: “Why not do it in a big way?”

Short Profile

Name: Tracee Joy Silberstein
DOB: 29 October 1972
Place of birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Occupation: Actor, producer

Tracee Ellis Ross stars in The High Note, in theaters now.

Ms. Ross, aside from being a Golden Globe winning actress, you’ve also created, directed and produced for television. Does being the boss come naturally to you?

(Laughs) Yes, it comes quite naturally to me! I really like being the boss. I love directing, and my favorite part of it is that I get to be in charge. I love telling stories from different vantage points… I spent so many years as an actress telling from one point of view, and as a director you really get to tell the story both through imagery and editing, and also through all of the characters. I love that. I love being in a position to make creative choices, to create a narrative and a story and to be involved in casting, and actually creating and producing a project as opposed to just being the actress in that.

It must have been fun to play the lead in the series Black-ish, and then be able to bring that character into her own in the series you co-created, Mixed-ish.

Right, Mixed-ish has been fun because it was the world’s introduction to me as an executive producer and I had my hand in the creation of that, so it was great. But because it was already written, you know, the history of my character Rainbow Johnson and her backstory had been developed over five years. I had breathed life into her already. I was very involved in creating the world she was from, but a lot of the pieces already existed. But my career has been quite successful on television; I love the characters that I have gotten to play and it takes something very special for me to choose to use my time for that. That said, I think this pandemic has really made it very clear just how much inequity still exists.

“Even if you are fighting against your own ideas of yourself, it is worth pursuing no matter what the risks seems to be.”

In Hollywood specifically?

Across the globe! The world is different from when I was starring in Girlfriends and when that was on the air, and I have felt that difference specifically in my own career. I think if Girlfriends were on the air now how celebrated it would be — but when I was on Girlfriends I couldn’t get on a talk show! I remember The Jay Leno Show booker saying, “Oh, we love Tracee, call us when she gets something.” I had never been to the Golden Globes, I had never been to the Emmys. And it’s not that I needed them… But I assumed they were part of being the lead on a television show. But it just wasn’t! So that has transitioned and I think our world is opening up in a way, and paying attention in a way. I think the Internet has changed things a lot, especially with the ability to move certain stories forward.

Has it been difficult for you in that sense to make the transition to film?

Honestly, I have been quite lucky in that sense. I have had really supportive people around me. But at the same time, there is always the external forces of being a woman over 40, being a black woman, all of these different things… We live in a society that tells us how we should be, and to stay in your lane, and to be small and not take risks. I think that is the message that I so connected to in my film The High Note, you know, this idea that despite any of that, even if you are fighting against your own ideas of yourself, it is worth pursuing no matter where you are in your life and no matter what the risks seems to be. It is always worth doing what makes your heart sing — no pun intended!

I couldn’t believe it when I read that despite your world famous singer mother, Diana Ross, you had never really sang before that film. Why didn’t you?

I was terrified! It’s one of those things, like, you have a big dream and the longer you wait to do it, the scarier it becomes. I understand where my fear comes from: the fact that I have big shoes to follow and I was worried about comparison and judgement and all of that. But I think it got to a point where none of the fear mattered, that the pursuit of something that I wanted to do and the challenge of that was what was interesting about it. And what a better way to do it, why not do it in a big way?

But surely she must have had an influence on you musically.

Of course, I am her child, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. I think obviously I draw from some of that and the comparison and question is so understandable from everybody… But being on stage is something that I am comfortable with. And the truth is, not all my siblings are comfortable on stage, so some of it I think is unique to me. I have hosted live award shows for quite some time, I love being on stage, I love having a microphone in my hand.

“We all have to do better and open our eyes in a different way. People need to speak up when they see inequity.”

Was it difficult for you growing up with a famous last name?

I mean, I went to school with many other children of sort of American icons of sorts — and some of them had changed their last names, some didn’t. I look a lot like my mother, whether you know it or not, it sometimes dawns on people even if I didn’t have her last name. I have never hidden it, but I understand the desire to do so, so that you can actually make your own mark. I have had a really amazing trajectory in my life and my career… And for some people I still will always be my mom’s child, that just is what it is. I mean, for her I will always just be her child. But for some people, the magnitude of who my mom is and her life will forever overshadow anything and I understand that, she is extraordinary. So I did have a sensitivity to that, yeah.

What about your own path in the music industry? How does it compare to your experiences in film and television?

It’s hard for me to say because I don’t know quite enough about the music industry — or any industry, to say whether things are equal. I think the inequities of our world, the sexism, the racism, all those sorts of things exist and they filter into all aspects of our society. I think in any position that you are in, we all have to do better and open our eyes in a different way. People need to speak up when they see inequity, and seek each other in finding the kind of inclusion required in order to change the system that we live in.