Interview

Tracee Ellis Ross: ‘We’re in a moment of dehumanisation and it is life or death’

The actor daughter of Diana Ross and star of ‘Black-ish’ is stepping into the limelight as a singer in her new film ‘The High Note’. She talks to Adam White about the revolutionary act of joy amid tragedy, and what it was like growing up as the shy child of a superstar

Thursday 28 May 2020 18:26 BST
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‘My mom’s an internationally beloved icon – that attention was a lot for a little girl’
‘My mom’s an internationally beloved icon – that attention was a lot for a little girl’ (Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock)

Before breaking into song in her new movie, the last time Tracee Ellis Ross sang in public was when her mother, Diana Ross, pulled her up on stage at one of her concerts in 2015. She was sure it was a terrible mistake – her brother and sister are singers; she’s a mere Golden Globe-winning actor, 43 then, 47 now. “There was no assumption on [Diana’s] part that I was going to resort to being a shy six-year-old,” Ellis Ross remembers. “But there was this moment where you could see a very specific shift in my mother. It was like she was saying, ‘Oh my goodness, have I just put my shy little daughter in a position that I shouldn’t have?’ She completely let go of the ‘sparkly Diana Ross’ persona everyone knows, and she was just ‘my mom’. It was very sweet but yes: I was that shy, and I was that terrified.”

The clip is one of many featuring Ellis Ross that have gone viral over the past few years. It’s possibly because her features lose none of their comic power when squeezed into low-res gifs and memes. Whether on her Instagram, in her new movie The High Note, or in Black-ish, the family comedy that’s propelled her to the top of US TV’s A-list, she’s spectacularly animated and elastic.

Ross’s comic eccentricity, along with her warmth and newly fearless vocal pipes, are all on display in The High Note. Released via on demand this week, it is an odd-couple comedy set in the music industry. She plays Grace Davis, a revered singer not unlike Ellis Ross’s mother, who has been repeatedly told by record labels that her best days are behind her. Her personal assistant, an aspiring music producer played by Dakota Johnson, insists otherwise.

Ross fought for the role, even if it meant having to overcome her terror of singing in public. “I met with every single person I could and just charmed the pants off them,” she jokes. “I needed to make sure they understood that Grace Davis could not be Grace Davis if she wasn’t played by me.” Ellis Ross ended up recording six original songs for the film. “I’ve become the annoying person who, like, plays her own music,” she laughs. “Like, ‘You guys wanna hear my songs? Should I play you my songs?’”

Both of Ellis Ross’s parents are from the music world. She was born in 1972 to the Motown superstar and her first husband, the music executive Robert Ellis Silberstein, and enjoyed the fruits such parentage inevitably provided. She was educated in New York and Switzerland, photographed by Andy Warhol at 11, modelled alongside Naomi Campbell at 18 and worked for magazines in her early twenties. For years, however, she was crippled by shyness.

“I wish I knew where it came from,” she says. “But, you know, my mom’s an internationally beloved icon! That attention was a lot for a little girl.” Her mother told her that she became different once she began modelling, a fact she only discovered when they had to interview one another for a magazine. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but she said the more I found who I was and what it was that I love, the more I came out of my shell.”

The High Note is Ellis Ross’s first starring role in a movie, something that will perplex anyone who has watched her on television over the past 20 years. Ross pivoted to acting in the mid-Nineties, winning her star-making role in the sitcom Girlfriends in 2000. It ran for eight seasons, with Ross one of its four leads – all black female professionals living and loving in Los Angeles. It maintains a devoted following, but it didn’t propel Ross into the stratosphere.

Starring roles: Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson in ‘The High Note’
Starring roles: Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson in ‘The High Note’ (Focus Pictures)

Girlfriends was relegated to not being mainstream television,” she remembers. “I couldn’t get myself on a late night talk show. None of us were invited to the Emmys – not as nominees, but not even to present. When it finished, the pearly gates of Hollywood did not open. As a matter of fact, they were still locked and closed.”

Black-ish, which began in 2014, provided the career transformation she never expected. The role of Bow Johnson, matriarch to an upper-middle-class black family, was written especially for her by creator Kenya Barris. With gratitude in her voice, she rattles off everything the show’s success has led to: her first movie, her 2017 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Comedy, her hair care line Pattern (designed for women with curly, coiled or textured hair), the five TV and film projects she’s currently executive producing.

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“I’m very humbled to be able to choose what I want to do now,” she says. “Not that the world is my oyster, or that I have every part offered to me. There’s still very limited roles available to black women, even if things are much better now than they were. But I haven’t not been in movies because I didn’t want it this entire time. It was because those opportunities didn’t exist.”

Ellis Ross and her mother, Diana, at the ‘Vanity Fair’ Oscar Party in 2019 (Dia Dipasupil/Getty)
Ellis Ross and her mother, Diana, at the ‘Vanity Fair’ Oscar Party in 2019 (Dia Dipasupil/Getty) (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

She says that her work is driven by a desire to “change the paradigm”. “Everyone needs to be able to feel as beautiful, powerful and important as they actually are,” she explains. “Particularly in moments like these. It’s not a joke, it’s dehumanisation. It is life or death. That’s just a fact.”

We speak a day after protests broke out over the killing of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man suffocated after being pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee. It is an atrocity that has become horrifyingly familiar. One of the greatest episodes of Black-ish, broadcast hundreds of unnecessary deaths ago in 2016, was inspired by police brutality and the difficult conversations about law enforcement that are a tragic requirement in black homes. Today, Ellis says that her heart is “heavy”.

“I’m curious what it takes to change this,” she says, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. “What is it? Is it even mine to do? What is the action? I feel heartbroken. My eyes have seen something that is a reality and that I can’t unsee and it makes my heart hurt.”

There is a pointed scene in The High Note in which Grace questions what it is that is truly motivating her, asking “What am I doing it all for?” Ellis has asked the same of herself.

“I will say that my mission is about expanding the humanity around black women,” she explains. “Sharing our power, our beauty and our joy and celebrating that. In the midst of all that is happening, joy is a revolutionary act.”

The High Note is available on digital platforms now

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