Tracee Ellis Ross (‘Black-ish’) on ‘pulling the curtain back’ on life as a working mother [Complete Interview Transcript]

Tracee Ellis Ross is now a four-time Emmy nominee for her performance as Dr. Rainbow Johnson in “Black-ish.” She is currently nominated for Season 6, submitting the episode “Kid Life Crisis” to Emmy voters.

Ross recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about her reaction to getting another nomination, the unique line readings she delivers as Bow and what it was like reuniting with the cast of “Girlfriends.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: To start things off, tell us about that Emmy nomination morning, getting the news that you got your fourth nomination. 

Tracee Ellis Ross: First of all, one of the things that has happened to me in this pandemic is that I’m not sleeping as easily, getting to sleep at night as easily as I’m used to. Maybe because I’m home all day. I don’t know. Anyway, so I hadn’t fallen asleep. I fell asleep really late the night before and I had a 9 a.m. workout scheduled and I let myself sleep until 8:15 because, you know, there’s no commute. So I was just going into the other room, and when I turned my phone on, it just was, like, abuzz, abuzz, abuzz. And I had no idea what was happening. Of course, with everything going on the world, I thought something very bad had happened and people were trying to get in touch with me. But then I got, “Congratulations.” I was like, “Congratulations for what?” I had no idea. So I wrote back to actually one of our ABC executives, who was the first one that popped up at the top and she was like, “On the Emmy nomination.” I was like, “Oh, my God!” (Laughs.) And so I ran around for about 40 minutes getting dressed and answering texts and then I went and did my workout. 

GD: There you go. Not a bad morning. So the episode that you are submitting this year to Emmy voters for consideration is “Kid Life Crisis.” And that is the episode where the Johnsons go to Mexico and we see Bow and Dre having some couple time, some alone time and sort of pretending to be childless for a little bit. So what was it about that episode that made you and your team want to submit that one? 

TER: I love the consistency of the story between Dre and I. Every once in a while we have these episodes where all of the stories, the A, B and C, kind of converge and it’s all telling one big story, and this was one of them. I thought it really, to me, gave the depth of the relationship between Dre and Bow and also between Anthony [Anderson] and Tracee, the comfort level, the ease that we have after six years of working together and the freedom that that offers. The more comfortable you feel both with the character and with the story and each other, there’s this freedom that happens that I just really cherish. Often, you watch television and you feel the effort of people sort of trying to find their way to the funny and that episode, to me, I felt like even watching it back, I could feel the ease. It was directed by Catherine Reitman. She’s also an actress. She’s incredibly funny. She’s on our show and has been on our show. So there was also that merge that kind of occurred and I just thought the performance, I really enjoyed it. It sort of was an example of what our show has evolved into in its opening and I loved it in its growth. And I just enjoyed the episode. It was hard to choose, I’m not going to lie (laughs). The Halloween episode this season, it was very hard to say no. It was a toss-up, but I landed there. 

GD: Fair enough. And you also have the speech and that episode where Dre wants to go with Bow to Paris alone without the kids, and he doesn’t really understand her hesitance with that and she’s explaining the difficulties of being a working mother and how it would just feel selfish because she spends so much time away from the kids because of her job. Can you just talk about where Bow is coming from with that? 

TER: Well, I think one of the things that is so fun about playing Bow is that we don’t lean into the traditional sitcom wife/mother, this idea that you’re upholding an idea of perfection, that you are doing only one thing and being only one version of what it is to be a woman, and that is one of those, to me, very special “Black-ish” scenes where we get to kind of pull the curtain back on the reality of what it is to be in that experience, to be a mother who is also an anesthesiologist, who is also a partner at her hospital, who is also a wife, who is also a friend, who is also a daughter, who’s all of these things and kind of revealing what the reality is underneath that. Not to say that she doesn’t like doing any of those things or any of it, but because of the world we live in, because of the expectation, the status quo of what people imagine mothers and women are supposed to be, there is a difference in terms of what Dre feels about it and what Bow feels about it, and they get to kind of have a conversation that reveals a little bit more of themselves to each other, and still, while loving each other. 

GD: And it encapsulates a lot of what makes Bow who she is. She also gets to be pretty goofy in that episode where there’s this one line I love, where she says, “Mommy is going to feed Daddy Tums like they’re grapes,” which is just wild.

TER: (Laughs.) Favorite line, that whole section, and the fact that Junior comes up and Junior’s like, “Will you be parents? Like, what is wrong with you? Why are you making me be the parent to your children?” And we’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Begone!” It is so funny. It’s like we’re the king and queen, sitting on thrones beckoning to the people who are taking care of us and it’s our child. It’s so ridiculous. It makes me laugh so hard (laughs). I also love the line when I say to Diane, when I’m like, “Go get those chairs, go get those chairs,” when we first get out to the pool. And she’s like, “There’s only two.” I’m like, “You shared a womb! You can share a chair! Like, go!” There’s so many funny lines to me. One other favorite, I’ll just say, which was an improv, Anthony, I think his was an improv too, I’m not sure, but when I say, “We can still fly to Paris and you just have to meet me halfway,” that’s from the same scene and he says, “You mean stop in Atlanta?” The giggle that comes out of me is so real and then I say, “You make the worst jokes.” (Laughs.) It just felt so lovely in that moment. That was such a fun thing for Anthony and I, that scene.

GD: Yeah. Well, I was going to ask about your delivery on some of those lines and how I feel like it’s always so unexpected and kind of varied, just how you deliver some of those lines. So how much do you play around on set with just how to deliver a certain line? 

TER: I play a lot and that’s part of the reason that episode was so fun to me, and this season, like you said, I get to be silly. This season, I’m pretty ridiculous. I’m ridiculous all season, and the delivery for me, I don’t know, this new thing has come out of Bow. I wish I could think of it right now, but the way I said “Feed Daddy Tums like they’re grapes,” there’s this weird voice that I’ve been doing as Bow. I don’t know what it is. I can only do it when we’re in the moment, but it’s come up numerous times now. I did it in the episode “Everybody Blames Raymond” when we’re sitting there looking at the kids. I do this thing that I’m like, “Where do I get that voice? Like, what?” I don’t even know what that is. I, like, suck the air in in this weird way. I don’t know. It’s what happens when Anthony and I are playing and being stupid and I really have so much fun at work. I think that’s what happens. 

GD: Yeah, it’s like you’re just tapping into that, “id” level of yourself that’s just goofy. 

TER: Sometimes I finish a scene or they cut on something like that and I’m literally like, “What was that?” (Laughs.) 

GD: (Laughs.) “What just came out of me?”

TER: Yeah, “What just came out of me?! Who was that person? What was that sound?” Anyway.

GD: Well I was also just curious about your role as a producer. We’re six seasons in now and you’ve been credited as a producer since Season 4 or so. What is it that you’re bringing to the table as Producer Tracee? 

TER: Nothing different than I was from the beginning. They just finally put a title on it. Nothing, like a renegotiation to actually match the contribution you’ve been sharing with the show. So it’s nothing different. I really like to be a litmus test of the truth, what story are we telling and particularly for my character, and Kenya [Barris] used to say it always at the beginning when he was on our show, he’s not there anymore — hasn’t been for quite some time — but in the beginning, he always used to say and it was something I really appreciated, “Would a human being do that?” Making sure that the comedy is anchored in truth and in honesty and who these characters are and I think it’s what our show does incredibly well. So, it’s no different. I participate. I speak up about story and all those kinds of things. I’m an active participant in the storytelling that we do. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not in the writers’ room. They are incredible. They break those stories. They write those stories and they create those stories. I chime in where it’s appropriate and sometimes I chime in when it might not necessarily be appropriate, but I’ve noticed something and I don’t really know what that means, appropriate, but it might not be necessarily expected, but I’ll see something and I’m not afraid to speak up about that. 

GD: That’s good. That’s very good.

TER: Part of who I am as a person.

GD: Well, I mean, this season, we have to talk about it. We saw a big reunion. 

TER: Oh yeah we did!

GD: Right? Your castmates from “Girlfriends” reuniting. Persia White, Golden Brooks, Jill Marie Jones and Reggie Hayes. Can you talk about how all of that came together? 

TER: OK, so that’s an example of a producer duty. Reggie Hayes, for example, was not written into the script. And I was like, “We need to get him here.” And they were like, “Oh, my God. We didn’t even think of it.” So I called Reggie and that’s an example of me going, “Oh, my God.” That was one of the most exciting reuniting experiences I’ve ever had. It was like we clicked right back in. What was hilarious is there were so many crew members who had no familiarity with “Girlfriends,” and so, when I clicked into Joan’s energy, because that’s the dynamic, they were just like, “Oh, my God, we’ve never seen you like this.” Bow is very different from Joan and so I had to keep pulling myself back to being Bow with people that I’m used to being Joan with. But it was so fun. The comedy and the sort of snap and pop that happened with the cast of “Girlfriends” was just so exciting. Very nostalgic. 

GD: And so many people were excited about it, and now, so many people are excited about “Girlfriends” coming to Netflix. Very recently that announcement was made. I’m curious, first of all, if you were involved with any of the negotiations on that or just what it’s been like for you over the past few weeks of people’s excitement over this? 

TER: Well, no, I was not involved at all. Unlike on “Black-ish,” where I’m a producer and sort of involved in deeper ways, that was not the case back then in my career. I didn’t have the ability to do that. So I have no equity in what happens with the show other than I play Joan Carol Clayton. So it was a surprise. It was a great surprise. People have been asking for it forever. I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled that the people that have been longing to continue seeing it will be able to stream it easily and that a whole new audience will be introduced to it. It’s eight seasons and I think it’ll be fun for people to walk down that road and I also think “Girlfriends” is still such a relevant show. The subject matter that we tackled, even the clothing, like, all of it. The only thing that feels out of whack are the shoes (laughs). Other than that, it feels very timeless! 

GD: I’m excited to see people re-explore it or explore it for the first time. 

TER: Me too, me too.

GD: Well, you’re very busy. Also this TV season, we saw the release of “Mixed-ish,” which is a prequel series that’s centered on a younger version of your character. Can you take us back to the origins of that idea? 

TER: Yeah. So I think you can almost go all the way back to the pilot episode of “Black-ish” when Dre is sort of accusing Bow of not really being black and she comes out of the bathroom and says, “Why don’t you tell my hair and my ass?” And I feel like that defined the kind of show we were gonna be doing on “Black-ish” and also started to plant the seeds for what eventually has become “Mixed-ish,” because on “Black-ish,” we explore Dre’s point of view. We explore his world through his eyes, and although Bow plays a big part in that, it’s not her story and so, we don’t often see where Bow comes from, where her belief system comes from and how she became the woman that she is. We’re always exploring that of Dre. And as you can tell, which is really interesting, on “Black-ish,” Bow is an outlier. There’s no one else like her. Her way of seeing the world is like, “She’s crazy! She’s a nut!” But then you go into “Mixed-ish” and you start to see what she comes from.

I think after “Being Bow-racial” and even the post-partum episode last season gave us a glimpse a little bit more deeply into where she comes from. And so, this idea to explore “Mixed-ish” in a similar way that we explore Dre’s past, but everything is a flashback. The show is a flashback and then the voiceover is from the current. So it’s been really fun. Going back to the ‘80s, first of all, is always enjoyable and charming and funny and being able to look at the world that we’re in now in juxtaposition with the ‘80s and how oddly we have not evolved that much. There’s some that has but a lot that hasn’t and this sort of resurgence of the capitalism of the ‘80s being at the forefront of who we are as Americans, it’s really interesting to kind of explore it that way. And it gives me a whole new perspective on the character that I play. 

GD: Well, that was actually going to be my next question. So, great transition. Did you actually feel like there was anything from “Mixed-ish” that did inform anything in how you’re playing her now on “Black-ish”?

TER: Didn’t inform anything new, but gave me a regular reminder of what Bow comes from and that’s one of the things that I bring up. It’s like it’s something you know, but it’s not first season anymore. So you’re kind of playing it but remembering that she grew up on the commune, remembering the distinction and delineation between her parents and what kind of father her father was and what kind of mother her mother was, has really helped in specific moments to just kind of broaden what I’m doing and the story that’s behind it. But, didn’t change much. The other thing that’s been fun on “Mixed-ish” is having the anchor of current-day Bow is who’s talking. So I’m speaking as the same person that I play on “Black-ish.” So that also kind of narrows my point of view in a really interesting way. 

GD: Well, final question for you. Do you have anything for us about Season 7 of “Black-ish”? 

TER: No. No.

GD: Nothin’.

TER: (Laughs.) Got nothing for ya! We did our first two table reads for the first two episodes. I will keep those secret because those are fun and exciting. But no, I don’t know anything beyond that. I think things have continued to evolve and change as we all figure out this very interesting time we’re in. Could we go back to work? When would we go back to work? All of those kinds of things. What I’m excited about, because I know that it wasn’t originally the plan, is that we will be back on before the election. So we will come back on in the fall, which I think is really important because “Black-ish,” it’s what we do so well. It’s what we have sort of built into the DNA of our show that we address these very hot topic issues that all of us as Americans are rubbing up against and bring them into this family. So I look forward to sharing those first few episodes with everybody. 

GD: I’m intrigued.

TER: But isn’t it an interesting thing to think, like, it feels so far away, but November is in two seconds (laughs). 

GD: Less than 100 days. I know. 

TER: Yeah! So just this idea for all television shows to be back on at the end of this pandemic… “End of.” Look at my hopeful speaking! In the midst of this pandemic. It will be really interesting to see. Like, Bow’s a doctor. I’m so curious how that plays in.

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