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About to enter its fifth season, Black-ish has so far earned Tracee Ellis Ross two Emmy noms and a Globe win for the role of Rainbow ‘Bow’ Johnson.
In Season 4, Ross took the helm to direct an episode that marked the beginning of a separation for the sitcom’s beloved couple Bow and Dre (Anthony Anderson). Amid protests from fans, the couple were fortunately reunited by the season finale, but not before making audiences both laugh and cry through the story arc.
A longtime advocate for equality and inclusivity, Ross discusses how the industry’s perception of diversity has changed since her eight-year run on Girlfriends (2000-2008), Black-ish’s decision to cancel an episode that referenced black NFL players ‘taking a knee’ during the National Anthem, and her recent dealings with a pay disparity issue on the show.
ETI: You recently gave a speech where you mentioned that despite your success, you get asked why you’re not married and don’t have kids. Do you feel you’re being judged?
You know, I don’t know if I feel judged, but that certainly is a paradigm that we’re all still breaking through. Both in how we language it…I mean, even someone today really, truly meant to be supportive in what she was asking, but unconsciously still framed it in a way that was, “I know that you’ve chosen your career over having a family.” And I was like, “No, I haven’t!” I was like, “There was no point in my life where I chose career over a relationship, or over having a child. This just happens to be where I’ve landed.” So I think it’s not the fault of every individual. I think it really is a systemic response to culture’s way of having an expectation of women within patriarchy and all of that. I think we are one of the first generations of women that have a lot more choices and that can actually make some of those choices [carefully]. You know? Which I find both daunting and exciting.
There’s a lot to navigate through, and there’s shame and stigma. I mean, people still use the word ‘spinster’, which is so antiquated. Like, what are you even saying? I heard someone famous use that word recently, and I was like, what? What is that? What does that even mean? And then I stood up, and I was like, “That’s not a positive word.” Let’s stop using that.
It doesn’t really match the experiences that we’re having right now in our lives, nor the choices that we have as women. And I don’t think that being single and childless has to be the default. I’m grateful to be able to have those conversations, both selfishly and in the hopes that it opens up something and changes something for the next generation so that it doesn’t have that kind of stigma, and it doesn’t feel shameful or judgeable, but instead an empowered choice that somebody gets to make.
ETI: Bow is a mom and a wife, but she’s also an anesthesiologist. Did her autonomy attract you to the role at all?
There were quite a few things that attracted me to the role. What I was very charmed by was two things at the initial read of the script. One was the fact that this couple was actually in love with each other, and I find that often on television, [in] shows that are centered around a couple, the humor comes out of them rolling their eyes at each other. And sort of that traditional marriage dynamic where the woman is at home in the kitchen, emotionally supporting the husband, and the guy is this sort of buffoon. But that wasn’t built into the nature of the show, and I found that not only charming, but also a little bit groundbreaking. And that meant that there was space for Bow to be more than just wife wallpaper, which I was intrigued by. I also felt like it was an important story to be told through the eyes of a black man that was not told in this way. We hadn’t quite seen that.
And often on television, because it’s week to week—and usually, it’s 22 minutes—they write the characters through one or another lens. So you’re written as the wife, you’re written as the anesthesiologist, or you’re written as the mother, and the conflict of those things becomes the conflict of the character—”I can’t do it all,” or “This is taking me away from this,” or whatever that is. And they don’t do that with Bow, which I’m grateful for, because what it leaves is a woman that can be many things, which is what we see all the time, women who are many things, who are both sexy and strong and quiet and loud all in the same breath; who can be both the wife and the loving wife, also sort of pushing up against her husband and not agreeing with him. Like, all of those things can happen. I think that was the core of what intrigued me about the show, although it has evolved into being something more than that.
I’m the person on Black-ish who does constantly say, I’ve now coined it ‘lady chores.’ They get so sick of me. But I always ask, “Is it necessary for me to be doing this? Is it pivotal to the story that we’re telling that I’m in the kitchen cooking? Can’t I just be sitting here with my laptop and a glass of wine?” Not because there’s anything wrong with a woman cooking. I cook all the time, but because I look at the larger perspective of the story that is being told across television in general, and how can we continue to balance the scale of what has been out of balance?
ETI: This season, you also directed an episode. You’ve said you got some great support from your friend Kerry Washington. Was that advice helpful to you? Did you love the experience?
I did. My personality really lends itself to that kind of experience that is all-encompassing. Obviously people pick up on the fact that I called a famous friend, but I also call a lot of other people! I’m a person with a strong and clear point of view, always have had. I also come from a big family. I’m used to handling a lot and having multiple things go on at the same time, and that’s directing, so that was really exciting and fun for me.
I also loved being able to tell the stories from a larger point of view and to continue to learn how to tell stories, not just through the words that are being spoken, but through shots and through camera angles and through editing, which I find incredibly exciting. Kerry was very helpful in me balancing the ability to be in the scene and also directing myself, which was a challenging adventure, especially because we were turning the corner into a different kind of storytelling on our show.
ETI: It was a pivotal episode, dealing with the beginning of marital tension.
It was heavier material. We were changing a tone. It was the first of the four episodes I was setting up. In those kinds of situations when we’ve done those kinds of episodes on Black-ish, it requires a really close relationship with the actors and the directors, because there’s something new happening, and so it was interesting to have to find that with myself for myself, for Anthony, with Anthony as a director, and then also be in the scenes with him, and for myself. But I loved it. Honestly, the only thing that I felt was really annoying about the whole thing was having to get my makeup done all the time. Which is often the way I feel as an actor by the way; I’m like, “Oh my god, my hair and makeup doesn’t matter. Come on.”
ETI: You were on Girlfriends for eight years, and you’ve since said that even despite that, you still felt somewhat stonewalled by the industry, that you didn’t have the opportunities that you might have had.
Well, I don’t know that I felt stonewalled. I certainly would not use that word. I think what I would say is that I had the idea that after eight years as the lead on what seemed to be quite a successful show, I genuinely thought I would finish, and the pearly gates of Hollywood would open. I was like, “Where are all the scripts, people? What is this?”
But keep in mind that during Girlfriends, there was no social media. Diversity and inclusion across the television landscape was a conversation that was attempting to be had, but there was not the same kind of verve behind it. I had never been on any late-night talk shows—Jay Leno, David Letterman, any of those shows—at the time. The feedback and comments were, “We’ll call you when we get something,” kind of thing. So, it was a different landscape. There were different choices. It was a different time. The Obamas had not been in office. So, no, I finished Girlfriends, and it wasn’t quite what I expected. But all is well.
The thing that’s amazing to me is the love of Girlfriends still exists. People still watch the show and still love the show and still want a movie from the show, and it cracks me up because I’m like, “Guys. First of all, Joan Carol Clayton would be like so old now. Second of all, I’m now Bow Johnson. How did I keep up?” It’s crazy. It’s like, “We just want Joan to get married.” I’m like, “She is married. She’s on Black-ish.“
I have continued to plug away at a career, and I am so grateful and happy that certain things have occurred now that I wanted back then, that I had let go of the hope were possible. I’d never been to the Emmys. I’ve been nominated twice now. I had never been to the Golden Globes, and because of Black-ish, I got one.
Hopefully the key is to continue opening up opportunities for other people, and continuing to tell important stories that need to be told and offering humanity to a larger landscape that requires all of us showing up and sharing our stories.
ETI: Fans were pretty upset about Bow and Dre’s marital problems. They were saying, “We’re not going to watch it anymore if they split up.”
I know. People really hung in there with us. That was not an easy ride when people are used to tuning in to laugh. You really got to see how invested people are in this couple, this apparently fictional couple, but that Anthony and I have brought to life in a way, through the writers, that really is resonating with people as an archetype of something and an example of something, and I’m grateful to be a part of that.
ETI: You recently sorted out a pay disparity issue on the show. You’ve said that it felt awkward the way it came out in public, but how does it feel to have that resolved now?
Well, I will say that it was uncomfortable, and it was uncomfortable for numerous reasons. Number one, that it was not my doing that that information got out. So yeah, always uncomfortable, because you’re a little bit like, “Where did that come from?” And it feels like a violation of some type. However, that aside, I understand people’s intrigue and interest in this, because this is a large conversation that we are all having right now that needs to be had, that is long overdue, that we report in a systemic way, where people are paid and compensated for the work that they do not based on the color of their skin, their gender, or their age, or anything.
I also understand that because of how I use my platform and the importance of systemic change and racial justice and social justice and gender justice, that I look for and advocate for in my life, that it is helpful to know that I am speaking from a place of experience; that this is also something that I am fighting for.
But the other piece of why it’s uncomfortable is because in our culture, we are taught to not talk about money, and women are culturally trained to be seen and not heard. When you start having vocal conversations about these kinds of things, it’s breaking a stigma, and when you are alone, you have less power. When you are connected in transparency, there’s a collective power that’s important, and it’s part of what’s happening right now. I’m so grateful to be a part of it.
ETI: Do you still have any hope that that the canceled episode, “Bedtime Stories”—about the NFL players ‘taking a knee’—might one day be aired in some form?
I haven’t seen the episode. They also did not let me see it. So I honestly don’t have enough information to have an opinion. I just don’t, and I have a lot of thoughts and whatever, but I don’t know that they matter. I do know that [showrunner] Kenya Barris is on it, and he is good in conversation about these things. He is aware of it. I really didn’t find out it wasn’t airing until I think the day before it was supposed to air. We’re all doing our piece and our part of what’s going on, so I don’t really know. I don’t know enough to say. I wish I did. I don’t know the reason that it’s not on the air. It’s like if I can’t actually do anything about it, I don’t know how it serves me to get involved in that way.
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