She’s Also a Hit at the White House
Chronicle News Services
NEW YORK--Tracee Ellis Ross worried as Anthony Anderson, her co-star in ABC’s “black-ish,” read off this year’s Emmy nominees for best actress in a comedy in alphabetical order--Ellie Kemper for “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus for “Veep,” Laurie Metcalf for “Getting On.” “I couldn’t figure it out: Are they going by the E or the R?” Miss Ross recalled. “Oh, I hope it’s the R, because we’ve passed the E’s!”
It was the R. “I opened the front door and ran around my courtyard, thinking: Where am I going? Nowhere. I need to call somebody!” Miss Ross said. “So I called my mom.”
That would be Diana Ross, who’s been nominated for many awards, although never an Emmy. It’s also new territory for her daughter, who spoke recently about becoming the first African-American woman to be recognized in her category since Phylicia Rashad for “The Cosby Show” in 1986, about playing pregnant on the show’s coming third season and about having fans in the White House. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Only five African-American women have been nominated in your category: Diahann Carroll for “Julia,” Nell Carter for “Gimme a Break!” Isabel Sanford for “The Jeffersons,” Phylicia Rashad for “The Cosby Show” and now you. How does that make you feel?
It’s an exciting enough moment, especially at this point in my career. When you lay in the historical aspects, it adds a whole other element to this experience. That gives it some weight. I’ve asked myself the questions: What does it mean? Are there a lack of roles? Are there a lack of opportunities? Are there roles that are not being acknowledged?
Your character, Dr. Rainbow Johnson, has talked about how important MissRashad’s Clair Huxtable was to her as a role model. Does the same hold true for you?
Without a doubt. She revolutionized the way the wife role was seen, and she played it beautifully. Women playing a nuanced role in life has been happening for eons, but on TV it’s been few and far between. In 2016, we’re still trying to get the wife role to match who we are in life, which is people who are many things, not just wives. Phylicia Rashad was one of those people who let women see themselves as we are and added an aspirational quality.
Your character is pregnant on the show this season. How will that play out?
Really slowly. We don’t come back with me showing. It is a part of the show, but as our creator, Kenya Barris, has said to me. “This is not the season of pregnancy.” It’ll just roll its way out. I do get an ultrasound in one of the first episodes we’ve filmed. It will be like most modern-day pregnancies where women stay active in their lives and do what they do and be who they are until that moment when they give birth. I’m excited about it. I’ve not been pregnant in my own life, so it’s fun to draw from all the people I’ve known who have been pregnant.
The president and first lady have declared themselves fans of “black-ish.” What’s it like to know you’re being watched in the White House?
What a fabulous thing! How about the fact that they know my name? That’s crazy! Especially because they’re people with good, discerning taste. They seem like they’re pretty intelligent and know a thing or two. So it’s really exciting.
They’re going to have more free time on their hands soon. Could they do a cameo on “black-ish”?
Wouldn’t that be nice? But I have a feeling they might want to take a break for a minute. They’ve been busy, so they might want to rest. Maybe next year.
Does it feel different to be on a major-network sitcom as opposed to your previous experiences, on UPN’s “Girlfriends” and BET’s “Reed Between the Lines”?
Being on a show that gets this many eyeballs and this diverse an audience is extraordinary. I’m not somebody who likes to point out different demographics, and I am of mixed heritage, but I do know young white boys are watching our show. They come up to me on the street all the time. An episode like the one we did about the N-word is important because an 11-year-old boy--white, Black, Hispanic or Asian--might not know the historical context of that word when they hear it used so flagrantly in music all the time. They might not understand what the big deal is because they didn’t come from a generation who had to interact with that word in a negative way.
To be able to explore that through a father and son on a TV show is amazing.
Have you given any thought to what you might say if you win the Emmy?
I am in a category with extraordinary women, some of whom are the reason I do what I do. Lily Tomlin was one of the early comedy greats who influenced my courage to be the person I am. Julia-Louis-Dreyfus is like a hero, to have played different comedic roles. She gets sexier, funnier and better with time. The caliber of women I’m with--Laurie Metcalf and Ellie Kemper and Amy Schumer--being nominated is enough. I don’t know what I’d say: A lot of thank you’s and then maybe I’d try to kiss Ellie. It seems like a good idea. Why not?
Do you appreciate these kinds of honors more at this stage of your life than you would have if you had received them when you were just starting out?
As you get older, you understand the weight of these moments in a different way, or at least I do. It’s also sweet because I don’t need it. It’s just like, “Oh, that is a lovely treat!” I don’t do what I do to get nominated.
I do what I do because I love it. I’m having such a fun summer. I had six days off in Italy, I’m on a television show that I love, doing what I love, with people whom I love, and then I get nominated? Shut the front door!
The Emmy nominee Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of Diana Ross, discusses “black-ish.”
Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, stars of ABC’s “black-ish.” Her character will be pregnant this season.
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