Tracee Ellis Ross can’t dance — at least, not the kind of dancing that requires following choreography in three-inch heels while belting disco-pop into a microphone. She learned this the hard way, preparing for “The High Note,” a new comedy out Friday on video on demand. She plays Grace Davis, a superstar singer looking for a refresh; enter her striving personal assistant (Dakota Johnson) who dreams of being a producer.
“I’ve never been more overwhelmed in my life,” Ross said of the dance numbers. She kept asking the choreographers to take it down a notch. “I was like, ‘We’ve been working on this one little move for quite some time now. Should we perhaps vary it and come up with a different move that my body seems to want to bend in the shape of? Because what I’m doing does not look like what you’re doing.’”
In Ross’s vision, Grace is the kind of over-the-top glamster who changes her nail color for every outfit, feels most at home onstage in a feathery jumpsuit, and demands that her assistant break in her shoes — but has also overcome numerous hurdles as a female artist of color. Ross loved the part, she said, because for iconic artists, “it’s extremely hard work to make it look as effortless as it seems, and we forget that they have fears and dreams and secrets and hurts and hearts, and all of those things.”
“I feel like Grace Davis was written with all of that already intertwined there,” she said.
Ross knows what you’re thinking: Yes, Grace does bear a resemblance to her own mother, Diana Ross. And no, that didn’t weigh on her. She hardly thought about it herself, she said, except to ask the movie’s hairstylist not to make her ’do too much like her mom’s.
More nerve-racking for Ross was that she was due to make her big-screen singing debut in the film. She worked with a voice coach, studied clips of performers — just how do they wield that mic? — and still felt shaken when it came time to film a big concert scene. “This is not for the faint of heart,” she thought. “You have to put aside your own insecurities and shame and judgment, and just go for it.”
It was, she added, “so worth it.”
It’s the first leading movie role for Ross, 47, who spent eight years starring on the series “Girlfriends” before finding even greater acclaim on “black-ish,” the ABC family comedy. She’s now a producer on one of its spinoffs, “mixed-ish,” a prequel for her character (who is based, as an adult, on the wife of Kenya Barris, who created “black-ish”). Ross is the rare star whose clout has grown and diversified as she’s matured — she gave a TED Talk in 2018 and started a hair care company, specializing in curls, in 2019.
“‘Black-ish’ made a very big shift in the opportunities that were accessible to me,” she said, adding that they came at a time “when my ego kind of had let go of them.”
She spoke, by Zoom and phone, from her home in Los Angeles, where she has been holed up during the coronavirus pandemic, learning to record the voice-overs for “mixed-ish” from her bedroom. “My discomfort is a privilege,” she said, “when people’s livelihoods are gone, and they have no sense of when and how they will find another paycheck, when the unemployment rate is so high, and it’s mostly the black and brown women” who have been affected.
“Today’s heart is very heavy and broken,” Ross added. It was two days after George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, died, pleading, “I can’t breathe,” to the white police officer who kept a knee on his neck; across the country, protests against police brutality were beginning.
Her movie, the culmination of a lifelong dream, deals with inequality, sexism, ageism and racism — now, Ross was also grateful that it might be an escape. “The movie is bright and joyful and a feel-good movie,” she said, “that hopefully will offer people a small respite, in the midst of so much heavy stuff.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Was it always on the table for you to sing in the movie?
Yeah. It was a childhood dream of mine. I don’t know where consciously or unconsciously it kind of got put aside. And it’s also not that I haven’t sung. I sang the opening title song to the show I did on Lifetime in the ’90s [“The Dish”]. I sang in talent shows in high school. I have always wanted to sing, and I also have always really wanted the right movie to come along. Like, if I look back at old vision boards, when I was making vision boards, I had put on there that I wanted to do a musical biopic or a musical on Broadway, and also longing to find the right movie role.
I think I hoped I could sing, too, and until I got into that studio and finally heard myself for the first time, it was all a bit of a “who knows?” Sure, I’ve done some comedic singing, and I’ve done some hosting singing, and I’ve definitely sang in the car and the shower. But me with a microphone in my face — oh my God. So it was purposeful and also magical that this was a special enough role to encourage me to walk through my terror.
I often hear from performers that they like to take jobs that slightly terrify them. Are you one of those kinds of actors?
I think I’m one of those people. I wouldn’t say I’m a skydiver, but I lean toward things that are healthy risky behavior, that allow me to stretch and grow and become more whole, and explore parts of myself that seem like we should never touch. It’s not that I get off on it. I become more from it.
This is the kind of person I am: I want to do something, and then I just run and jump off the edge, and at some point, once I land on the bottom — whether my knees are broken, my ankles are broken, or whatever it is — that’s when I get scared. I don’t usually get afraid while it’s happening, but when it’s finished, I’m like, “What did I just do?” And then I go through these cycles of shame and cold sweats.
I remember somewhere along my journey discovering that about myself, and going, “You know, Tracee, there’s elevators, stairs, bridges, ladders. There’s all of these different ways that you can actually come down from the cliff. You don’t have to just think you have wings.”
The TED Talk was another example. What was I thinking? They wanted me to be funny, and I was like, “The talk I’ve written has nothing to do with humor.” [It was about female rage.] I was supposed to be on the first day of the conference, and like three hours before it was supposed to start, they were like, “We’d love you to actually open.” I was like, “Open what?” They were like, “Be the first person.” And I was like, “That sounds like a horrible idea. Are you insane? Sure. I’ll do it.”
You’ve said that during “Girlfriends,” you were surprised that the doors of Hollywood didn’t open wider. Did that change after “black-ish”? Did the movie roles come then?
During “Girlfriends,” not only did the pearly gates of Hollywood not open, it was still locked. I was like, “Oh, is there a key? There’s no key? Nothing here? OK. Cool.”
I think once “black-ish” started and then particularly once I won the Golden Globe, there was a shift for me. It’s a combination, honestly, of the Golden Globe and the hair company, and realizing that some of my biggest, oldest dreams were happening. My manager said, “What do you want to be doing? Let’s be purposeful about it. I think you’ve got to dream some new dreams.” And I was like, “Holy moly. I’ve had these dreams for so long! How do you start dreaming new dreams when you’ve had the same ones for so long?”
I went through this realization of, I’ve spent a lot of years taking what I was given and trying to make it into something that feels good, whether it was really what I wanted or just what I was offered. And realizing, if I’m going to do a movie at this point after waiting this long, what kind of movie do I want to do? What’s the right one?
And then this script came along, and it felt like it was sent from heaven. I chased this.
Did you consult on the script?
We all did. First of all, at 47 years old and as outspoken as I am, and with as clear of a point of view as I have about life — particularly about sharing stories and narratives of black women — yes, I spoke up. And it was wonderful working with a director [Nisha Ganatra], a woman of color, who had a sensitivity, a willingness and openness to dive into areas with care that needed to be looked at.
Our writer, Flora [Greeson] — she has become one of my closest friends — had a real willingness to say, “If that snags you, then we really need to take a look at it — like, I’m not a black woman. Let’s get a little crew of us together where we have enough diverse voices here so we can sort this out.”
That’s something I always think when I work, even if it makes people uncomfortable.
What is your relationship with Kenya Barris like, now that you are co-producers on “mixed-ish” and you’re portraying something based on his family?
It started as portraying his life, but we’re so far from his experiences. We’re telling the stories coming out of the writers’ room. So although my character’s name is his wife’s name, I don’t think of it that way anymore.
And then there’s his [Netflix] show, “#BlackAF”; that is also his story. Everyone keeps asking me if Rashida [Jones, who plays his wife on that show] is actually married to Kenya. I’m like, “Oh my God, people, you don’t get it.”
And then, by the way, there’s all this stuff out there that I’m dating Kenya. I’m like, “Guys, what is going on? This is crazy.” Kenya was on “Girlfriends,” and so we have this longstanding friendship. We worked very similarly on “black-ish,” even though I was not a producer. We’ve always done that kind of producer-ial partner thing together, like running work things by each other.
Executive producing for me is very similar to running my hair company. Very different from acting. I feel like I act from my gut and my heart, and I produce and run a company from my mind.
A theme in the film is the difficulty of being in the shadow of an iconic artist, and the pressures on a star who is also a parent. Is that something you related to?
I think that was the one place where the idea of being someone’s child — the world doesn’t realize the intricacy of just what that is. I know in the case of my mom, everything in her life is about making it good for her children. Everything she does is just about, how can she love us more, better and more fully? Diana Ross is one thing, but my mom is an exceptional love. So to think that anything of her job, life, career, gift, any of that would have made it difficult in any way for her children, I think would devastate her.
Perhaps because I was walking through the singing part of it, it just did not dawn on me that people were going to be like, “Is this a story of your mother?” No. It has nothing to do with it. I didn’t even think about it, guys.
What was the most egregious thing you’ve witnessed someone asking of their assistant? Your character is not a monster, but she does ask her assistant to give her an enema.
When I first got the script, I was like, “Guys, we have to take this out. Nobody does this.” It got down to the moment we were shooting the scene, and again I was like, “Guys, nobody would do this.” And Dakota goes [low voice], “People do it.”
I’m like, “Are you [expletive] kidding me? This is not the way I operate. My assistants don’t do anything like that.”
This is one of the places where, because of whose child I am, I felt very protective of not creating a caricature. I don’t even remember my mom having an assistant, and she doesn’t have one now. That’s not what I was raised with.
I do know that some larger-than-life people are ridiculous in how they behave and treat people around them. I’ve witnessed it. But I have great compassion for the amount of care and vulnerability that has to exist underneath that artistry, and that the closest people to you are sometimes your assistants or your publicist or your manager, and they do get the hard stuff because it’s got to go somewhere. I’ve had moments where my assistant is the person that gets the tears of, “I can’t do it. Literally don’t put another thing on my schedule, like there’s no food in the schedule. I’m starving, and I’m tired.” [Miming ugly crying.]
So, wait. Nothing in the character reminded you of your mom?
I mean, of course it did. I was playing a superstar music lady. But I wasn’t like: “Yes, this is a moment that reminds me of when my mother did…” — no, not at all; or let me do my “this is me being my mom.” Literally, it just didn’t come up for me. The only way it came up for me was, I was very convinced that Grace Davis wore fake eyelashes. Tracee hates them. That she always wore really high heels. I wear Birkenstocks. That she had stage hair and home hair, and life hair. These were things — which again have nothing to do with my mother — these were just things I wanted to do character-wise. But when Tracee puts on eyelashes and a whole bunch of hair, it’s inevitable. I look like my mom’s child. She spit me out.
[But] I get it. I really do. I’ve been my mom’s child for 47 years. I am very aware of the magnitude of her impact in the world, the bigness of her planet, the fact that her career absolutely is part of the reason that I can do what I do in my career. From a professional standpoint, I absolutely get it, and it wasn’t the case.
I was busy living my life. I was busy trying to do something that scared me.
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