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If the part isn't right, Tracee Ellis Ross says 'turn it into what you want it to be'

Tracee Ellis Ross, shown here in Los Angeles in June 2022, plays a doctor in <em>American Fiction.</em> The film is up for five Academy Awards, including best picture.
Amy Sussman
Getty Images
Tracee Ellis Ross, shown here in Los Angeles in June 2022, plays a doctor in American Fiction. The film is up for five Academy Awards, including best picture.

Actor Tracee Ellis Ross says working with a first-time director is "a joy." It's like the smell of fresh cut grass, she says: "You're seeing it all new and fresh."

Ross recently worked with writer, now-director Cord Jefferson on American Fiction. The film, based on Percival Everett's 2001 novel Erasure, tells the story of a frustrated novelist (played by Jeffrey Wright) who can't get his latest book published because editors say it's not "Black" enough — then winds up at the top of the bestseller list after writing a novel filled with stereotypes. Ross plays the writer's sister, a doctor who works at Planned Parenthood.

Though American Fiction isn't a thriller, Ross says she was sucked into the story almost immediately upon reading the script: "It was strangely a page turner. ... I wanted to know how this man was going to make sense of his journey."

An award-winning actor and producer, Ross starred for eight seasons as Dr. Rainbow "Bow" Johnson, an anesthesiologist, wife and mother of five children, on the ABC comedy seriesBlack-ish. Though show creator Kenya Barris wrote the role with her in mind, Ross initially hesitated because she feared being typecast by playing a mother.

"Hollywood is limited in its thinking and particularly in its ability to see the elasticity and beauty of Black women and all that we can do," Ross says. But, she adds, "Sometimes the part might not be exactly right, but you turn it into what you want it to be."

"When the window is open, you got to get in there," she says. "There's a lot of actresses, there's a lot of people who have the same big dreams. And so when you have the opportunity, you got to grab that ring."

Tracee Ellis Ross plays Lisa, and Leslie Uggams is her mother, in <em>American Fiction.</em>
Claire Folger / Orion Releasing LLC
Orion Releasing LLC
Tracee Ellis Ross plays Lisa, and Leslie Uggams is her mother, in American Fiction.

Interview highlights

On her notion of American Fiction as a "quiet movie"

We rarely get to see Black people in quiet movies. ... So much isn't said that is there. We don't have to expositionally explain our experience in what we say, what was written on the page. There's a sense of [filmmaker] Cord [Jefferson] in this movie, and I do think he fought for this, that he gave our characters, these people that he gave life to on the page, but that we breathed life into, room to be in a way that means you're trusting and have a sense of knowingness around the experience of being a Black person.

On not allowing her Black-ish character Bow to be "wife wallpaper"

The way sitcoms are done, and the expectation of what is there, is that the story is told through the man and the wife becomes the set up, or is only there as context to the main man's narrative, has no real point of view, no real story. You don't know what her life is off camera. And she really just sets up the jokes of the man. And I had no interest in doing that.

And even though on paper, this was a woman who was a doctor and had all these things, it doesn't matter. If the writing doesn't continue to push that and open that space. It's not going to be. And so ... I was known for the actor who would always say, "Yes, but why?" ... I always look at, OK, does this ring true for the character? Does it ring true for the scene? And then how does it look in the larger context of television in general and what we are sharing.

On growing up as the daughter of Motown superstar Diana Ross

My mom would record at night, after she put us down for bed, and then, she would wake us up in the morning, when she got back from the studio, and then she would go to sleep. She would sit with us at breakfast. She never left us for longer than a week. So she would commute out to go and do her shows. In the 10-year span, I can't remember the time frame right now, but it was pivotal years for me as a child: ... She did an album a year, two movies, [Live in] Central Park, her mother passed away. If you look at the amount of things that occurred, like it seems not humanly possible. And the reason I looked at all of that because is because in those years. I had a completely present, available mother who planned birthday parties, who was with us for breakfast and dinner, who, if she was gone, would call at bedtime and in the morning to wake us up.

So I come from, a very unique experience where Andy Warholpainted and drew us whereMichael Jackson and Marvin Gayeand like and all of these very extraordinary things went to school in Switzerland and Paris and, went for Christmases in San Moritz and all these things – but the foundation of that was I was a wanted child who my mother made space for and was present for. And I had siblings that I did it all with, and so I come from an abundance of love in a way that I feel beyond grateful for, because it gave me a foundation and a sense of how to show up in my life for other people and for myself.

On wanting to be like her mom

I saw my mom be a woman full of agency, who was not saying, 'Look at me,' but 'this is me.' I saw a woman who was full of power and wielding it with grace and love as the anchor, and I wanted that.

I wanted to be a woman on a stage in a sparkly dress. And it wasn't the sparkly dress or the stage that was it. I wanted what that represented for me. I saw my mom be a woman full of agency, who was not saying, "Look at me," but "this is me." I saw a woman who was full of power and wielding it with grace and love as the anchor, and I wanted that.

On her Glamour speech about living for herself, being a single woman without children

[The impetus for giving the speech was] a lifetime of trying to figure out how to love myself in a world that says that without a partner or without children, I'm not worthy of love. And it's a daily reprieve on bumping up against that in a world that doesn't always support that, or celebrate it the way I do. ...

Young girls are taught to dream of their weddings, not their lives. And I was one of those girls. ... I used to dream of either my wedding or my funeral — either how I achieved the love, or people were mourning the fact that they hadn't loved me the way they should have. ... And it's like, Are you waiting to live your life ...? And am I building my life to be someone to choose, or am I building a life that I want to choose myself?

I think a lot of it was coming to gaining a more productive relationship with loneliness. I travel on my own often. From the time I was 22, I've taken beautiful solo trips. I go to dinner by myself. And I've learned with a lot of trial and error, and a lot of discomfort, and a lot of facing and allowing the shame to burn off, to just walk into my life as the person I want to be. And they say shame [stands for] Should Have Already Mastered Everything. ...

I want people to have the courage to be free in their own skin and to live their lives. And because I know what it was like when I felt stuck in my own body, stuck like I was wrong, and I had to do it differently, and I had to do what people thought they wanted of me.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: January 29, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
In the audio version of this story, the host incorrectly states that American Fiction is nominated for three Oscars. In fact, it's nominated for five.
Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.