Tracee Ellis Ross was born into American royalty, as the daughter of Diana Ross. But the Golden Globes-winning star of the ABC sitcom Black-ish has impressed upon everyone who has come across her a personality so strong it could only be all her own: expressive, infectious, scary bold in her fashion choices—all in all, she's completely irrepressible. In fact, even her legendary mother knew it right off the bat, when she decided to make her daughter's middle name Joy: "My mom said I came out," Ross, 44, recalls, "and it was like, 'Joy.'" Here, in an interview with Lynn Hirschberg for W's annual New Royals issue, the actress, who is up for an Emmy next Sunday, September 17, reflects on the source of her unique spirit, and confirms what we all suspected—that Diana Ross is probably the greatest mom of all time.
What was the first thing you auditioned for?
The first thing I auditioned for was an Infinity commercial. And I got it! [Laughs.] Is that true, or was it Spike Lee’s Malcolm X? It’s a tossup. I’m not sure which one. I did not get Malcom X.
And were you living in New York then?
I was living in New York when I started my acting career. I had just come out of college and I was actually working in the fashion industry. I was a fashion editor—I guess a contributing editor, you would say, an intern at first at Mirabella magazine.
Oh, wow, I loved Mirabella. Were you split in your interests between doing fashion becoming an actress?
I wasn’t actually split in my interest. I have always been a lover of clothing and beauty and aesthetics and all of that. I had wanted to model when I was younger and then that kind of translated into me realizing that I was in love with images and the fashion industry. But in college I discovered acting even though I was quite shy, which I know is really hard to imagine. [Laughs.] I realized that it was a very honest form of expression for me, so I was working in the fashion industry and taking more acting classes, even though that was what I had studied at Brown. And then I just kind of jumped off the cliff into the acting world.
And so after you did the ad were you hooked? Did you get an agent and move to L.A.?
No. It was not quite that easy. I did a show that was like a MTV House of Style, but about TV. It was called The Dish, on Lifetime. Then I did my first film, Far Harbor, and it was Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Connelly and they were looking for a black Jewish girl. That was me. [Laughs.]
And then from that moment I started meeting people. I used to write thank you notes to everybody and if someone would say, “You should meet so-and-so.” I would say, “Would you mind calling them for me?” and they would set up a meeting and then I eventually moved to Los Angeles and I did an NBC movie of the week and I felt like I had, like, won the jackpot. [Laughs.]
What did you play in the movie of the week?
Uh, a rape victim.
Yes. I was a track-star rape victim. And then I got Lyricist Lounge, which was the MTV sketch comedy show and it kind of took off from there. From the moment I got the NBC movie of the week I have not stopped working.
With Black-ish, was the character written with you in mind?
Kenya Barris wrote the character of Rainbow Johnson with me in mind. But I know how this industry works and I do not take that as a yes. So I auditioned.
Did you always know from the beginning that it would be the big moment that it is? I was on the airplane the other day and I was walking up the aisle and literally every other seat was watching Black-ish.
Oh, really? Um, I don’t know. You know, I think the hope when you start every project is that it’s going to go well. [Laughs.] But you just don’t know. And the truth is if you look at the landscape of television, I mean, some of my favorite shows did not turn into, like, big hits. I don’t know—there’s a magic element. That’s one of the reasons doing television is so fun is there’s so many pieces that make it work. Whether it’s ABC really supporting our show and making sure that people knew where and when it was, or the actual incredible writing that we have. Or the chemistry with the cast... you never know if that’s going to work or not. And, by the way, there are times when you really get along with your cast and think it’s the best chemistry, but it doesn’t play onscreen.
So you never know sort of what the mix is that’s going to make something happen. But I think we had a really good feeling on this one. I think it’s telling a story that needs to be told.
Is that important to you that there actually be something about a character that says something about women being more than just attractive and not doing anything? Because on network TV—
It’s not always the case.
It’s not always the case, and often the women who play the wives are way hotter than the husbands, and don’t seem to do anything other than say, “I’ll take care of the kids while you go off and do whatever you do.”
There’s a lot of interesting things about the character that I play on Black-ish, but there’s also something that I am drawn to in the roles that I choose to inhabit. And I am interested in playing the kinds of women that I see and know in the world. I am somebody who believes that women are many things, that women are nuanced and complex. And one of the things that I think is incredibly interesting about Bow that is the thing that I’m grateful to play. It’s not just that she has a point of view, not just that she has job, not just that she’s a mom—that she’s all these things. You know, it’s how we are in life.
So early on, who was your TV crush?
Oh, I love Jason Bateman on Silver Spoons growing up. I’m not gonna lie. It was Jason Bateman.
[Laughs.] So Silver Spoons, not later on Jason Bateman.
Well, it started on Silver Spoons. I mean, I traveled with him to other shows. [Laughs.]
Did you have a cinematic crush?
I can’t think of—I don’t know. I like the men. I remember I thought Jeremy Irons was extraordinary growing up. He’s such an actor and he had so much depth and gravitas to him, I felt like there was something there.
Did you have posters? Who’d you have on your wall?
So did you borrow clothes from your mom? Because your mom must have had an archive to end all archives.
Lynn, you’re very kind to say did I borrow clothes from my mother. It sort of was more like stealing. I’m not going to lie. She would leave the house and I went in her room and looked out the window and saw her car go down the driveway, and I marched myself right into her bathroom and started taking clothes. What I liked to do is put them in my closet and live with them as if they were mine.
[Laughs.] Oh god.
And my mom walked back in the room, in the bathroom. [Laughs.] And she was like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m organizing your closet for you! What are you doing?" She said, “I forgot something.” And I was like, “Oh! Can I help you find it?” [Laughter.] So, yeah, I, I was known for that. And still I call it shopping. I go to my mom’s house—my mom has the most extraordinary taste, top to bottom, whether it’s the dishes or the clothes, from t-shirts to gowns to hats to coats.
I call it shopping, and to this day whenever I go over to my mom’s I sometimes look at my brother, Evan, and I’m like, “Should we go shopping?” And I will ask if I can take something and she always says, “No.” My mom will say “no” often. She will give me anything, give us anything off of her back, but sometimes she’s like, “For god's sakes, leave my mirror alone!” You know.
Here’s another story; this is a really good one: Leaving for college there was a rug, this beautiful Kilim rug, that I wanted that was under our breakfast table. I asked if I could take it for college and my mom was like, “No, it’s under the breakfast table. You cannot take it.” And the car was going down the driveway and my mom comes running out. I don’t know how she got it from under the table so fast, but she came running out barefoot with the rug. She was like, “Take it! Take the rug! I love you! Go off to college with the rug!” [Laughter] It’s a perfect example of my mother. That’s not the Diana Ross people know. That’s my mommy.
Does she call you and say, I liked that dress, I didn’t like that dress?
She likes everything. My mom is so supportive. I have a really good mommy. She told me I should never cut my hair, and I haven’t cut my hair since.
She has good taste and a lot of authority in her opinions.
Yes. This is something I thought about the other day that’s kind of amazing: I was raised by a woman who lived out her dreams. So she’s not living them out through me, or her children. She really gave us space and the courage to live the lives that we want to be living, and to have time to dream and conjure up the life that I wanted to be living. I could really curate or design the world I wanted to be living in. And one of the biggest things then I took from that, for myself, that my mom didn’t necessarily share with m, is the best way to design my life around me is actually to know who I am and not live according to what other people think I should be doing, but to have a curiosity that pushes up against the status quo. To say, “Does that work for me? Is that something I want?” So I got to have the example of my parent really being her full self. It’s given me a lot in my life.
You have excellent taste. Where do you think you got your taste from? Your mom?
My dad has impeccable taste, too. Um, I think I come by it honestly through my mother, but I also think living in Europe changed a lot. I think my eye works for me. It’s one of the things I get often—people say to me, “You have so much courage in the way you dress.” And I’m like, “Do I?” [Laughs.]
Well, it’s funny. I asked Tilda Swinton the same question and she was like, “For someone else this might seem like courage, but the other way—it wouldn’t interest me.”
Yeah, I mean, for me, my clothing and my home and the things that are around me, it’s really like a form of expression for me. It’s one of the ways that I wear my insides on my outsides.
Do you sing in the shower?
No. I actually do some of my best thinking in the shower. I do my best thinking in the shower, and I do some of my best meditating in the bath.
Interesting. Okay, what was your favorite birthday?
Well, the most epic birthday I had was my 18th birthday. I flew to Paris with my mom on the Concorde. Also on the plane were Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista, and I walked in the Thierry Mugler fashion show, which was the epic ’90-’91 fashion show with the butterflies, and then he had me come back the next year.
And also for my 18th birthday I met Azzedine Alaïa, stayed with him for a couple of days and was able to choose three looks top to bottom from his personal archives. Um, and I also was shot for Brazilian Vogue, so from my 18th birthday everything’s been downhill since then. [Laughs.] But no, I actually loved turning 40.
You look way younger.
I'm 44! Thank you. I think it’s all the joy inside. I don’t know what 44 looks like, but this is what I look like at 44.
[Laughs.] You spark joy.
My real middle name is Joy. My mom said I came out and it was like, “Joy”.
Yeah! My name is Tracee Joy Silberstein. Go figure.
And where’s the Ellis from?
My father’s name is Robert Ellis Silberstein, and he dropped Silberstein, we all dropped Silberstein. I really felt strongly that I wanted my father’s name in my name, because everyone knows I’m my mom’s daughter, but I’m also very much my dad’s daughter. And I wanted him, when my name hit a screen, to know that I was also part of him. And so Tracee Ellis Ross it is.
I’m so taken with this. Oh, what movie makes you cry?
Honestly I cried at Wonder Woman. I know. But it's one of my favorite movies—one of my favorite movies of all time for style, for everything. It was just one that I watched over and over again with Sabrina, the original with Audrey Hepburn. The fashion in that movie, epic.
On her, especially.
Oh my god. The elegance of that woman. When she comes out of the train station, and they drive with all those bags and she’s in that dress. I was just like, “Come on.” I mean, it ruined me for packing forever. Because I think that everywhere I go there’s going to be someone in the car to, like, stack up my bags behind me. And that’s not the case. [Laughter.] I mean, it just doesn’t happen that way. Like, I overpack. I remember I went on this trip to London by myself and I was in this, you know, the little lifts, and I had all of these bags and I had to leave them downstairs at the front desk and unpack what I wanted and go up and down the stairs, because my bags wouldn’t even fit in my room. So there you go. [Laughter] Audrey Hepburn, look what you’ve done.