Hollywood A-lister Tracee Ellis Ross has seemingly done it all—comedy, modelling, acting, producing, directing, hosting… and the list goes on. So you’d think that playing Rainbow Johnson, a biracial character on hit-television series Black-ish as a strong, female lead would be a piece of cake for her. But as we found out in a Zoom interview, even the daughter of Motown royalty Diana Ross found it challenging sometimes. Nevertheless, Ross took it as an opportunity to tell universal stories through the lens of an African-American family, empower women and demystify taboo topics such as postpartum depression.
In the same candid virtual interview, the American actress also talked about the inspirations behind her character, her onscreen chemistry with Anthony Anderson, the success of the show and more.
What do you love most about playing Rainbow Johnson on Black-ish?
I love who she is, and I like that she’s strong. I also love that she’s so flawed and a bit ridiculous at times. I love that she often learns her best lessons from her children. And that she is expanding how women get to see and be seen — as a black woman who is a mother, a wife, a doctor, a sister, a daughter, and all of those kinds of things.
Seven years later, I’m still so intrigued by her and excited to see what she’s discovering, or some piece of her past that the writers create. I also really love seeing how she and Dre (played by Anthony Anderson) are still discovering and finding each other, and the example that that gives out in the world.
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Where did the inspiration for playing Rainbow Johnson come from, and what challenges did you face in portraying her?
I didn’t have to look very far for inspiration as there was so much on the script and always has, so the point of view of Rainbow is there. I draw inspiration from my own life experiences and my own point of view about things, which don’t always match up often. I am doing and saying things as Rainbow Johnson that I would never do as Tracee. But that’s the fun of being an actor.
I think the challenges have come in a good way, in the sense that they’ve been opportunities to really dive in on the stories. Some of which are on postpartum depression, police brutality, colour-ism, sex talk, and all of these different kinds of subjects. When scripts like these come through, there’s a lot of dialogue that occurs around it. And sometimes they may be challenging because we want to make sure that we really are telling an honest story from all of these different perspectives and from all of these different characters. That challenges on the show have been really wonderful for me, and I love those kinds of dialogues.
I think those dialogues are the reason why our show has the layers that it has and isn’t just sort of surface-deep. It’s challenging but it’s also an opportunity, and that’s what I really enjoy about the collective creative energy that we all give to the show.
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Tell us about your onscreen chemistry with Anthony Anderson.
It actually came in the audition, and we have a wonderful working relationship. Anthony and I have no personal relationship outside of the show. In fact, we joke about that all the time: I’ve never been to his house, he’s never been to mine; we’ve never been to dinner and we rarely talk on the phone. But we spend 12 to 14 hours a day together in such an intimate setting during filming and see each other at five o’clock in the morning the next day.
We have each other’s backs, and it’s a really wonderful working relationship. There are certain creative risks that I can take knowing that Anthony is by my side, and that has allowed choices that I never would have imagined. We have this kind of ease with each other that I swear we can be doing a scene and I will miss a line, but we just keep going or he’ll forget a line and I’ll say his line. We just dance, and it’s like we are the best dance partners ever. If we were on Dancing with the Stars, we would win. He’s a treat and I really enjoy working with him, which is what comes across on screen and I’m so happy about that.
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How did the Johnsons cope with the pandemic?
Rainbow is an anaesthesiologist, so she ends up being on the frontline and has to navigate how not only to keep her patients safe and the arduous duty of being in that profession, but also how to keep her family safe and keep the boundary between those two things. Dre, as usual, is a bit ridiculous. He’s over-stocking and over-buying. But I think it’s pretty much like most of us across the globe who are trying to make sense of something we certainly have never experienced before that feels daunting and terrifying.
Which themes explored in Black-ish are you most proud of?
There’s a couple for Rainbow. I loved the postpartum episode in season three, which I thought was incredibly important in terms of mental health awareness and illuminating a subject that is often not discussed. And adding to a dialogue that removes shame from what is such a prevalent and regular experience for women. A lot of women don’t know how to name it as such, let alone how to navigate that journey. So I thought that was an incredibly important episode, and beautifully written.
I also thought that our Juneteenth episode was incredibly important, and also really fun. And bringing in the musical aspect was really special, but also the subject that we were illuminating. Opening that up to the world was really important.
Did you ever expect the level of success the show would have, and what factors do you think contribute to it?
I hoped it would have this kind of success, but I don’t know that I expected it. I don’t think one can ever expect it—I’m also a bit superstitious in that way. I think there’s a lot of factors that make this show accessible and entertaining to everybody. We tell really universal stories, but through the lens of a black family, which in and of itself is incredibly important. I also think the writing is exceptional because we use humour to share very heavy and hefty topics. So we open people’s hearts and then slide in some information and see if people can learn something new or open their point of view about something.
The chemistry between the cast members is really special and comes across on the screen. It’s what it feels like at work, and it actually translates on-screen. All of those things are kind of a part of it. It’s been really exciting to have this long of a run.
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Black-ish will be available on Disney+ when it launches in Singapore on 23 February 2021.