Exclusive: The High Note Star Tracee Ellis Ross – ‘I Long to Tell More Stories About the Inner Life of Women’

Fashion icon, actor and all-around Capsule favourite, we talk to Tracee Ellis Ross about her new movie The High Note and how she stayed sane during quarantine.

With 14 years of interviews under my belt, I don’t get star-stuck very often but there was a whole family of butterflies in my stomach when I got the chance to do a phone interview with Tracee Ellis Ross. It’s hard to know where to begin with Tracee – she’s a role model for so many and a superstar presence due to her award-winning roles in shows like Blackish. For her very first leading film role, she plays Grace Davis, an iconic singer battling an industry that doesn’t know what to do with her as an artist in her late forties.

Starring alongside Dakota Johnson, who plays Grace’s personal assistant, The High Note is a comedy-drama about two very different women trying to carve out successful careers in industries that won’t willingly make room for them. It’s funny and glamorous and it’s a role that gives Tracee the centre stage she has deserved for so long. The High Note also let the Golden Globe winner live out her dream of singing for the first time – no small feat when her mum happens to be the internationally famous Diana Ross. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, New Zealand is one of the very few places in the world where you can watch The High Note at the movie theatre… something Tracee herself hasn’t even managed to do yet.

I was very lucky to see your movie and I was very lucky to see it in an actual cinema, which I felt very blessed to do so, considering.
Ugh, I am very jealous! It’s like another world.

So this is your first leading role in a movie and I’d assume you’d have had plenty of opportunities over the years, but what was it about this one that jumped out at you?
I’ll be honest, I haven’t had plenty of opportunities over the years. But this movie jumped out at me as soon as I read the script and I chased this project. I was really drawn to numerous things. One, that this was a story about a woman who was larger than life but filled with humanity and insecurities and dreams and secrets.

So often in our culture, people who touch us deeply and seem larger than life… we forget that they’re human. And I felt like this told that story very beautifully. I also loved the overall message of the film that no matter the age, the stage or the phase of your life, it’s never too late to dream. It’s never too late to take a leap, to try something new or to become more of yourself. I just thought that was a really universal and inspiring message.

I also loved how the movie dealt with ageism and racism and sexism and how it played into the story of these two women who are on parallel paths. Not two women who were against each other, but were riding the same journey of pushing up against what the world expects of them. Maggie [Dakota Johnson] is in this job where people are only expecting her to get them coffee, but really she wants to become a female music producer and there aren’t very many of them. And Grace is at a stage of her life where her team and everyone around her, people she has created, who she has given careers to, has decided on her behalf ‘that’s enough now’ and she should rest on her laurels.

I’m going to go on because there are two more things [laughs]. I also liked that this was a story about two women who were not heading towards men, but were telling the story of their inner life. I long for there to be more of those stories told.

And then lastly, that it was a necessity that I would get to sing. It was a childhood dream that I had had for so long and I don’t know when I pushed it aside – it wasn’t on purpose, I’d done bits of singing here and there – but at a certain point, the longer you wait to try something or to fulfil a dream, the scarier it gets. And also I’m pretty busy and my life is full and wonderful, so trying to do that didn’t seem like an easy option. Then this movie came along and all of these pieces… I just couldn’t wait to get my hands my on it.

I love a movie about work and ambition where they’re held up as good things to aim for but also that it told a very female interpretation of ambition.
That’s really interesting – I like that way of putting that.

The High Note is told in a very female way and also the film has a female director and a female scriptwriter – I would imagine that’s not always the case, to have the high-ranking roles all be female?
It isn’t. And it was wonderful! I mean, I have had the benefit of working with women often in my career, and I really enjoy it, for many reasons. They’re just as competent as men but there is a different layer of storytelling and also an added layer of shared power, of collaborative energy and spirit – without any ego! – that I find really wonderful for creativity. The majority of our department heads were also female, our sound woman, our executive producer on set with us every day was a woman.

Working with Nisha [Ganatra, the director] was wonderful, she is a woman of colour, and being able to look at particular things in the script… you know, once they cast me and there’s a black woman in the role, there are certain things that change in the dynamic that need to be addressed. Nisha and Flora [Greeson], our screenwriter, were so amenable and willing to look at that…  to understand the importance of re-looking at moments and taking them apart and changing them so that they felt authentic as to who Grace Davis was.

With both this movie and also your work in Blackish, there’s an ability to tackle big, serious topics in a way that still fits within that comedy/drama scope; it can be entertaining as well as telling you something.
It’s one of the things I so enjoy about Blackish and also about this movie, and I think it’s because it so connects to how I see the world and my own personality and disposition. I remember, when I was growing up, watching the movie Steel Magnolias and I remember that funeral scene – it’s beyond hilarious and also so devastating, you’re crying and you’re laughing the whole time. It made such an impact on me and it made me realise that in the reality of life, it’s not comedy or drama, it’s both intertwined. So that was one of the things I loved about this film, we really brought out that balance.

As a prominent person, where so much of your professional life requires you to be online, how are you balancing that expectation with the need we all have now, from a mental health perspective, to limit our time spent online?
You know… it’s a real balance and there are different things to balance now, but it’s the same puzzle that comes up in my life all the time. How do find the space for all the pieces, for all of the aspects of self-care? It’s a little more challenging now because you can’t run off and get a massage, you can’t distract yourself by hanging out with girlfriends. For me, it’s really been what are the ways I can look after myself? And there are some ways I’ve found. Every year, we work eight months out of the year on Blackish and it’s a full eight months of doing 14-hour days, and then the rest of my life gets squeezed into those four months.

There’s always a gap in July where my girlfriends and I go to Italy every year, with everyone’s kids, and we’ve been doing it for 10 years. And we can’t go this year and we couldn’t go last year, because I was shooting the movie. And it’s hard, because it’s the one time of year where I get to be with my girlfriends. In general, it’s hard right now to figure out what is there to look forward to? It’s all the same!

So what I’ve been doing is little things: fresh cut flowers have been very important to me, putting them in my collection of vases. Being inventive with the meals I make, at least once a week making something fun, not just something to eat. And for one of the holiday weekends [laughs] I bought myself Cool Ranch Doritos and Funyons, which were my favourite treats when I was a kid. And I made an Aperol spritz and I lay outside and I ate Funyons one day, and Cool Ranch Doritos. And it really felt like I’d gone away. So trying to find little, feasible things that make a difference to my day.

It would be remiss of me not to promote New Zealand tourism here and suggest that maybe next July, you and your girlfriends all come down here instead?
Listen, I’ve never been to New Zealand and I would love to. I would love to come and I would love to come shoot there! One of my best friends, she’s a New Zealander and her mum lives in New Zealand, so I’d love to come down.

Finally – you’re such a role model and you’re so well-known for being so joyful in your life and in who you are. For women who struggle with that, do you have any advice for how they can tap into that and celebrate their own lives?
You know, for me, it’s a daily choice to be in relationship with myself. And I too have bad days, bad hours, bad weeks and bad months… all of them. I do my best to allow, almost schedule, time with myself that is not about any agenda, or about anything other than what makes my heart sing. I literally have to ask myself: what, within this pandemic, could I do that would feel like a treat. And it was Cool Ranch Doritos and making little flower arrangements that brought me great joy. It’s different for everyone.

Everyone has a different relationship with themselves. It could be the strangest of things that feels like the most enlightening and joyous of moments and I encourage people to find these things, to not judge them, and to create those private dates with themselves. Because they do change your perspective, particularly at this time when you can’t distract yourself with other people. You can’t just go to the movies – well, you guys can. [laughs]. You’re very lucky!

The High Note is out in cinemas now in New Zealand

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