Tracee Ellis Ross, 45, steps behind the camera for Tuesday's episode of ABC's Black-ish (9 ET/PT), in which parents Bow (Ross) and Dre (Anthony Anderson) hit a rough patch in their marriage. The Golden Globe winner had a wide-ranging chat with USA TODAY about her first TV directing gig since UPN's Girlfriends in 2008, the reported exit of Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and what it was like to dance in a Drake music video.
Question: Did you specifically ask to direct this week's episode, or was it more a matter of scheduling?
Tracee Ellis Ross: It was a matter of timing. If I had the opportunity to choose my own episode, I definitely wouldn't have chosen an episode I was as heavy in that explores a new place for our characters. The core of our show has been this loving relationship between Bow and Dre, and the comedy has unfolded from that place. We shifted the foundation and the episode I directed was the first of that shift, so it was quite a Herculean task as an actor and director.
Q: Given that the show is told from Dre’s perspective, did you give any notes to the writers about how Bow might handle their relationship issues?
Ross: Well, the writers are really good. Part of what was important to Kenya about how this story unfolded is that this was not a situation where it was one person's fault or the other. We're exploring the nature of what happens in a relationship when things just get rough. When you've been married for a long time and one of those rough patches comes, is it an opportunity for you to go on separate paths? Or for you to work through and find a way to grow into a new place with each other? So it wasn't a hard thing to find the balance of Bow's point of view.
Q: A study published by San Diego State University said that women only made up 28% of behind-the-scenes roles on TV last season, and that number has basically stayed the same for the past decade. Why do you think that area in particular has seen so little progress?
Ross: If you look at statistics for more than just behind the camera, but in how women and people of color are balanced in all positions, there's a lot of work that's been done in many of these areas. But there are systemic changes that need to occur (in how people) can get to those power positions. We have a really wonderful balance of ethnicities and gender, both in the writers' room and as directors. There’s a lot of women on our show and a lot of women of color, which is wonderful. Could there be more? Always.
Q: You’ve been a strong proponent of both the Time’s Up and Me Too movements. What kinds of changes have you witnessed behind the scenes these last few months?
Ross: The most tangible, experiential difference for me is feeling the collective power of women. There is a sense of connection and community right now, and I imagine it’ll continue to lessen a lot of shame that the system promotes. I also see that there's a slow progression in terms of men, and men understanding a big blind spot on their part. We all have them. Privilege of any kind comes with a blind spot. And I'm not talking about the most egregious of offenses — I'm talking about the innocuous and sort of benign things that play into the larger spectrum of inequality. Those things are coming to light, and men are waking up to even the unconscious ways that they have been involved in that.
Q: There were reports earlier this month that Kenya could be leaving ABC for Netflix. If true, do you have any idea how that would impact Black-ish?
Ross: I don't really have all the details on that. I feel like the rumor mill is stronger than the information that I have. What I know is that Kenya has established and set up a DNA for our show that can exist without many parts of the puzzle. Is Kenya an integral part of our show, and did the voice of our show really emerge out of his singular vision? Of course it did, and he is pivotal in that sense. Will I miss him? Yes.
But when shows run for long periods of time, the creator doesn't always stick around. We’ve been going for four years — this is a show that stands on its own. We saw Yara (Shahidi) leave (for spinoff Grown-ish). That was a moment where it was like, “Whoa, what’s it going to be like without her?” You don’t want to lose any member of the family because it feels like it changes all the dynamics. It’s bumpy at first and feels uncomfortable, and then you continue.
Q: It was cool to see you pop up in Drake’s new Nice for What video (lyrics are NSFW) with all these other incredible women, including Issa Rae and Tiffany Haddish. How did that come about?
Ross: I'm friendly with Drake, and it was a request that came both through him and the proper channels of the team. The lyrics of the song really felt like it played into a celebration of women, and I was game. So many of those women that were in the video were my friends and although we all shot separately, it was a really fun experience. Listen, I danced around in a silver-sequined jumpsuit in the desert. I feel I’m at my most empowered and joyful when I am in free movement, and I'm a huge fan of Drake's music.