Tracee Ellis Ross Talks “Reed” and The Real Her
For years, we witnessed Tracee Ellis Ross become the neurotic, and hilarious, Joan Clayton who was always searching for her passion—and her man—in the entertaining sitcom Girlfriends. Now, the actress-turned-producer is back on the small screen as Joan Clayton's dream woman: Wife and mother.
Ross’ new show, Reed Between the Lines, is billed as a 21st century Cosby Show, but is it? As many question whether or not it can live up to the hype, Ross is confident and proud in her show’s ability to fill a void and depict a positive black family living and loving on their own terms.
Recently, Vibe Vixen sat down with Ross to discuss the audience’s reaction to Reed Between the Lines, her personal style, and the advice she'd give her girlfriends who, like Joan, are still single and seeking.
VIBE Vixen: I spoke with you before Reed Between the Lines premiered and you were excited about people seeing it. Now that people have seen it, what do you think about the audience’s reaction?
Tracee Ellis Ross: I don’t know all of the viewers’ reactions. The only access I have is through Twitter, but I feel really proud of what we’ve done. I think it always takes some time to find a new show. For example, The Game existed before it went to BET, so it had a built-in audience. And part of why BET created this show was because it was something that its audience seemed to want and had been asking for—a family show. But it’s still very different from what’s been on BET, and it takes people a minute either to find it or for their palate to get used to it because it’s not typically found on BET.
The people that I have been in contact with, that I’ve run into on the street and on Twitter, seem to really enjoy it. They seem to be grateful that we have something on television that they can be proud of, and it feels like a show that represents a part of our audience that wasn’t being represented. And people really seem to like my clothes [Laughs].
VV: Well, we’ll get to that later.
Ross: But for me, I remember when Girlfriends started and how it took some time for us to find each other’s characters and to gel with the writers. It takes time.
VV: Do you think The Cosby Show comparisons set the audience expectations too high?
Ross: I don’t know. For some people, it’s a great context to know what the show might be and, for [others], it makes it hard because you’re comparing it to something that you have such a clear idea of. BET seems to be promoting it as the new Cosby which I don’t think it helpful, and I don’t think makes sense.
The way Malcolm [Jamal Warner] and I have been describing it is that we are in no way, shape or form, trying to be a new Cosby Show. What we are doing is taking the recipe of what Cosby did--a family show that was timeless and good--and use those elements.
I can’t get invested in whether it hurts the show or not. On other networks, they do two episodes and they pull a show from television. Sometimes that’s the greatest thing and sometimes it just never had a chance to grow. With BET, we did 25 episodes and we’re getting a chance. It’s really wonderful working with a network that wants your show and is behind your show. The audience asked for this kind of show, BET listened and they went out and have gotten behind our show. On other networks, I don’t know if that always happens.
VV: Is it difficult balancing your role as producer with starring in the show?
Ross: I wouldn’t say difficult, but it definitely makes for a long day. But it is the kind of full plate that I adore. I adore this kind of work, and it’s very rewarding. The producer role very much plays into the kind of person I am. In the evolution of my career, it is a really exciting step for me because I am the kind of creative person that has a real opinion about the kind of images that I want to portray and want in the public. Having a seat at the table with the many voices, that is part of the collaborative art of television and is really exciting and wonderful for me.
VV: One of the recent episodes dealt with a veteran with PTSD, and it was a little more serious. Will we be seeing more of that in upcoming episodes?
Ross: In terms of where we want to go as a show, I know that we all long for a nice balance with the comedy and the humor. Finding the grounded humor and not the joke humor is always the challenge.
VV: So you have this season and next season?
Ross: We have no idea; we’ll see if we get picked up. That’s always the gamble.
VV: Let’s talk about your style. Before when we spoke, you mentioned that some of the pieces from Girlfriends would find their way into Carla’s wardrobe. What’s the inspiration? Do you work with designers or find things out and about?
Ross: It’s stuff that’s been found out and about. The way I went about Joan and Carla is I always ask myself who this woman is. Every once in a while people say Carla is so much like Joan, and I’m like, People, Tracee plays both people. So what you’re seeing that’s the same between Carla and Joan is not Carla being like Joan, but it’s Tracee. Tracee was Joan and Tracee is Carla. It’s so funny people don’t understand that, it makes me laugh.
VV: I think it’s because we got so used to you as Joan.
Ross: You know Joan more than you know Tracee. That’s a good thing; it means I’m a great actor [Laughs]. But they are very different women. Joan was very neurotic and afraid. She did not have a lot of faith, and she was trying to have a lot more control over her life. It was a lot harder, there were a lot more suits, it was a little less flowy. Carla has a lot more faith, she has a lot more acceptance of herself and she has the support of a husband that accepts her as she is—which was Joan’s exact struggle. So Carla’s clothes are a lot softer, there are a lot less suits, there is a lot more movement and whimsy in her clothing.
VV: What are some of the difference in the way Tracee dresses versus Carla and Joan?
Ross: I am different than both of those ladies. I dress sexier than Carla, meaning I wear more form-fitting clothes. I have a little more edge to the way I dress than both of the ladies, and I dress down way more than both of those ladies. My regular attire is sweat pants or skinny jeans, and I’m the queen of the blazer. I will dress a look up by putting on a blazer. I’ll throw on a really great looking jacket with some sneakers and a pair of jeans. I love a bag. I have a collection of bags that I love.
In my real life, I’m always wearing lipstick. I wear lipstick when I work out. I don’t wear foundation, I really don’t wear any makeup, but I love lipstick.
VV: Do you have any favorites?
Ross: Right now I’m really hooked on Damned from NARS, and I’m always a Ruby W00 fan. There’s a Ruby Woo in my car, my purse and my home. Right now I have a collection of vintage t-shirts that’s making me so happy. A girlfriend of mind found these two great Diana Ross t-shirts, and it started a thing. Now I hunt for them!
VV: I know you don’t talk about your love life, but…
Ross: I know! You tried that the last time [Laughs].
VV: But Joan Clayton was a serial monogamist...
Ross: Not on purpose, she was really just a serial dater who was trying very hard to turn that into marriage.
VV: A lot of our readers are young women who are single, and there’s been a lot of discussion about Black women being single and doomed. What kind of advice would you give them?
Ross: Well, I never give advice. All I would say is there’s no method to this madness of life. No one has all the answers; no one is you. I don’t have all of the answers, but listen to yourself. Know yourself. Discover what works for you. You never know when things happen and how they happen, but an openness and willingness to be curious about your life and what it is that you really want and what package it’s going to come in is the journey.