A Conversation With Tracee Ellis Ross On Having The Courage To Be Yourself
Have you ever wanted to do something for a long time and then when the opportunity comes you're so scared you're going to mess it up that you almost wish you didn't even have the chance in the first place? That's how I felt interviewing Tracee Ellis Ross Thursday afternoon. When a timezone mixup left me sitting on Zoom for 5 minutes secretly hoping the actress had canceled, I was left with an additional three hours to anguish over the possibility of being a whole ass intimidated mess when the star of The High Note got on the line. But just seconds into the interview it was obvious Tracee didn't want to just answer rudimentary questions, she was down to have a conversation and an honest one at that.
"I don't know about you, but I wake up every day trying to do my best," the 47-year-old told me. "I don't wake up and go, 'I'm gonna fuck this shit up today,'" she said as I burst into a ball of laughter. "I've never walked into a conversation like, 'I'm gonna mess this up. That's my goal. No! But even with the best intentions, sometimes it goes left. Quick!'"
If sis wasn't reading my mind. My only goal with our interview was to make sure I didn't ask anything that was going to make the conversation go left. But my real fear, as Tracee pointed out, was simply being myself, a human being capable of fucking some shit up.
"I always say the hardest part of my life is my humanity, meeting myself where I am. And the challenge of that in-between space is how do we create that whole container to hold the shame, the pain, the discomfort, the joy, the love, all of it? How do you get to hold the whole thing and not walk toward this space of perfection but where it's not only about being enough but just being yourself?"
That was somewhat the challenge I'd given myself before dialing in for our call. And I realized I'd answered it when, after asking Tracee how she was handling the civil unrest unfolding across the country in the midst of the Covid pandemic, she asked if she could ask me the same thing and I was honest. I've been having a hard time but I'm getting to okay. My usual default when people ask how I am is "fine" because, truthfully, most people either don't want a real answer or don't know what to do with one when they get it. But there's also a part of me that doesn't feel entitled to what I feel so I'd rather keep those thoughts to myself. Unfortunately, that behavior creates trails of false narratives about my lack of importance in other people's lives and the level of self-care I'm entitled to, something Tracee knows a bit about.
"It's like every other day," Tracee said of the moments that make us question whether we're enough. "Sometimes it's in my own imagination that I create a dialogue that is squashing and belittling of me, is harsh and rude, whether it's about my body or a choice I made.
"Even when I'm not trying anything that comes up. And I have to tell you, of course it does in the world we live in. As a Black woman, as a 47-year-old woman, as a single woman, as a woman with hips as a woman with lips, as a woman with brown skin, as a woman with my hair texture -- whatever that is, as a woman with big eyes, as a woman with a big heart, as a woman who feels big, as an individual. As a unique individual as all of us are, we are living in a world that is more receptive of our humanity, and our uniqueness, and our Blackness, and our womanness, and all of those things, but that's not what's all over the place."
Joking about how nice it would be if while growing up we were told that the things that make us feel different from everybody else are actually our superpowers, Tracee shared, "As I say, as I've gotten older, it took me years to discover who I was, and then years to have the courage to be that person. And that still is like a daily, hourly, minutely reprieve."
"It took me years to discover who I was, and then years to have the courage to be that person."
That struggle to be her true self threatened Tracee's career as she was starting out. Sharing how she'd gone on audition after audition in New York City, the Black-Ish star said her agent eventually dropped her because she couldn't book anything.
"I couldn't figure out how to get the Tracee I was in my room in public spaces. I would get so nervous that I would just shut down and I knew it was in me but I was just so afraid I couldn't get it out. So my agent brought me in and she was like, 'We're going to drop you. You come with all of this shine and sparkle and then when you get in the room you don't pop.' And let me tell you, I held that 'You don't pop' for so many years."
Though she initially thought she wasn't cut out for the constant rejection that comes with being an actor, Tracee said she allowed herself to cry for three days and then made the decision to move to LA, telling herself she would pursue acting for as long as it was fun.
"That meant I had to make a choice about how for it to be fun and I slowly crept my way out of my room, out of the shell of my body, and allowed Tracee to come forward. But that wounded me for years and any rejection that came up, that's the tape that would play: 'you don't pop.'"
I paused before my next question thinking about the tapes I replay in my own head. Fresh off of a(nother) professional rejection myself, I thought, no wonder Tracee said she loves being her age. Half the bullshit of life -- the doubt, the uncertainty, most of the insecurity -- is already behind you.
"Yes, I love getting older. I love the whole picture of it, but in moments it's terrifying, okay? I just like getting wiser. I like getting more comfortable in my skin. I like caring less what people's opinion of me is."
Thinking about how at 30 I told myself it was time out for not being confident in my skin, I asked Tracee whether something popped for her at a certain age. Knowing how much work it takes on a daily basis for me to see the beauty of who I am, brain and body, of course that answer was no.
"Talking to you, it's easy to identify with what I love about it. In the privacy and intimacy of my home and my mind, it's not always that," she answered honestly.
So how did she get to this place of self-love and self-confidence? "I have an extensive, very full toolbox that expands all different modalities and genres. I have a tribe of lovingly gathered friends that I genuinely share myself with and that share themselves with me, that love me when I can't love myself, mirror back truths when I can't see it, can see bigger pictures, know the history of who I am, are just as charmed and sometimes more charmed by the Tracee-ness of me than I am and that helps."
Check out our full conversation in the video below where Tracee also talks about pushing past fear as she made her singing debut in The High Note and not wanting anyone to feel bad about their hair texture when they look at hers.
The High Note is available to own on digital now and on Blu-ray & DVD August 11.