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Tracee Ellis Ross: 'Black-ish' Role Was First One That Felt Familiar

Tracee Ellis Ross won an Emmy for her portrayal of Dr. Rainbow Johnson — the first Best Actress win for a woman of color in the category since 1983.
8th Annual ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Actress Tracee Ellis Ross attends the 8th Annual ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on February 19, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Earl Gibson III/WireImage)Earl Gibson III / WireImage

Tracee Ellis Ross is no stranger to long-running, highly-rated TV comedies. She starred in one for eight years. But it wasn't until she was offered the role of Dr. Rainbow Johnson on the sitcom "Black-ish," she said, that she found a character who was instantly familiar.

“This was a woman who was mixed and that was part of the role,” she said.

She has always felt a responsibility as a woman of color about the images she portrays and the stories that she tells on the screen, she said. But this role came at a critical moment in her career. When she won Best Actress in a Comedy Series at this year's Golden Globes for her portrayal of the critically-acclaimed show's matriarch, the first such win for an African-American woman in 30 years, she used her spotlight to thank a group that is often overlooked in Hollywood and society.

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"This is for all the women. Women of color and colorful people whose stories, ideas, thoughts are not always considered worthy and valid and important. I want you to know that I see you, we see you,” Ellis Ross said in her acceptance speech.

Reflecting on the moment in an interview with NBC News, Ellis Ross said she was speaking to “women of color and the people of color and anyone who’s coloring outside the lines.”

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Now, the role of Golden Globe winner is one she shares with her mother, the legendary Motown singer and actress Diana Ross. (Ellis Ross' father is music business manager Robert Ellis Silberstein.) But Ellis Ross said being a mom was her mother's most cherished title.

“She’s a mom first and foremost. So, when we were kids she never left for more than a week," Ellis Ross reflected. "She would record at night when we were sleeping. [So] she would still have dinner with us, put us in the bed and wake us up in the morning.”

Actress Tracee Ellis Ross, winner of Best Performance in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy for 'Black-ish,' poses in the press room during the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 8, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Diana Ross always made sure that her kids knew that she was there to support them. Ellis Ross says she feels really blessed, ”not because my mom was Diana Ross but because I had a great mommy.”

Ellis Ross graduated from Brown University with a degree in theater, but her professional life began in the world of high fashion. She started as a model, which she later paralleled, into a career behind the camera as contributing fashion editor at Mirabella and New York magazines.

After a while, Ellis Ross began to realize that acting was “the first time that all aspects of [herself] were alive.”

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In the mid-90’s, there were small bit parts on the big and small screen. But her big break came in 2000 when the much loved show, "Girlfriends," and her character, Joan Clayton, came to life.

Ellis Ross spent eight years in Joan’s shoes, but the show ended abruptly during the WGA writer’s strike. She thought that "Girlfriends" would have been her big springboard to bigger things in Hollywood, but when it finished it felt like “nothing” happened. In the end, that time off was a period of self-reflection and discovery that was a much-needed break from the business.

Then the phone rang, and she was offered the role of a lifetime on "Black-ish."

Actress Tracee Ellis Ross attends the 2015 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 17, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.Jason Merritt / Getty Images

"Black-ish" is a sitcom about a black family trying to maintain their cultural identity in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood. The show deals with the issues of today — race relations, religion, and politics — with heart and a lot of humor. Ellis Ross thinks the show handles those issues in an intelligent, universal way.

“I think there are a lot of things that are revolutionary and smart in the way that this show handles very large, usually clunky, subject matter, but sort of unpacks it in a way that we can all receive it and make it funny,” says Ellis Ross.