Tracee Ellis Ross On 'The High Note,' Overcoming Fear And Her Mom, Diana Ross NPR's Ailsa Chang talks to Tracee Ellis Ross about starring in The High Note, a movie about an over-40 superstar singer navigating the music industry with her assistant, who has her own music dreams.

Tracee Ellis Ross Can Hit The High Notes, Too

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Actress Tracee Ellis Ross is a star in real life and in her new movie, "The High Note." In it, she plays Grace Davis, this internationally renowned singer who's decades into her career.


TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: (Singing) If you could just stop for a minute, stop for a minute, oh, I know you'd change your mind.

CHANG: That's Ross, who sings her own songs in this film. And when I spoke with her the other day, she told me how at the beginning of this movie, Grace finds herself sort of at this crossroads. Does she keep doing the same song and dance over and over? Or does she take a risk and produce an album with all new material?

ROSS: First of all, it was so identifiable for me. But Grace Davis is this woman who has reached huge success, and she'd kind of gotten trapped in something that worked and was giving her all of the, you know, people, places and things. But it wasn't giving her the fulfillment of what she really wanted to be sharing.

CHANG: Now you said that this moment that Grace Davis is in, you said that that's personally identifiable for you. In what way?

ROSS: Well, I think what was really interesting to me about this story is how obviously, you know, I'm not and most people are not international icons and superstars.


ROSS: So not that part of the story. But the fact that so often, we get to this place where we have a dream, a passion, a fire that we want to explore or experience, and we either hear the naysayers, the societal pull to stay in your lane, or the personal fear of what it would mean to take a risk and possibly fail. And I really connected to that personally with the singing. I've always wanted to sing since I was a little girl. And somewhere along the way, I mean, I just hid that away. You know, when you're already practiced at being who you are, it's hard to put yourself in a position where you're going to flail about.

CHANG: No one likes to fail.

ROSS: No one likes to fail. And yet the failing is the thing that makes us grow.

CHANG: I totally agree. There is nothing more affirming than facing something you fear and actually surviving it.

ROSS: Yeah.

CHANG: To talk a little bit more about your character Grace Davis in this movie, I am guessing that it is impossible for you to escape questions about how that character compares to your mom. First of all, I just want to ask, how sick are you of this question of comparing Diana Ross to Grace Davis?

ROSS: You know, it's really interesting. I would not say that I'm sick of it because I really understand it. My mom is an international treasure and has had great influence on my life and many peoples and has touched us deeply. I think the thing that was really interesting to me about how this role was written, which is one of the many things that drew me to it, is it's so often in our culture we forget that those people that do incredible things that touch us deeply and have such a big impact on our lives are real people, that they're human beings with hearts...

CHANG: And insecurities. Absolutely.

ROSS: ...And fears and insecurities. And Grace was so beautifully written in that, that she didn't - wasn't a caricature of that, quote, unquote, "diva."

CHANG: Well, I want to ask about insecurities because as you mentioned earlier, singing in a movie, that was new for you. That was scary. Tell me why you were terrified to sing.

ROSS: The initial fear comes from the idea that my mother has a very large voice. And her space in the world is taken up, and she's known because of her voice. So to step into my own voice, the fear of comparison, the fear of criticism felt daunting and huge. And I had on my journey in life seen other children of - be shredded to pieces. And I understood that the fear that I have I came by honestly. It wasn't something I had made up. You know, it was sort of like, could I tolerate the criticism and the discomfort without it creating another wound in and of itself? And was it worth taking that risk? And it absolutely is and was because it was a fire burning inside me.

CHANG: What was it like listening to yourself sing for the first time on screen?

ROSS: I couldn't believe it was me.

CHANG: Really?

ROSS: It wasn't just on screen. The process in the recording studio...

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

ROSS: ...Was crazy.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ROSS: So the first time I went in the recording studio - you know, I'm a person who thinks that they can sing, but I sing in the shower. I sing with the music in the car. I sing around the house.

CHANG: Sure.

ROSS: I sing jokingly. So when I went in the studio with Rodney Jerkins, the first thing he said was you're going to have to trust me. And I was like OK, sure. The first thing that happened was I got so terrified, and I started to shut down. And what I learned and have understood is vocal chords are a muscle. If you are tense, nothing's going to come out of you. So you know when you're nervous how you - like, you can't hear?

CHANG: You can't hear...

ROSS: You can't hear what...

CHANG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ROSS: Your brain is, like, clogged with fear. So I said, you know what? I have to go to the bathroom. And I went to the bathroom. I didn't have to go the bathroom. And I got down on my knees. I was talking to some higher power. And I was like, listen; I'm terrified, and I need to give this over to somebody else. And then I had a conversation with my little girl - the little girl inside me. I was like, this is what you've wanted. Let's get out of our way, sweetheart. Like, let's just try it. Let's just try it. And so I went back in. And then I remember when he first played me back to me. And I was - I said to Rodney, I was like, no way. You promised me you didn't put, like, some sauce on it? Like what did you do?

CHANG: (Laughter).

ROSS: What'd you do to this? He's like...

CHANG: You actually think you sounded good is what you're saying.

ROSS: Yeah. Not only did it sound good and I was on key, it sounded like me. I realized that my job was not to sound like anybody else. It would actually be weird if I sounded like someone other than me, and that my job was actually to tell the truth through my voice.


ROSS: So yes, I surprised myself, and I was really tickled by the fact that I actually - it sounds like my talking voice, just a singing version of it.

CHANG: Has your mom seen the movie? Has she heard you singing, and what did she think?

ROSS: My mom has heard my music, and she cried. It was very - really special. I picked her up in my car. And we sat in her driveway because the car is a really great place to listen to music.


ROSS: "Love Myself" was the first one I played.


ROSS: (Singing) Am I a stranger if I don't recognize myself trying to fix up...

She sat in the passenger seat. And she was looking forward. And she had lots of hair like me, so she - I couldn't see her face. But we were holding hands.


ROSS: (Singing) I don't really care if everybody likes me. I just want to love myself, love myself.

And when the song finished, she looked - she was like, stop it. Stop it for a second. And she looked at me, and there were tears all over her face. And she said, finally. Finally.

CHANG: She wanted this to happen? She had been waiting as well for you to sing?

ROSS: Yeah. She knew I wanted it. And my mom is so supportive and lovely that she just kind of lets her kids take the time they need and the space they need to walk towards whatever they want. But she was really happy that finally I let that out.

CHANG: Well, so am I.


ROSS: (Singing) Love myself.

CHANG: Tracee Ellis Ross stars in the new film "The High Note." It's out on demand starting tonight pretty much everywhere. So great talking to you. Thank you so much.

ROSS: Thank you so much. What a lovely conversation.


ROSS: (Singing) Just need myself to myself it's OK. I don't really care. I don't want to...

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