On the hit ABC comedy series Black-ish, Tracee Ellis Ross plays Dr. Rainbow Johnson, a busy anesthesiologist, wife and mother of four who is of mixed Black and Caucasian ethnicity, as Ross is herself. But the willowy actress is also Jewish, the product of superstar singer Diana Ross’ first marriage to music business manager Robert Ellis Silberstein. Ross identifies with both of her heritages.
“I’ve always felt a connection to both,” she says, noting that the family celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays. “We didn’t go to temple; my dad didn’t go to temple. He wasn’t particularly religious but he’s definitely Jewish. We would have a Christmas tree in the living room and a menorah in the kitchen. I actually have the menorah that his father gave to him when he was a child.”
Ross shares another special memory. “I went to Israel with my mom and my dad, when I was in my early twenties. It was extraordinary, one of the best trips I’ve ever had. We stepped off the plane and my dad started crying,” she remembers. “It was wonderful to be there with both of my parents and my step-mom.”
Although she isn’t married and does not have children, she thinks interfaith relationships can work well for couples and their kids. “It worked with my parents and it wasn’t an issue for me. It actually made me very comfortable, so I don’t think I would have an issue with it,” Ross says. “What’s important is a common sense of spirituality.”
Ross, who was previously best known for the long-running series Girlfriends, is thrilled that Black-ish has caught on with viewers. “You never know, but you hope, and I had an inkling that what we were doing was really good. The writing is outstanding,” she says, adding that the timeslot following Modern Family helped. “There’s a lot of pieces to it. It’s a family comedy that you can watch with your entire family, and the subject matter, how we’re dealing with it and the tone of the show is striking a chord.”
She relates to Rainbow on a level that goes beyond ethnicity. “I love a lot about Rainbow. I like the fact that she is a woman who has all the plates in the air and she is loving the fullness of her life. She reminds me of a lot of women that I know,” Ross says.
While her work on the series and the things she must do to take care of herself in order to do it—like working out—take up a lot of her time and focus, Ross counts travel and food—both eating and cooking it—among her passions. She’s proud that her siblings are also all thriving and doing well. “I think what was bred into us early on was to have a passion for whatever it is that excites you in life, and to go after that, and to have a work ethic around that,” Ross says. “My mom really instilled that in all five of us.”
Not surprisingly, she has a pretty good idea of what she wants for the future.
“I don’t really believe in setting goals. I set intentions: being clear about what my values are in life, and making sure that everything runs through those. It’s all been good.”