The top US actress who ‘only got better with age’

Usually, when a Hollywood star has a new movie coming out, they fly to London for a publicity blitz.

They’ll often take part in a press junket, which is where the film company hires out an entire floor of an expensive hotel and invites journalists to come and interview them.

It’s efficient for the actors, because they can knock off several interviews in one day, and in one place. There’s usually a lot of hanging around for the journalists – but if you’re lucky you get a free Diet Coke and a biscuit while you’re waiting.

But just like pub quizzes, office meetings and first dates, promoting a new Hollywood movie has moved online to Zoom – where sadly there are no free snacks.

At the the launch of the movie The High Note, journalists are shuffled between different virtual meeting rooms, waiting to speak with the film’s star Tracee Ellis Ross.

Thanks to lockdown, the actress is launching and promoting the movie entirely from her own living room.

“It’s wonderful, but I miss people,” Ross tells BBC News. “I don’t have shoes on, so that’s nice! I’m at home, that’s nice too. But I wouldn’t mind seeing you face-to-face and being in your energy, that always makes a difference. But actually, it is nice to be able to do these things even though we’re in a pandemic, and to do them safely.”

The High Note tells the story of soul singer Grace Davis (Ross) and her assistant Maggie (Fifty Shades star Dakota Johnson), who is an aspiring music producer herself.

Grace (who is not to be confused with the 2017 X Factor runner-up Grace Davies) is in the autumn of her career. A pop star over 40, she is no longer having number one hits and her manager is encouraging her to start a Vegas residency to keep the money coming in. 

The character isn’t based on anyone specific – but there are plenty of singers who have followed the Vegas route in real life, including Britney Spears, Celine Dion and Toni Braxton.

The role marks the first time Ross has ever been heard singing. And pressure is high – her mother is Motown legend Diana Ross. 

“It was my childhood dream, I always wanted to sing,” she says. “I didn’t put it away, but I think the longer you wait to do certain things the more frightening they get… The idea of comparison because of who my mom is, or the judgement of doing it now at this age, became bigger than the dream. So when this role came along, I was like, ‘it’s time’.”

Ross is best known in the US for starring in TV series including Girlfriends and Black-ish. Her performance in the latter earned her a Golden Globe Award in 2017 for best TV comedy actress.

The High Note marks her first on-screen film role since 2009. She says her successful TV career has been “incredibly fulfilling”, but adds: “The truth is it’s left me little desire to pursue certain things, because I’m tired and I have a full schedule, but it takes something I’m really excited about and then I’m like ‘this is it’.”

Ross says she was drawn to the message of the story – which she characterises as being about two women, each pursuing their own dream regardless of what others want from them.

Notably, the two women are “not against each other”, as Ross puts it. “The dynamic that both of us developed was not the characteristic stereotypical schtick between diva and assistant. We were able to find this real friendship connection that was in there, that kind of gave it the right tone.”

Flora Greeson’s screenplay makes much of Grace’s age. One scene sees Grace point to how few singers over 40 still score number one hits, especially female artists.

A frustration with ageism is one thing Ross shares with her character.

“What I know is I have only gotten better with age,” she says. “I think I’m the sexiest I’ve ever been, and I’m almost 50. And I think of the other women who are in this age bracket and beyond, and I think, ‘why was there ever a message of counting us out?’ That seems absurd.

“You think of Jennifer Lopez, Marisa Tomei, the list goes on of extraordinary women, and there’s so much to offer at this age. My mom on stage now at 76 is like, I think she’s better than she’s ever been!”

For Ross herself, being in her 40s hasn’t stopped her from experiencing the most successful decade of her career.

“I don’t think youth is everything, I just don’t,” Ross says. “That wonderful expression ‘youth is wasted on the young’ is great. I mean there are so many good things about youth, but I don’t wanna go back, I’ll tell you that right now – I wouldn’t go back to my 20s if you paid me.”

Early reviews of The High Note – which is directed by Nisha Ganatra – have been largely positive, albeit not glowing.

David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter said the film “does have much to recommend it, at least during these lean times”.

“It’s the kind of plush, pleasurable comfort viewing that goes down as easily as a favourite artist’s hits compilation,” he added.

The Daily Mirror’s Lewis Knight said: “Ultimately, it’s a credit to the lead actresses of The High Note that it remains so watchable despite being rather formulaic and containing some predictable plot turns and twists.”

The film is one of several which had originally been due to open in cinemas this spring.

Most of the others – including Mulan, Fast & Furious 9 and No Time To Die – postponed their release until later in the year, in the hope cinemas will be open again.

But some studios have instead decided to release their films online for movie fans to rent at home. Trolls World Tour was the first major film out of the gate to do this, and now The High Note is skipping cinemas too.

“I’m actually kind of excited,” Ross says. “Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see myself on the big screen as Grace Davis, but I have a pretty big TV screen! I feel like there’s something really wonderful and intimate about being able to meet people where they are, in their homes.

“I can only speak for myself, and right now I don’t know that I wanna go and sit in a movie theatre. That doesn’t sound like something I wanna do, I’m happy to watch a movie, right here, on the couch!”

Audience trepidation about returning to crowded spaces after the coronavirus pandemic could spell serious financial trouble for cinemas, which are already struggling with the loss of income under lockdown. The industry’s future is uncertain, to put it mildly.

“I think normal is going to be reshaped for all of us,” Ross acknowledges, “so we can respond to the reality of what we’re living in and still have joyful experiences and still receive entertainment and expand our lives by watching these stories in a way that matches the reality of where we are.”

The High Note is available to rent from Friday 29 May from digital retailers.

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