When a friend told him that he had changed, Jay-Z turned around and told him that he hadn’t worked his whole life to stay the same. This is true of many of those we admire. Whether it be our favorite comedian or our favorite athlete, there is a constant state of evolution that occurs as you ascend to higher heights. In short, the work dictates one’s ability to grow and become something greater than anyone could ever imagine.
Actress Yolonda Ross is the embodiment of working to evolve into something greater. Ross is true to her Omaha roots and one of the most welcoming personalities in entertainment. Still, her work ethic has allowed her to grow from a fashion industry professional to a stand-in at Saturday Night Live. Blossoming into a full-time actress, Ross’s work has brought her to some of the 21st century most iconic films such as Antwone Fisher. This Sunday, she’ll continue her role as Jada Washington in Showtime’s The Chi. Ahead of the show’s third season premiere, Washington chopped it up with Culture Editor Ryan Shepard about her transition from Nebraska to New York, her relationship with Viola Davis and the new season of The Chi.
Before you began starring as Jada Washington in The Chi, you moved from your hometown of Omaha to New York. What led you to make the jump from Nebraska to New York?
When you’re not seeing the jobs that you’d like to see in your city, it comes down to having to leave to make something happen at the level that you want to operate, so that’s what I did.
When you initially came to New York, you were in school studying fashion business. Initially, what were your goals in coming to New York and how did they shift into what is now your acting career?
You know what’s funny is that I just knew that I was going to go to school and work. I wanted to learn about the city. I did not have expectations of any sort. I knew that I wanted to go out, learn and soak things up. There were no expectations, but I wanted to prepare for whatever journey that I would be taking in my life. I was staying open and looking at signs in life. That’s pretty much just how I rolled the whole time.
“Anytime you’re in something and it’s not pushing you or you’re not growing from it, it’s time to move on.”
Going from that, you got your first roles in New York with Saturday Night Live before transitioning into spots on New York Undercover and other shows. At what point, did you decide to make acting your full-time job?
With Stranger Inside. The way all of that happened was I wasn’t setting out to act. I had done some music videos, SNL, etc. to make extra money. Then, I got a union card and an agent. When I did that first audition for New York Undercover, something new opened in me because it was something that I was craving as far as learning and working on something.
I had gotten kind of tired of the fashion business. I feel like anytime you’re in something and it’s pushing you or you’re not growing from it, it’s time to move on. When I got this audition, it opened up things in me that I had not gotten to use. I used muscles that I had never flexed before. I was learning how to break down a script. I was learning what works for Yolonda to keep an emotion and get it out of me in a truthful way. Then, I booked the part. From there, the company that I was working for, Nana, decided to close up their New York shop. As a result, I ended up getting good severance pay. In the meantime, I thought I would use that time to find a job where I could make regular money, so I started bartending nearby my house at this place called Bubby’s. During that time, I decided to take the acting thing seriously and start auditioning. At this point, I had an agent who would send me out for work. Otherwise, the things you’d find out of Backstage or at the time, Hollywood Reporter, were background work. You’re not going to make those strides that you really want to without someone sending you out. Then, I didn’t get my next audition until four years after that which was Stranger Inside. That role took about a month of auditioning for different people until I booked it. Spending a month plus playing Treasure and being in her skin, I knew that was my next move in life and that was it for me as far as acting.
A year after you did Stranger Inside, you appeared in one of my favorite movies, Antwone Fisher. How did that role come about?
It was literally just getting the audition for it and I actually had turned it down twice because I didn’t want to do it. For me, it was my second part. It was still early in my career. The situation of reading that I had to molest a child was not something that I was up for and I didn’t think that I could actually do. My agent told me to just look at it and check it out again because it was Denzel Washington’s first movie and everything as far as directing. Then, I looked at it again for the third time and I saw something that I had missed. All of the text that I was reading was happening behind closed doors, so it was just voice overs. You didn’t see me doing it, so I said, “Ok. Yeah, I can do that.”
I put myself on tape. Well actually, back then, it wasn’t on tape. I went in and auditioned and I slipped out of the vision of the camera, which is what Denzel said got me the part. You can hear everything, but you couldn’t see it. Everybody else just stayed on camera and just did it to the camera. I feel like part of that was my naivety at the time. I probably still would’ve done it the same way because that is what was in the text, but I feel like sometimes as you get further into your career, you start to fall into business patterns. I don’t think that is good because it keeps everything looking and sounding the same. There’s something to spontaneity when people keep their unconventional ways about them in this business. I’m just glad that I can stay that way.
When you’re taking on those more serious roles, how do you balance being in character versus stepping away to be yourself in your personal life?
For me, it’s not difficult for the most part. In the parts that you see me in, I’m not in that body for a long time when shooting. If you see me in a couple of scenes, those scenes might not even be done at the same time or they may be done back-to-back and then I’m done with the project.
With a character like Treasure or anybody where I’ve been in their skin for a minute, I felt them in me. The whole time we were shooting, we rolled as a group. We were kind of those characters. We were those people. We embodied those people. Towards the end of the shoot, I remember one weekend when I put a skirt on and I sort of looked at myself for a minute. I just said, “Oh, sh*t! I think Yolonda is coming back.” It was just one of those things when I wouldn’t have done it any other time. Treasure wouldn’t have worn a skirt. That was Yolonda coming back to herself. It’s kind of a bittersweet thing.
One of the people that also appeared in Antwone Fisher was Viola Davis. Later, you had the opportunity work with her on Lila & Eve and How To Get Away With Murder. How has your relationship with her evolved over time?
It’s great that she can just call me. I love her and her family. They are just simple, real people and I love that about them. When we did Antwone Fisher, she and I didn’t have any scenes together. What’s funny is that with casting, I kept hearing about Viola. I hadn’t met her yet, so when I did it was wonderful because I kept getting compared to her at times. Then, everyone was also raving about how wonderful she was just as a human being and she is that [wonderful]. She just puts so much into everything. There are so many firsts done in her career. Watching it, I am just so proud of her and so happy for her. When she made the speech about…I just remember her saying something about little white girls running in a field. This was during the Emmys—the first protest Emmys. I don’t remember, but I do remember what she had on. She had on that white dress, but I was thinking myself, “Where is she going with this?” You hear that in a speech and you’re like, “What?” She was ultimately saying that opportunity is the only thing holding us back. It’s still the only thing holding us back. It’s true; we’ve made steps forward, but to call it out in a place like that and be that bold shows that we need more people like that. We need more people doing that.
We’re now getting close to the new season of The Chi in which you play the role of Jada. You’ve said that this may be the character you’ve related to the most. How has it been to watch Jada transition from being the Mom that catches Emmett with a girl in season one to now where Emmett is taking care of himself and she’s able to live her own life?
I think it’s great that her transition is being shown in the show because it’s something that I see in parents, both men and women, but especially with women. You’ve carried the child, sometimes alone as a single mother. They’ve made it through all of this, schooling and other things. You’ve gotten them through that. Now, you’ve seen them make strides in their own life where they don’t need you to hold their hand or do this and that. Now, it’s time for you to claim yourself again. It’s time for you to find yourself again. It’s scary, but it’s beautiful to see it happening. I think it’s great that we’re showcasing it with Jada.
I feel like I’ve seen this with my own parents. It’s almost like they turn into different people once they know that you’re okay. Their personalities come back. They’re not just Mom and Dad who are these strict people. They are human beings and individuals again.
That’s interesting that you say that because I’ve had that same experience watching the show. For part of my life, I grew up in a single parent household with my brother and my Mom. It’s funny that you say once your parents know that you’re okay, they start to live their own lives. It’s been really fun to see my Mom not just be my Mom, but to have her own life.
Yeah, It’s really great to see that.
I think it is too and you know now as an adult that they are not just parental, but they are also people. They are people that make mistakes. They are people that don’t know everything. They are human beings. They are people who are trying to live just like you. Yeah, so we’re going to see Jada living a little this season. She’s going to be living and learning.
“These same Black women have raised this country. Let’s just start there. These women are strong. These women are the backbone of this country. Period.”
Another thing that I’ve found interesting about Jada is that she is in a way always a parental figure. In the first two season, she’s helping to take care of Emmett, but her job also requires her to take care of people. I read that you took first responder classes for this role. What did you do to prepare for this role not only as a parent, but also as a healthcare professional?
At times, we do have people that we can reach out in order to make sure that we’re doing things right on camera and all. I personally wanted to go and learn that stuff, so that I would know ways to do things that real nurses or EMTs would do that could improve the script itself if something is not there. There are times where we can add little things to the script that we know to enhance a performance. Really, I feel like everything was there and if we had any questions, we could always just ask. The rest of it was just being humane and caring.
One of the things I love about The Chi is that it humanizes everybody in the show. It doesn’t just throw anyone out there as a good person or a bad person. It paints everybody as a product of what circumstances they’re put in. I think that’s more important than ever considering the events of the last few days. At the end of the day, the people that end up being victimized are everyday people. They’re truck drivers, teachers, etc. I guess what I’m trying to get at is this. What kind of responsibility, if any, do you feel as a part of this show to portray the lives of everyday Black people in an honest manner?
I would just say that The Chi is another part of what I do. I feel like my career is made up of characters that are real people. They are people that you know and see all the time. You may not pay attention to them or care to know them in some instances, but they are human beings that need to be seen. They also need to be understood. I feel that’s why I’ve been given the gift to be able to touch people with my craft. I think that’s part of the reason why I got chosen to play Jada. She’s another one of these characters that need to be seen, heard and understood. Black single mothers get a bad wrap. People will say they shouldn’t have had so many babies or they shouldn’t have picked that dude. You know? It’s all of these things that you hear all the time, but it’s these same Black women that have raised this country. Let’s just start there. These women are strong. These women are the backbone of this country. Period.
My last question is this—what do you hope people get out of season three of The Chi?
Life is full of change.
The third season of The Chi will premiere June 21, 2020 on Showtime. Check out Yolonda Ross, Curtiss Cook and the entire cast as they enter the show’s third chapter.