(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Q: I would be remiss if we didn't immediately launch a conversation about "Black-ish." I'm not sure there's another show like it, both a dramatic success and a history lesson. I want to start with one particular thing — the secret episode that only recently began streaming on Hulu.
A: I love that you’re calling it the secret episode. I think it was the shelved episode.
Q: It's about the characters dealing with President Trump being in office about a year. Your husband on the show, Dre, is comforting the baby and he decides to tell him this horrific fairy tale, which involves this terrible man who has become president. What was it like for somebody in your position on the show, a show making those kinds of statements, to have that episode be made secret?
A: So, it was pulled and shelved, and it was uncomfortable. You know, we do 24 episodes a season, and that episode felt unique but also perfectly within the DNA of the show. It was not so far beyond subject matter that we had addressed before. We have addressed police brutality. We addressed the election in the “Hope” episode. We’ve addressed postpartum depression. We’ve addressed spanking your children. We run the gamut. And if you write out the list of what we’ve done, it wouldn’t sound like a comedy. But these are the things that we, as Americans, are grappling with. So when the episode was shelved, when it was about to air, there was a lot of confusion and I was a little bit baffled. But we also just kept working. And it wasn’t my battle. I will say, though, I’m grateful it is now being seen. It actually gives it more context. It actually says more now and makes you wonder why it was shelved.
Q: You hosted the second night of the Democratic National Convention. Have you been a particularly political person your whole life?
A: Not my whole life, but in my adult life, yes. I was called in during the Obama election years. When I saw him during the 2004 DNC, I literally was writing down notes. I had never heard a politician speak in a way that connected so to my own personal beliefs. And I don’t think I knew at that time how personal politics were. They felt like something that was out of my reach. So for me, the DNC felt like a sort of an evolution from where I already sit. The career I have is about storytelling, but I’m more than an actor. I’m a producer and a founder of a hair company and a CEO. I’m an American citizen. I’m a black woman. It felt like an evolution of that messaging, just in a different environment, and a use of a very particular skill that as actors we have, which is about storytelling, translating and connecting. And so I’m grateful I could show up in that way.
Q: I want to go back to "Black-ish" and the character you play, Rainbow Johnson. She is smart and insecure and tries to be playful — a great mother. You don't have children, so I want to understand how you figured that out and who your role models are. Obviously, people know that Diana Ross is your mother.
A: My mom’s a famous lady who paved a way that actually allowed me to do what I do in my career. The Diana Ross that you all know doesn’t hold a candle to the mother that I have. I have a mommy who is amazing. And I do believe that I learned how to mother because of how I was mothered. I am not an actual physical mommy who has given birth to a child, but I am a very mothering human. I am a nurturer. And so I bring all that to “Black-ish.” I also will give the biggest and greatest shout-out to our writers and to [show creator] Kenya Barris. One of the things I love about Bow is that she’s a whole person. She is not one thing. She’s a mother. She’s a doctor. She’s a wife. She’s a person. She’s a daughter. She’s a friend. And it’s incredibly important to me to bring a whole person to this character.
Q: In your recent movie, "The High Note," you play Grace Davis, an R&B diva, and actually sing on-screen for the first time. Tell me about that.
A: I was terrified. And I think the longer you wait to do something, the scarier it gets. I think the older you get, trying something new feels daunting because you know what the backlash could be. It’s like, you know, trying to learn to ski at 40. It seems like a dumb idea, but when you’re 15, you’re like, “Whatever.” But I always wanted to sing, and it was a great experience. I felt like I walked through one of my biggest fears toward one of my dreams. It was complete and utter liberation and joy.