God Bless the Child: Diana’s Baby Has Got His Own
Evan Olaf Ross was born in Greenwich, Connecticut on August 26, 1988 to pop diva Diana Ross and Norwegian shipping magnate Ame Naess. Following not only in his mom’s footsteps, but in those of three of his sisters (Tracee Ellis Ross, Rhonda Ross Kendrick and Leona Naess), Evan entered showbiz at an early age, making an impressive film debut as T.I.’s troubled younger brother in the critically-acclaimed ATL.
Next, he received rave reviews for his NAACP Image Award-nominated performance as a troubled teen in the made-for-TV movie Life Support. He then returned to the big screen for another memorable outing as a stammering swimmer in Pride.
That, in turn, led to his being signed to do eleven more pictures, including his current release, The Gardens of the Night, a harrowing drama about kidnapping, child molestation and homeless kids co-starring Gillian Jacobs, Tom Arnold, John Malkovich and Harold Perrineau.
Here, Evan talks about his new flick, as well as everything from his budding musical career to Barack Obama to his close relationship with his mother.
ER: Hey Kam, how’re you doing?
KW: Very well, thanks.
KW: How do you feel about Barack Obama winning election?
ER: I feel like we’ve been saved. I’m happy that we have a good person as president. I think that’s important.
KW: Your father’s from Norway. Do you speak Norwegian?
ER: Very little. I can understand some. I should have learned more, because I lived there for a long time. I am sure that I will at some point take the time to learn to speak it.
KW: Where did you live over there?
KW: And where else did you live growing up?
ER: Let’s see – Switzerland – Greenwich, Connecticut – New York – Los Angeles – London… And we spent a year in France. My mom lived there longer when she was trying to make the Josephine Baker Story.
KW: So, what prompted you take on another challenging role in Gardens of the Night?
ER: Actually, I loved it from the moment I read the script, because I had just seen a very interesting documentary my mother recommended to me called Streetwise, about how homeless kids survive on the streets. So, when I read Gardens of the Night I thought it was an incredible idea and such a great story.
KW: Your female co-star is white, which had me wondering whether this was a case of colorblind casting?
ER: The role of Donnie wasn’t originally written for an African-American, but I kept meeting with them and auditioning because I really wanted to be a part of the film. I kept fighting for the role, and ended up doing it. More than anything, this was a passion project for everybody associated with the film, especially because it was such a tough subject.
KW: I hope that this approach to casting is a sign of things to come.
ER: Damian [director Damian Harris] was really great about that issue. He saw that skin color isn’t an issue among kids living on the street. Their worry is survival. So, I think that it was really great how he handled it in the movie. Never once was color talked about or made an issue. No one asked, why was this white girl with me. It never came up, and that’s the way I think it should be. It’s a non-issue.
KW: How was it working with Gillian Jacobs? You shared so many haunting scenes together.
ER: Really, really great. It ended up just being me and her and the director, not only on the set, but we also spent a lot of time with children in homeless shelters. I had been blind to the fact that there were that many homeless kids. It was very hard for all of us sitting with them and having them talk about their lives and share all the emotions of what they’re going through. Gillian and I really bonded after that to keep each other’s spirits up because it was such a heavy experience. As a result, we had great chemistry, so working with her was good.
KW: Was this your most emotionally-challenging role to date?
ER: Of the movies released so far, yes, although I have some others that will be coming out, like Black Water Transit, which were equally-challenging, but in a different sort of way… The more I think about it, Gardens of the Night might have been the toughest, since it took so long to shoot, and it was heavy being with the homeless kids and in their environment.
KW: Do you think you’re getting typecast as someone who only plays troubled characters?
ER: No, I’ve been the one kind of choosing to go in that direction. I like showing reality. But I have a more upbeat film coming out that I did with Hilary Duff called Greta. I play a more strong-willed character in that movie. But I like reality, because I think we shy away from showing the truth when we don’t need to cover up the truth. So, the way I choose projects is based on what I think is most real and most interesting, not on what’s paying the most money or what’s most popular.
KW: When did you develop an interest in acting?
ER: I always loved movies, especially watching some of my mom’s films when I was younger, like Out of Darkness, where she played a schizophrenic. I always found it interesting that I was still able to see her in each role, even though she was playing these different characters.
KW: Do you enjoy any other forms of artistic expression besides acting?
ER: I have many creative outlets. I sing, I like music, I like art, I paint, I draw. I like buying art. I read a lot, too. I love books. And I’m working on a clothing line, too.
KW: You already made a movie with your sister Tracee, Life Support. Any plans to do one with your mom?
ER: I would love to at some point. I talk to her about it all the time. I ask her when she’s going to do another movie herself. She says that because it calls for a serious commitment of time, she’ll only do it if it’s something special that makes sense and that she’s a big part of creating it. It’s hard doing these films when you don’t have any creative control, and you want it to look a certain way because you believe in it. So, I feel that if it made sense, she would do it. But I would love to do something with her, whether she’s playing my mom, or another character. I love her work as an actress.
KW: How about doing music with your mom?
ER: We’re doing that now. I’ve been making music for a long time, but I’ve been waiting to do it right, because I don’t want people to think it’s just a stepping stone in my career. A lot of actors go that route as a way of building their careers. I don’t want it to be seen as that. Because, like with my acting, my interest is not commercial, but to create something that I really love.
KW: So, who are you in the studio with?
ER: I’m working with Dallas Austin and some others who are not only really talented but who I love as people. Plus I’m on the phone with my mom, Stevie Wonder, and Michael, and getting their input in finding out how I’d like to do it.
KW: By Michael, do you mean Michael Jackson?
ER: Yeah, I talk to him a lot, advice-wise, musically. But I speak to mom the most. We go down to the studio and just kind of be creative and come up with new ideas. We have a lot of great stuff. But I’ve been singing my whole life, so it’s on its way.
KW: How would you describe your sound?
ER: Vocally, it’s got an R&B soulful sound, but it’s got a lot of guitars, too. Dallas has a great new sound that he’s working with, and we’re kinda just creating something new. People will like it and it will work, but it’s not the same as anything you’re hearing now.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
ER: Am I ever afraid? That’s a great question. Yes, a lot.
KW: Is there a question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
ER: I like both Columbus’ and Tasha’s questions. Those are personal questions that don’t get asked. They might not make sense to a lot of your readers, but those are actually a couple of great questions. What else have some people said they’ve never been asked?
KW: In a totally different vein, Taraji Henson said no one ever asked her what color panties she’s wearing. How about bookworm Troy Johnson’s question: What was the last book you read?
ER: Woman, a novel by Charles Bukowski. I love his work, and I find him interesting as a person. He’s quite a character.
KW: Music maven Heather Covington’s question: What’s music are you listening to nowadays?
ER: A lot of old music, Motown – Marvin Gaye… Rock and Roll – The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I still listen to the Donny Hathaways, and I’m just discovering some lesser-known songs of my mom that I never heard of.
KW: I still love that album she did with Marvin Gaye with You Are Everything and a lot of other classics. It’s one of those perfect albums where every song is great.
ER: Yeah, it’s incredible. And so many people have never heard that album. I love those songs.
KW: “Realtor to the Stars” Jimmy Bayan question: Where in L.A. do you live?
ER: I live in the Hills. Not long ago, I bought my first house, which is a big responsibility, but I enjoy it. [Laughs] It’s nice, but I didn’t realize how big a responsibility it was, especially when I’m moving around so much. But I’m up in the Hills, and close to a lot of friends and people I work with. I enjoy where I’m at, the Sunset Plaza area. I might want to be further away at some point, but I know me, and if I spend too much time by myself, I think way too much. I like being around people.
KW: Does your mom live in Los Angeles, too?
ER: Yes, she does. She lives very close to me. She’s back and forth between L.A. and Greenwich. It’s more peaceful for her out there. It can be hard for here with the paparazzi around. So, she stays inside a lot or goes down to Malibu.
KW: Are you able to go to the mall or the movie theater without getting mobbed?
ER: Of course. I’m not afraid of people, and I do whatever I want. I think that when you start rolling with an entourage, you attract attention and you tend to create this whole big thing. My mom taught me that when you keep a low profile most people tend to totally miss you because they’re not expecting anything. I was just in Atlanta, working with Dallas, and it was interesting to see how many people knew me from ATL.
KW: How close are you to your mom?
ER: Me and my mom are extremely, extremely close. And I’m very close with Tracee and my other siblings. They all look out for me because they think I’m a little crazy. And I do the same for them. I love that we’re all very close. And my brother, Ross, who’s ten months older is great. He’s in college in New York. I go there to spend time with him, and he comes out to visit, too.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
ER: That’s hard to say. I want to be remembered for the good work that I’ve done, for the positive work, and as somebody who was innovative and who people enjoyed.
KW: Hey, Evan, thanks for the interview, and best of luck with the movies, the music, and all your other endeavors.
ER: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.