Daring Actress Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit
Another example of a talented creative artist from Omaha is Yolonda Ross, a superb actress who left her hometown years ago for New York City, and she’s carved out a very nice career in film and television. The following profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com) gives a good sense for this adventurous actress, who also writes and directs. This story appeared in advance of her role in the controversial film Shortbus, one of my provocative projects she’s participated in. I am posting other pieces I’ve done on Yolonda as well.
NOTE: More recently, Yolonda’s had a recurring role as Dana Lyndsey on the acclaimed HBO drama Treme. Another Omaha actor of note, John Beasley, just nabbed a recurring role on the same series. Small world.
Daring Actress Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Gabrielle Union gets all the pub, but another film/television actress from Omaha, the righteous Yolonda Ross, consistently does edgy material far afield from Bad Boys II and The Honeymooners. Ross has played everything from a wannabe gangsta desperate for love to a string of lesbian characters to a child molester to a porn actress. She’s worked with everyone from Woody Allen (Celebrity) to Denzel Washington (Antwone Fisher) to Don Cheadle (The United States of Leland) to Vanessa Williams (Dense and Allergic to Nuts).
Last fall, she worked on a Leonardo DiCaprio-produced film, The Gardener of Eden, and has been in discussions with such A-list artists as Cheadle for other parts. But it’s a project she wrapped last summer, Shortbus, that should grab her some attention. The notorious new feature by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), a maker of queer cinema, deals with transient artists looking to connect through sex in the malaise of a post-9/11 Manhattan languishing from ever-present anxiety, commerce, inflation and exhibitionism.
Whether Shortbus ever makes it to Omaha is anyone’s guess. Most of Ross’s film work, which includes several shorts, doesn’t make it here. An exception is Dani and Alice, a 2005 short directed by Roberta Marie Munroe that’s screening at the Omaha Film Festival. The film deals with the rarely discussed problem of woman-on-woman partner abuse. Ross plays the femme victim Alice to butch lover Dani in an abusive relationship in its last hours. Dani and Alice shows March 25 at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Abbott Lecture Hall in the fest’s 9 p.m. short film block and Ross plans to attend and participate in an after-show Q & A. For details, check the event website at www.omahafilmfestival.org.
Difficult subjects are the Ross metier, which keeps her work from being widely seen. Her Shortbus director, John Cameron Mitchell, had trouble financing that pic because of his insistence on lensing non-simulated sex scenes.
“Yeah, that’s true, the not-simulated part,” Ross said. “That’s why it’s taken him so long to get money for the movie. People were scared to put money into it.”
Ross was originally put off by the idea of “doing it” on screen and perhaps jeopardizing her career by blurring the line between adult and mainstream cinema. Then, she changed her mind, and was even prepared to partner up again with an old flame for some celluloid enflagrante.
“At first, I was like, I’ll work on it, but I won’t do the sex part. Then, a year later, when John still didn’t have money for it I told him me and my ex-boyfriend would do it — because he needed couples. At that point I was like, If Chloe Sevigny could suck off Vincent Gallo (in The Brown Bunny), then I’m sure I could do it with my ex in a movie. Right?! I said I would do that based on my complete faith that John knew what he was doing and would do something amazing with it, and not use it in a disgraceful way.” As things turned out, Ross didn’t have to get down and dirty for the sake of her art. “Everything turned out cool. The actual couples are still in it. But when somebody fell out of another part, I was re-cast in a role that does not require me to have sex on camera,” she said.
In a film full of non-actors, she plays opposite JD (Samson) of Le Tigre and Suk Chin of Canadian News. She’s not telling who does what on screen. “Dude, you’ll have to watch the movie to know who does and who doesn’t have sex,” she said, laughing.
In the film, she’s the lesbian rocker, Faustus. She attends a women’s support group whose members talk through the politics and emotions of being gay in a straight world. Shortbus is the name of the fictional salon where the insecurities and idiosyncrasies of the characters, including Faustus, intersect. Some go for readings or performances. Others, for therapy. Still others, to engage in public sex. The salon culture portrayed in the film, where sex is a ritualistic and nihilistic acting out mechanism, is based on actual Manhattan salons.
Mitchell and Ross had wanted to collaborate for some time and the two actually hooked up last winter for a Bright Eyes video he directed and she appeared in.
“It’s really a nice thing working with John. He’s so good with people, whether they’re actors or non-actors. He’s great at bringing out the most in them,” she said. “He’s really good at making people feel confident and at ease, while staying on track with what he wants. I think he’s ridiculously talented.”
Ross follows her own clear vision in trying to elevate her career to the next level. She’s well aware, however, of Hollywood’s feckless ways. It’s why she’s taking matters in her own hands and pitching scripts she’s penned in the hope one sells and provides her with a tailor-made part. One of those scripts is serving as her directorial debut, for the comedy short Safe Sex she plans shooting. The story explores how sexual preferences, once exposed, tend to define people.
“Sex fascinates me. It makes people do really stupid things and act in ways they probably never do otherwise. It’s about a lot of mind stuff and what we see as wrong with sex. People have their fetishes or what have you, but you can’t really judge a person by what they get off to. Different things turn different people on.”
Bold themes and choices mark her work. In her best known role, as lesbian inmate Treasure Lee in Cheryl Dunye’s 2001 HBO original film, Stranger Inside, she endures the humiliation of a strip search early on and, in a later love scene, enjoys being pleasured by an inmate going down on her off-camera. In the comic fable Hung, she’s among several gay women to grow a penis. Each owner of the new appendage has her own ideas what to do with it.
In the feature Slippery Slope, pegged for a fall release, she’s a porn star named Ginger who initially struggles adjusting to the higher expectations of a legit director slumming in the world of skin flicks. “Ginger’s been in the business a little while,” Ross said of her character. “She’s a bit set in her ways. She kind of only knows one way to act. She resists learning something new and then she kind of embraces it. She gets into it, actually — the idea of making better pictures. And she starts making her own pictures. It’s nice that she’s not a one note character.”
With Shortbus, Ross once again pushes the envelope as one in a gallery of exotics. Exposing herself emotionally and physically in a part doesn’t intimidate her.
“I have no problem with being a taboo character or doing taboo things or anything like that,” she said. “As long as I can physically do them, I’m going to get up there and do it. I want you to forget it’s me. I want you to be lost in that character.”
Because Ross wants even fringe characters grounded in reality, she underplays what could be camp or superficial. “I like working subtly. The stuff that gets me is what happens behind the scenes and what people are really going through. Good, strong female characters that are real people,” she said. Not big on research, she relies instead on instinct and script preparation. “Know what you need to know, and then Iet the acting take over. I think what you need to be dead-on with are the emotions. That’s what makes me work better. If I know what my character thinks or feels in a situation, then that’s what makes me react in the right way.”
Her expressing the right emotion of a line is akin to when she sings jazz or blues, something she does purely for pleasure these days, but that she once did professionally in New York clubs. Music, she said, opened her up to acting, and she still uses it today to find the right notes and beats for her characters.
“When I started singing is when I understood the key of emotion. With every major character I’ve done there’s been music behind each one. From singing, I know there’s certain notes I hit or tones I make that, when I hear them, make me cry or make me feel some other way. Music can change my whole body and how I carry myself. If I’m listening to Ella, I’m not going to walk the same way I do as when I’m listening to Ray Charles. When I was doing Stranger Inside, there was a Marvin Gaye song, Distant Lover, in my head. OnShortbus, it was The Tindersticks’ Trouble Every Day soundtrack. Music keeps me relaxed or tense or whatever I need to be.”
In her early-30s, Ross is at a place in her career where she does a nice balance of little and big screen gigs capitalizing on her street smart persona, which finds her getting cast as beleaguered mothers, strung-out junkies, intense cops and bohemian types in episodic TV. But anyone who’s seen her work, such as her riveting turn in Stranger, knows she can play a full palette of colors and be everything from a hard-core case to a sweet, neurotic, vulnerable woman-child.
There’s a sense if she can just land one juicy part, she’ll be a major presence. Even if that doesn’t happen, she keeps adding to an already impressive body of work. Among her TV credits, are sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live, and high drama guest shots on 24, ER and Third Watch.
Part of why Ross hasn’t broken out big time in front of the camera, despite some heady props for Stranger and Fisher, has to do with the unsympathetic or peripheral roles she gets and the small indie projects she plays them in. One could argue that until now, while Gabrielle Union’s enjoyed the more successful commercial career, Ross’s has been more interesting. To be fair, though, Union has three films in the can that finally go beyond purely popcorn storylines and that for once hold out the promise of stretching her dramatic abilities.
But the point is Ross, an African-American contemporary of Union’s, has explored provocative subject matter for some time now without a fat pay-off. Union and Ross, who incidentally are fans of each other’s work, offer an interesting comparison. Each has defied the odds to carve out a nice career on screen. A key difference is perception. Union’s classic, wholesome beauty, with her smooth, soft features, put her up for positive roles and land her well-placed Neutrogena TV spots and endless glamour photo spreads in national mags. She comes across as sexy, brainy, full of attitude, but in purely non-threatening terms — as the love interest, friend or rival — and in widely accessible pictures, too.
By contrast, Ross’s unconventional but no less intriguing radiance has harder features, leaving her out of luck when it comes to girl-next-door or, for that matter, seductress roles. Spend any time with Ross, and it’s obvious she can play it all. She even does her share of glam, including a recent Bicardi Big Apple event in which she modeled an Escada gown. She’s a regular at New York premieres and other photo-op bashes. But in a town where they only know you by, What have you done lately? — perception, not reality, rules. Her performance in Stranger, a film/portrayal that became a cause celeb at feminist/lesbian festivals, was so on the mark, she’s been typecast ever since as a low down sista. In fact, she’s in high demand by women directors, whom she often works with.
Women confront stereotypes in the business, but Ross said black women must overcome even more. She said if you look closely, you’ll see that actresses with darker skin tones play “bad” while those with lighter skin shadings play “good.”
“Darker women are the cops, the crack heads, the hard asses. The darker the skin, the harder you’re going to be, the tougher you’re going to be. It’s very difficult for me to be seen as the cute girl next door or the nice mother or the love interest. I mean, it’s the craziest thing. Gabrielle’s about the same color I am, but she’s somewhat busted through,” said Ross, who surmises Union’s straight hair translates into less urban or ghetto in the minds’ of casting directors. “It’s about looks and name and face recognition. That’s what sells. Halle Berry can make bad movie after bad movie and have a Revlon contract. But why is it Angela Bassett isn’t working?”
Good women’s roles are hard to find, period, and even harder if you’re black. “Most scripts I read aren’t that good,” she said. “The characters don’t evolve.” Then there’s color-conscious casting that denies Ross, and even Union, a chance at roles deemed white or, God forbid, being part of an interracial romantic pairing.
That’s why Ross, who’s developed a working friendship with famed screenwriter Joan Tewksbury (Nashville) — “my second mother” — and Dani and Alice co-star Guinivere Turner, is trying to make something happen with projects she’s written alone or in collaboration. She despairs sometimes how fickle and slow the business is. “It drives me crazy. But I have to remember all the stories about other people where it took like 10-15 years to get something done. I know that the stories I have will have an affect on people. So, I keep that in mind.”
Until something breaks there, she’s waiting for start dates on two more features she’s cast in. Pearl City is a modern-day film noir set in Hawaii that lets Ross play sly as one of many potential suspects in a homicide investigation. Then there’s a new religious-themed film by Boaz Yakim (A Price Above Rubies).
Meanwhile, slated for a spring release is The Gardener of Eden. Directed by Kevin Connolly, the film co-stars Ross as one of many people crossing paths with a man so addicted to the props that come with being hailed a hero that he manipulates events to rescue others. The film also features Lukas Haas and Giovanni Ribisi.
Whatever comes next, Ross will take it to the limit.
- [Movies] Shortbus (2006) (geeky-guide.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Film Review: Shortbus (thenakedtruth69.wordpress.com)