Desiree Ross, a 17-year-old North Carolina native was ready to sign contracts to be the lead of a Nickelodeon show when she was contacted by her agents that she landed a role for an original series to premiere on OWN.
That conversation went something like this: “‘Oh, you haven’t heard? Um, yeah, Oprah called casting and said that she loved you and she wants you,’” Ross tells Ebony.
“I was flipping out! I was crying.”
Ross had earned the role of Sophia Greenleaf for the series Greenleaf, starring Lynn Whitfield, Keith David and Merle Dandridge. Her two-minute audition left a strong impression on Oprah Winfrey and would be the unexpected surprise that changed everything.
The religious drama centers on the family of a mega-church in Memphis and their estranged ex-preacher turned journalist daughter, Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf. Grace returns home 20 years later following the mysterious death of her sister, Faith and the unraveling of secrets begins. In its June 2016 premiere, the original series broke a ratings record for the Oprah Winfrey Network with 3 million viewers and is currently preparing for its season two premiere, on March 15.
In a conversation with Ebony.com, the young actress, who always wanted “to get inside the TV” and started her acting career in 2012, talks about what she has learned from her TV mother Merle Dandridge, the evolution of her character and why she wants to [continue] impressing Oprah Winfrey.
EBONY: Grace suffers another personal loss with Sophia leaving with her dad in the season finale. What are your thoughts about Sophia’s departure after the custody battle?
Desiree Ross: I think it’ll be nice for her to get some time with her dad. I was glad about how she handled it because she could’ve handled it a lot worse. She could’ve kept crying about it but she was just trying to be strong and be more mature. As she drove away, she was getting through it and trying to stay strong, using her aunt’s tapes to help her. I thought it was a growing moment for Sophia.
EBONY: What was it like to finally meet Oprah after finding out that she was impressed with your audition tape for Greenleaf?
Desiree Ross: I was just really nervous to meet her. I didn’t expect for Oprah to watch my audition and be like, ‘Yeah, I want her.’ I don’t understand…it’s kind of insane. She’s really down to earth, really humble. She’s incredibly sweet and mother like. She went out on a limb with trusting me with this role. She’s the last person I think I’d want to disappoint because she’s basically making my dreams come true.
Happy birthday to the one and only @oprah . If you didn’t know, a week or two before I booked my role on Greenleaf as a series regular , I was going to quit acting to find a more “realistic” dream. But I prayed about it, and like a week later Oprah gave me the opportunity of a lifetime and renewed my faith and confidence in myself. So a huge thank you to Ms.Winfrey for all that you have done for me!!! I truly would not be where I am without her. And to all you kids with big dreams, do NOT lose faith in yourself. Reach for the stars, work hard, you can do anything as long as you believe in yourself.
EBONY: What do you love about your character Sophia Greenleaf?
Desiree Ross: She’s kind of just like me, which I think is pretty crazy. She’s sweet, pure, wants to do good and wants what’s good for everybody. I admire Sophia. She’s trying to grow in her faith constantly and instead of looking up to different idols, you know, like on Instagram, she turns to God for her answers for everything, which is admirable.
EBONY: The most endearing moment was Sophia explaining to her father how God has made her a better person. What are your thoughts on Sophia’s blossoming faith?
Desiree Ross: She’s grown a lot within the church. She’s giving examples of how much better her life has become since she became a believer. You can tell how much she has grown and matured just because of her situation and the way she’s able to talk to her dad and handle everything.
EBONY: You worked closely with Merle Dandridge, who plays your mother. What’s your off-screen relationship like with her?
Desiree Ross: I love Merle. She’s amazing. I look up to her and she inspires me. I learned a lot from Merle because I have a lot of screen time with her and she’s incredible. I learned not just about acting itself but breaking down characters, analyzing everything and thinking like your character.
EBONY: What have you learned from the time you’ve worked together on season 1 of Greenleaf?
Desiree Ross: How Merle really breaks everything down. She analyzes the thought process behind Grace. She’s really just detailed and everything she does is intricate. I look up to her and just watching her onscreen and off, I’ve learned from her, especially how she handles direction.
EBONY: Why is a show like Greenleaf so important to have on television today?
Desiree Ross: Greenleaf is talking about a lot of stuff that matters that some people don’t want to talk about. We bring it up in a different way where people have to address it and have to address it from a different point of view. It’s getting people talking about things. It’s a primarily Black show, and I’m all for diversity but I think it’s kind of a good way to shake up Hollywood a little bit because we need to see Black actors. It’s showing a different side of Black people: we’re this educated, wealthy Black family and I think that people don’t get to see that enough.