Tracee Ellis Ross Encourages Us to Reimagine Empathy and Mothering in New National Geographic Series ‘Growing Up Animal’

Image: courtesy of Growing Up Animal

Tracee Ellis is that girl. She’s an entrepreneur, a hilariously entrancing actress, and a style icon serving looks for days. Is there anything that she can’t do? Apparently not. She can do it all, including lending her voice to nature documentaries. ( Yes, Morgan Freeman, you better watch your back!)

Growing Up Animal is the newest Disney+ series from National Geographic. The series gives an intimate insight into the journeys of animal mothers and their babies as they learn to exist in the world outside the womb.  Each episode respectively focuses on six iconic animals—grizzlies, sea lions, elephants, African wild dogs, chimpanzees, and lions.

Animals are some of the most complex beings on Earth. They communicate and build community amongst themselves and interact with one another in a way that mirrors empathy while prioritizing community. 

Tracee Ellis Ross sat down with EBONY to give us the lowdown on her experience working on Growing Up Animal, sharing spoiler alerts from her favorite moments of the project, and the biggest lessons we can learn from our animal friends. 

EBONY: We know you for your dynamic work in shows that are now iconic Black cult classics such as Girlfriends and Black-ish. What propelled you to take on this project and voice the narration of Growing Up Animal?

Tracee Ellis Ross: The truth is I’ve always loved animals and nature shows. The National Geographic shows are really extraordinary and I grew up watching them. My brother watches them all the time and we talk about them all the time. I’m a lover of nature and animals, and it just felt like such a perfect and beautiful thing to lend myself to in a time when we need this kind of content. We are so inundated with just so much stuff and to be brought back to the simplicity of motherhood, of the animal kingdom of Nature, and to see it so beautifully portrayed allows us to remember and be reminded that we are also interconnected. We are interconnected in how we mother and what that looks like, and also, how their lives affect ours and we affect theirs. I just was really, really excited to do this. It was as exciting as I thought it would be. Being able to see the advanced footage and to ask questions allowed me to learn so many things. I just loved watching it and I think people will like it as well. It’s something you can watch with your family and you can watch with your kids. I think it’s a wonderful way for kids to identify what motherhood is with something other than themselves. It’s such a beautiful piece and I’m happy to be a part of it.

Did you have any favorite animals from the series? 

Oh my goodness, I really loved the elephants and I really love the grizzlies…oh, and the lion as well! I was really kind of amazed by some of the hierarchical stuff with the lions. Those would be my top three but I thought there was something in each of them—especially when the dramatic moments came in. What’s funny is that when we were doing the recording, most of them I was able to watch in advance. The lion one we got in late and I had to watch it while we were doing the narration. When that moment when they were trying to cross the river, I was like, “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. Does he get across?” (laughs) This allowed me to just take in nature, life, and the animals. You couldn’t write anything that dramatic so beautifully.

With issues such as environmental justice and climate change returning to the front of public consciousness, especially within the Black community, how can folks learn to empathize with these animals and their journeys through watching the show? 

I think that’s part of what’s so beautiful about getting access to and being privy to the animal kingdom. You realize how much alike we are. They have so much to teach us. I feel like the tendency is to watch and humanize them but I feel like it’s more like they should animalize us right now. The intelligence of their being-ness, you know? I mean, I had no idea that the grizzlies hibernate quite that long and that the claws develop inside the womb. Or then, the way the chimp stays on the mommy for so long and things like that. I feel like we have a lot to learn. It also shows you how alike and how connected we all are and that this vast and beautiful ecosystem that we live in is important for all of us to care for.  I hope that people take a lot of that away from watching it and also have a moment to kind of reconnect to nature away from a phone, even though you’re going to watch it on a TV. It’s not just some little quick video clip. It’s a witnessing of different kinds of life-form.

We all like to joke about our narration voices and how we’d put our own Morgan Freeman-esque spin on nature documentaries. What was the process of your narration like? 

It was so great. So first of all, I was in my closet. I had a really long ethernet cable so that it wasn’t like shaky Wi-Fi. I don’t have great Wi-Fi in my closet but that was the most soundproof area. I would usually watch the recordings I received in my bed on my iPad before going to sleep and again, it was just wonderful, just beautiful content. It was so lovely. It wasn’t like scrolling through Instagram before bed. So I would watch the footage and then the dialogue for my narration was all mapped out, and we would kind of go through it line by line to match it up. I wasn’t usually watching the footage while I did it but I had the memory of the moments. 

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There was a wonderful producer on the line who would say, “You know what? This is actually one of those really sacred moments.” So I had to have a particular tone when we were in the bellies that would be different in those sacred and very private moments that we were privy to and would never usually see. We don’t just get to see inside people’s bellies. Some of the more dramatic moments offer a little bit of gravitas, although the footage spoke for itself. Some of the moments, like in the wild dog videos, were really loud and they made a lot of sound. So I had to have more volume. It was really fun. I love doing narration and voice work. It’s really interesting to center all of my creativity and to stream it through my voice.

Growing Up Animal illuminates the intimate details of mothers-to-be and their pregnancy in a way not normally seen in other nature documentaries. How else does Growing Up Animal differ from other explorative nature shows and what are your hopes for the impact of the show? 

There are so many ways that all of us mother. There are so many ways that we nurture and care for others. I hope that people are reminded to listen to each other and to honor and respect things that we don’t always understand. You don’t always know what exactly animals are doing out there, but they’re doing things and they’re a part of this big ecosystem.  I think there’s a lot to learn from animals and how authentically they survive, what that looks like, and how we can mirror some of that while honoring and respecting other life forms and each other. Even when people mother differently or love differently, or people are in community differently than you might be, that doesn’t mean that they are less worthy of love, freedom, safety, and justice. This is the same for animals. 

Catch Growing Up Animal, now streaming on Disney+.

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