Exclusive: Desiree Ross Talks ‘Greenleaf,’ Forging Her Own Path In Hollywood & The Time Oprah Moved Her To Tears

Desiree Ross is defining her own path as a young Black actress in Hollywood while playing the tenacious and warm Sophia on OWN’s Greenleaf.

The 17-year old actress’ big break was in Lifetime’s A Country Christmas Story opposite Dolly Parton, and after scoring her role as Sophia on Greenleaf, she’s proving that she’s one to watch.

When the South Carolina native isn’t honing her craft on set or visiting all of the different eateries that Atlanta has to offer, she is volunteering in her community or trying her hand at new makeup techniques.

With Sophia finding her place within the church and amongst the Greenleafs, caught up with Desiree Ross to chat about her Greenleaf character, Black women in Hollywood and her one food obsession.

JET: Hi, Desiree, how are you?

Desiree Ross: I’m excited.

JET: This season on Greenleaf thus far, we’ve learned so much more about Sophia. Were you surprised at all about her journey, especially since she’s sort of on her own now without Zora in the Greenleaf mansion?

Desiree Ross: I don’t think I was all that surprised. The writers kind of told me about what Sophia’s journey was going to be like, and how she’s going to grow within the church and take more responsibility there. So I was very excited. But, even in season one, I could kind of start telling where Sophia was going to be and, where her head space was at, especially when it came to her family and the church. Even last season she ended up maturing a little bit and just enduring everything that was given to her. I think this season she’s matured even more.

JET: Most definitely.

Desiree Ross: In an episode that’s already aired, which is season 2, episode 4, entitled “Revival,” Sophia gets baptized. I think that’s kind of like a serious start of her journey in the church because she’s finally made the commitment. I think you guys will get to see her take even more steps and kind of see how she’s growing up and maturing, but also becoming a lot like her mom, or, the way her mom used to be. So. Me and Merle [Dandridge] were actually talking about it. She was like, “Sophia is like the prodigy daughter of the prodigal daughter.” (Laughing)

JET: That’s great.

Desiree Ross: I’m excited for everybody to see how Sophia advances with everything.

JET: Greenleaf is such a different sort of television series, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. So how has this role changed your life as an actress?

Desiree Ross: For me working on this show, I think I’ve grown a lot in my acting capabilities just because I’m working. When you’re not working on a television show you might have a movie here and there, or you’re guest starring, but you’re not really practicing constantly unless you’re auditioning all the time, but that’s not always the case. For me being on Greenleaf, getting to work with Lynn Whitfield and Keith David and Merle and Oprah, just being able to do scenes with them and watch them, I’m learning so much from them every day, it’s crazy. Oprah, last season, told me, “I can tell how your skills have just gotten so much better since episode 1.” I don’t know exactly what she said word for word, but she just told me that she could tell that I was becoming a much more seasoned actress.

JET: That’s such a lovely thing to say, especially coming from Oprah. That’s an amazing compliment.

Desiree Ross: I know, right? I went to drop a gift off at her trailer, and she told me that, and when she said that I was about to cry.

JET: That’s so sweet. Well, speaking of the other actresses that you work with, I know you also work with Lovie Simone quite a bit. On the series, Sophia and Zora are super tight. However, there is a bit of tension between the two of them this season, especially since Zora is more rebellious, and does her own thing. Have you and Lovie bonded on set? Is your relationship similar to your characters or is it different?

Desiree Ross: Lovie and I, like Sophia and Zora, we’re really close, we’re like sisters. I don’t think me and Lovie would let a boy get in the way of anything. The way Zora betrayed Sophia, I don’t think Lovie would do that to me, and I wouldn’t do that to Lovie if that makes sense?

JET: Of course.

Desiree Ross: Lovie and I are really close, we have a really fun, loving relationship. We love hanging out when we’re in Atlanta. She’s one of my best friends. It’s kind of funny because we’re similar to our characters but different in a few ways. Lovie’s got a lot of spunk and everything, and I think I’m kind of more chill. But, Lovie’s great. I love her. We have a really good relationship. She’s like the yin to my yang, you know?

JET: Wonderful. As a young Black woman in this industry, do you feel any pressures working in Hollywood to set an example for other young ladies, for Black women, or just to sort of be a good girl? Do you feel any of that?

Desiree Ross: Yeah, I do. I think one of the things about my job, the one thing that I don’t really like is there’s a lot of attention on how you hold yourself. I’m not allowed to go out wearing certain things. It’s not even about provocative things. Say like someone can see part of my bra, or if I post a bikini pic after posting another pic, then I might get called out for it. Just stuff like that. I have to be very careful about how I hold myself and my image. I have to be careful about the places that I go.

JET: Definitely, you don’t want to be perceived a certain way.

Desiree Ross: Exactly. I have to just be very careful about my image because I don’t want people getting the wrong idea, and I do want to be seen like Sophia. Sophia’s very modest, very classy, you know, very Christian, and I do want to be seen as someone who can dress and look really great and have people turn their heads or whatever without having to show everything off.

JET: Absolutely.

Desiree Ross: I want to keep a classy image, but sometimes it’s really hard. Nowadays things are a little bit more scandalous, and people can show a little bit more. For me and my character, if I did something like that I would get called out on it if I dressed wearing something that showed a little bit too much. I have to be really careful because of my role on Greenleaf. I don’t want to look too different from my character. Being a Black woman, that definitely makes it harder to be in Hollywood. When I go out for auditions where they say “all ethnicities,” I feel a lot of pressure on me immediately because I’m like, they’re not gonna cast me for this because I’m Black. They’re obviously going to cast someone who’s white because that’s the first thing that popped into their head. And maybe that’s wrong of me to be thinking that, but most of the time that’s how it ends up working. I only say that from past experiences whenever it has “all ethnicity” calls, you know, it typically ends up being someone who’s Caucasian that ends up getting the role. I don’t think that there’s quite as much equal opportunity for Black women in the industry. For me, because I’m mixed, I’m like right in between. So, I’m too dark to be white, and I’m too light to actually be considered Black, so when they’re casting me to fit in as part of a family, I can’t really be cast in an actual Black family. They have to cast me as being mixed. However, there aren’t a lot of roles that come around like that. Or sometimes they’ve tried to cast me as Latina, but then I didn’t get the role because I’m not actually Latina. So, you know, for me that’s hard. I feel like I don’t have as many opportunities because of my skin color, so that’s something I wish could change.

JET: Certainly, but I do think that times are changing, There’s way more shows and series now for people of color than any other time before. However, I definitely understand what you’re saying. Viola Davis talked about that in her Emmy speech that Black women aren’t given the opportunities. But I do think that Greenleaf is a wonderful stepping-stone for you so I would just keep pushing because you’re destined to do great things.

Desiree Ross: I think women now are definitely getting more of a chance to shine. One writer that I really love is Shonda Rhimes because she’s always putting women in these really heavy and strong lead roles in her shows. Like Viola Davis, who is the lead in How to Get Away with Murder, I love that. I love that they have a strong Black woman playing the lead in a hit show. And then Kerry Washington in Scandal. So for me, I was like “Oh my God, that’s amazing.” So I definitely love how she’s putting women, and not just women of one specific race, I’m glad that she’s using them and showing that we’re capable of so much. With Greenleaf I feel honored to be able to work with so many wonderful Black actresses. They’re incredible, so I feel blessed to have this opportunity because sometimes I worry about whether or not I’m going to find a role that’s perfect for me and goes with all of my ideals. Greenleaf definitely does. We talk about things that matter, there’s a lot of Black women who have the chance to show off their skills and they’re so amazing and so deserving.

JET: What are your passions outside of acting? I know you love to volunteer in your community and things like that. What else do you love to do when you aren’t on set?

Desiree Ross: I love traveling!

JET: What’s your absolute favorite place to visit?

Desiree Ross: That’s a good question. I really love Barcelona. I love Italy and Paris. I don’t know if I have an exact favorite place. There’s a lot of places that I really want to go. I want to go to Thailand, and I want to go to French Polynesia; like Moorea in French Polynesia. I want to go to Bali. A lot of island-type places. I want to go to Mykonos and Santorini in Greece. There’s just so many places I want to go; there’s so much to see. I want to go back to Italy and drive up the Amalfi coast. I want to go to Saint-Tropez in France. But other than traveling I love doing makeup.

JET: Fun! Do you watch makeup tutorials on YouTube or do you just freehand things?

Desiree Ross: I like both. I like trying things out for myself, but I like learning different methods and whatnot from people on YouTube. So if someone has a cool eyeshadow look, I’d tweak it and then try to make it my own. I watch YouTube videos more to learn about the methods and the products that they’re using, and what works well, or what you really shouldn’t do. So Lovie and I actually both love doing makeup. We’ve gotten so much better at it since last year, so now we do our own makeup for our events and stuff.

JET: Fantastic.

Desiree Ross: Yeah. I’m trying to think of other hobbies. I love eating. (Laughing)

JET: Who doesn’t?!! (Laughing)

Desiree Ross: I love eating food. Oh, my God. I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and there’s not really that many options. I mean, you have all of the basic chain restaurants. But, I’m such a foodie, so here in Atlanta I have so many options, and it gets me so excited. I’m always out eating. On set, they feed me all of my meals, so I don’t buy groceries, so every day I’m out getting food. I spend all my money on food.

JET: Well, hey, that’s not a bad place to spend your money at all. So besides your assortment of snacks, what is the one thing that you have to have with you on set at all times to make it through your day?

Desiree Ross: Ooh. I want to say my phone. I take pictures with the cast and stuff. I try and do a whole bunch of social media stuff so that people can kind of see what we’re doing. (Laughing) They can have a little more insight into what it’s like for me to be filming. Whenever I need to go over my lines or whatever, I have all my scripts on my phone; I have all my schedules on my phone. So, it’s kinda like a lifeline. They usually give me sides, but I end up looking at my lines on my phone to make sure that I have it down. And then I obviously check my email a lot. But if there were any other thing that I had to have on set, it would probably be cookies.

JET: Cookies?!

Desiree Ross: Yes! Chocolate chip! (Laughing)

JET: Perfect. I think that’s fantastic. Who doesn’t love cookies? (Laughing) Thank you so much for chatting with me, Desiree. And congratulations on this season of Greenleaf, it’s been fantastic so far.

Desiree Ross: Thank you so much

Greenleaf airs on OWN Wednesdays at 10 PM ET.