With director Ryan Murphy’s joyous romantic comedy musical The Prom landing on Netflix this Friday December 11th, The Queer Review‘s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive chat with two of its stars, Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose. With screen legends like Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington, and Nicole Kidman involved, Pellman who’s making her feature film debut and Tony-winning Broadway star DeBose might not be the most recognisable members of The Prom’s stellar ensemble cast, but once you’ve seen the movie I can assure you, baby, you’ll remember their names (remember, remember, remember, remember). Based on Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin and Matthew Sklar’s Tony-nominated Broadway production, Jo Ellen Pellman stars as Emma, a queer high schooler in small-town Indiana whose desire to take her girlfriend Alyssa (DeBose) to prom results in it being cancelled altogether. Cue Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), along with their actor/barman friend Trent (Andrew Rannells) and chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), who journey from New York to help, and more importantly hoping to get a career boost for themselves from some good press.
Prior to her big screen debut in The Prom, Pellman, who graduated from the University of Michigan, has had television roles on shows such as Comedy Central’s Alternatino, HBO’s The Deuce, and Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. DeBose, who earned her Tony-nomination for the portrayal of Disco Donna in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, appeared alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda in the original cast of the groundbreaking, Tony-winning musical Hamilton, as well as the Disney+ film of the Broadway production. In 2016 she starred in the original Broadway run of A Bronx Tale, and more recently joined the cast of Lorne Michaels’ untitled Apple TV+ Brigadoon-inspired musical comedy series featuring Kristin Chenoweth, and her The Prom co-star Keegan-Michael Key. This time next year we’ll finally get to see her in Steven Spielberg’s big screen reimagining of the West Side Story.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations to both of you on such wonderful film. So joyous, every moment of it. I was actually listening to the soundtrack this morning dancing around the apartment, reliving it all! First of all, can I ask each of you why it’s important to you to be open with the world about how you identify, particularly being involved in a movie like The Prom?
Jo Ellen Pellman: “What was so wonderful about this experience for me is knowing that I could bring my authentic self to this role, and not only be accepted, but celebrated. And I do think that that’s thanks to the work of people like Ryan Murphy, who have been championing LGBTQ representation in the media for decades. And the fact that we’re at a place now where it’s like, I feel so proud that I am out and I am a part of this film. It’s thanks to people like Ryan Murphy.”
Ariana DeBose: “Yeah! There’s not much to add to that answer. Besides, I just think this film does such a beautiful job about celebrating our humanity, and making space for any and all people, no matter how you identify on the spectrum, it’s really about acceptance and celebrating our humanity. And, the way we move forward is by taking on the challenge of making said space.”
I think the film is going mean so much to many people; young people, but audiences of all ages will be able to identify with these characters and I think feel better about themselves. Was there something that you watched or read, or a public figure perhaps, that made you feel better about yourself and that it was okay to be you when you were growing up?
Ariana: “Wow, you know, I never really felt like I saw any one person who embodied all that I thought I was, right? Brown. Queer. It didn’t really feel like it was a thing when I was growing up, but there were many women in particular, who I did identify with. You know, so it’s like, I had Halle Berry, I had Kerry Washington. I had so many. I had Meryl Streep! You know what I mean? Like Meryl Streep is the poster child for greatness and longevity in the business, and to achieve that was the goal in a way. So while I can’t tell you that there was any one figure, it was many figures that have led me to the hodgepodge of things that I am today!”
Jo Ellen: “I would have to say my mom. My mom is gay and so I really did grow up in this very unique experience that I’m so fortunate to have had where queerness was the norm. Not only was I able to start to see more and more queer characters on television and in film and in music, but also it was just the norm in my household and I have this wonderfully complex, strong mother to look up to. Thank you mom is all I can really say!”
And just finally, if there was to be a sequel to The Prom, and why not we had Mamma Mia 2, where would you like to see your characters in their lives if the sequel was to explore that?
Ariana: “I mean, personally, I want to see them go to college. I would love to see what that looks like. My big question is do they go to the same college or did they go to different schools? Do they break up? What do the queer experiences look like in the collegiate setting? I’d be here for that, honey!”
Joe Ellen: “Oh, I echo that completely. Like what happens?! What happens postgrad? Absolutely!”
Watch The Queer Review’s exclusive interview with Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose below:
The Prom premieres on Netflix globally on Friday December 11th 2020.