There’s a scene in The Prom where protagonist Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) and her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) fantasize about going to prom together as a couple. In those few cherry blossom–filled minutes, the young women sing and dance freely without judgement from their peers in their small Indiana town. It’s pure bliss—two gay women being their most authentic, true selves. “It was a manifestation of my teen daydream of what it’s like to be in love,” DeBose tells me over a Zoom call in late November.
From the first moment the glittery opening credits light up the screen to the final all-out dance number, The Prom—Ryan Murphy’s latest sure-to-be hit for Netflix—is a truly magical viewing experience. I was, in fact, smiling ear to ear for all two hours and 11 minutes. In true Murphy fashion, the musical film (based on the Broadway production of the same name) features a cast of Hollywood A-listers (Meryl Streep! Nicole Kidman! James Corden! Kerry Washington!), an eye-popping technicolor backdrop, and, most importantly, a storyline that puts inclusivity and representation at the forefront. The message of this film is loud and clear: Love conquers all. And at the tail end of this hellish year, it’s the burst of joy we all need.
For DeBose, who identifies as Afro-Latina and queer, shooting the film was a full-circle moment, serving as the perfect redo of her own prom experience. And while there were plenty of “pinch me” moments along the way, including a special one-on-one with Streep, the opportunity to show audiences a coming out story from the perspective of a young Black woman was the ultimate win. I caught up with the actress on the verge of her breakout moment—she is also starring as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story next year—to talk about bringing this LGBTQ+ love story to a worldwide stage, learning from the greats, and the Alyssa Greene fashion moment she fought to have in the film.
You’ve got über-director/producer/creator Ryan Murphy coupled with the likes of Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and Kerry Washington to name just a handful. I have to imagine the table read for this film was pretty surreal.
You know what, we didn’t do a table read. I was expecting one. I was like, “I’ve got to be ready” and was memorizing lines trying to make sure I didn’t look crazy, and we didn’t do a table read. My third day of rehearsal was with everyone, like the big seven or eight. And thank God it was in a rehearsal space because it felt like we were, oddly enough, all on an equal playing field. We were all still trying to figure out what we were doing. Meryl was still building Dee Dee. Nicole was rehearsing her Fosse moves. I was just over here trying to figure out what was happening. I have to say, it was an incredibly welcoming environment. I never felt or was made to feel out of my depth. Everyone was so helpful and supportive. Meryl Streep taking five minutes out of her workday to simply have a conversation with me, that said it all. You know what I mean? She didn’t have to do that, and she did it anyway, and it sets you on the right track when you know someone like that is a supportive figure. On the same hand, having Kerry Washington, who walked right up to me and was like, “Hey, girl!” I was like, “Oh, we’re in the money now!” It was a dream. The nerves went away quickly.
What were some of the invaluable things you learned working with this all-star cast?
I would say, in my observation of everyone, the work never stops. The curiosity of a legendary actor, because there are many of them in this cast, it knows no bounds. I learned to be patient with myself. That was a good takeaway. When you watch all of these seasoned actors, they pace themselves. That’s a lesson you learn the more that you do something, so I was really glad that I got to see it demonstrated in that way. And all of them have their own communication style. Learning to communicate your needs so that you can be successful in a kind manner and in a loving way, that will take you far. Every single one of them communicates clearly, but they communicate with love, so it was really cool.
Stepping onto a Ryan Murphy set with all of the colorful interiors and costumes looks like such a joyous experience. What was a favorite moment for you?
I had a fitting scheduled, and it was on the day they were shooting the opening sequence. I’m not in that scene, the big Broadway opening scene, but I was so glad that I had that fitting because it meant that I got to see the set, and it was magical. I imagine it was what it felt like to be working in that Old Hollywood time—you know, when the sets were larger than life and there were massive lights and fans. It was exactly what I had always imagined moviemaking to be. To see that it was still that, that I got to make a big, sparkly movie like that, was the craziest, most fun day. Also, walking onto the set of the inclusive prom. [Ryan] had not shown me any concepts, photos, or anything, so it literally was a surprise when we walked onto his set. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I cried actually. I walked up to a producer and said thank you and just bawled. The use of color in this film is so smart in conjunction with the way that Matthew Libatique shot it. I just think it’s exquisite and smart and compelling. I think use of color can be such an inviting tool in moviemaking, and when it’s done well, it brings more people to the table because people want to see it. I love that about Ryan’s work.
The Prom was originally a Broadway production, but now, this story about celebrating inclusivity is getting a worldwide stage with Netflix. Your character Alyssa isn’t able to be her true self out of fear of living up to her mother’s ideals. What do you hope people in similar situations will take away from this film?
I hope that people are reminded that the happy ending is possible. I think we’re coming off of a time where we began to question the possibility of a happy ending. I know, speaking as someone who is queer, it’s been tough. I’m queer. I’m Afro-Latina. I’m multiracial. I’m an artist. I’m very lucky to be doing what I’m doing, but it’s been a hard time, and this movie instills such hope, or a restoration in hope, that the happy ending is possible, that you can stand in your truth and be loved. Unconditional love is real, but I think, especially specifically to young girls, it’s a hard time to be a teen. Period, point-blank, end of story. There are so many factors that go into the life of a teenager now, and the fact that young girls of color are watching this character struggle and meet her mother halfway, that’s the secret superpower to Alyssa. She actually meets her mother where her mom is and then ultimately makes room for her mom to accept her. I really love that. Kerry and I were talking about it today. It came up in some of our interviews. That’s what makes it such a beautiful coming out story. You get to see a beautiful brown face, but you get to see it from this perspective.
Did you go to prom? If so, what was your experience?
I did go to prom. I went to two proms, but for my senior prom, I went with my best friend who is still my best friend to this day. Quick anecdote: I was dancing with him, and then this girl who I actually had a crush on came up and asked me to dance. He said, “Go girl go” because he knew I was questioning at the time. And I did. I was dancing with her and slowly realized that people were staring at me and not in the positive way. Literally, some folks had stopped dancing. It was my first experience with that type of prejudice or judgment, and I backed away from her. I slowly jammed right on back to my best friend. I never spoke to her about it. I don’t have a lot of regrets, but that is something I do regret. As an adult now, I would make very different decisions or choices, rather. But that, to me, was why this film was so important, or at least the gift of this film was important. It’s a full-circle moment for me. I got to portray a scene where two beautiful queer girls, and a Black queer young woman, got to dance with her girlfriend at a prom, and the people surrounding them cheered. That is a win!
I realize this might be a tough question, but do you have a favorite number from the film?
Um all of them! How am I supposed to choose? I love Keegan-Michael Keys’s number. It’s such a beautiful love letter to Broadway actors. My Broadway colleagues have been on my heart since the pandemic because the lights of Broadway are down, and it’s going to be a long time until they light up again. I love that song, and I love how it's depicted. I love “Dance With You” because it was a manifestation of my teen daydream of what it’s like to be in love, just cherry blossoms and spinning. As a dance number, I think my initial answer would have been the inclusive prom because it’s everything that I think it needs to be, but I want to give special props to “Zazz” by Nicole and Jo Ellen [Pellman]. I was really proud of Nicole Kidman because she took this so seriously, and she trained. She worked hard. And she developed her Angie. I loved watching the characters of Angie and Emma become friends and form this mentorship/sisterhood thing through movement and dance. I thought it was great storytelling.
Agreed. It was a great scene! Okay, last question: Favorite costume?
You know, I’ll speak to Alyssa. Her costumes were challenging because the way that we see Alyssa throughout this film, while she is a fashionista in her own right, it’s a manifestation of her need to please her mother. So I actually don’t think we ever really see Alyssa’s style or her real expression of herself until the end because, in my mind, that’s the dress that she picked for herself. It’s a different shape than what you have seen her in. Shoutout to the safety pins in my hair because that was really important to me. In fact, Ryan walked up to me and asked, “Are those safety pins?” I said yes and that they are important because there was a time, I want to say it was after the Pulse shooting, people started wearing safety pins, and it meant that you were safe with them. It meant that you were an ally. So I was like, “Alyssa is getting safety pins,” and I champion the safety pins! And I got them. So if anyone looks, she has safety pins pinning back her luscious locks because she is now standing in her power as an LGBTQ person, as a gay young woman, and as an ally of the community. I liked that a lot.
The Prom is now streaming on Netflix.