She first went to The Prom in the spring of 2019, only a few short months before she’d get the call. Jo Ellen Pellman, the new leading lady of Ryan Murphy’s glitzy, feel-good movie musical The Prom, attended the show with her mother on Broadway, the two of them lifelong showtune connoisseurs. Both Pellman and her mother are queer, and they left the theater in tears, having just seen themselves reflected in the dancing characters on stage.
In The Prom, Emma Nolan is a gay Indiana high schooler. She’s out and, more or less, proud. But her conservative high school PTA can’t fathom the thought of two lesbians dancing together at a school-sanctioned event, so they block Emma and her girlfriend from attending. Throw in the added bonus that Emma’s girlfriend, Alyssa Greene, is the closeted daughter of the fiery conservative PTA leader, Mrs. Greene, and things get downright soapy. When a cohort of Broadway stars converge on the small town in a half-hearted attempt at pro-LGBTQ+ activism, Emma’s life spins completely out of control.
Pellman, who’s making her film debut in the Netflix rendition of the beloved musical, knew such stars as Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and James Corden were attached to the show when she got the audition in July of 2019. She remembers thrill and motivation, but not fear. She practiced every acting beat with different intonations and expressions. After her audition, casting director Alexa Fogel personally showed Murphy Pellman’s tape. This girl from Cincinnati, Ohio? She was their girl. Read on for more from Pellman.
Walk me through this whirlwind casting experience.
About a month after that initial audition, I got a call while I was working a retail job that my tape was being sent to Ryan. I was in the back stockroom and I was like, "Hold on, I'll come out on the floor soon!”
The night before the callback, I found out I was the only person they were reading for the role of Emma. And at that point, I still didn't know who was reading for the role of Alyssa. So I walk into the waiting room on the day of the callback, and I see Ariana DeBose's name on the sign-in sheet, and my jaw hits the floor. I saw her in the 2013 Tony performance of Bring it On. And her exuberance and energy on stage! I was just captivated by her. And now, here we are in this waiting room, making small talk, getting ready to do this chemistry read together. And from the moment we started talking, there was this instant connection. The next day, I got the call while I was at a thrift store in Bushwick.
You’ve said this show reaffirmed why you wanted to get into theater in the first place. Let's rewind: Why did you want to get into theater?
I was in the eighth grade and…I think it was my English class. They had us write a paper on a college we would want to go to. They were trying to get us ready—college prep and thinking about the future. I had researched the University of Michigan of all places, and I wrote this whole paper about how I wanted to go to their musical theater department.
Senior year comes around. I had decided musical theater was the perfect combination of all the things I loved. And I only applied to musical theater programs. I did not apply to a single school academically, which looking back is crazy because I didn't have a backup plan. I want to try and get that level of confidence back that I had as a teenager because I knew I could do anything. I put my whole heart into it.
What was it like recognizing yourself in Emma? How do you even begin to process that as you're performing?
I feel very fortunate that I could bring my authentic self to the character of Emma and not just feel accepted but celebrated for who I am. I do think that's thanks to Ryan Murphy and the way he has been championing LGBTQ representation in the media for decades.
What really drew me to this character is her optimism. I remember when we were shooting the song “Just Breathe,” I was really leaning into the idea that Emma wants to get out of this town. But Ryan helped me find this optimism and determination that she has in the face of inequality and bullying. It's that sense that she knows that no matter how bad things are right now, there's always a possibility that they will get better.
You grew up as a young queer woman in Ohio, not too far away from Emma’s home in Indiana. As a teenager, did you feel the same isolation as Emma?
I’m fortunate that my experience was so positive. I recognize that's not what so many kids' experience is, but growing up with a gay mom and a gay single parent—I felt like that was the best possible upbringing for me, because queerness was the norm. We were having these kinds of conversations [about being gay] when I was a little kid. I felt nothing but love and support from my mom and my friends and this community. I think it just goes to show that there are thriving queer communities in rural areas, in suburban areas, and all across the country, that there are people out there who support you and love you, often in places you might not expect.
What did you learn from working with Meryl Streep and co.?
I loved watching [Meryl Streep] work. In every single tape, she brought a different side to the character. She never did anything the same way twice. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have gone through the rehearsal process of “Zazz,” starting from the beginning and learning this technique that is Fosse dancing and to be able to witness Nicole’s work ethic and how fearless she is in creating a character.
You've been marketed as the "unknown," "the new girl," for this film. You get this blank slate to introduce yourself, one I’d argue a lot of other performers don't have. Based on that, what do you want the world to know about you?
I recognize how fortunate I am to be in this position and get to choose the parts of me I want to share with the world and the causes I support. But I guess I want people to know I'm just a 25-year-old who loves theater, who's trying to figure out their place in the world and how to use my voice—and I'm still learning.
We saw earlier this year, when Hamilton was released on Disney+, what a huge, huge event that was. And now, this movie musical is dropping on a major platform like Netflix. What do you hope happens with The Prom—other than of course, lots of people watching?
If there is one thing that queer people especially can take away from this, it’s that their people, their chosen family, is out there too. If it just provides them two hours of comfort and knowing that, Okay, I'm worthy of a happy ending. My people, my troupe of Broadway actors, my friends, they are out there too. Then that is worth it for me.
It’s special to see so much zany, glittery joy in a musical coming out at the end of such a difficult year.
I agree. We're craving healing and laughter and joy. Ariana and I were just talking yesterday and she said it best: "This film offers sparkle and substance in the best possible combination."
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