Some freedoms are still able to be celebrated this year, as more teenagers are securing the right to bring the person they truly like to the biggest dance of their high school experience in the upcoming musical film, ‘The Prom.’ Up-and-coming actress Jo Ellen Pellman plays the comedy’s strong-willed young protagonist, Emma Nolan, who determinedly fights back against her town’s PTA in an effort to convince them to allow the students to have an inclusive prom at her school that accepts LGBTQ+ couples. In her battle against her school’s officials, Emma not only realizes how much her girlfriend means to her, but also the importance of standing up for her beliefs and protecting her rights.
‘The Prom,’ which is set to begin streaming on Netflix, and opens in select theaters, next Friday, December 11, was directed by Ryan Murphy, who also served as one of the producers. The movie was adapted for the screen by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, from their and Matthew Sklar’s 2018 Broadway musical of the same name.
‘The Prom’ follows Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), New York City stage stars who have a crisis on their hands: their expensive new Broadway show is a major flop that has suddenly flatlined their careers. Meanwhile, in small-town Indiana, high school student Emma Nolan (Pellman in her feature film acting debut) is experiencing a very different kind of heartbreak. Despite the support of the high school principal, Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), the head of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), has banned her from attending the prom with her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose).
When Dee Dee and Barry decide that Emma’s predicament is the perfect cause to help resurrect their public images, they hit the road with Angie (Nicole Kidman) and Trent (Andrew Rannells), another pair of cynical actors looking for a professional lift, in an effort to help the teenager. But when their self-absorbed celebrity activism unexpectedly backfires, the foursome find their own lives upended as they rally to give Emma a night where she can truly celebrate who she is.
Murphy, Streep, Kidman, Corden, Washington, Michael-Key, Pellman, and DeBose generously took the time recently to talk about directing and starring in ‘The Prom’ during a virtual press conference over Zoom, which was hosted by Jess Cagle, the Chief Entertainment Anchor at SiriusXM. Among other things, the helmer-producer and performers discussed that they were drawn to take part in adapting the Tony Award-nominated Broadway play for the screen, in part because they not only found joy and optimism in Emma’s story, but they also related to her struggle to be accepted by her school’s officials, and know the importance for everyone to be able to to see themselves reflected in films. The cast and crew also discussed how they appreciate that like the Broadway production, the movie adaptation of ‘The Prom’ emphasizes how culture can educate people and spark a social change.
The press conference began with Murphy explaining what drew him to direct and produce the screen adaptation of ‘The Prom.’ “I very vividly remember when I saw ‘The Prom’ on Broadway. It was a very snowy night in January 2019. I was invited to see it as a fan. I was feeling a little dark in my life at the time,” he admitted.
“So I walked into the musical knowing vaguely what it was about. But then I saw families in the audience, and people were laughing, crying and having a very big experience, which I ultimately had,” the filmmaker continued.
“The thing that was interesting to me was that the heroine was from Indiana, where she’s denied from going to her prom. Halfway through the musical, I realized that was also my experience; I’m also from Indiana, and I wasn’t allowed to go to my prom,” revealed Murphy, who has been married to photographer David Miller since 2012.
“I just thought it had so much joy and optimism, and is about something, but is also fun. When I walked out of the musical, I had dinner with the producer, and we’re friends. While we were talking, I said, ‘I think I want to make this into a movie,’ and he said, ‘Okay, great,'” the helmer also shared. “It all started from there, and was very quick and spontaneous.”
Pellman then chimed in on why the musical’s story also resonates with her. “I’m originally from Cincinnati, which is actually where I am right now, so I have a strong connection to the Midwest. I also studied musical theater in college, and I’m such a lover of the craft of musical theater.
“I also saw the show on Broadway-I saw it with my mom-and it’s so personal to me because I’m queer, and I also came out in high school in the Midwest. It’s a wild experience,” the actress admitted. “So being able to tell this story with this cast is my dream come true.”
DeBose, who’s also a fan of musicals and was part of the original cast of the Broadway production of ‘Hamilton,’ also agreed with her director and co-star that it’s important to tell Emma and Alyssa’s story on screen now. “I saw ‘The Prom’ three times on Broadway, and every time, I laughed and cried harder; I was moved by everything I saw and witnessed.
“Ryan’s right in his observations; there are so many types of people in the audience. In particular, I saw so many young girls, and lots of young girls of color,” the actress shared.
“I know how important it is to see yourself reflected on a screen. If you see it, you believe that you can do it…I’ve never seen anything potentially close to my experience on a Broadway stage. So when this opportunity came to me, I really thought about it, and went after it,” DeBose added.
Like the Broadway production, the film adaptation of ‘The Prom’ emphasizes how culture can educate people and spark a social change, which is something that Washington, whose character can be viewed as the villain in the story, appreciates. “I was talking about this with some friends recently. There’s all this talk about how, as a culture, we have to heal right now. I said, ‘People can have transformative thoughts in movie theaters and in their living rooms while they’re watching…these stories that are…informing us of who we are as a society,'” she noted.
“We get these moments to look at these characters and say, like Ariana’s point earlier, that we see ourselves, or who we don’t want to be, like in the case of Mrs. Greene. We also get to get in touch with our humanity,” the Emmy Award-winning actress continued.
“Thatt=’s not the only way to make change; we also need people to vote and write legislature. But I do think art has a place in the conversation. This story is so powerful, as it’s about acceptance, and the power to create community where you need it. When you fight for your own belonging, you also fight for belonging for other people. It’s such a beautiful, powerful story,” Washington added.
Also like its stage counterpart, the movie also features intricate choreography that all of the performers had to learn. Streep spoke about her experience of playing a character who has some of the most dance sequences throughout the story.
“I’m the oldest person in the cast, and I have the most dancing!,” the three-time Academy Award-winning actress enthusiastically pointed out. “That didn’t make sense to me.
“But when I saw the show, which I hadn’t seen before Ryan called me and asked, ‘Do you maybe want to look at this?,’ I saw that it was closing. I couldn’t believe that it was closing because it was absolutely packed. I’ve never heard a reaction in a theater” like the one she heard to ‘The Prom,’ Streep revealed. “People were (standing) on their seats, screaming, crying and laughing, during the curtain call. I also noted that the leading lady didn’t do a lot of dancing!,” she added with a hint of a laugh.
“All hell broke loose when I got to Los Angeles. There was a lot of dancing for me, so I got in shape. It took a lot of stamina, and it was hard work, but it was really fun,” the performer added.
Kidman also chimed in on the experience of learning the choreography for the musical. “We had about four-six weeks of rehearsals. These days, a lot of the rehearsal time just gets shoved aside. But we came in and diligently rehearsed,” she divulged. “I had this amazing group of dancers who trained me with the patience of saints, and it was really fun. I remember seeing Meryl doing her fist number during the fist week, and thinking, this is so good.”
In order for the cast to rehearse their choreography, Ryan and the crew “took over a very large space at Paramount Pictures. We rehearsed and trained as much as we could, and that was one of the great things about the production. Usually, there isn’t a lot of rehearsal time in film and television, but we had built it into the schedule,” he shared.
“I think when you’re making a musical, rehearsal is when the cast bonds. They became like a Broadway troupe, and everyone cheered everyone else on. There were injuries and ice, but the rehearsals became a great bonding experience,” the director added.
Also speaking of the bonding experience, when it came to his scene in which he had to kiss Streep, Key admitted that he “was nervous with anticipation and happiness. Ryan was a lovely and kind person, because he didn’t make us do that scene first,” the Emmy Award-winning actor added with a laugh. “He gave us the opportunity to work together before that…We had a lot of time to get to know, and become comfortable with, each other. But it was nerve-racking in an exhilarating way.”
Key added with a laugh, “When you’re a kid in theater school, and your future self came back and said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that in 2020, you’re going to kiss Meryl Streep and be her love interest in a movie,’ you’d be like, ‘Get out of here, lying demon! You’re not real!’ But it was exhilarating, to be honest, and I was waiting for it the entire shoot.”
Kidman and Corden then chimed in on the relationships that Angie and Barry create with Emma throughout the story. The Emmy Award-winning actress noted that “The incredible thing to me was that Angie is incredibly kind and warm to (Emma). I remember when we were shooting, Ryan said, ‘I’m going to write you a scene where you’re talking.’ We talk about my (character’s) life,” she shared. “I love that there’s this older woman who’s helping this younger person by just being there for her.
“Jo Ellen and I also shared a lot of stories while we were sitting around on the set, and I feel the same way about her. So it was beautiful to be able to have that scene, and have that journey together,” Kidman added. “Jo Ellen and Ariana just stepped in on set and owned it. I was intimated when I saw them sing and dance.”
Corden agreed with Kidman about the relationships Emma has with Barry. “It is a really lovely relationship, as are those between the four performers who travel from New York, who are, to be honest, cynical and self-serving. But as soon as Barry sees Emma, he sees himself in her completely. I think part of him wishes he had somebody like him around when he was going through similar times and moments,” he revealed.
“I remember those scenes so vividly. Before we started shooting, we went to the location to rehearse the scene where Emma asks Barry to go to the prom with her. I remember saying to Jo Ellen, ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life telling people that I was in Jo Ellen Pellman’s first-ever film,'” the Tony Award-winning actor recalled.
“I was blown away by Jo Ellen in pretty much every scene. I thought, here’s an actress who I’m going to watch for the rest of my life. We’re going to see her in films and on TV and stage. There’s no doubt in my mind that those things will happen. I was so taken by her in every scene I was in with her,” Corden added.
The conference began to wind down with Murphy praising all of the actors who appeared in the comedy. “My experience with all of these people was great. Jo Ellen and Ariana were new to me, but everyone else was on my bucket list. The very idea that you can go after the people you’ve watched and loved for a long time, and you ask them to the dance and they say yes, is an amazing experience,” he shared.
“We all approached this project with so much love. I felt like when we were making it, we were excited for people to see it. I think we need the message and joy of it right now,” the Emmy Award-winning director concluded.