With all that this year has been throwing at us, it’s just about perfect timing to end our pandemic-ridden 2020 by whisking away into the glittery world of musical theater at the comfort of our own home thanks to Netflix. Ryan Murphy’s The Prom is premiering this week, and we recently had a chat with its stars James Corden, Andrew Rannells, and newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman.
The musical film follows theater actors Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep), Barry Glickman (James Corden), Angie (Nicole Kidman), and Trent (Andrew Rannells) as they look for a boost in their careers. They find hope to solve their PR crisis in Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) a teenager from Indiana. Emma’s been banned from attending the high school prom with her girlfriend Alyssa, so the four actors rally behind Emma.
We catch up with three of The Prom stars in a Zoom interview to talk about the film, their own proms, and more:
Question: This is one of the first productions to return amid the pandemic. How was it working through that?
James Corden: We started filming in December, 2019 and we shot through to March and I think Andrew and, we’d finished our main sort of photography in. And then Jo Ellen was basically there on the day it got shut down and have to come back, right?
Jo Ellen Pellman: I will always remember that. Nicole and I finished Zazz on what would be our last day of filming before we got shut down. And we didn’t start back up again until July. We had three days left and it was Ariana and myself. And we were one of the first productions to start back up in Los Angeles. And so the safety protocols that we had were strict, they were so researched. And I know personally I felt so safe. But it was a little scary ’cause like no one had ever worked like this before and we were all learning the ropes. But it starts from Ryan Murphy at the top who made sure that we had every single safety protocol in place so that everyone on the crew, not just the actors, but everyone felt safe doing their job.
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The film pokes fun at show business and the theater community. How fun or difficult was it being able to poke fun at your own industry? Which parts or jokes were your favorite or hit the closest to home?
Andrew Rannells: I think it’s a little bit of a cautionary tale as an actor to play a self-absorbed actor. It’s a good reminder to not be self-absorbed. But it was very fun and what I loved most about when I saw the show on Broadway and in getting to be a part of this, was that there are a lot of very small sort of inside jokes about Broadway that I think are very funny, even if you don’t know exactly what they’re talking about. But it is a real inside baseball script, of some very specific, weird jokes for us theater geeks out there. So it was a lot of fun, you know, having come from the theater to get to play these people.
Jo Ellen Pellman: And I would say that even though the Broadway troop does come to Indiana with sort of self-centered motives, what I just love about the story is they actually do become Emma’s support system. And they’re the reason that Emma was able to find her voice and speak out in the way that’s authentic to her. And so even though they feel a little selfish with their motives, they really do help her by the end.
James Corden: Well, sometimes I would think, is this too much, this level of ego and narcissism? And then I looked to Andrew and realized that actually we were just underplaying it, you know? [laughs] I don’t think there’s a performer on earth that doesn’t have a bit of ego and a tiny bit of narcissism, and it was really, really good fun. Particularly watching Meryl who is just so far away from being a diva, watching her kind of pull on all of the massive stories that she’s got from her incredible career. That was the most thrilling part about it already.
Barry and Dee Dee have this really great friendship. What it was like working with Meryl Streep again for this film? I think there was this one particular scene when you guys [James Corden and Meryl Streep] were in the hotel room and she practically jumps on you. So what was it like?
James Corden: We actually didn’t know that they were filming when she did that. She’s actually a little full on. [Laughs] No, I mean, I got to tell you, there’s nothing I can tell you about Meryl Streep as a performer that hasn’t been said, and it’s all true. Her brilliance and her ability and her talent is overwhelming sometimes, but I would say the greatest thing about her is she absolutely creates and sets the tone for the entire environment of the set that she’s on. That’s what she did on Into The Woods. And it’s what she did on The Prom. I’ve never really been on a film of this sort of scale before, but I imagine, and what I’ve heard is, you know, during breaks in filming all the big stars, they, they go back to their trailers and surround themselves with their teams and all those things. And Meryl just wants a chair in the corner of the room, which means that all the other chairs get put in that corner of the room, which means all the actors just sit and chat and hang out all day. And she’s an example of how everybody should be, you know? She takes the work unbelievably seriously, but doesn’t take herself seriously for a second. And that means she is the greatest fun you could ever wish to be around on a set for sure.
Are your memories of your own proms good or bad?
Andrew Rannells: I wish that I had the prom that Emma had. I did not. I went to an all-boys Catholic school in the nineties. Taking a boy to the prom was not really an option for me. But it was very exciting to get to film that actual prom sequence because we had this great group of dancers and background actors. A lot of whom were queer youth that Ryan had invited to come in and join that scene. And it really did feel like a celebratory experience. It took many days obviously to film that, but I would say every day, when those kids were there and we were all there together, it really did feel like we were celebrating in a way. And the joy that was in that room when we were filming it was palpable. So hopefully that comes across in the film. It was certainly the prom that I wish I had had.
Jo Ellen Pellman: And I’m right there with Andrew. Even though I went to a pretty progressive high school where you could take whatever you wanted, I still wish I could have had that wonderful, celebratory prom that we have at the end. I remember for my prom, I love what I wore. I wore this like red off-the-shoulder dress that I had rented and these turquoise earrings. And I went with friends and just danced the night away. But if I could have had that level of inclusivity and celebration at my prom, that would have meant the world to me. And so I’m really excited that we can bring this experience to kids across the world.
James Corden: We didn’t have proms in Britain. We’d have like quite a shit disco. So we didn’t really have a prom. We’d have sort of a disco, but you wouldn’t really ask someone to go with you. You just go with all our friends and we’d kind of drink cider, and someone would inevitably vomit too early. [laughs] It’s all quite bleak.
Andrew Rannells: That’s pretty much what American prom is like.
James Corden: Right. [laughs] Well, we had a great time. Yeah.
Jo Ellen, The Prom is going to introduce you to a wider audience, and there are a lot of causes that are close to your heart. How would you respond to people who say that politics has no place in entertainment or they don’t want their politics to mix with entertainment?
Jo Ellen Pellman: I think I can speak only for myself and how I view politics and entertainment. And for me personally, I do think that my political beliefs and my artistic beliefs and my artistic integrity are forever entwined. And so that’s why I’m so fortunate that my feature film debut gets to be the story with such a brilliant message. And I can only hope that I can continue to work with icons that also have these same kinds of convictions and projects that really speak to me and that have a message. That’s honestly, all I could ever want as an actor.
Do you have message for LGBTQ viewers in Asia about society trying put them down and deprive them of rights? And do you think that celebrities have great power to change society?
James Corden: Well, I don’t know if celebrities have great power to change society, but I do think they can make a difference somehow. I do think that if you are authentic and true in the voices that you’re trying to lift up, that you can do that. What I would say to those communities that you talk about is that this film was originally a musical on Broadway and the man who directed it and produced it, went to sit down in an auditorium to watch a musical one day. And he watched the story that was set very close to where he grew up about a story of a young person who, because of their sexuality, wasn’t allowed to go to their prom, which was something that he associated with absolutely in his life. Even when Ryan Murphy started writing for television, and this is not that long ago, he was told not to write characters who were gay.
Don’t write gay stories, don’t write gay gay characters. And here he is right now, arguably one of the foremost voices in media and entertainment telling this story, because he sees the progress that he’s made in his own life. And what I would say to the people in those communities is I know that this story might feel like, or you may have had feelings that you think are particular to you. And here is a story that says, they’re not written by somebody who tells you that you’re not on your own. And acceptance is out there waiting for you. And there is a whole community of people that are absolutely allies in your corner and will do all they can to fight for your rights. And the greatest thing that could happen is in 20 years time, you wouldn’t be able to make a film like The Prom because people would go, ‘Well, why would you tell that story? Everybody’s accepting of everybody’s sexuality and who they are and who they want to be.’ And that would be the dream scenario. And you are absolutely loved, cherished and accepted more than you’ll ever know by every single person that’s involved with this film. That’s a certainty.