Scandal‘s Kerry Washington is singing onscreen for the first time in Ryan Murphy’s The Prom musical adaptation. The film follows four egotistical theater actors in their quest to uplift their public image. The foursome (played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells) head out to rally with a small-town teenage lesbian named Emma when her school bans her from attending the prom with her girlfriend. Washington plays the meddling Mrs. Greene, the president of the PTA who cancels the prom.
Plot twist: Mrs. Greene’s daughter, Alyssa Greene (played by Tony-nominated Ariana Debose) is the closeted student that Emma wishes to bring to the prom.
Read on as the the two stars share about working on the Netflix’s new musical film directed by Ryan Murphy:
Mrs. Greene is a character that seems quite hard to love. But what is the best thing about playing a role that everyone seems to hate?
Kerry Washington: I think she very controlling, which I identify with a little bit, just a teeny bit. You know, I really wanted to make sure that people could laugh about her and, relate to her a little bit because it was important to me… I know there are going to be people–and this was important to Ryan [Murphy]–there are going to be people who watch this film, who identify with Mrs. Green. Who might have a hard time dealing with the realities of the LGBTQ community, who might feel a resistance to being able to accept that their child is being gay or lesbian or transgender, or gender fluid.
And so I didn’t want her to be just a villain, a stereotypical villain. I wanted her to feel real. I wanted her character to be rich. I wanted people to feel like if they identified with her, although she’s the bad guy, that we give you a blueprint for how to walk toward acceptance, right? So that if you are a parent, who’s struggling to wrap your head around this, it’s okay. You don’t have to be totally comfortable. You don’t have to become an expert on the issue. You really don’t have to understand it, even. What you have to do is to show up and love your child unconditionally, because everybody deserves that. And that’s what Mrs. Greene does. You know, she knows there’s still stuff to talk about. She’s not 100% comfortable, but she knows how much she loves her daughter. And that love is more important than her own fears.
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So there’s a touching moment in this story where you said you didn’t want Alyssa to have a difficult life. What are some of the parenting lessons we can learn from The Prom?
Kerry Washington: It’s funny. I thought about my own mother a lot in that scene, because I did not come out as gay to my mother. But when I told my mother that I wanted to be an actor, she was like, ‘No! Why would you do that?’ Your life is already going to be so hard. You’re a black person, you’re a woman. And now you want to be a starving artist? You’re smart enough to be a lawyer or a doctor. She used to say ‘Closing arguments are just like monologues, go be a lawyer.’ And I knew that this was something I had to do that I had to try at least. And so I thought a lot about my mother in that moment. I love you, Alyssa, you are already a woman. You’re already a person of color. Like, I don’t want you to have to deal with walking through the world as being a lesbian also. So please stop saying things I don’t want to hear.’ She was a little bit how my mother was at times. [laughs] I love that scene because it’s really, again, you understand that, that our job as parents, it’s not about to keep ourselves comfortable. If you became a parent to keep yourself comfortable and to create a little mini me of you in the world, good luck. That is not the path. Being a parent is really about having the courage to make room for your children to be who they are, and to help them be the best versions of who they are.
Ariana, are there any lines in the song ‘Alyssa Green’ that resonate with you personally?
Ariana DeBose: When I first saw the Broadway show, I loved the song, Alyssa Greene. I love a patter song for a very specific reason, you have to think very quickly on your feet. There’s no time to process and you’re just doing it in real time. It’s like a word vomit. And then at the end of the word vomit, you’re like, that’s the truth. On a personal note, I didn’t have the good fortune to grow up with my father in my life. So I know what it feels like to miss that person, feeling like you’re missing out, not having them there. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily felt in my childhood that I needed to be perfect so that to fill a hole for my mother, but I would cop to saying that for me, I strove for excellence so that I made it easy for people to love me. And that is hard. That’s a very hard thing for young people. I think a lot of young people do it, because we are inherently very afraid that we are not enough. Doesn’t matter how pretty you are or how smart you are or talented you are. Especially in American society, I think we put perfection complexes on our young people and it’s a very hard thing to live up to.
Kerry, we’ve never seen you sing on screen. What was it like singing and acting with these incredible actors?
Kerry Washington: I love to sing and I love to dance. Like these are things that make me very, very happy and I don’t do them very often, even though I did them all through high school and college. So it was such a joy to be able to get to sing and dance with folks who have sung and dance on screen a lot and on stage for a decade like Ariana. It was such a joy and really, really fun. I’m really grateful to Ryan for trusting me. Cause he had never heard me sing! [laughs] But I guess he was like, it’s not that much singing if she’s terrible, we can probably fix it somehow! [laughs]
Ariana DeBose: You were perfect!
Kerry Washington: It wound up being great. He wound up being happy. And I have to think Ariana, because, you know, on screen, we’re playing like a terribly unsupportive mother, but in real life, she was being an incredibly supportive co-star because she has done this so much. And so she was helping me with the singing and the dancing. I was so, so grateful.
Ariana DeBose: It was my pleasure. I mean, I got to help Kerry Washington! [laughs]
The character of Mrs. Greene, she’s so strong, but she’s also quite scary for lack of a better word. What was it like getting into her perspective and what do you hope people will take from her story here?
Kerry Washington: It was a good exercise for me to try to understand her and become her. As actors, we have to step into somebody else’s shoes and have a real compassionate understanding. And her belief system is very different from mine. So it was a good exercise in me, figuring out how to have more openness and compassion for somebody who thinks a different way than I do. So it was almost like I have to do for mrs. Green, what I want mrs. Green to do for Alyssa. And give her space to be who she is, and meet her where she is. It was also just fun to play, to have to be mean to Meryl Streep. I remember we improvise the line, where we were doing that scene, where she was sitting with Keegan and she starts to introduce herself. And I was like, ‘Yes, I’m aware.’ Like that came out of nowhere. I just was like, I want to figure out how to like, be even more mean to her. It was really fun and I got real attached to that gavel. There were parts of her that were extensions of my own perfectionism and desire for control that I have to reel in, in my real life. So I got to like act out through her.
Ariana, you have a conflicted character. Was there also a point in your career when you felt like you had to be the image of perfection?
Ariana DeBose: When I first was starting out, I definitely thought I was trying to achieve some sort of perfection. It was a very misguided thought process to be perfectly honest. My first big gig I guess was I was a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance, which was ultimately a terrifying experience, because you’re up against thousands of dancers from all across America. And I was 18 years old at the time. I was just sort of flying on instinct, and trying to be the prototype of what I believed the greatest dancers in America work. Ultimately they were incredibly versatile. They were thin, they were cutthroat, they were all of these things. And then I got voted off! [laughs] Week one, honey. So that was my first big brush with rejection. Honestly, I’m still recovering from it. But it was a great lesson in realizing that you cannot fit into the boxes other people want you to be put in. It is not their job to define you. It is your job to define yourself. That’s what I believe at least. And I continue to challenge my own definitions of who I am. That’s how I continued to evolve and keep it interesting for myself in this grand experiment called life. Yeah. I think that’s the best way to put that.
Kerry, in your Wikipedia page, it says you try to keep something from each character you play. What did you keep for Mrs. Greene?
Kerry Washington: It’s true. What I wanted to keep was the Gucci dress. But I would have had to do like four more The Proms to be able to afford that Gucci dress, because it was like a vintage custom, once in a lifetime situation. But what I wound up keeping was a necklace that I wore that had Alyssa’s initials. And I had a similar necklace, a very different font, a different necklace, but the same, I had of my child in American Son. ‘J’ for Jamal. As I’m getting to explore motherhood in my different projects, I do want to take that kind of stuff with me. She had an ‘A’ and also a cross of course. I love having the cross.
What do you think about the future of the relationship of Mrs. Greene and Alyssa Greene? How do you imagine the mother-daughter talk to be like, after prom?
Ariana DeBose: Ultimately I think, where we leave it in The Prom, like it brings them closer together. I don’t know if they’re always gonna see eye to eye, but that’s ultimately not the point. The point is that they found a way to come together and meet each other halfway. I mean, honestly, it’s something I work on with my own mother. I think mother-daughter relationships are just always going to be complicated for many, many different reasons. But if you can find a practice of meeting your mother halfway, and making room. Again, it’s the same thing that Kerry was talking about, having empathy and compassion for Mrs. Greene. I think mothers and daughters have to have empathy and compassion for each other. Motherhood in and of itself is so complicated. Having that threshold for compassion and trying to put yourself in your mother’s shoes to even understand her psyche, I think opens up a whole world for daughters to consider.
Kerry Washington: I hope that they find a really good family therapist. [laughs] Because they have ongoing stuff, like this stuff with the dad and the perfectionism. It’s not just about the LGBTQ issues. That’s a symptom of a greater issue of control and acceptance and Mrs. Green’s own feeling of insecurity that she needs to be perfect. And her daughter, as a projection of her, therefore has to uphold that perfection? That’s deep. So I really hope that they can find a good therapist, do some family sessions, unravel that stuff and get some tools to be able to move forward. Both of them.
We talked about the Alyssa Greene song a while ago. For people in the Philippines, especially that storyline of disappointing your parents, it rings very, very true, no matter what it is we’re talking about. How do you feel Alyssa’s story will impact the Asian audience, specifically?
Ariana DeBose: You know, I think it’s heartening for Asian audiences to see, to see the journey portrayed. I feel like Asian audiences will see this performance and feel like they can stand in solidarity. Like they are not alone. You know, that this concept of disappointing your parents, it’s not necessarily singular, but it’s actually a topic that we can unite under and continue to talk about. Because it is a universal thought. I think we all have a certain amount of perfection complex. I know as a young queer American, just the idea of disappointing my family was huge growing up. And I think the more that you can, you can see your story reflected on a screen, whether or not it it’s manifested in someone who looks like you, but if you can identify with that person and know that you are not alone, you have a greater capacity to find ways of working through it. And that makes me really excited. So I’m really hoping that that’s how people feel.
Kerry Washington: It reminds me of this meme, that the night that Kamala Harris, it became official Kamala Harris was going to be our Vice President elect, as a South Asian and black woman. There was this hilarious meme that was going around on Twitter saying like, ‘My heart goes out to all the Indian children who became doctors and engineers. And thanks to Kamala Harris, are now a failure’ because they’re not vice-president elect, right? [laughs] Because the pressure to succeed is so stark. And my husband started sharing it with all of his cousins because he’s not Asian or South Asian, but as the kid of Nigerian immigrants, it’s the similar pressure. And so I think it is like a universal dynamic for more of us than we would imagine.
Representation has been a bigger and bigger thing. How do you feel has acting or performing changed through time?
Ariana DeBose: I think Hollywood and well, actually just the entertainment industry at large is learning what representation actually is. I think we’ve had an interesting definition of representation for a while that has not actually been accurate. But then you see films like The Prom that take representation to a new level because it’s very rare that young women of color who identify as LGBTQ, get the opportunity to tell our stories. And we’re certainly never the focal point of a film. And someone earlier had said, an older reporter was like, ‘I certainly never imagined I would see a lesbian team be a romantic lead,’ you know? Or even just a romantic lead in this fashion. And I was like, you know what, you’re right! Historically, that would not have happened. So the fact that this movie got made that Ryan Murphy championed it and Netflix greenlit it, and that we’re actually going to be able to share it with millions of people around the globe that is the win, right? That’s taking representation to the next level. And I also think that having two young women like myself and Jo Ellen Pellman, who actually do identify as LGBTQ in their personal lives, it brings another element of authenticity to this, because it did give us the power to bring our lived experiences to it. And while I don’t necessarily believe that queer characters should be exclusively played by queer people, I think in this instance, it did bring a certain sparkle to the film. And it just helped you fall in love with these characters immediately because you can feel how real they are. There was not a single word that came out of my mouth or Jo Ellen’s mouth that was not true or authentic. We meant every single word. And I think that you can feel that. And I think young people everywhere will hopefully feel that and be empowered by.
The Prom launches globally on Netflix this December 11. Follow its official Netflix page, as well as Netflix’s official Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages for updates. Stream the Full Soundtrack #TheProm here!