MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX
By Alex Gonzalez
The Prom is ostensibly the story of 17-year-old Emma Nolan, played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman, a friendly, outspoken girl who is banned from attending her school’s dance with her girlfriend in the fictional, conservative Edgewater, Indiana. But it also relies on what happens next, when a troupe of struggling Broadway actors — played by marquee icons Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and Andrew Rannells — see Emma’s story on social media and visit her town in an attempt to resurrect their public images.
While the idea of sharing the bill with such an all-star cast for one’s first major on-screen role may seem daunting, the 25-year-old actress felt welcomed by her co-stars on the first day of filming. “Meryl scoots over and pats the seat next to her,” Pellman tells MTV News. “And she’s like, ‘Come on, sit down,’ and we just start getting to know each other. She literally made room for me. And that’s what I think is so special about everyone — they made sure that I knew that I belonged.”
The role is a long time coming for Ohio-born Pellman, who took classes at Cincinnati Actor’s Studio and Academy before going on to receive a degree in Musical Theatre from the University of Michigan. She’s been performing since elementary school and would act out skits in class, memorize lines, and play characters, all while taking choir and ballet. Her affinity for the stage led to appearances in local productions of The Drowsy Chaperone, Me and My Girl, The Tempest, and Grand Concourse while attending the University of Michigan. She also calls her hometown Cincinnati much more progressive than the fictional Edgewater in the film.
“I was very fortunate that, when I came out in high school, I was accepted by my family and by my classmates, and it was not a big deal,” she says. “I hope that other kids in Cincinnati have that experience, and in Indiana as well.”
Even before landing the role in the Ryan Murphy-produced film adaptation of The Prom, Pellman knew this show was special after seeing the colorful Broadway version with her mom in New York City. “We just laughed and cried our way through it,” Pellman says. “I remember thinking as I was leaving the theater, this is why I do what I do, to hopefully someday be a part of a piece that brings so much joy and an incredible message, and is also just artistically brilliant at the same time.”
She was able to bring that passion to the film version once Murphy cast her after a nationwide search. Fittingly, Pellman says she was drawn to the role mostly by Emma’s optimism, something she credits the producer with bringing out of her. Throughout the film, Emma never stops fighting for the right to bring a same-sex date to prom, even when her school’s PTA attempts to shut her down. From the very beginning of the film, she is vocal on social media, passionate about LGBTQ+ rights and relentless in her protests. “I remember we were shooting [the musical number] ‘Just Breathe,’ and his note to me was to really find the moments where she’s optimistic and where she thinks that life can be better. And in the face of all of the inequality she is still optimistic, and she knows herself and she knows what’s right and she knows what drives her.”
Prior to The Prom, Pellman appeared as an extra on The Marvelous Miss Maisel, The Deuce, and Alternatino with Arturo Castro. Preparing for the role of Emma entailed choreography and vocal training unlike anything Pellman had previously experienced. For “Just Breathe,” which involved dodging balls, navigating crowded hallways and swimming, Pellman worked with a coach to learn how to dive and to sing and swim simultaneously. Choreography training was an even more intense process for Pellman, who studied meticulously to perfect each and every move — right down to the back strokes.
“I asked our choreography associate if I could video him [during rehearsal] because I knew that I had to go home and work this on my own to make sure that I was at the level of everyone else,” Pellman says. “Because, you know, you’re surrounded by incredible dancers. And I was like, OK, I have to really nail this if I’m going to be in this company.”
And, of course, she had to ace it for Emma’s girlfriend, Alyssa Greene, who was brought to life by Hamilton’s Ariana DeBose. Pellman says seeing her name on the sign-in sheet before a screen test completely floored her; a chance to work alongside an accomplished actress she’s admired for years. “She is a Broadway icon I’ve looked up to my whole life,” she says. “It just felt like we hit it off and we became best friends. We would talk about our star signs, and I am so glad that we got to have that experience together… We would carpool to set. I would drive us and she would pick the music.”
Melissa Sue Gordon/Netflix
(L-R): Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana Debose in The Prom
With three days left to film, production on The Prom was temporarily halted in March, due to the covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the cast and crew was able to return to set safely in July to finish filming. “There’s never going to be another project like The Prom,” Pellman says, “and I’m just trying to enjoy every minute of it.” At the moment, Pellman is living at her family home in Cincinnati, where she rescued a neighborhood cat, who is now taking up much of her time.
Pellman, who identifies as queer, hopes The Prom helps show young LGBTQ+ people they are not alone in their struggles. In a particularly heartwarming scene, a song written by Emma “for all the people out there who love someone in a way the world just doesn’t understand” called “Unruly Heart” goes viral on the internet, and several kids connect with her to share their stories. “Your chosen family is out there and chosen family makes all of the difference,” Pellman says. “And you can find those people.”