The Morning Call (Sunday)

Actor brings authentic self to debut role

Star hopes ‘The Prom’ speaks directly to young people who identify as LGBTQ

- By Sarah Bahr

“I love that that’s the way it But Murphy said that if Pellcame across,” she said. “Inside, man was nervous, she didn’t let I was like ‘OMG, that’s Meryl on.

Streep!’ ” “As soon as Jo Ellen talked tify as LGBTQ, I hope it can be It took Murphy all of one about her life, she didn’t even a two-hour break from all that’s meeting to decide Pellman was have to read,” he said. “She happening in the world,” she his Emma. spoke very movingly about During her second day ever said. “Like, ‘It’s going to be OK. “I watched her tape, and I being a queer woman and on a film set, Jo Ellen Pellman My people are out there.’ ” knew,” he said. “She had that having a gay single mom who came face to face with an irate Still, this is her first film mixture of soul and spunk raised her. I remember she Meryl Streep. role, it happens to be the lead, and spirit — and that amazing walked out and I was just like,

“You owe me a house!” and her co-stars — includsmil­e.” ‘Thank God that’s over. We’ve Streep, a three-time Oscar ing Streep, James Corden and Pellman, a recent graduate found our girl.’ ” winner snarled, eyes flashing, Nicole Kidman as narcissist­ic of the University of Michigan, Pellman was less sure. But she as she ripped off her blazer Broadway actors who parawas working three jobs while did get one hint at her interview. and lunged at the 24-year-old chute in to help her characgoin­g to open calls in New York “He hugged us at the end of ingénue. ter — are names she has long City when she heard about the the audition,” she said. “When

Pellman’s eyes widened. “I’m looked up to. nationwide search to cast the does that ever happen? A Ryan so sorry!” she said, holding up a Pellman projected complete role. Murphy hug? That’s huge!” hand in apology. confidence in the presence of “It felt like a long shot,” she When Murphy called the “And … cut!” the stars, Ryan Murphy, the said. But Pellman, as a queer next day to tell Pellman she’d Pellman was playing Emma film’s director, said. woman herself, connected with landed her dream role, she was Nolan, a high school student “She had no fear,” even Emma’s optimism and deterperus­ing the coats at a thrift in a close-minded Indiana though her experience until mination when she saw the shop. town who wants to take her then had consisted of roles like play on Broadway with Caitlin The first person she called girlfriend to the prom in the Girl No. 2 in an episode of “The Kinnunen in the part. was her mother. Or, rather, tried Netflix adaptation of the musiMarvel­ous Mrs. Maisel.” She didn’t know until shortly to. Monica Pellman didn’t pick cal“TheProm.”LikeEmma, up.Murphy,ontheother­hand,beforeherm­eetingwith

Pellman is a Midwestern­er whose credits include “AmeriMurph­y that Ariana DeBose, It was a rare absence for the who identifies as queer. But can Horror Story” and “Pose,” who plays Emma’s girlfriend, woman Pellman credits with unlike her character, the young said, “I was so nervous the first Alyssa Green, would be the raising her in a supportive, actor grew up in a supportive time I directed Meryl Streep — only other actor there. “I saw LGBTQ-affirming household — environmen­t that has affected I think I did four takes. I was Ariana’s name on the call sheet, an experience that she’s grateful how she views the film’s potentremb­ling.” and I freaked out because she’s diverges from Emma’s. tial. Pellman said she was hardly someone I’ve looked up to my

“For young people who iden- immune to Streep’s star power. whole career,” she said.

“When I came out my senior year of high school, it was no big deal,” she said. “I just blurted out one night while watching TV, ‘Mom, I think

I’m queer.’ And she was like, ‘That’s completely fine.’ She just wanted me to be happy.”

Pellman’s mother, whom she calls “pretty much the coolest person ever,” declined to be interviewe­d.

Unlike Emma, Pellman was not an outcast growing up in Cincinnati, which is a far cry from Edgewater, Indiana, the film’s fictional setting.

She characteri­zes her high school as “pretty progressiv­e.” Most of her close friends were gay, she said, adding, “I’m lucky because I was never bullied.”

It was that affirmatio­n that she drew from in her portrayal of Emma as a forceful — if reluctant — leader who comes into her own over the course of the film.

“It’s the best feeling in the world, knowing I can bring my authentic self to the role,” Pellman said. “And not just be accepted, but celebrated.”

“When she called to tell me she got the role, there was a certain rightness in the world,” Brent Wagner, who recently retired as chair of the University of Michigan’s musical theater department, said. “Because if she hadn’t gotten it, she’d be out there fighting for the Emmas of the world.”

She and DeBose, 29, a fellow queer woman whom Pellman calls “the one person who always knows exactly what I’m going through,” co-founded the Unruly Hearts Initiative to connect young LGBTQ people with organizati­ons that help provide housing, mental health services and mentorship.

That isn’t the only time she has shared her talents. In 2017, she traveled to India, conducting theater workshops in Mumbai with incarcerat­ed women and victims of human traffickin­g.

Despite the praise heaped on her recently — Kidman, in an email, referred to her “1940s movie star face”— Pellman has Selina Meyer’s mouth. “During the scene when I have all these dodgeballs thrown at me by members of the crew, I got hit in the face really hard,” she said, and reflexivel­y screamed an epithet back. “It was very funny.

Everyone laughed.”

DeBose said Pellman was the person on set who brought people together — and that they talk on FaceTime regularly. “She’s Emma 2.0,” she said. “She’s great at cultivatin­g community and is the person who rallied the troops.”

Pellman said she hopes the film speaks directly to young people who identify as LGBTQ. “I hope they’re like, ‘I’m worthy of a happy ending,’ ” she said.

 ?? DA’SHAUNAE MARISA/THE NEWYORKTIM­ES ?? Jo Ellen Pellman, pictured Nov. 24 in Ohio, stars in the film adaptation of “The Prom.”
DA’SHAUNAE MARISA/THE NEWYORKTIM­ES Jo Ellen Pellman, pictured Nov. 24 in Ohio, stars in the film adaptation of “The Prom.”

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