Director Ryan Murphy and a supercast that also includes James Corden and Keegan-Michael Key reveal why a musical about narcissistic celebrities is ultimately about withholding judgment: "If only I would have had this feeling of acceptance and belonging."
"Should I just drop Meryl?" Keegan-Michael Key is cradling Meryl Streep in a dip as the 21-time Oscar nominee, wearing a pink-sequin pantsuit and heels, gazes admiringly up at him. The two are dancing underneath the basketball hoops in the Helen Bernstein High School gym in Los Angeles, which is decorated with beaded curtains, white balloons, twinkly lights and vases of flowers.
It’s March 6, 2020, and the let’s-put-on-a-show! energy is palpable on the set of the Ryan Murphy movie The Prom, where Murphy is shooting his dance number finale, an anthem of acceptance featuring some 300 young LGBTQ extras in formal wear. The real high school is still in session around the production, and occasionally the school PA crackles with an announcement, briefly puncturing the glamour of the moment. Inside the gym, Streep, Key, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, Kerry Washington, Andrew Rannells, Tracey Ullman and newcomers Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose are dressed in coordinated shades of turquoise, pink and purple and gathered under bright lights to dance and lip-sync to the track they have already recorded of the film’s capper, "It’s Time to Dance."
Though no one here knows it yet, the world is about to go dark. In just a week’s time, this film will shut down, along with the rest of Hollywood, because of the pandemic, and a scene with hundreds of people cramming into a room, clasping hands and singing, will seem like a period movie from a more carefree era. Today, however, is about delivering a moment of cinematic wish fulfillment, a prom where everyone is welcome and be-sequined, and apart from some minor snafus (one actress keeps forgetting to lip-sync), it’s going swimmingly. After the group delivers several exuberant takes, Streep turns, looks directly into cinematographer Matty Libatique’s camera and says, "Perfect, right?"
Four months later, The Prom would become one of the first Hollywood productions back up and running in the COVID-19 era, and Murphy, wearing an N95 mask, goggles and shield, would shoot for five days, completing the movie in time for its planned premiere Dec. 11 on Netflix. Murphy hopes The Prom’s upbeat message, one of love triumphing over politics, will serve as a balm for beleaguered, post-election 2020 audiences. "Now that’s balm, B, A, L, M," Streep says, clarifying for her director. "Not bomb, B, O, M, B."
The Prom, which Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin adapted from their 2018 Broadway show with Matthew Sklar, follows a group of self-absorbed Broadway actors (Streep, Kidman, Corden and Rannells) who attempt to resuscitate their dwindling careers by engaging in some activism, finding "some little injustice we can drive to," in the words of Streep’s character. Their cause célèbre takes them to a conservative town in Indiana to help a lesbian student (Pellman) who’s been banned from bringing her girlfriend (DeBose) to the high school prom. Washington plays a conservative parent leader, Key the school’s principal.
Murphy’s production is, he estimates, about 25 percent different from the play, which was nominated for six Tony Awards. Murphy’s changes include some new dramatic scenes adding background to Streep’s, Kidman’s and Corden’s characters, and a sympathetic grandma for Pellman’s. Without disclosing the budget, Murphy, who has a five-year, $300 million deal with Netflix, makes it clear he had the money he wanted to produce a musical with razzle-dazzle and multiple Oscar winners. "In my career when I was starting off, if you wanted to do a gay movie or a gay TV show they would basically give you pennies," Murphy says. "You had to beg, borrow and steal to make content that had LGBTQ characters. On The Prom, I never once had a conversation about, 'Mmm, it’s about a gay girl going to the prom. Let’s make it for X.' It was treated like, 'Oh, this is a big movie.' " The Prom will receive a theatrical release before its Netflix premiere, he says, with money from screenings going to multiple charities, including ones benefiting the Broadway community.
On a Saturday in late September, much of the cast of The Prom reconvened over Zoom, this time in bathrobes and sweatpants, to talk politics, their own proms and how they managed to deliver a happy ending during the pandemic.
Ryan, why did a Broadway show about a bunch of liberal, know-it-all actors from New York going to Indiana speak to you?
RYAN MURPHY It kind of summed up my whole existence. Because in a weird way, I was both things. I’m from Indiana. In high school, I was not allowed to bring my date to the prom. So, that was personal to me. I ended up taking my best girlfriend. When I saw it, it was so joyful and it was so optimistic, and it was fun, and yet it had something to say. We made it really quickly. I saw it in January , and we were shooting in December. With every passing month you would feel Rome burning more, and more, and more. I had been personally working on a couple of projects that were very dark and kind of gloomy. This was just pure joy.
Meryl, was there something about this narcissistic diva character that you ... connected with?
MERYL STREEP (Shaking her head.) I don’t know what you mean. ... It just had some of the juju of Mamma Mia!, which my agent, I remember when he said, "Now you’re not going to want to do this. It’s this thing. It’s been on Broadway, but you are not going to want to do it." And I said, "What is it?" And he said, "Mamma Mia!" I said, "I’ll do it." He said, "What?" Because it’s just ... you’ve got to have some fun. This is based on a real thing that happened to kids in Indiana, and has a happy ending, everything we dream of in 2020. I wanted to do it. So, the character is a big asshole. I tried very hard to bring that part of me forward.
One of the themes in this is poking fun at entertainers who think they can change the world. Can entertainers change the world?
KERRY WASHINGTON I think it speaks to Ryan. He’s done it on multiple projects, across multiple ideologies and issues, whether it’s LGBTQ, racism, misogyny. And yet he has chosen to tell this story, where the limitations on Hollywood storytelling become very evident, and Jo Ellen’s character has to take the power back on her own, and create a grassroots movement that bubbles up from the people. It speaks to Ryan’s humility, that given his power, he’s telling this story where he’s deflecting and saying, "I understand that we’re changing the world, but I also really, truly believe that power belongs to the people."
MURPHY I don’t know. I really know what it’s like to be Emma [Pellman’s character]. I know the feeling of being humiliated for your sexual preference. I know the feeling of thinking that you have no allies, and then it turns out you do. Every project that I’m drawn to has two things in it, an underdog and a makeover. I don’t know why. When you’re an artist sometimes you’re repeating a narrative that you, yourself, are trying to figure out. A lot of it, it’s my childhood. The thing that I wanted. How am I going to get out of there? Who do I want to work with? All of this is embedded in this piece for me.
Jo Ellen, you play Emma, Ryan’s underdog in this film, and you will be a new face to most audiences. What was your casting process like?
JO ELLEN PELLMAN I had recently graduated from the University of Michigan, where I was studying musical theater. I was working three jobs. I was going to open calls, taking classes, learning to live in New York City. When I got the audition, I was over the moon. I poured my whole heart into it, broke down all the beats. I also knew the odds. I got the call when I was in a thrift store in Bushwick [Brooklyn]. And here we are.
At the time the Broadway show this is based on was written, we were in a very different moment politically. Marriage equality had just passed, Barack Obama was president. How do you think this story plays now?
STREEP I don’t think we were in a vastly different place. At that time, there was one sort of freedom and hope alive, but it sat on top of a pretty immovable set of circumstances that have been in America for a really long time. We weren’t in a different place, we just weren’t paying attention to what was always there.
How did the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg affect you?
STREEP Well, I was lucky because I had my daughters with me here in Connecticut. The whole family was all together. We just wept. Because it wasn’t just the death of one extraordinary woman, we were feeling the fires come around us. The Bobcat Fire just seems to be surrounding all the advances of the late 20th century, in terms of gay rights, in terms of women, and the election of Barack Obama. All these markers that felt like signs of where we were going. And of course, history doesn’t move that way. It’s two steps forward, seven steps to the right. Maybe we’ll get back on track, I don’t know. I’m hoping, but it does feel particularly dark. My mother always said, "You don’t win an argument with a man by proving him wrong." There must be a way that people can be brought to what feels like the obvious truth of what’s good in the world, what’s humane, what’s compassionate, what’s right. They can be brought to that reality without feeling humiliated that they took a wrong turn. Because I don’t like to be wrong, (wryly) I so rarely am. When I am, it’s very painful to come back from that place.
MURPHY We were very conscious of that when we made the movie, at least. If you look at the Broadway show, there was a lot more made of the liberals making fun of the conservative values and things like that. We tried to build a prom for everyone. And that includes my relatives who are in Indiana who do not like to be lectured to, or made to feel like their choices are stupid. When we were working on the script and the film, we were very conscious of the political climate that we’re in. But you do, as Meryl said, want people to get the message without feeling alienated. And I must say, it was hard for me to bite my tongue many times, but we did it.
Kerry, you’re playing a conservative PTA president in this film who would rather cancel the prom than allow a gay kid to attend. You’re cast against type here, and could have played it unsympathetic, but you chose a subtler tack. Why?
WASHINGTON It was sideways from our assumptions about who is Midwestern, who is the heartland of this country and, yes, who is conservative. And yet also, look at the decisions that came down this week on Breonna Taylor, and you have this Black man [Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron] delivering this news about how there is no value to a Black woman’s life. I know from being on the campaign trail in '08, and '12, and now, how many Black folks are seduced into voting conservative, because of their feelings about gay marriage. They’ll vote against their own best interests on all these other areas, because of these ideas. I also thought it was so exciting to, on the one hand, ask audiences to expand their idea of who they think conservatives are, but on the other hand also hold up a mirror to folks of color in this country to say, "How are you treating your own children? Do you have the courage to truly love your children unconditionally?" Because it’s a huge issue in communities of color. We didn’t want her to be a villain. We wanted her to be nice and to dress well and to be inviting in lots of ways, but to have this belief that was wrong about her own child. I think, where it comes from with Black parents who worry about this, it’s like what my mother said to me when I told her I wanted to be an actress. She was like, "Your life is already going to be so hard as a Black woman, do you really want to be a starving artist? Do you want to layer that on top of your struggles?" I think that’s how a lot of parents of color of LGBTQ kids feel, like, "Honestly, you’re Black and a woman and now you want to love other women too, like really?"
MURPHY One of the most moving images is when Kerry comes to the prom, and she tells her daughter, "I love you more than my conservativeness," basically. Hopefully many kids are going to see that with their parents and it will launch a discussion or give somebody hope. I love that moment so much, and the reason that moment works is because Kerry plays that character with such conviction and realness. She’s not a villain.
Let’s talk about working during this pandemic. Many of you are starting to get back on sets. James, what’s it like shooting your talk show right now?
JAMES CORDEN It’s difficult. Our show is all about scale, and size, and getting out, and running out into the road, and doing a musical while the lights are red, or driving around in a car, and singing with someone. In that respect, it’s been very difficult. But there’s also been a freedom to it. You have to go, well, what can we do? And what we can do is sit here and talk about the president of the United States, and then talk about some other really funny things. And try as best as we can to make something that might be a tiny slice of joy in the corner of someone’s room.
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY I’m locked in an apartment in Vancouver for two weeks [on an Apple TV+ musical comedy project]. Can’t leave. A person just drops everything at your door. They have to leave the building, then you can open the door, and grab the things with a mask on, and bring them back into your apartment.
NICOLE KIDMAN We’ve got 10 leads [on the Hulu series Nine Perfect Strangers, shooting in Australia]. It’s an ensemble, so 10 actors that are all working together, that are adjusting to being tested every day. There’s really strict protocol. But you always know that at some point it could shut down, which is stressful. As an actor, it’s just amazing to be able to work. But as a producer, there’s an enormous amount of stress, feeling responsible for over 300 people’s safety and health.
MURPHY It’s a huge stress. I have eight shows that are going back to shooting in October and November. I have found it to be a very difficult experience, but a very moving experience. People want to go back to work, they need to work for their families. For The Prom, we were one of the first groups in town who put together a COVID task force. We worked with Netflix, and various doctors, and we came up with a way that is an industry standard. At some point, I was wearing a hazmat suit. I did feel like I was in Silkwood a couple of times. It does test you. So we do shorter days, we make sure that there are lots of breaks for the crew, so they can take off the mask. You just find a way to do it. It’s important to move forward.
How many days did you have left to shoot on The Prom when you were shut down?
MURPHY Three. The last scene that we shot [before the shutdown] was Nicole [who plays one of the visiting actors] on the bed with Jo Ellen. And in the middle of shooting that scene, there was a strange silence on the set, and then everybody was running to their phones. I was like, "What’s happening?" And somebody said, "Tom Hanks just announced that he has COVID. We were like, "OK, that’s bad." We were supposed to shoot Thursday, Friday and be done. They shut us down that day. We finished Nicole’s number and that was it.
Who here went to their prom?
WASHINGTON I had a very, very serious boyfriend. I designed my dress and had it made by a woman who lived in my grandmother’s building. It was like an event, I was warming up for the Oscars at my prom.
STREEP Which prom?
How many proms did you go to?
STREEP Four. I went to the senior prom when I was a freshman. It didn’t last beyond that evening, the relationship. But I was very excited. My mother made all my prom dresses, and I thought I looked great. That’s what it’s all about, how you look, or looked at least at the beginning of the evening.
MURPHY Were you prom queen?
STREEP I was not prom queen, no. I don’t think they had that. It was the late '60s and it was getting like, everybody was a little too cool to be at prom.
KIDMAN In Australia we call it a formal. I took an older man. He didn’t go to the school. I’ve always been a rebel.
MURPHY I’ve always felt that the prom was a way for you to model romance. You were dressing up, you were learning mating rituals. For gay kids, you’re not allowed to go, most of the time in the country. Or else you hide who you are, and go with the opposite sex. Even though I went three times, I always felt like a stranger in a strange land. I somehow felt like I didn’t belong there, that I was going to be found out or something. The reason I loved the movie so much was there was a way for LGBTQ kids to see a pathway toward like, "Oh, I can be normal too. I can have a romantic experience just like everybody else." I love that kids will be able to see this all around the world, who are excluded from that experience. Not just at the prom, but in life. One of the fun things about being on Netflix is you’re available in 200 countries. Right now, I have a television show that’s about two gay women [Ratched], that is number one in the Ukraine and in Russia. And I just think about all these people who are part of that community. It’s very moving.
PELLMAN I think this movie shows LGBTQ kids across the world that they are worthy of a big, joyous happy ending. There are people out there, who you might not even know yet, who can’t wait to love you and support you. That’s how Emma was able to find her voice, and I think that’s how kids are going to be able to find their voices.
Was this movie the prom you never had, Ryan?
MURPHY It kind of was. I found it very healing to be able to put those images to film. I didn’t have that. If only I would have had this feeling of acceptance and belonging, how different my life would have been. I felt that when we were shooting it. I went to my junior prom and the next day my parents took me to a psychiatrist to cure me. Thankfully, I had a really good shrink, who at the end of our several sessions called my parents in and said, "You have a choice here: You can try and change him and lose him, or you can accept him and love him." I was very blessed. When I went to my senior prom, I had been through that but I still took a girlfriend because I wasn’t allowed to come in with my fellow. The prom is very emotional for me, as you can tell.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.