Ariana DeBose on Bringing Authenticity to 'The Prom' and 'West Side Story' (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Ariana DeBose is a name you need to know -- starting now. As one of the stars of both The Prom and West Side Story, the 29-year-old queer actress of Puerto Rican descent is bringing authenticity to a new era of inclusive movie musicals centering marginalized voices.
“I have always wanted to make art that I thought was a conversation starter,” DeBose tells ET. “And so, to be a part of two films that allows for that conversation to happen, to go further into pre-existing conversations, it’s really exciting.”
In The Prom, which has been adapted from Broadway for Netflix by director Ryan Murphy, DeBose plays Alyssa, a popular high school student secretly dating her classmate, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), who gets banned from the prom after she makes it clear that she plans to attend with a girl.
After realizing they need to rehab their image, down-and-out Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) team up with struggling theater actors Angie (Nicole Kidman) and Trent (Andrew Rannells) to defend Emma against her homophobic, small town in Indiana and the PTA run by Alyssa’s mom (Kerry Washington).
While the cast is full of A-listers, who will undoubtedly attract audiences of all kinds, at the center of this story is two, queer women played by openly queer actresses. “That is pretty priceless because, to me, it’s a mile marker of just how far we have come,” DeBose says. And while “we still have so far to go, I think this is a real symbol of progress.”
She adds, “There were many people like myself who never really imagined that women who identify as queer or lesbian would ever be romantic leads. And yet here we are. So that's really thrilling and exciting.”
Growing up in the small town of New Bern, North Carolina, DeBose knew from an early age she wanted to be a performer, first as a dancer and then later, a singer and actor. It was there she starred in local and school productions of Fame and Aida before eventually auditioning for and becoming a finalist on So You Think You Can Dance.
Looking back on her high school experience, DeBose recalls going to her own prom with a friend named Jonathan, who was “very aware I was questioning at the time,” she says, before revealing that he encouraged her to go ask a girl she had a crush on to dance with her. “Somewhere in that moment, I realized people were staring at us and not in a positive way. It made me incredibly nervous and I remember feeling my face blush.”
She adds, “I didn’t know what to do,” which just exemplifies how important a film like The Prom can be to LGBTQ youth, who may be seeing themselves onscreen for the first time or going through a similar experience.
And for DeBose, starring in the film version is a full-circle moment for her. But this time, “which is a reality I believe we are moving towards, is two girls can dance with each other and it’d be celebrated. Or two boys, or two non-binary identifying individuals. It doesn’t matter,” she says. “You should be able to dance with who you want to dance with at your prom and be celebrated for it.”
After So You Think You Can Dance led her to New York, DeBose made her Broadway debut in Bring It On in 2011. She then went on to become an original member of the Hamilton ensemble in 2015 (she also appears in the Disney+ filmed version of the production) before landing her first Tony nomination in 2018, for her performance in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which was co-written by Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom star Colman Domingo.
“I knew that Ariana DeBose was a star the first time I saw her in Hamilton,” Domingo says, adding that she’s a triple threat. And because of that, “it’s hard to pigeonhole them because they do everything in an extraordinary way.”
He adds, “I’m glad that other people are creating spaces for her because she’s the real deal.”
Looking back on working with Domingo, the actress says, “he championed me in Donna in a way that I didn’t expect to be championed. He has continued that support over the last couple of years when it really, really counted in my journey.”
And that journey includes taking over Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning role as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, a variation on Romeo & Juliet about two lovers from rival gangs in New York City. Originally slated for a Christmas 2020 release, it would have marked back-to-back star-studded movie musicals for DeBose. But despite its delayed release until next year, which will coincide with the 60th anniversary of the original film’s debut, it’ll be another opportunity for her to shine.
Featuring a large Hispanic and Latinx cast, the remake promises to be a showcase of Puerto Rican pride and a celebration of those communities that have long thrived in New York City. Filmed all across Manhattan during the summer of 2019, DeBose says it “was extraordinary” to feel like they were dropped into the 1950s as she and her co-stars performed numbers like “America” on the streets of Harlem.
“The film is a love letter to New York City, celebrating its diversity, celebrating the beauty of the streets, celebrating the possibility that people felt when they came to the city. That's the thing I really love about it,” she says. “That energy was palpable on set.”
While she looks forward to talking more about the film and its celebration of the Puerto Rican community, DeBose will soon be preparing for her next, star-studded project, an untitled musical comedy series on Apple TV+. Produced by and starring Cecily Strong, the ensemble will feature DeBose as a modern woman and small-town teacher named Emma alongside the likes of Prom co-star Keegan-Michael Key, Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen, Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit and Dove Cameron.
DeBose says it honors the golden age of musicals while tackling relevant themes of today. “It’s not often that a woman of color gets to sing material from the golden age or material that was inspired by the time period,” the actress continues, explaining that “it was very enticing to me to have the opportunity to live out my Barbara Cook dreams.”