‘The Prom’ Star Jo Ellen Pellman Has the Sweetest Story About Meryl Streep

Playing Emma Nolan has been a starry-eyed dream for Pellman. “We’re both from the Midwest, and we both love a good blazer,” she jokes. “I even wore blazers in elementary school—I loved them so much.” 

But Pellman also connected to her character in other, more impactful ways. “I think we’re both figuring out how we want to use our voice and our platform,” she says. “Emma’s is through song and sharing her story on the internet. I’m still figuring out how I want to use mine.”

Glamour: What was your relationship to The Prom before the film?

Jo Ellen Pellman: My mom and I actually saw The Prom on Broadway in the spring of 2019, long before I even knew there was going to be a film—and definitely before I knew about my own audition. We had heard such good things about the show, and a lot of the themes resonated with us—I’m queer, my mom is gay, and we’re from Ohio. The show just hit so close to home. I remember walking out of the theater and thinking, Okay, this is why I chose to become an actor. Sometimes you strike gold and get to work on a piece that’s so artistically sound and brilliant and also has this wonderful message.

What was your audition like?

I got the audition in July of 2019, and I remember Meryl Streep’s name was in the email. I forwarded it to my mom and was like, “Can you believe it? This is the show we saw, and I’m going to audition for it!” You do everything you can for a dream audition—you practice everything a bunch of different ways and break down all of the beats. During the audition I chose to sing “Changing My Major” from [the Broadway show] Fun Home, because I love the show and felt like it was in the same world as The Prom. The audition went really well, but I also knew it was a long shot.

A month later I was in the back stockroom at my retail job and got the call that my tape was being sent to Ryan Murphy and I might have a callback. I was so excited and told the store manager, “I’ll be back on the floor in one second!”

When I got the callback, I learned I was the only person they were seeing for the role of Emma. I was shocked. The next morning I walked into the waiting room for the callback audition and saw [Tony-nominated actor] Ariana DeBose’s name on the sign-in sheet. She was going to be reading for [love interest] Alyssa, and my jaw hit the floor. She’s a Broadway icon and someone who I’ve looked up to for my whole career, and all of a sudden we were making small talk in the waiting room. We went in and did the callback for Ryan and our casting director, and at the end, Ryan gave us a hug. You know you’ve won the lottery if you get a Ryan Murphy hug.

I felt really good about the audition, but I also knew it was out of my hands and I had to keep moving on. After the callback I had another shift at my retail job, because life goes on. I found out the next day while I was at a thrift store in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. My life has changed ever since.

How was your first day on set?

The first scene I shot was the breakup scene before Ariana sings “Alyssa Greene.” I’m glad I got to begin my journey with Ariana. We were so supportive of each other. One of my most treasured moments of filming was the drive to set—Ariana and I would carpool together every day, since we were both new to L.A. and lived near each other. She would pick the music, and we would jam out and talk about our days. Those moments really created that Alyssa and Emma bond.

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