After dance class one day when Ariana DeBose was 13 years old, she bravely told her mom she was queer.
“I was lucky that my mother was so supportive when I decided to have that conversation with her,” DeBose recalled of that important moment in her life. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s great. Okay.’”
DeBose revealed in a personal essay for PopSugar, that she was worried her confession would ruin her as an award-winning competitive dancer, as a good student in every art club at school, and as her mother’s “golden child.”
“I think being able to have that conversation with my mother in that way was very helpful to me,” she said looking back at their pivotal discussion.
DeBose’s personal experience discussing her sexuality with her mom had a different trajectory than her character in The Prom — one that DeBose feels a “tremendous responsibility towards representing.” She plays Alyssa Greene, a teenager who at first is afraid to come out to her friends and mom that she’s gay.
“It’s not often that young, queer girls of color get to have their stories told in mainstream. I’m proud that [director] Ryan [Murphy] championed me and gave me this opportunity,” DeBose said.
DeBose’s mom was the first person she called when she learned she was cast in The Prom, which begins streaming on Netflix on December 11. The story is based on the Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical about Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), who the PTA says is not allowed at the school-sanctioned prom because she wants to go with her girlfriend Alyssa (DeBose). DeBose said she “didn’t really prepare for” the emotional scene where Alyssa tells her mother, PTA President (Kerry Washington) her truth before the cameras started rolling.
“I think I just went with it. That lived experience is very specific and you don’t have to work that hard to conjure it up. Every person who identifies as LGBTQ has that experience and it’s very visceral. It is the most grave, vulnerable act that you can express. It’s incredibly risky to be seen in your full truth. I don’t know that anything really prepares you for it. It just happens.”
After going back to playing a queer teenager navigating the societal pressures of high school, DeBose wished she could tell her teenage self that “it gets better. Your chosen family will find you because of the circumstances, the jobs, the friends, the family members that are meant for you — they find you.”
Because for 29-year-old DeBose; it certainly has gotten better more than a decade later.
The Prom was the third film DeBose shot after Hamilton on Disney+ and West Side Story — which will premiere on Dec. 10, 2021. For most people, 2020 has not been their year. But for DeBose, who just earned prestigious recognition in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 annual list, this year has been good to her.
She is currently filming a Brigadoon parody series for Apple TV after spending much of her time during the pandemic out of New York City and back at home in North Carolina with her Nana. She was raised by her single mom who put her in dance classes at age 3.
As a triple threat, DeBose ranks dancing as her forte. While she doesn’t get to dance much in The Prom, West Side Story will make up for it. Ironically, both movies feature dances in gyms.
“It’s very comforting to know that some people I look up to the most in the world who have made the transition onto the big screen have theatrical backgrounds, and specifically dance backgrounds.” One example she gave is Bebe Neuwirth, who she said her entire career is largely inspired by.
Right after DeBose saw Aida on Broadway as a teenager, she recalled walking out near a massive Times Square Billboard of Bebe Neuwirth starring in Chicago. “That was the first moment I realized, that’s Lilith from Frasier. She does Broadway and she dances. Oh, this is tangible. I can do this. That was the moment it clicked in for me.”
One of DeBose’s first breaks came a few years later at 18. In 2009, she leaped into primetime television competing on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance during her senior year of high school but was eliminated after making the top 20 during season six. In 2010, she enrolled in college at Western Carolina University but quickly hated it and felt depressed, she told Fit For Broadway, after being voted off in front of six million people. That’s when DeBose moved to New York City and with the help of her mentor, Broadway dancer Charlotte d’Amboise (who’s been in Chicago for the last 20 years much like Nicole Kidman’s character Angie in The Prom), was able to settle in seamlessly despite sleeping on her couch.
She credits her early New York City success to d’Amboise. Two years later, DeBose made her Broadway debut in Bring It On. That’s where she met one of the musical’s composers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and choreographer Andy Blankenbueler before they all did Hamilton together. DeBose went on to appear in Motown The Musical and then took over as The Leading Player in Pippin (with D’Amboise).
DeBose played “The Bullet” in Hamilton; a role, that to audiences watching from home, has taken on symbolism. “The thing about ‘The Bullet’ that is moving to me, is that in the opening number, she’s not carrying the bullet…she’s carrying the responsibility of the story,” explained Blankenbuehler earlier this year. After Hamilton, DeBose made her leading role debut as Jane in A Bronx Tale and then earned a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal as Disco Donna in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.
Years of hard work on Broadway paid off big time. Now, Steven Spielberg was calling.
When Ariana DeBose was offered the starring role of Anita in his West Side Story adaptation, her feature film debut, she admitted she wasn’t sure about taking the job. She actually tried backing out of it a few times.
“I just wasn’t sure if it was the right thing at the right time,” she told me on the opening night of the off-Broadway production of Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof in 2018. “It came out of nowhere. I wasn’t looking for it. I wasn’t expecting it.”
In the middle of filming the movie over the summer of that year, she had the opportunity to audition for The Prom.
Speaking to me about it again this year, DeBose says she felt more assured to take on the challenge of Alyssa Greene in The Prom, after tackling one of Hollywood’s greatest Latinx roles that earned Rita Moreno an Academy Award in 1961.
“I think walking into The Prom, having had my experience with West Side Story, just enhanced my confidence. I didn’t feel as new as I had before making that transition to film,” she said. “I’m a very instinctual person. My instincts kicked in on West Side and I was like, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure.’ I think I was scared of the possibility of success because to achieve that goal of getting that dream job when you’re finally staring it in the face — can be very scary.”
As for The Prom, she said “It’s challenging, but it’s one that I’m having such a good time with. The more that I get to experience on camera and the more that I get the opportunity to work with amazing people like Ryan Murphy and the cast of The Prom, the better I get at the execution of it.”
Now that DeBose’s celebrity is on the rise, with her name on the big screen, often in print and on billboards like Neuwirth; she says in order to find the balance she had to reinvest in her personal life. “It’s really important to make sure that you are full and that the relationships you have in your life you dedicate time to. I couldn’t do what I do without my support system and otherwise, I literally would not be talking to you.”
She also uses her growing social media platforms to address social justice causes from Black Lives Matter to LGBTQ awareness. Along with her co-star Jo Ellen Pellman, she is launching “The Unruly Heart Initiative,” according to an announcement by Ryan Murphy on Instagram. It will create an umbrella for LGBTQ advocacy and assistance.
“I love Jo and Ariana’s dedication to the idea that The Prom can be something more than a movie…it can be a movement and a path forward for so many kids around the world who need to be supported, loved and seen,” Murphy wrote in the Instagram caption.
It is DeBose’s trajectory into stardom and past life experiences that is helping open avenues for others who need it.
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