During her second day on a movie set, Jo Ellen Pellman ran into an angry Meryl Streep.
“You owe me a house!” Streep, a three-time Oscar winner, growled with twinkling eyes as she removed her blazer and pounced on 24-year-old Ingénue.
Pellman’s eyes widened. “I am sorry!” she said and raised her hand apologetically.
Pellman played Emma Nolan, a schoolgirl in a narrow-minded Indiana town who wants to take her friend to prom in the Netflix adaptation of the musical “The Prom”. Like Emma, Pellman is a Midwestern who identifies as queer. But unlike her character, the young actress grew up in a supportive environment that influenced her view of the movie’s potential.
“For young people who identify as LGBTQ, I hope it can be a two-hour break from everything that’s happening in the world,” she said. “Like, ‘It’ll be fine, my people are out there.'”
Even so, this is her first film role, it happens to be the lead role, and her co-stars – including Streep, James Corden, and Nicole Kidman as Narcissistic Broadway actors who parachute in to help their character – are names among those she looked up for a long time.
Pellman projected full confidence in the stars’ presence, said Ryan Murphy, the film’s director. “She wasn’t afraid,” although her experience until then consisted of roles like Girl # 2 in an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”.
Meanwhile, Murphy, whose credits include American Horror Story and Pose, said, “I was so nervous when I first directed Meryl Streep – I think I did four takes. I was trembling. “
Pellman said she was barely immune to Streep’s stellar power. “I love how it came across,” she said, grinning from home in Cincinnati, where she has lived with her mother since March, during a Zoom interview last month. “Inside I was like ‘OMG, this is Meryl Streep!'”
It took Murphy a single meeting to decide Pellman was his Emma.
“I saw your tape and I knew it,” he said. “She had this mixture of soul and sperm and mind – and that amazing smile.”
Pellman, a graduate of the University of Michigan, was working three jobs opening calls in New York City upon hearing of the nationwide search for the role. “It felt like a long shot,” she said. But Pellman, a strange woman herself, felt Emma’s optimism and determination when she saw the play on Broadway starring Caitlin Kinnunen.
She didn’t know until shortly before meeting Murphy that Ariana DeBose, who plays Emma’s friend Alyssa Green, would be the only other actress there. “I saw Ariana’s name on the call sheet and I freaked out because she’s someone I’ve looked up to throughout my career,” she said.
But Murphy said when Pellman was nervous, she wouldn’t let up. “As soon as Jo Ellen started talking about her life, she didn’t even have to read,” he said. “She spoke very movingly about being a strange woman and having a gay single mother to raise her. I remember she left and I just thought, ‘Thank god this is over – we found our girl.’ “
Pellman was less sure. But she got a hint about her interview. “He hugged us at the end of foreplay,” she said. “When does that ever happen? A hug from Ryan Murphy? That’s huge! “
When Murphy called the next day to tell Pellman that she had gotten her dream role, she was reading the coats at a thrift store in Bushwick. The first person she called was her mother. Or rather tried.
Monica Pellman didn’t answer.
It was a rare absence for the woman Pellman blames for raising her in a supportive, LGBTQ-approved household – an experience she is grateful for deviating from Emma’s. “When I graduated from high school, it wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “I just blew out while watching TV one night.” Mom i think i’m weird “And she said,” That’s perfectly fine. “She just wanted me to be happy.”
Pellman’s mother, who calls her “pretty much the coolest person ever,” declined to be interviewed for this article. But she was invisible during our conversation in November and laughed at her daughter’s admission that she was fluent in Ubbi Dubbi, the gibberish language popularized by the PBS program Zoom, and handed Pellman handkerchiefs as she talked about an emotional moment The film in which Emma explains that she has never felt so alone in her life.
Unlike Emma, Pellman wasn’t an outcast who grew up in Cincinnati, a far cry from Edgewater, Indiana, the fictional setting for the film. She describes her high school as “fairly progressive”. Most of her close friends were gay, she said, adding, “I’m lucky because I’ve never been bullied.”
It was this confirmation from which she drew Emma in her portrayal as a powerful – albeit reluctant – leader who makes her own as the film progresses. “It’s the best feeling in the world to know that I can bring my real self into the role,” Pellman said. “And not just accepted, but celebrated.”
“When she called to tell me she got the role, there was a certain rightness in the world,” said Brent Wagner, who recently retired as chairman of the musical theater department at the University of Michigan. “Because if she hadn’t got it, she’d be out there fighting for the Emma’s of the world.”
She and DeBose, a queer woman who Pellman calls “the one person who always knows exactly what I’m going through,” founded the Unruly Hearts Initiative to connect young LGBTQ people with organizations that help provide housing, mental health services and mentoring help.
This isn’t the only time she has shared her talents. In 2017 she traveled to India and led theater workshops in Mumbai with imprisoned women and victims of human trafficking.
Pellman proudly points out that this is not her first appearance in the New York Times. She was featured in a 2019 article about a battle to get a refund of the $ 1,200 she and her roommate paid in dubious apartment registration fees.
“And I won!” She said.
Despite the praise she recently received – Kidman referred to her “1940s movie star face” in an email – Pellman has Selina Meyer’s mouth. “During the scene in which all these evasive balls were thrown at me by crew members, I was hit very hard in the face,” she said, reflexively yelling a nickname back. “It was very funny. Everyone laughed.”
DeBose, 29, said Pellman was the person on set who brought people together – and she speaks regularly on FaceTime. “She’s Emma 2.0,” she said. “She’s great at fellowship, and she’s the person who got the troops together.”
For her part, Pellman said she hopes the film speaks directly to young people who identify as LGBTQ. “I hope they say, ‘I’m worthy of a happy ending,” she said.