The day before she’d had her final call-back after months of auditioning – she initially heard her self-tape audition was being sent to Ryan while she was in the stockroom of the retail chain shop she was working at – and such is Jo Ellen’s cool, calm and collected attitude, she just went about her everyday life.
“I went into the waiting room for the audition and saw Ariana DeBose’s name on the sign-in sheet,” Jo Ellen tells me, hair slicked back and wearing a fetching jumper, shirt and tie combo, as she speaks to me from her childhood home in Ohio.
On 14th August 2019, Jo Ellen Pellman was in a thrift store in Bushwick, Brooklyn, browsing the coat aisle when she got a call that changed her life. On the line was Jo Ellen’s agent telling her Ryan Murphy – the TV king behind shows including Ratched and American Horror Story – had cast her as the lead role of Emma in his Netflix remake of the Tony Award-nominated musical, The Prom. Cue tears and screams.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am literally going to be doing this chemistry read with a Broadway icon!’” she says.
“It went really well and at the end of it, Ryan gave us a hug, and getting a hug from Ryan Murphy is like winning the lottery. Later that day I went to work one of my jobs, because that’s just what you do, you get that major audition and then you just go to work,” she laughs.
“Never stop looking for your people, because there are so many out there who cannot wait to love you and support you.”
This call was not the result of overnight success for Jo Ellen, it came after years of leg work. She made her television debut as a small part on Comedy Central’s Alternatino after graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in musical theatre, before crossing the pond to London to study Shakespeare at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Her rise on the small screen has been gradual, notching up episodic credits in HBO’s The Deuce and a one-off appearance in season three of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, while also working multiple part-time jobs.
Jo Ellen won’t have to worry about working multiple jobs again after her star-defining performance in The Prom, in which she plays Emma, a high schooler who is banned from attending her prom with her girlfriend, Alyssa (played by fellow GLAMOUR UK coverstar, Ariana DeBose) by the ultra-conservative head of the PTA, Mrs Greene – AKA Kerry Washington, in pure bitch mode. But all is not lost, as four Broadway stars in need of a cause to inject some popularity back into their profiles come to Emma’s small Indiana hometown to lend a helping hand – not to mention a make-over and plenty of sequins. The all-singing, all-dancing troupe are played by none other than Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells. And in every scene with these Hollywood icons, Jo Ellen goes toe to toe with their talents.
Working with a buffet of A-listers and award-winners was just as transformative for Jo Ellen as it was for her on-screen character. “I remember my first day ever rehearsing anything for The Prom was me and Nicole Kidman rehearsing Zazz,” she grins, referencing the big musical number that has more jazz hands than an episode of Strictly Come Dancing. “I walked in and there she was. You can’t ever describe it, because you think, ‘Oh my gosh, here’s someone who I’ve admired for so long, who is so revered! I get to work alongside them and just be one of the team.’ I was blown away by her work ethic, how hard we worked at nailing those dances and she would never rest until she got it. This is why Nicole is Nicole, because she will never settle for less than her best.”
“My first day shooting was actually me and Ariana,” she continues. “We did the breakup scene and the song Alyssa Greene. I’m so glad that I started my journey with her, because we had each other’s backs and we were both going through this experience for the first time. My second day filming was the hotel lobby scene and it was with the whole big cast. I walked in and they were all sitting and talking on couches. Meryl scooted over, patted the seat next to her and said, ‘Come sit down.’ At that moment she physically made room for me. Meryl has this energy that helps you feel that you belong. She knows what we all think of her as she’s Meryl, but she just treats you like a human. I was just like a sponge trying to absorb as much as I could from her – she’s always trying to find something new and fresh,” Jo Ellen says, clearly in awe.
“I am so freaking lucky that I got to grow up in a queer-affirming household, but also a queer household. My mom is openly gay in Cincinnati, Ohio. She knew she wanted to have a kid, she has been a single parent…I think she did such a great job.”
And the musical’s storyline really struck a chord with her too. “My mom and I actually saw The Prom on Broadway in spring 2019, long before I ever even knew there was going to be a movie made of it,” Jo Ellen says in her soft American accent. “It had themes that really hit home to us, because I’m from Ohio, which is right next to Indiana where The Prom is set where I have a lot of family. I’m queer and my mom is gay. It was like this musical was made for people like us. We just laughed and cried the whole way through it. I remember leaving the theatre thinking, this is why I wanted to become an actor! Then it was July of 2019 that I got the audition, I saw Meryl Streep’s name in the email and I immediately screenshot it and send it to my mom!”
The Prom’s messages of self and public acceptance profoundly spoke to Jo Ellen. “When I came out to myself, to my mom and my friends in high school, I was 17, so I was actually the same age that Emma is in the film. Oh my gosh, my cat is here, Cleo, we rescued him during quarantine,” she interrupts, smiling and moving Cleo out of the Zoom screen to continue.
“I’m queer and my mom is gay. It was like this musical was made for people like us. We just laughed and cried the whole way through it.”
“I am so freaking lucky that I got to grow up in a queer-affirming household, but also a queer household. My mom is openly gay in Cincinnati, Ohio. She knew she wanted to have a kid, she has been a single parent and she’s raised me. I think she did such a great job. I have so much respect for her and the fact that I was able to grow up and see, ‘Wait, being gay is not a choice of lifestyle, it’s not something weird, it’s the norm.’ I think everything about where I am today is from my upbringing and how that was just celebrated and normalised, and it’s because of my mom.
“Acceptance has always been there for me,” she adds. “My mom would take me in the early 2000s, when Ohio was proposing these bans on gay marriage, to protest against those proposals. She involved me from the beginning in activism. I am so grateful that that was my upbringing.”
Was Jo Ellen surprised by the lack of representation outside of her home? “That’s a good question,” she replies, taking a moment to compose her thoughts. “I went to a very progressive high school in Cincinnati and then also when I went to university I was just surrounded by progressive, smart people. Some also had the same experience of growing up with gay parents and being raised in a queer household where it was not a big deal. I really do think pretty much everywhere I’ve gone, and I think that’s also a testament to the people in my chosen family who I’ve surrounded myself with, have just been nothing but supportive of me.”
When it comes to labelling her own sexuality, Jo Ellen is clear that she wants to define it for herself. “I feel like I can only speak for my experience with queerness, because I feel like everyone has a different relationship to it,” she reveals. “Some people really welcome labels. Growing up, my mom, she loves labels and she proudly claims gay and claims lesbian as hers. I do think that stems from what she faced growing up and coming out in the ’70s and ’80s.
We’ve had these discussions in our house about how maybe it’s a generational thing, but I feel like for myself I want to embrace the broader context. I enjoy the freedom and the fluidity. I do feel I have the freedom to share this part of me or to keep it closer to my heart if I want.” It’s this level of gravity that has seen Jo Ellen already named in Out Magazine’s Out100 List, the largest annual portfolio recognising members of the LGBTQ+ community for their groundbreaking, culture-shifting work. After all, it may be 2020, but casting an out queer actress in a major movie release is still groundbreaking.
“Meryl scooted over, patted the seat next to her and said, ‘Come sit down.’ At that moment she physically made room for me. Meryl has this energy that helps you feel that you belong.”
For all the confidence her upbringing gave her, Jo Ellen still experienced an overwhelming need for approval as a teenager, she explains. “I really wanted approval in high school, and I wanted to be everything to everyone,” she says before listing a level of extra-curricular activities that makes me wonder whether she ever had time to sleep. “I was senior class president. I was on the prom planning committee. I was taking so many APs applied placement classes because I tried to give so much of myself to all of what I thought success was and what I thought being popular was. I cared so much about being liked and I wish I could just go back to myself and as a friend say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to please these people. If they’re not your friends, if they’re not your chosen family, they don’t matter.’”
Moving to Los Angeles to pursue her dream re-triggered the feelings Jo Ellen had as a teen. “I was so worried about moving to LA because everything that I’d heard in the media and from friends that said, ‘Oh, it’s so image-based there. You have got to make sure you look good.’ I was worried about how I was going to be perceived. But when I got there, no one cared. I can dress however I want. I can look however I want. It was great to let go of that part of my brain that was always getting on myself for not looking like I thought I should.”
When it comes to her own experiences of prejudice, Jo Ellen recognises her privilege. “I feel very fortunate. For one, being white, cis, able-bodied and recognising the privilege that I do have. I do not face a lot of the prejudice that many members of our LGBTQ+ community face. But in America and specifically Indiana, I was just reading about there are laws being proposed that would limit the rights of queer couples adopting and using a sperm donor to have a baby and limiting the rights of parents.”
“My mom would take me in the early 2000s, when Ohio was proposing bans on gay marriage, to protest against those proposals. She involved me from the beginning in activism. I am so grateful that that was my upbringing.”
“We will always have to keep fighting for our rights, because it’s never over,” she continues. “Even though we’ve made so much progress and that is because of our elders and the leaders of movements like Stonewall and through the Aids crisis. But we are still going to face many battles. I think right now, at least what I’m just very cognisant of is a lot of the legal challenges.”
Jo Ellen is highly aware of her new found position as a trail blazer, so much so alongside her co-star Ariana, she has launched, The Unruly Hearts Initiative. The website is a hub for LGBTQ+ youth who need support – or allies inspired to help – giving a list of resources and organisations that help with secure housing solutions, mental health access and mentorship and educational support.
Jo Ellen is clear: positive and genuine allyship – or rather just being a genuinely empathetic person – is the only way we will ever get anywhere near equality. “Before I came out, I identified as an ally and I took great pride in being an ally before I even realised, ‘Wait, no, actually me too, can I join?’
I don’t even think of the term allies anymore. When I think of just my close friends, no matter their identity, they are just my people and it doesn’t really matter how they identify as an ally or as a part of the LGBTQ+ community. They’re just friends, they’re just supportive because that is what being an ally should be, it should be the bare minimum.”
The lasting message of The Prom is equally simple: just be a good human FFS, and you too can be part of a world that is filled with more glitter than Elton John’s wardrobe archive. “The message of The Prom is that for anyone who feels different, there are people who are out there. Your chosen family is out there and you’re not alone. Just never stop looking for your people, because there are so many out there who cannot wait to love you and support you.” From sitting down with Jo Ellen for just under an hour one thing is certain: she is flying the flag for equality for all of us.