When it comes to casting a role, directors always want to find the person who fits the role the best. But sometimes, casting a role in a way that hasn’t been done before can change that role in a way that opens up conversations that are much needed. Ryan Murphy has been transforming what pop culture looks like for over two decades, and in his latest—a Netflix adaptation of Broadway’s hit musical The Prom (streaming on December 11)—he once again moves the dial forward by casting Broadway star Ariana DeBose as Alyssa Greene. The closeted girlfriend of Emma, a teenage lesbian living in small town Indiana, Alyssa just wants to go to prom with her girlfriend.
DeBose, who identifies as queer and Afro-Latina, is what is best known as a “triple threat.” She can sing, act, and dance, a skillset that she has put to good use since she made her television debut on the sixth season of So You Think You Can Dance. Since then, she has risen from ensemble and understudy roles to earning viral fame as The Bullet in Hamilton and leading A Bronx Tale, which were followed by a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Disco Donna in last year’s Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. With her resume, and her drive to be the best, it’s no wonder that the likes of Murphy and Steven Spielberg (she’s starring as Anita in his West Side Story) came calling when it came to casting their culture-shifting musicals.
Paste sat down with DeBose to talk representation, The Prom, and West Side Story.
Paste: I’ve read about how close you felt to the themes of The Prom, but particularly, how closely you identified with Alyssa. How important was it for you to get a chance to portray her and show young, queer girls of color that joy is meant for them too?
Ariana DeBose: Such a great question. I mean, it’s the entire reason I wanted to be a part of this film. I’m painfully aware that our stories, as young queer women, don’t often get mainstream play like this. And when you hear the name Ryan Murphy, you know that it’s going to be consumed by millions of people. For me, this is a golden opportunity that I can bring my best self, my best work to. Because I’m a firm believer that representation matters. I didn’t have a movie like this when I was growing up. If you can see yourself reflect back to you, and particularly in the story that you get to see [in The Prom] and go through it with this character of Alyssa Green. The journey of coming into your truth and finding the courage to be who you are, and to tell your parents like, “Yes, this is me.” That you can have a happy ending, that is everything.
Paste: Your role in The Prom is a game-changer when it comes to representation. And with next year’s West Side Story, you’re also breaking down a door because, as we know now, Rita Moreno was the only Latina in the original film and it was full of actors in brownface. You and your castmates will be changing that soon. But you’ve been changing what representation looks like on Broadway for many years now. How do you hope you’re changing what opportunities are given to Latinas?
DeBose: There are many things that we need to address and talk about in regards to representation on Broadway, and on our big and small screens. That’s just the reality. I’ll be candid. I did not get an audition for the West Side Story revival on Broadway.
Paste: What?! I don’t believe it!
DeBose: Nope, I didn’t. It is very hard, no matter what the subject matter, whether you’re doing The Prom or West Side Story. But that’s why it makes me happy to say that although I didn’t get the Broadway audition, I did get an audition for Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.
I really credit him for being a part of change, because he went the extra mile to commit to casting real Latinos in these parts. And I really commend Ryan Murphy and Alex Fogel for having the vision to allow Alyssa and Mrs. Green to evolve in this way, so that we can have the conversation, even subtly. Like, yes. I, Ariana, am Afro-Latina. I’m also a Black woman. There are lots of layers to identity, there are lots of layers to how we portray our stories. More specifically to The Prom, how we portray LGBTQ young women. There’s a lot of spectrum grace that we need to observe. But I do believe both of these films are a step in the right direction.
Paste: You’re carrying a lot of representation on your shoulders and it’s been amazing to watch your career. You’re not just opening doors, but opening eyes that Latinos are not a monolith. That we’re a beautifully diverse ethnicity that has more than just white or mestizo Latinos. Yet, Afro-Latinos rarely get considered to portray Latinos on screen.
DeBose: Right?! I think about that a lot. There’s not a day that goes by that I do not think about what both The Prom and West Side Story will mean to our Latinx community. Historically, Afro-Latinos are not shown on mainstream platforms as being Latina. We are assumed—in my real life experience, for example—that I am solely African-American. For such a long time, no one’s ever asked me [how I identify]. And that’s the thing. We need to start paying attention to this because if we continue to allow our images and our culture to just be represented by white-presenting Latinos, then we’re actually not represented. There’s a beautiful spectrum of Latinos out there. There is more than one way to be Latino or Latina or Latinx. I know we have a lot of different words that we like to use to describe ourselves, but let’s just start talking about the spectrum. I believe if we can do that, then that theme of acceptance just becomes something that is normalized for our society. I’m very proud to be a part of the conversation and I sincerely hope that I’m just the beginning.
Paste: I read that you had conversations with Spielberg about your experiences as an Afro-Latina, and how simply by casting you, that changes Anita. Did you have that same type of conversation with Ryan, like, what it would mean with your casting as Alyssa Green?
DeBose: Again, I commend Ryan for allowing this evolution with the Greens because I think, in the context of the film, having the Greens be a Black family, you get so many more layers. There is a real conversation to be had about homophobia in Black and Latinx communities. And I think we are finally in a time when we can talk about systemic racism and systemic oppression of marginalized communities. But we also have to take stock of maybe where we are falling short in our own communities about how we accept each other, too. I loved that just by casting me and Kerry it’s an effort to have those conversations.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Yolanda Machado is a Los Angeles based culture writer and film critic. Her bylines have appeared in Los Angeles Times, ELLE, GQ, Shondaland, and more. She uses her voice to discuss diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, and when she’s not doing that, you can catch her belting showtunes in her car, forever embarrassing her teenage daughter. Follow her on Twitter, caution: expect many Oscar Isaac thirst tweets.