Kerry Washington on playing a conservative mom in ‘The Prom’ : ‘It was a real challenge’

theGrio spoke to Kerry Washington and Ariana DeBose about their roles in the Netflix musical from Ryan Murphy

Ryan Murphy is ready to unveil his latest Netflix project The Prom and the musical that stars Hollywood heavyweights like Meryll Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, and Kerry Washington is certainly one to watch. 

The Prom is based on the Tony-nominated musical from Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Matthew Sklar. The film follows Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden) two New York City stage stars with a crisis on their hands. Their expensive new Broadway show is a major flop that has suddenly flatlined their careers.

Meanwhile, in small-town Indiana, high school student Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) is experiencing a very different kind of heartbreak: despite the support of the high school principal (Keegan-Michael Key), the head of the PTA (Washington) has banned her from attending the prom with her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). 

Kerry Washington
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 09: Kerry Washington attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 09, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

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When Dee Dee and Barry decide that Emma’s predicament is the perfect cause to help resurrect their public images, they hit the road with Angie (Nicole Kidman) and Trent (Andrew Rannells), another pair of cynical actors looking for a professional lift. But when their self-absorbed celebrity activism unexpectedly backfires, the foursome find their own lives upended as they rally to give Emma a night where she can truly celebrate who she is.

theGrio caught up with Kerry Washington and Ariana DeBose to find out how they managed to bring all the magic from the stage play to the screen. 

So You Think You Can Dance alum and seasoned Broadway star DeBose plays Alyssa, a teen girl who is secretly in love with a girl but refuses to share her truth with the world. Her overbearing, conservative PTA President of a mother is played by Washington and despite the tense relationship on screen, the two truly bonded on set.

Family Equality Council's Night At The Pier At Pier Sixty
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 07: Ariana DeBose attends Family Equality Council’s “Night At The Pier” at Pier 60 on May 7, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Family Equality Council)

“It’s hard to choose one thing because it the whole process was so joyful. The people, you know, Ryan [Murphy], like the top, you know, he’s the top guy and the energy, the attention to detail, the inclusive spirit that he made this project in is palpable and the joy is there,” DeBose said. “The love is there. It was such a warm environment. I was just grateful to get to be in it.”

We’re used to seeing Washington tear up the screen in dramatic roles and fans got a taste of her singing talent on The Disney Holiday Singalong this week. In The Prom we get to hear her singing voice like never before and according to Kerry, the singing wasn’t much of a stretch. 

“It’s so funny because people who’ve known me the longest know that it’s not really a departure.  I spent a lot of time, all through high school and college doing a ton of musical theater. But I haven’t done it that much in my professional life,” Washington explained. “So it was really fun. It was like, you know, it was like rendezvousing with an old love and like, you know, getting it back on. Is that OK to say? That’s how felt.”

Despite her history in musical theater, Washington admits she leaned on her costars when necessary. 

“It was so exciting and Ariana was amazing because she really is a vet in this area,” Washington said.

“She was so supportive. I’ve never seen her on-camera before and all the lip-synching of it all and the hitting, the movement — she was there to be so supportive and encouraging. And here I am playing the mother. But she was really so supportive. So I was really grateful that we had so much work to do together.”

The Prom
(Credit: Netflix)

Read More: Kerry Washington says Black people are ‘seduced into voting conservative’

We’re also not used to seeing Washington playing the villain, but her character in The Prom is a prickly one for sure. 

“It was a real challenge for me and it was a blessing because I think particularly now we’re so divided as a nation and it was really good exercise for me to try to wrap my head around a more conservative ideology and to ask myself, like, you know, our job as actors is to walk in somebody else’s shoes. So to have a lot of empathy and to try to have understanding for really where Mrs. Greene comes from; that’s important for me,” she said. 

“I think these issues have to be dealt with, particularly in the Black community. So often we are really tricked into voting against our best interests because we believe that some of these other issues, like abortion rights or LGBTQ rights, that those things should be more important than our shared humanity or voting in terms of the overall betterment of our community and of our world. So we’ll decide that because we agree on a conservative issue, it will destroy communities and destroy infrastructure, destroy the education system or a health care system because of these biases.”

Washington’s character, Mrs. Greene, is a mother who is hell bent on preserving the conservative leanings of her community and has no clue her daughter is a lesbian. 

“It was really important for me to try to step into this mindset of a Black woman who’s really struggling to accept her child for who she is and to try to embrace that character so that when we provide a little bit of a blueprint for how you can, even if you’re feeling confused or frustrated or overwhelmed with the reality of who your child is, you can still show up and love them unconditionally no matter what. And I think that’s a really beautiful thing to put out there in the world for folks.”

Check out the full interview above.

The Prom debuts December 11 on Netflix.  

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