‘The Prom’ Star Ariana DeBose on Being Afro-Latina, Her Cultural Impact and ‘West Side Story’

Star-in-the-making Ariana DeBose is ready to redefine what it means to be Latino, or how she identifies as Afro-Latina.

“You cannot just boil down what it is to be Latino in one thing,” she says. “Observing the industry…Rita Moreno, my Queen, she’s been the standard and it’s a very specific look, which hasn’t necessarily allowed for what this is — to be considered Puerto Rican.”

DeBose, starring in Netflix’s “The Prom,” talked to Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast about the film, identity and much more. Listen to the latest episode below:

Imagine this: your first three film roles are the stage filming of the Tony-winning “Hamilton,” an all-star adaptation of “The Prom” by Emmy-winner Ryan Murphy, and playing the role that won Rita Moreno an Oscar, now in an upcoming remake of “West Side Story” from Steven Spielberg. DeBose still has a hard time believing it all came true.

In Netflix’s “The Prom,” DeBose plays Alyssa Greene, an “in the closet” teenager who can’t attend her school prom with her girlfriend Emma (played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman). The 29-year-old performer is aware of the cultural impact that her character and presence can have, both from ethnicity and sexuality. “I think seeing Alyssa Greene go through this process and find a happy ending, will give a lot of young people a lot of hope. You see a beautiful girl, who just so happens to want to be with another girl. That doesn’t make a bad person or evil. We just need to love each other.”

DeBose remembers her first day on the set of “The Prom,” in which she described herself as “just expensive background.” Co-star Meryl Streep was performing the musical number “It’s Not About Me,” and DeBose recalls feeling like she “got Priestly’d,” referring to the Oscar-winner’s character from “The Devil Wears Prada.”

The North Carolina native, whose father is Puerto Rican and mother is White, is unfortunately one of the few Latinx actors in contention for an Academy Award this year. Asked about being accepted or forced to choose her cultural identity, DeBose says, “it’s my entire existence. My entire career has been people trying to put me in boxes. I believe I don’t have to justify our identity. We are who we are.”

After Spielberg offered DeBose the role of Anita in the upcoming remake of “West Side Story,” she says she was both excited and afraid by it. “There’s never been anybody who said ‘YES’ to this, being Puerto Rican,” she says. “The journey of identity is one that I’m still on. Trying to invite people to join the conversation in a way that’s conducive. In the conversation around Black Lives Matter, Afro-Latinx people, we are part of that conversation. I want to encourage my brothers and sisters to join it because when we walk down the street, we’re Black. And the delineation between whether you are Latino or not does not matter. In fact, the delineation of whether my mother is white doesn’t matter for me. We have more in common than not.”

DeBose says she cherished her time on the set. “It was one of the first times that I got to be enveloped in the culture and truly feel accepted. And I felt more myself amongst that group of people because of what we were doing, we were united under the banner. In a perfect world, I would love to see us unite under the banner of spectrum grace. That’s my whole hashtag, #SpectrumGrace.”

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, hosted by Clayton Davis, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay and Michael Schneider (who produces), is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.

 

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