It was during a rehearsal for the now-global stage sensation “Hamilton” that ensemble member Ariana DeBose was offered a pivotal role. She would play The Bullet, a secret character who symbolizes death’s steady march toward Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda).
The Bullet appears in key moments throughout the show, narrowly missing Hamilton during the number “Stay Alive” and interacting with John Laurens and Philip Hamilton (both played by Anthony Ramos) before their deaths. The Bullet eventually reaches its target when Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) fires his gun at Hamilton during the show’s final duel. She slowly approaches Hamilton as he raps, “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory. Is this where it gets me? On my feet, several feet ahead of me?”
For years, the ominous presence of The Bullet was felt only by audience members lucky enough to see “Hamilton” live. But when Disney+ released the film version this summer, the character’s significance and its portrayer were embraced by millions.
“Now that the film is out and given to the world, more people have the opportunity to not only see the show but to get into the nuance of the world of ‘Hamilton,’” DeBose told HuffPost during a Zoom interview last month. “I’m really honored that people have taken to The Bullet’s pathway and the symbolism of the character.”
“I’m grateful that the world finally really gets access to this piece because this was made by the people, for the people,” DeBose continued. “At a time when we are seeing change start to happen and having some really hard conversations with ourselves as a society, I’m really grateful to have a seat at the table.”
The 29-year-old North Carolina native, who got her start on the Fox series “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2009, has the opportunity to be part of two more conversation starters. And as a queer biracial woman ― her father is Afro-Puerto Rican and her mother is white ― DeBose knows how significant that is. Not only was she a member of the original cast of “Hamilton,” she has nabbed featured roles in Ryan Murphy’s star-studded movie adaptation of “The Prom” this year and Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of “West Side Story” next year.
“The great Patti LuPone once said, ‘Darling, it’s for the legacy.’ And I really believe that,” DeBose said of her movie musical streak. “To be a part of something that lives on screen forever, it’s really special.”
In “The Prom,” set to debut on Netflix Dec. 11, she plays Alyssa Greene, a closeted gay teen in a small Indiana town whose conservative PTA-head mom (Kerry Washington) refuses to let Alyssa’s secret girlfriend, proudly lesbian Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), bring a date to the prom. With help from the school principal (Keegan-Michael Key) and four publicity-hungry Broadway stars (played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells), Emma stands up for herself and helps Alyssa share her truth with their community.
For her audition, DeBose met with Murphy, who was more interested in getting to know her than listening to her read lines.
“We just had a conversation, and that was new to me. I’m used to getting the material and putting myself on display, and he just wanted to talk. He asked me some questions about my opinions about Alyssa and my lived experience,” she recalled. “It was very cathartic for me.”
At the age of 11, DeBose, who prefers not to use labels, came out to her single mother, who was very supportive. “I said, ‘You know, I think I could like girls and boys. I just really like humans.’ And she said, ‘Cool! OK, moving on.’ And I realize that is not the experience that many people go through. I’m one of the lucky ones.”
For DeBose, playing a young woman like Alyssa brought up memories of her own high school experience and the “shame” she felt at prom when she danced with another girl.
“I started to realize that people were staring at me, and not in a good way,” she said. “It was the first time I had experienced that kind of judgment in a public setting and I backed away from her. As an adult, I would make different choices.”
At the end of “The Prom,” there’s an “inclusive prom” where Alyssa and Emma are finally able to show and celebrate their love. The moment came full circle for DeBose, who experienced what it was like to have people cheer you on rather than judge you for being your authentic self.
“I love that this film is coming out right now because not only is it a celebration of queer love and queer joy, but it’s also a step in the right direction, in my opinion, of normalizing seeing young queer girls of color in coming-of-age stories,” DeBose said. “We’ve done a really good job about normalizing seeing the coming-out stories of white boys and white girls and also Black gay men and Black gay boys, but young queer girls of color don’t often get to see their stories reflected on big screens. So I’m really excited that young women around the world will be able to see themselves [in this].”
Streep nearly made her keel over when she congratulated DeBose on booking the iconic role of Anita in “West Side Story.”
Although the release date for Spielberg’s first foray into musicals was ultimately moved from Dec. 18, 2020, to Dec. 10, 2021, DeBose will soon be able to catch her breath after a non-stop work schedule. She has stayed busy since her departure from “Hamilton” in 2016, originating characters Jane in “A Bronx Tale: The Musical” and Disco Donna in “Summer” ― which earned her a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical ― before shooting her recent projects.
She’s also currently in production on Apple TV+’s musical comedy series “Schmigadoon,” starring Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong as a backpacking couple who discover a magical town where everyone acts as if they’re in a musical from the 1940s.
As soon as that wraps, she’s looking forward to lying low for a bit.
“I’m the queen of the hustle, but I do anticipate that when we finally have the opportunity to give ‘West Side Story’ to the world, it will be a very busy and exciting time and I want to make sure that I am fully prepared for it,” DeBose concluded. “I want to be able to give 110% to that [whole process]. Self-care is real, and I could use a little time for that.”
“The Prom” is in limited theaters Dec. 4 and hits Netflix Dec. 11. “Hamilton” is now streaming on Disney+.