Julia Stiles isn't afraid to admit she made a major misstep while filming Save the Last Dance.
With the cast and crew based in Chicago for the duration of the shoot, there were more than a few hot nights in the city, the actress revealed to E! News in a joint Zoom chat with onscreen love interest Sean Patrick Thomas. "Although, guess who missed out on a lot of the fun? Me," Stiles shared. "Because I was such a little do-gooder."
Every evening film choreographer Fatima Robinson (the woman tasked with making the likes of Rihanna, Usher and Leona Lewis look good) would call to tell her that she was taking Thomas, Kerry Washington, Fredro Starr and other cast members on "a tour of all the clubs in Chicago," Stiles recalled. "And I know it would be until probably dawn. And I was like, 'I can't.'"
Determined to nail every step of her dance scenes, the then-19-year-old would beg off to remain fresh at rehearsal, but 20 years later, the FOMO is still strong, a feeling her costar did little to squash.
"We had a good time," Thomas admitted. "Julia and I would shoot 'til probably something like 7, 8 o'clock at night. I'd get back to my place and I'd be starving and exhausted and then I'd get the phone call from [dancer] Richmond [Talauega] or Fatima and they're like, 'Be downstairs in 20 minutes, we're going out.' It was like, 'Oh god, you've got to be kidding me.' But then once we got out there, it was just incredible."
So, yeah, you could say Stiles has some regrets.
Though none of them revolve signing on for the 2001 project, one she unwittingly auditioned for while filming 10 Things I Hate About You, her 40-second table dance at Bogey Lowenstein's party providing director Thomas Carter with enough material to convince him she could nail the role of aspiring Juilliard ballerina Sara. "I didn't know it was my audition," she joked, "but apparently it was."
And while the longtime dancer was eager to train one-on-one with Johnson ("I was like, 'Yes, I would like to get private dance classes!'"), it was the story of Sara—uprooted from her suburban existence and dropped into an inner-city Chicago school where she gets a crash course in hip-hop and racial inequities from charming future doctor Derek—that had her eager to step into those pointe shoes.
"I was really kind of happy that we were able to sneak in bigger issues into what was otherwise a teen dance movie," Stiles explained. "This subject matter makes it edgier or different from your average dance movie. You still get the entertainment, but there's something bigger going on. And it opened my eyes to a lot of perspective that I had never really considered before, which I think is pretty cool."
The movie spent two weeks atop the box office, unseating Tom Hanks' Castaway and grossing more than $131 million. And two decades on, both leads feel that the message still resonates.
Stiles points to one scene in which Derek's sister Chenille (played by then-newbie Washington) responds to Sara's claim that there aren't separate realities for white and Black people with the cutting, "That's what they teach you. We know different." While they didn't use the term white privilege at the time, Stiles noted, "Chenille definitely schools Sara on, you know, 'Oh, you think that all that's solved? But actually walk a mile in my shoes.'"
The interracial pairing was a rarity for a teen flick at the turn of the millennium, noted Thomas. "Even now in 2021, you don't see a whole lot of major studio films with an interracial couple as the two leads," he acknowledged. "It was remarkable for that time." And he appreciated that their story pushed beyond expected stereotypes. "It wasn't really about, you know, Black and white and it's so fraught," he explained. "It was simple, it was sweet, it was pure. It had innocence to it. And I think that's what resonates."
For Stiles that was the core of the film. As the high school senior works to regain her shaken self-confidence, "Sean's character believes in Sara," she said. "Their connection is something to me that's deeper and just really beautiful."
And the frothy extras—the hip-hop choreography lifted from Johnson's work with the Backstreet Boys, the soundtrack reminding you that "You can do it, put your back into it," and all those nights at STEPPS—those were just a good time.
"It was fun," Thomas acknowledged. "I mean, I don't know what was going on with you, Julia, but a bunch of those dancers were hanging out in my trailer with liquor and it was on and crackin' in my trailer."
"Don't tell me these things! Don't tell me these things!" Stiles lamented. "I was not of age. I couldn't have had a drink anyway. But just to know that was going on..."
At 30 years old, Thomas was very much able to imbibe.
"I remember one night in particularly where I was just like, 'Okay, fine. I'll take a drink,'" he recalled. "And then I went in and had to film and I was paranoid that I would, you know, be exposed as an unprofessional drunk. But it worked out. And I realized, I think that's what dancers do to loosen themselves up. So, looking back, I feel like I wasn't being unprofessional, I was just kind of trying to roll with the energy of the people that were trying to teach me."
Because he welcomed any expertise that would help him nail Johnson's choreography.
"I'm not a dancer at all," he admitted. "And so I was anxious for the opportunity to not screw it up when it came to filming. So if they were going to come and teach me stuff, I was very eager for it because I was so afraid of looking like a complete dork."
Despite years of training, Stiles was equally hard on herself, fretting that ballet had never been a particular strong suit for her. "There's a thing with dancers, you'll never be good enough, you'll never get it right," she explained. "You're always constantly refining, which is why I could never watch the movie now, because I would be way too critical of my port de bras or whatever."
Thankfully she has the memories, all watercolored and rosy enough that neither she nor Thomas have ruled out stepping back into Sara and Derek's shoes.
"I'm envisioning, like, me doing the Debbie Allen character in Fame, where now she's a dance teacher and she's smacking her cane against the ballet bar," Stiles joked. "And then, I don't know."
It's a tripping point for Thomas as well, who said he's frequently queried about where he thinks the two ended up, if, say, Derek opened his pediatric practice down the block from where Sara once ruled the stage. "I can never think of something that sounds plausible," he admitted. "Unless, they ended up getting married somehow. But that seems too easy. So it's tough for me to kind of wrap my brain around how that would come to pass. But, you know, if somebody had a good idea, I'd definitely take a look."
Each of the actors have a full slate. Stiles, having wrapped filming on season three of her dreamy Sundance Now drama Riviera mere days before the world shut down due to COVID, is currently based in camera assistant husband Preston J. Cook's native Canada, working on Esther. The "psychologically terrorizing" prequel to 2009's Orphan proved riveting enough for her to leave her cozy quarantine bubble with Cook and their 3-year-old son Strummer.
Thomas, meanwhile, fit work on Joel Coen's hotly anticipated Macbeth (starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the titular Scottish lord and his Lady) in between campaigning for President-elect Joe Biden and future vice president Kamala Harris.
But should the right script come along...
"They'd run into each other at, like, the grocery store," pitched Stiles, "and both have their adult lives and then you take it from there."
In all seriousness, said Thomas, dad to Lola, 12, and Luc, 10, with actress wife Aonika Laurent Thomas, "I would love to work with Julia again, now. It would be an incredible pleasure because we're grown-ups now."
So they're saying there's a chance. "It would be so special," agreed Stiles. "I would be a lot less nervous."
And she would absolutely RSVP yes to any and all out-'til-dawn adventures. "I'd definitely go to the cast parties," she insisted. "I would definitely get a babysitter for all night long."