Save the Last Dance
Interview with Sean Patrick Thomas
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 12 January 2001

Sean Patrick Thomas is one of the more genuinely polite people I've met. He stands up to shake my hand when I arrive and leave. He acts as if he actually wants to be here, in this hotel lobby two days after Christmas, talking about his job. It may help that he's brought his mom along -- she comes by partway through the interview, and he introduces us, politely. The occasion for our meeting is Thomas' first starring role in a high-profile project, Paramount Pictures and MTV's Save the Last Dance. It's a high school romance, with plot points lifted from Flashdance, Dirty Dancing, and Boyz N the Hood to flesh out the relationship at its center, between him Thomas and Julia Stiles. In it, he gives an unflashy, engaging performance that may surprise those viewers who haven't yet paid him much attention.

The recent year has been a big one for Thomas, with Save the Last Dance and his work as part on CBS's The District. And he's come to this place almost by accident. He grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and during his undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, answered a casting call for a production of Raisin in the Sun. To his surprise, he found that he loved acting, and he pursued it, not by going to Hollywood, but to grad school, at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where he honed his skills, particularly on stage, and earned an MFA. And he's been working steadily, including parts on Fox's New York Undercover, and in the films Courage Under Fire, Can't Hardly Wait (in which he played "Jock #2"), Cruel Intentions, and Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000.

Cynthia Fuchs: What attracted you to Save the Last Dance?

Sean Patrick Thomas: To me, that's always an interesting question. When you're sitting in your apartment and you're unemployed, and somebody offers you a job, unless it's something outrageous, you take it. I auditioned and I got it. I didn't have dance experience, except for some aerobics dance classes, and I had to dance at the final audition, and that was bizarre. Usually, with any type of choreography, you have to learn it and practice it. I didn't have that chance -- they taught it to me that morning. I did the best I could.

CF: How do you see this role in the context of your career so far?

SPT: When I first started auditioning for stuff, I was expected to be funny or menacing, and neither of those come naturally to me. I see myself largely doing the types of roles that aren't necessarily written "black." That's the way I was trained -- I went to school doing Shakespeare, Molière , and Ibsen, so I came out expecting to do that.

CF: [Your character on The District, the young cop] Temple Page isn't a typical "black" role.

SPT: I thought it was a great part when I read it. You don't usually get to see a guy that looks like me be on tv as a devout Christian, in all likelihood a virgin, and completely devoid of angst. So when the reviews were coming out before the pilot aired, saying it was "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Great White Hope," I thought it was nonsense, because it was like reading the first page of a book. And I haven't heard much of that talk since there've been more episodes.

CF: How do you like doing the series, with a character who develops over time?

SPT: I love it. I'm as anxious as any viewer would be to see what Temple is going to do next. All I know is that in the second half of the season, he's going to have more sexual tension developing. And it's a great cast -- they're all Broadway actors except for me. I aspire to that.

CF: It appears to be a smart move, to do both film and TV at this point.

SPT: Yeah, but that wasn't a strategy. I was unemployed after finishing Save the Last Dance and I went out for this other role. It wasn't like, "Okay, now I'm going to do tv." It was like, I have to pay my rent and my student loan, what can I do? I'm lucky that the show is doing well, so it looks like I've got this balanced plan. I also like that I'm playing a "grown-up" on The District. I'm happy to look young, but high school parts aren't usually fully rounded -- Save the Last Dance is an exception. So I'm trying to grow facial hair, but it's not quite working. [Laughs]

CF: How is the process of TV different for you than movies? It sounds like you don't get scripts too far ahead of time.

SPT: Right, we get scripts close to when we shoot, and sometimes rewrites an hour before we do a scene. There's far less rehearsal time in tv, because you have to get a lot done in a short time. So you don't have time to be like,"The motivation here is this." With movies, there's more time to rehearse and finesse it.

CF: But if there's more time pressure in tv, there's more money pressures in movies?

SPT: Oh yeah! Those economic concerns have direct effects on acting. There were many scenes in Save the Last Dance when they said, "Well, that was good, but you're not likeable enough." There's a scene in the club, when [my ex-girlfriend] wants to dance, and I played the genuine indignation and hurt, and getting pleasure out of telling her to step off, with some venom. And they said, "That's realistic, but you're not appealing." To me, it intrudes on playing the scene truthfully. [My character, Derek] had to be a guy who's noble beyond all human expectation. But I think every actor has to go through this. And this film gives me the opportunity to do many different things -- how many times do you get to be the head guy in a romance, dance, and fight? It's all cool.

CF: Do you imagine doing parts that are less likeable?

SPT: To a certain extent. I feel like I would identify more with someone who's a little shady, because I'm more guarded than either Temple or Derek. To an extent, I would understand a villain, the guy who's standing on the corner, watching and plotting what he wants to do, as opposed to being everybody's hero. But it all interests me, bad guys and good guys.

CF: It looked like you all had fun playing vampires in Dracula 2000.

SPT: It was a lot of fun. My first instinct, when I read for the role, was to be very broad, the mustache-twirling bad guy. But Patrick [Lussier, the director] wanted it to be as realistic as possible, within the constraints of it being a Miramax Dracula film, which meant that there was a certain amount of gloss and sheen. I tried to play it pretty straight, but also to remember that it's fun, it's a horror movie.

CF: Do you have models for your art, or your career?

SPT: I admire Andre Braugher, Joe Morton, Denzel Washington, Lynne Thigpen [Thomas's co-star on The District], and Anthony Hopkins. Sidney Poitier of course, and Alfre Woodard. I love Sanaa Lathan's work, and my [NYU] classmate Aunjanue Ellis. I respect actors who bring the truth of who they are to their parts, who don't succumb to what's expected of them, as black men. I think that when you're a black actor, what's hard to remember is that before you're black, you're a person, and there are certain characteristics you have that have nothing to do with being black -- the question is, how do you bring all that to the table? I find it difficult to do, with the parts we're expected to play, which come with characteristics assigned to them because they're black. It's ridiculous.

CF: What are the ways that Save the Last Dance breaks down some of those expectations?

SPT: I think that the relationships among the characters are well-developed. I like that early scene where Sara [Julia Stiles' character] asks me if I have a kid. That's such a bizarre question, not because I'm black, but because of [what she knows about me], at that point in the movie. I like the fact that I get to challenge the stereotype.

CF: I know that you did a lot of theater early on. Are you interested in going back to that?

SPT: Definitely. When you're doing a play you get to go full speed ahead, all night, in front of an audience. It's a roller-coaster ride, responding to other actors, it feeds you. And in theater, there's less commercial concern, less tendency to say, "Well, this thing might suck, but we have to do it anyway, because it will sell." In theater, you get more of the sense that if something is bad, you find a better way to do it. It's a struggle in film and TV, between commerce and quality.

CF: In a way, Fredro [Starr]'s role in Save the Last Dance, the formulaic "bad kid," is a good example of that problem.

SPT: True. What's odd though, is that when I read the script, I thought, obviously, Derek is not going to go with this guy, so why introduce this storyline, because there's no tension. But lots of people I've talked to, who've seen the movie, tell me, "I thought you were going to die," or "I'm so glad you didn't go off with him."

CF: I guess they haven't seen Boyz N the Hood.

SPT: [Laughs] I guess not. Even though we were both aware of how obvious it seemed, we did the best we could with it.

CF: With so many high school movies being made, there appear to be many opportunities for young actors -- not necessarily teens, but young actors -- to work. What are your feelings about that?

SPT: I think it's a dangerous thing, because you have so many actors coming up who don't have a clue. Not that I have this great clue, but I have a tiny bit of a clue. Rarely do I think those movies are particularly good. It creates an underclass of actors, few of whom will have a future. I know that when I'm not cute anymore, I'll still be able to get a job. If Save the Last Dance does well, it might keep me in that "teen box" a little bit longer, but I don't have a problem with that because my first priority now is to work, and beyond that, I'll suss things out. I think I've managed to create a niche for myself, where no one's going to ask me to play a hoodlum or to be Mr. Funnyman. At the same time, I'm not a purist -- a lot of my friends don't like Cruel Intentions, they think it's common. But I like fun movies. It's funny though, because now that I'm in Hollywood, I've kind of shifted, now I'm more of a snob.

CF: So, if you were offered an action script, like Die Hard, you'd think twice about it?

SPT: Oh, I'd do it in a heartbeat. [Laughs] I have so much respect for good writing, it's an actor's lifeblood. But I had a teacher in grad school who said, nine times out of ten, your job as an actor is to make bad writing look good. But I love what I do. I'd never want a nine-to-five job. I had a lot of those corporate internships for so-called "gifted" black kids, so I got a good sense of what that was like, and it was pure hell -- I knew I'd do anything never to have to do that.

CF: Are you able to help other actors when you work with them?

SPT: It depends on who I'm working with. Aside from The District, I mostly work with actors who are far younger than me. And I've had a couple of them tell me that I help them do better. And vice versa: I've worked with people who are 17 or 18 years old, and they have access to things, certain spontaneous instincts, that I've suppressed because of my training. And on the flipside, they say, "Sean, you can come back and do that scene eight times and hit your mark every time." That's technique and training. So it goes back and forth. I'm still learning.

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