As ‘Center Stage’ Turns 20, Amanda Schull Reflects on the Dance Movie of a Generation
The actress dishes on what it was like to make the cult-favorite movie—sweaty love scenes, exhausting dance numbers and all.
From the moment it first debuted in 2000, Center Stage reigned supreme as the ultimate sleepover movie. Now, two decades later... it still does.
On Tuesday, Center Stage celebrates 20 years as a cult classic. Critics savaged the film when it first came out—but everything they hated seemed to have the opposite effect on teens across the country, who lapped it up. After all, how could any self-respecting tween not gasp when Jody Sawyer, the ingenue with infamously “bad feet,” watched with lust in her eyes as ballet-bad-boy Cooper Nielson shook his Adonis-level tush to “The Way You Make Me Feel” in the most tempting of garments—grey sweatpants? What teenager didn’t love watching Jody self-actualize and tell that hot piece of dancer-meat, “Cooper, you’re an amazing dancer, and you’re a great choreographer—but as a boyfriend you kind of suck?” And that moment Jody effortlessly swooshes her hair out of a bun—on stage (!) on the back of Cooper’s motorcycle(!!!)? Even as I rewatched the film as a jaded adult, I must admit, I felt my breath catch in my throat.
Even now, 20 years and several parts later, Amanda Schull knows she’ll likely never escape her first screen role. “Nobody ever knows my name from it,” Schull told The Daily Beast.“Or they know Jody’s name. But they say, ‘You’re the girl from Center Stage!”
Director Nicholas Hytner knew he wanted a dancer to take the role of Jody—so one day, as Schull was dancing with the San Francisco Ballet Company, her group was told a Hollywood producer would be watching. (It turned out to be a casting director.) When Schull heard that someone would be scouting for a movie in the audience, she decided to, in the film’s parlance, “just dance the shit out of it.”
“I just gave it to that rehearsal,” Schull said. “I didn’t know what they were casting for. I didn’t know like what the role was—but I was going to get it.” She got the script and recorded sides on camera for producers the next day, beet red between rehearsals. Then she flew to Los Angeles to meet the producers. But then, when they asked her to fly to New York for a screen test, Schull hit an all-too-relatable snag.
“I said, I’m actually in the process of cleaning my apartment and really need, I really need... the deposit money back,” Schull said. “So if we could do this screen test at another time, that would be great.”
Schull finished cleaning the apartment and decamped to Hawaii, where her family is from. Then she got another call from producers. “They’re like, right, are you finished cleaning your apartment now? Can you come do this screen test?” Schull recalled. A week or so later, she got the job—and recouped her full deposit.
Looking back on the production, Schull noted the great camaraderie on set. Many of the performers, including leads Ethan Stiefel, who plays Cooper, and Sascha Radetsky, who plays Charlie, were actual dancers who’d known each other for some time. Some of the principal cast got together almost every weekend to make dinner together and hang out. On one occasion, Hytner had rented a beach house in the Hamptons—and Zoe Saldana’s mother drove some of the cast back.
Still, there were some awkward moments on set—like, for instance, the fact that Stiefel’s first day of filming happened to be Cooper’s love scene with Jody. When asked if breaking the ice with a love scene was at all intimidating, Schull let out an emphatic, “Uh, yeah!”
One small source of comfort for Schull was that she’d already been on set for a couple weeks by the time Stiefel showed up to film his parts. “It was sort of like I had at least something on him,” she said. “He was this big-time fancy dancer and was so confident in so many other ways. I felt like I kind of knew my way around the set a little bit better than he did... But it was also approximately 1 million degrees in that loft.”
Imagine this: Brooklyn in the summer. A loft. No open windows. Two people trying to act sexy.
‘We were both just dripping with sweat,” Schull said. “I was wearing all of my ballet clothes, like a leotard and tights with jeans and an angora sweater and all of that. So, um, it was toasty.”
But if there’s one sequence everyone remembers from Center Stage, it’s that final American Ballet Academy workshop performance—that ripped-from-real-life Cooper Nielson masterpiece that begins with Jody dancing in a fictional ballet class and ends with her humping the air in one of the sexiest chorus lines the dance world has ever seen. Filming that scene required 12 to 14-hour days, in which the dancers struggled to stay warmed up enough to crush their parts.
“It was tiring,” Schull said. “It was really, really tiring. But it was also something that we had all been rehearsing for a while and we were finally getting to show it to the crew... A lot of them were parents and so a lot of them probably had kids in dance anyway. And so they were super encouraging.”
“It could have been exhausting in a horrible way, but it was actually really exhausting and fun because everyone was kind of in it together,” Schull added. “It was just a very supportive [environment] and kind of just like the perfect way to be able to film that.”
One bright spot? She did get to keep the tear-away tutu that Cooper rips off as Jody twirls. “I remember bragging to Ethan about it... and he was like, ‘That’s going to be useful,’” Schull said. She’s never bothered putting it back on, mostly “because it’s a million snaps put together... Like, if I were ever to wear that for a costume, by the time I got it on, the party would be over, you know?” (Still, given that we all have nothing but time on our hands, there might be no day like the present to try!)
When Center Stage first wrapped, Schull said she kept in touch with her fellow dancers most often—especially Radetsky, who had been in Toronto while she was filming 12 Monkeys. Recently, however, she’s also gotten back in touch with Zoe Saldana and Susan May Pratt, who played Jody’s roommates Eva and Maureen. They’ve begun sending videos back and forth.
“We all started texting and sharing photos and videos of our kids,” Schull said. Saldana has three sons, while Pratt has a son and a daughter. Schull, meanwhile, has a newborn. “I think part of it is that we know that it’s coming up on the 20th anniversary, and we were all getting kind of nostalgic and checking in,” Schull said. “And all of us have kids now.”
For a while, Schull had felt like perhaps her lack of prior experience was what made memories of this production seem so rosy. Speaking with Saldana and Pratt now has actually somewhat validated the experience. “We’re all sharing our stories, Zoe just said some lovely things about how it's one of her most favorite experiences,” Schull said. “And she’s had some pretty amazing experiences since then.”
So it’s no wonder that even now, Schull doesn’t mind much when a fan calls out to her as “the girl from Center Stage.” She still feels moved when someone tells her that the film inspired them to start dancing—or, in the case of some male fans, that showing their parents the film helped them understand why their son wanted to dance in the first place. “Twenty years later, I’ll take it,” Schull said with a laugh. “I’ll be ‘the girl.’”