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Julia Stiles shares best part of making 'Save the Last Dance' 20 years later

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"Save the Last Dance" turned 20 this month, and even two decades later, star Julia Stiles says "people from all different walks of life bring it up."

Stiles reflected on the film for its anniversary in an interview with TODAY.

"The absolute best thing about making that movie was the dance," she said. "I mean, the rehearsals, and the dance training. I was, like, sign me up; where do I start? It was really challenging and really daunting because I'm not a professional dancer. So there was a lot of playing catch-up. But it was so fun. And such an awesome opportunity to get to do that kind of, like, rigorous training, and choreography rehearsals."

Julia Stiles And Sean Patrick Thomas In 'Save The Last Dance' (Courtesy Paramount/Getty Images / Getty Images)
Julia Stiles And Sean Patrick Thomas In 'Save The Last Dance' (Courtesy Paramount/Getty Images / Getty Images)

Stiles remembers training for one to two months before she started filming, focusing largely on the ballet scenes.

"I had to bust my butt to get in shape," she said. "And also, you know, catch up to the level that Sara — or, at least, look like I could catch up to — I could be at the level that Sara was supposed to be at. And I did ballet as a kid and a teenager. But I had stopped. So that was the most rigorous part of the training. So we did two months before we started filming. And then on the weekends, we would do the choreography rehearsals. Fatima (Robinson), who was the hip-hop choreographer, when we would rehearse the audition scene, she was always, always refining the moves. So it was hard to keep up."

Stiles said it was her previous role in another teen classic that helped her get cast.

"I met Thomas Carter, the director, and he told me that he had seen '10 Things I Hate About You' and the dance that Kat does on the pool table when she's drunk to Biggie Smalls," she said. "He saw that and he was like, 'Oh, you have rhythm.' So then I screen tested with Sean (Patrick Thomas). And then another actor who was up for the role. And then they hired me."

Sean Patrick Thomas And Julia Stiles In 'Save The Last Dance' (Courtesy Paramount/Getty Images / Getty Images)
Sean Patrick Thomas And Julia Stiles In 'Save The Last Dance' (Courtesy Paramount/Getty Images / Getty Images)

Stiles has warm memories of working with co-star Thomas.

"He's such a lovely human being," she said. "Such a gentleman. And we really relied on each other in the making of that film. Because, you know, when you're unknown pretty much, and you become the lead in a studio movie where they're spending a lot of money, the pressure's on. Even if it's not spoken, you know it's there. And the two of us together, I think, we're really a nice team. And I know he's older than I am, but it was more, I guess, noticeable back then when I was 19. And I think he was 30? I could rely on him. 'Cause he had a groundedness and a maturity and a life experience that was really nice."

Stiles also said acting alongside Kerry Washington, who played the sister of Thomas' character, was "amazing."

"Absolutely, there's no doubt in my mind why she has the career that she has. She's an incredible actress. And I could see it then. She was really kind. Really generous. And I just remember being really impressed by her skill set. Like, she's just a really good actress. And she was so ready for that breakout part. She was really, really ready to step into that role. And in that kind of a platform. Like, a movie that a lot of people are gonna see."

Sean Patrick Thomas And Julia Stiles In 'Save The Last Dance' (Courtesy Paramount/Getty Images / Getty Images)
Sean Patrick Thomas And Julia Stiles In 'Save The Last Dance' (Courtesy Paramount/Getty Images / Getty Images)

Stiles weighed in on why "Save the Last Dance" is so beloved by fans.

"It's entertaining, and it has the formula of dance movies which I love," she said. "But it does have something deeper going on. It's a pop teen dance movie. But underneath it is, like, 'We've snuck in some pretty major ideas.' And it's a classic, like — not underdog, 'cause she's not really the underdog — but like fish out of water, being triumphant, and rising to this challenge. But then also the romance part of it is just really — you know, dance is very romantic. It's a love story. It's a dance movie. And it's got a happy ending, you know?"

She added, "There's a part of me, like, many years ago that would have been too sort of cynical for that sort of thing. And now more than ever, I think, I just want to watch something that's going to make me feel good."

Julia Stiles can currently be seen on “Riviera”; seasons 1–3 are available on Sundance Now.

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