The tinkling notes of a piano playing classical music cue up as a blonde ballet dancer wearing an American Ballet Academy national audition tour number pinned to her pink leotard raises her arm and stretches at the bar for a warm-up. Anxious parents outside the studio worry about how few dancers will be accepted. Judges point out the ballerina from before, whispering, "Not enough turnout." "Bad feet." "But… look at her."
Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) was Center Stage's cosmic girl 20 years ago when the dance film first hit theaters, and two decades later she still shines as one of the most iconic dancers in movie history — bad feet and all. The film followed Jody and a group of other young aspiring professional ballet dancers as they're accepted into New York City's prestigious American Ballet Academy, loosely based on the School of American Ballet. And while it wasn’t a box office smash when it was first released on May 12, 2000, Center Stage has grown to become a cult favorite for dancers and non-dancers alike due to director Nicholas Hytner’s dedication to casting real dancers and focusing on the very real problems they face both in and out of the studio.
You know the performances like you danced them yourself onstage at Lincoln Center. You can quote all the iconic lines. Every song from the soundtrack takes you right back to the movie. But did you know there was originally a character who dies in the script? What mistake has haunted the star of the movie for the past two decades? Below, Schull takes EW behind the scenes of the film in honor of its 20th anniversary to share secrets from the set.
Center Stage almost looked very different if Hytner hadn't gotten his way of casting a dancer instead of an actor who can dance, which is what the studio wanted. "He was a huge ballet fan and somebody else who didn’t know ballet, or wasn’t a fan of dance, or didn’t understand it probably would have hired someone and just had dance doubles," Schull says. "I was really fortunate that he championed for me."
And Schull had exactly the kind of training and background that Hytner was looking for in his star. "I had been dancing for my entire life until that point," she says. Starting at the age of 3, she practiced ballet throughout her childhood and went to Indiana University to get a music degree studying dance and journalism. After two years there, she was accepted into the San Francisco Ballet School for the summer. "At the end of the summer, they asked me to stay for the year," she says. "Towards the end of my year is when the casting director came. At that point, they were just looking for company members, but I happened to be at the right place at the right time when she came into the studio where I was working for our end of the year showcase."
As luck would have it, Schull was given her contract with the San Francisco Ballet at the same time that she landed the starring role in Center Stage. "By the time I started filming Center Stage, I did that for the summer and then I went straight back to the company," she says. "After finishing the movie, I went to London on tour with the company."
The parallels are not lost on Schull that her experience is pretty much exactly the same as Jody's. "Yeah, although I didn’t have an illicit affair with any company members!" she jokes. "I think I made the right decision with that part — not that anyone was necessarily raising their hand to give me the option."
But the fact that she "could relate to every single thing Jody was going through was perfect," she adds. "I didn’t have film acting experience. It was my first film job ever, so I could relate to her more than if I was playing a boxer or something. I was in the right place at the right time when I got cast to be Jody Sawyer."
But Center Stage relied on so much more than just Jody to become a hit. The first costars Schull met were her two onscreen love interests: Ethan Stiefel, who played cocky bad boy ballet dancer/choreographer Cooper Nielsen, and Sascha Radetsky, who played sweet, kind ballet student Charlie Sims.
"We started working on the choreography before we started filming anything," Schull says. "Actually, when I went to do the screen test for the film I met a soloist with the American Ballet Theater and he very kindly asked if I wanted to go backstage and watch Ethan perform. At that point, Ethan had already been cast so I knew that he’d be involved in the movie."
After she officially booked her role, she hopped on a plane to New York to learn the major dance sequences for an intense few weeks of rehearsals, where she officially "met the guys."
"It honestly just feels like I was friends with everyone from the very beginning because we were all so close," she adds.
Rounding out the main cast of ballet students were a pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe Zoe Saldana, '00s teen movie mainstay Susan May Pratt, Russian Olympic figure skater Ilia Kulik, and stage actor/dancer Shakiem Evans. And it didn't take long for the group to become real friends during their time off filming.
"We were all novices, Zoe had maybe done one Law and Order: SVU or something so we were all fairly new — nobody had any egos," Schull notes. "We were all around the same age if not the exact same age. It was just a gift. You had to say lines that people wrote for you that made sense, that weren’t forced, that were easy, and then you laughed and chatted and spent time with your new best friends between takes. It was a lot of fun."
And that's why filming a scene like the group's detention soap sponge fight was even more fun, because to them, it wasn't work. "We were all looking forward to that," she says with a laugh. "It also happened to be the first and only day my parents came to visit on set. Nick didn’t want us to get to the point where we were actually doing the sponge fight, so we’d have to get right up to that moment. We were just chomping at the bit to start throwing things at each other."
After "about a dozen takes," Hytner finally released the sponges. "He just let us rip and we went for it," Schull says with another laugh. "I remember my parents just sitting there watching like, 'This is your job?!' Oh God, it was fun."
The two dance numbers learned first were Jody's big "Canned Heat" workshop performance and her and Cooper's off-site jazz class, both choreographed by Susan Stroman. And while Schull had a lifetime of training, she knew she didn't have the same experience as Stiefel and Radetsky, who both were already well-known professional ballet dancers prior to filming.
"I wasn’t a company member yet. I had just been hired as an apprentice and I had experience dancing behind principal dancers; I didn’t necessarily have the experience dancing alongside the principal dancers," Schull explains. "And Ethan and Sascha are so good. Both of them have retired now, but gosh they were good."
Even just rehearsing alongside them while they would "mark" (a.k.a. not do the moves full-out) intimidated Schull. "Ethan marking, he didn’t bother pointing his feet all the time because his feet are just bananas, just absolutely insane," she says. "He would go through the motions and still look sensational. And then when he would run it full out, he would put more effort into extending his whole line through to his feet and it was pretty intimidating. He’s just gorgeous."
Schull adds, "Sascha is nothing to sneeze at either! But at the same time they weren’t intimidating because they were good guys. I remember, at one point, Ethan calling and leaving a voicemail at the apartment where I was staying and saying, 'I just want you to know you’re doing such a good job and I’m so impressed by you.' He didn’t need to do that." She says she'll always be grateful for how much both Stiefel and Radetsky made her "feel really comfortable" when she could have just as easily felt "over [her] head."
After weeks of rehearsals, it was finally time to start filming. But the very first scene that Schull filmed was left on the cutting room floor. "The first scene we filmed was part of a story line that never made it to the movie," Schull reveals. "Zoe’s character Eva had a brother in the movie who followed her to New York to try to help keep her on track."
The character wasn't completely cut from the film. According to Schull, he can still be seen during Erik's birthday celebration as the group takes a limo through Times Square and a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty. "He’s our limo driver on the day we go out," she says. "That story line, just because I think it would have been a three-part epic, ended up not making it to film. Our first scene — I guess this isn’t spoiling anything [laughs], it’s 20 years later! — was his funeral."
Schull remembers the original version of the movie as more tragic because of that cut story line. "That would have taken the movie to a much darker place," she says. "It’s probably why things got changed around. Susan and I were at this funeral and I vaguely remember there must have been some sort of service afterward because I remember having a prop with a plate of food on it and getting excited about the food."
According to Schull, Saldana gave a "beautiful performance" during those scenes, and the story line getting cut "had no reflection on any of that."
"It probably just would have been a very different film had there been that whole story line," she adds. "And it just would have been so darn long if they had included everything."
One of Schull's favorite scenes to film was the night out in which Jody, Charlie, Eva, Eric, and Sergei blow off steam by working up "sweet sweat" (a line that Schull reveals she ad-libbed!) at a salsa bar. But it was also one of the most challenging for her as well. "I specifically remember those were a couple of long days," she says. "It was a style of dance I had never done before. I had just come from a ballet school where you do the steps, everything is very specific."
So that's how she approached learning the salsa dance, but with much different results. "I learned the steps on the counts," she explains. "After we did it a couple of times, Nick came up to me and Sascha and was like, 'You two are the whitest salsa dancers I’ve ever seen in my entire life!' It took a few takes for us to find our rhythm and realize we could play with it a little more and swing your hips and it didn’t have to be so precise. That was a blast."
Speaking of sweat, Schull's very first scene that she filmed with Stiefel was Jody and Cooper’s spontaneous "date" that ends in a one-night stand at his apartment. And things were steamy... but not because of the hookup. "It was probably close to 115 degrees because it was in the middle of summer," she notes. "We're in Brooklyn, so just consider the muggy factor. And we had to have all the windows closed for sound purposes with all the lights on and all the crew generating heat. I was wearing tights, a leotard, jeans, a shirt, and an angora sweater. Between every single smooch, I was sopping up sweat."
Long hours of rehearsals, even longer days on set, and hanging out with the cast during her time off meant that for the entire shoot, Schull was exhausted.
"For most of it, I was fairly sleep deprived," she reveals. "I worked every single day for the three or four months that we shot. In the beginning when we weren’t shooting I was rehearsing. But because I was fairly sleep deprived I didn’t have time to realize that I could have been over my head."
It ended up being a blessing in disguise for Schull, who was just about to begin her professional dance career while simultaneously starring in her first movie in the lead role. "I showed up and got to work with people who were quickly becoming my best friends and do choreography that was amazing and fun and made me happy; it was exactly what dance was supposed to be, this catharsis," she says. "I didn’t have time to think, 'Gee, these dancers I’m dancing with have been professionals for years and I haven’t even started my professional career,' because I was just so excited to start every single day."
She should have felt nervous, but her lack of sleep and almost zero downtime meant she never had a second to realize that. "It was the perfect way to do it," she says. "Now, loving back, if I was given an opportunity now I would probably overanalyze things. Then, it was the best summer job I could have possibly dreamt of."
But she laughs as she wonders, "The other dancers, they must have thought, 'What is this hack doing in front of me?' Compared to them, they had so much experience and their careers blossomed so beautifully. If I had had the chance to realize everything going on around me, I would have been a much more intimidated human."
Center Stage brought new meaning to the term costume change during Jody's final workshop performance. Kicking off the ballet rock opera, Cooper helps rip off Jody's tutu onstage to reveal a darker, edgier look underneath. And while Schull loved how it turned out onscreen, it was less fun figuring it out onstage.
"We had to work hard on getting that tutu ripped off," she says. "It was a challenge because in order to the chaîné turns moving forward, you need to have momentum and strength pushing forward. But in order for the snaps to come loose, he needed to yank me backwards."
Every time she would get the right momentum to turn forward, Stiefel ripping away the skirt would pull her right back. "I don’t really travel very well because I couldn’t get enough of a push off my back leg to go forward while he used his strength to pull it off the opposite direction," she says. "And the way the tutu was built, it was a series of mini snaps going around so in order to reset it, it took a small army of people sitting there snapping me back in which was time consuming."
But Schull kept that rip-away tutu as a souvenir to celebrate successfully pulling it off. "I actually have the tutu somewhere still, I think it’s in my closet right now," she says with a laugh. "I was very proud that I got to keep it and I told Ethan and his response was, 'That’s practical.' It’s not, what am I going to do with a rip away tutu? [Laughs] But I was excited about that."
But the iconic Center Stage moment that Schull is less proud of may surprise longtime fans of the film: Jody's fouetté turn combination at the end of her workshop dance performance.
"I had mixed feelings about that actually, because I loved doing it and I didn’t overanalyze it but I was coming from this school where everything was super precise," she says. "If I had filmed maybe a year or two later after being in the company I would have probably been a lot more loosey-goosey and played with it because I would have been more comfortable with more forms of dance at that point."
Schull reveals that it's actually hard for her to watch that final performance now because she regrets not having the experience of "doing more contemporary movements after being in the company and working with different choreographers."
"I don’t cringe when I watch it but I think I could have done that part better," she says. "I would have done that movement a little more freely. It is a little bit bittersweet and frustrating, because like any performance you watch back and think, 'How can I do this better?' But not everyone’s work is forever embedded on celluloid. That’s what makes it frustrating."
And of course, the most complicated, difficult dance sequence of the film was shot when Schull was the most exhausted. "By the time we were filming the fouetté portion of it, we had been filming all day, 10-12 hours," she says. "We did everything sequentially, so I had been dancing all day and it was two or later in the morning. Those shoes were slippery little suckers. I slipped and fell quite a few times because the shoes were slipping and my legs weren’t strong enough at that point."
While her final fouetté combination is an impressive feat to watch onscreen, it's something that she has agonized over for two decades now. "At the very, very end you see me coming off of pointe for that final double [pirouette] and I kept doing it over," she says. "They kept saying, 'We have it,' and I kept saying, 'No, I came off of pointe.' So we’d do it again and I’d fall again."
Schull remembers Hytner being satisfied with the takes she had done. "He was like, 'The curtain is coming down, it doesn’t matter, it’s fine. We got it,'" she says. "And I just kept demanding to do it over and over again because that’s her big moment, you know? That’s the final few seconds of this revenge and assertive validation of Jody. It’s her power dance. But I was so frustrated."
So when did she finally stop? "I’m not saying Nick fibbed but he said, 'You can’t even see your foot coming down,'" Schull says. "So I gave up at that point. And now when I watch, I’m like, 'Ooh, you can see my foot!' I come down onto demi and I finish in that position because I’m thinking, 'Maybe you don’t see my foot.' But that was also my learning from school where you finish every single thing you do. It was still a school mentality with that."
In the two decades since Center Stage was released, Schull retired from dancing and went on to star in film and TV, most notably for roles on 12 Monkeys, One Tree Hill, Suits, and Pretty Little Liars. She also has remained friends with her Center Stage costars, even if she doesn't see them as often as she'd like.
"I keep in contact with Ethan and Sascha much more regularly than I keep in contact with the girls," she says. "The last time I saw Zoe was a few years ago. I saw Susan last year. Both times I’ve seen those women we’ve had such an emotional reunion, so excited to see one another. They’re all beautiful people; I didn’t fake any of those friendships."
She pauses, then adds, "Consider where Zoe is in her career and her life in general, the first time I saw her after not having seen her for quite a few years was at an event honoring her. I don’t know how I got on the guest list, I don’t know who put me there or why, it wasn’t a huge group of people. But Zoe saw me from across the room and started to cry. I hadn’t seen her in maybe like a decade and that’s how I felt too, I was just so happy to see her and celebrate her and everything she’s done."
Schull laughs and says she always gets a big smile on her face thinking about her costars and the film. "I’m looking up right now at a black-and-white photo that Nick framed and gave to me at the end of filming of me with the two guys from the final performance in the red dress," she adds. "I have this reminder all of the time. This movie was, if not the biggest gift, one of the biggest gifts of my career if not my life. I’m very, very lucky and I know that."
For more Center Stage secrets and stories in honor of the 20th anniversary, check out EW's retrospective on all the iconic locations from the film with Schull and production designer David Gropman.