On May 12, 2000, Center Stage burst into movie theaters across the nation, featuring some of the best ballet dancers in the industry, a bright-eyed and talented newcomer named Amanda Schull, and Peter Gallagher’s critically acclaimed eyebrows. Two full decades later, it’s become a cult classic that anyone who’s spent more than a few hours in a ballet studio still can’t stop talking about. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, go behind the scenes of the movie that got so much right about what ballet is like behind the scenes.
1. Center Stage's producers wanted to cast a high-profile actor for the role of Jody Sawyer.
Director Nicholas Hytner, a knowledgeable ballet fan himself, was committed to making Center Stage as authentic as possible, and that meant casting professional dancers. Producers were on board with his vision to a certain extent, but they were still somewhat set on an already-established actor to play Jody Sawyer ... until they auditioned some of Hollywood’s bright young stars and realized the only way the film would work was with a bona fide ballerina in the lead role. So a scout set out from coast to coast, combing top ballet companies in search of the perfect fit. After auditioning a few company members from the San Francisco Ballet to no avail, the casting director headed to the floor below, where students at the ballet school were rehearsing.
“We were told jokingly by the choreographer that some big Hollywood producer was coming in, and it was like, wild horses were not going to stop me from getting in this movie,” Amanda Schull tells Mental Floss. “I didn’t know what I was auditioning for, but I was going to get it.” Though Schull hadn’t ever acted onscreen (she did have some musical theater experience), she had always entertained the idea of becoming an actor; in fact, her classmates had once voted her most likely to do just that.
“It was just like all roads had led to that moment, and I jumped higher, and kicked higher,” she says—and it worked. The casting director asked her to read for the part of Jody on the spot. She was also asked to read for Maureen, but found out later that the casting director had fully planned on casting her as Jody; she just wanted more footage of her on tape.
2. Amanda Schull had a lot in common with her Center Stage character.
Schull’s story of being cast as Jody Sawyer is loosely reminiscent of Jody’s own storyline in the film, and the similarities don’t end there. Schull says the casting director had glimpsed her getting some of the same corrections as Jody does and Schull, like Jody, doesn’t have great feet (in other words, her feet don’t have very high, curved arches).
Her training was mainly ballet, too, so Jody’s behavior in the jazz class was pretty authentic. “I was supposed to look a little bit out-of-place and also look like I wasn’t getting it quite as quickly,” she says. “I think, probably, I didn’t have to do a lot of acting when it came to that part.”
That said, there are a few key differences between the two: Schull doesn’t have an issue with her turnout (a ballet term for how far you can rotate your hips and legs outward, so that your feet form one perfectly straight line when your heels are together), which plagues Jody throughout the film. Schull had also never had “some wild, illicit one-night stand with a company member, so that box wasn’t ticked.”
3. The motorcycle was added after Ethan Stiefel was cast in Center Stage.
Ethan Stiefel is a motorcycle aficionado in real life, a detail that filmmakers quickly co-opted for the leather jacket-wearing, rule-breaking character of Cooper Nielson after casting Stiefel—he even got to ride his own bike in the film. As for how the motorcycle made its way into the final performance, we have Tony-winning choreographer Susan Stroman to thank for that.
“People kept saying, ‘He rides a motorcycle, he rides a motorcycle, he rides a motorcycle.’ And I thought, ‘Well, OK, why don’t we put a motorcycle in the ballet?’ And [Ethan] was thrilled to be able to drive his motorcycle onstage,” Stroman told Vulture.
4. Sascha Radetsky originally auditioned for the role of Sergei in Center Stage.
Sascha Radetsky, then a member of American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) corps de ballet, had trained briefly at the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow and even spoke Russian. He auditioned to play Sergei, the charismatic expat who salsas up a storm with an older woman and puts his whole heart into proclaiming “I am your slave,” while kneeling in front of Eva (Zoë Saldana). That role, however, went to Ilia Kulik, the Russian figure skater who had recently won the gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Meanwhile, producers were strongly considering ABT principal dancer Ángel Corella for a Latino character named Carlos. But finding time to film in Corella’s schedule proved difficult, and their plans were further foiled when Corella injured his ankle during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House. Instead of looking for a direct replacement, they used it as an opportunity to reimagine the character as a boy-next-door type to offset ballet bad boy Cooper Nielson. Radetsky was called back in and given the role, who was renamed Charlie.
5. Center Stage marked Zoë Saldana’s film debut.
When she was cast in Center Stage, Zoë Saldana was an unknown aspiring actor with a few theater credits, a newly minted SAG card, and a background in ballet. Though she hadn’t danced in a few years, Saldana’s commitment to portraying a realistic ballerina made her stand out even among professional company members.
“I loved my scenes with Zoë Saldana,” Donna Murphy, who plays ballet teacher Juliette Simone, told Vulture. “It may have been the first day of filming, and I recognized the way that she was just so focused. I just remember coming out of that saying, ‘That girl’s gonna be a star.’ I mean everybody there was disciplined, everybody, but there was something about her.”
Saldana remembers her first film experience fondly, too. “Everybody that comes up to me because they recognize me from things I’ve been in, I would say maybe half of the people reference Center Stage,” she told Vulture. “The fact that they’re able to remember it years later makes me feel so good—that I was a part of something that made a time in their lives special.”
6. The dancers put their own spin on choreography, clothing, and behavior to make scenes in Center Stage more realistic.
Hytner was always receptive to dancers’ feedback on what wouldn’t be realistic in the dance world, and they made edits as they saw fit.
“There was one scene where I’m supposed to be in first position, and one of the instructors comes over and kind of kicks my feet out into a better first,” Schull remembers. “And they wanted me to be so turned in, I was like ‘She would never have gotten into this school [with that turnout].’” So Schull stuck with a first position that was somewhere between too perfect and totally implausible.
They made subtle changes to their outfits, too. “One of the other girls was wearing her black tights tucked into her ballet shoes, and I don’t know any dancer who would do that,” Schull says. “Often we wear our tights over our leotards, rather than the tights underneath, so little wardrobe tweaks.” The differences might seem negligible to viewers who have never danced, but those familiar with ballet would pick up on them right away.
7. The dancers sometimes advised the career actors in Center Stage on how to act more like dancers.
On at least two occasions, helping the actors portray ballet dancers more convincingly came down to teaching them how to walk the right way at the right time.
“There was one scene where [Susan May Pratt’s] character [Maureen] was supposed to come forward and demonstrate, and we’re all in the back kind of rolling our eyes,” Schull recounts. “The on-set ballet master wanted her to walk forward very elaborately, as if she were performing … And I remember suggesting to Susan, you know, don’t go quite so overboard. Because she wasn’t a dancer and she had never been in ballet class before, so she was just doing what she was being told.” If someone had walked forward to demonstrate a combination with stage-level drama in a regular class, Schull said it would basically be like “asking for a slap in the face,” and not even stuck-up Maureen would’ve acted that way.
Peter Gallagher solicited strutting advice from the dancers himself. “I was terrified, because I was surrounded by these brilliant, gorgeous dancers who knew what they were doing, and I realized I didn’t even know how to walk right,” he told Vulture. “I said, ‘Fellas, how do I walk? How do I walk?’ [They said] ‘Shoulder blades together, shoulder blades together!’ And I said ‘Oh my God, that’s genius, thank you!’
8. The Center Stage cast members were a close-knit bunch both on- and offscreen.
If you were hoping the warm, wonderful friendships you see onscreen in Center Stage weren’t solely the result of top-notch acting, we have excellent news: The cast members had just as much, if not more, fun when the cameras weren’t rolling. Schull remembers taco nights at her apartment in Lincoln Center, weekend dinners, and even a trip to the Hamptons. “We all went out to [Nicholas Hytner’s] beach house at one point in the Hamptons and Zoë's mom drove us back in her minivan,” she remembers. There were also some evidently unforgettable rounds of "Truth or Dare" at Eion Bailey’s Tribeca apartment, which he was borrowing from friend (and Fight Club co-star) Holt McCallany. But, as Schull told Vulture, “what happens in Eion's great apartment stays in Eion's great apartment.”
“I think it was all just a group of people kind of in the same place in their lives—we’re all around the same age and nobody had an attitude about anything—and we all just kind of clicked,” Schull says. “It was a really special, special time.”
9. The Center Stage cast members let their hair down during the nightclub scene—much like their characters did.
Schull had a bit of ballroom experience from performing in a production of Evita, but the seemingly spontaneous, no-holds-barred nature of the nightclub salsa dancing was pretty foreign to both her and Radetsky, and they started out playing it safe with Susan Stroman’s choreography. “One, two, cha cha cha, sal-sa, do-be-do,” Schull jokes, mimicking their stiffness.
After the first take, Hytner genially informed the dancers that they were way too buttoned-up, which they took to heart. “We started dirtying it up a little bit, and by the end I doubt they used what we got to, because at that point we were really going for it,” she says. “So I think they landed somewhere in a happy medium.”
10. Center Stage was filmed on location at Lincoln Center and other authentic New York spots.
For some filming locations, the production design team could let the natural beauty of New York do a lot of the work. Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater was already well-suited to host a high-caliber ballet performance; the Paul Taylor Dance Company studio, with its wide windows and street views, was perfect for Jody and Cooper’s impromptu jazz class; and the Kit Kat Club where the ABA students indulged in a night of margaritas and salsa dancing was a real club in Times Square at the time. The limousine ride through midtown Manhattan and the cruise along the Hudson were totally genuine, too. “That takes place on a real New York ferry on the Hudson River and we just hired a boat," production designer David Gropman told Entertainment Weekly.
His team did, however, build dance studios on a Brooklyn film set for all the rehearsal scenes at the fictional American Ballet Academy (ABA), which was no easy feat. “It was a huge stage set with a completely sprung dance floor, which is the kind of floor dancers need to practice on,” Gropman said. “You had to have mirrors that work both for the dancers and for the camera. And then creating that great, big skyline of New York out the windows, it was a great challenge.”
11. The boat scene in Center Stage wasn’t fun for everyone.
The cast did a spectacular job of making their touristy shenanigans out on the Hudson River look like the most fun anyone’s ever had—but what you don’t see is the bucket kept just out of frame at all times, ready for poor Amanda Schull’s next bout of seasickness. “We did that whole thing—they chartered that boat, we were at sea for several hours—and I vomited every single one of those hours,” she told Vulture.
To top it all off, that outing also included a kissing scene between Jody and Charlie. “I felt terrible—she was just totally nauseated by everything about it,” Radetsky told Dance Spirit. “And then the irony was that they ended up jettisoning that whole scene. We re-shot it later, without the kissing.”
12. Cooper and Jody’s love scene in Center Stage was very hot—literally.
After running into each other at a drop-in jazz class, Cooper whisks Jody off on his motorcycle to have dessert at his airy loft, where he can’t manage to scrounge up even a stale cookie or two. Fortunately, they come up with an alternate activity.
Not only had neither Schull nor Stiefel ever shot a love scene before, they hadn’t yet shot a scene together; in fact, it was Stiefel’s very first day of filming. “Maybe the thought was that, not really knowing each other, we'd have a certain energy or tension,” Stiefel later mused to Dance Spirit. “But I'd have to imagine those first takes weren't very pretty, day one, shot one. We ended up reshooting the scene, like, a month later.”
For Schull, the awkwardness of pretending to be hot and heavy with a coworker was exacerbated by the fact that her clothes were literally hot and heavy. “I was wearing a leotard and tights, and then a shirt, and an angora sweater, and jeans, and it was probably 115°F in the apartment,” she remembers, comparing herself to “a slimy swamp creature.”
Of reshooting the scene, she says with a laugh, “I wasn’t going to admit it, but he [Stiefel] admitted it.”
13. The supporting cast of Center Stage features a few famous faces from the ballet world.
In addition to Stiefel (who was an American Ballet Theatre principal dancer at the time), Radetsky, and Schull, the cast was teeming with professional dancers at various stages in their careers. Julie Kent, who plays Kathleen Donahue, performed with ABT for 30 years—the longest of any ballerina in the company’s history—and now serves as The Washington Ballet’s artistic director.
Other cast members include Janie Taylor, Rebecca Krohn, Jared Angle, and Jonathan Stafford, all New York City Ballet principals at one point or another (Stafford is now the artistic director of the company); Gillian Murphy, a current ABT principal and also Stiefel’s wife; and Stella Abrera, also an ABT principal and, coincidentally, Radetsky’s wife.
The rehearsal and performance scenes were filled with other ABT and NYCB company members, too, which is part of why Center Stage stands out to ballet lovers as such an exceptional dance film. “They were really good dancers who were really at the top of their game,” Schull says. “They were just so beautiful to watch. I think that’s what makes it a good ballet film. And the fact that everybody was kind of in the same place in their lives, and not trying to make the movie about them. It was a much more collaborative, realistic eye into that world.”
14. Center Stage did have some dance doubles, but not many.
While most of the dancers were professionals, Saldana and Pratt both had doubles who performed the more difficult dance scenes. Saldana’s plot-twist appearance in Jonathan’s ballet, for example, featured Aesha Ash, an NYCB corps de ballet member. “[Zoë] was a super sweetheart,” Ash told Vulture. “I remember she was always full of life and always had a smile, and always super kind to all the dancers.”
15. Center Stage's ovation-worthy final performance was filmed with no audience.
Filming Cooper’s rousing contemporary ballet took nearly a week, a process filled with what Schull describes as “a lot of hurry-up-and-wait,” which makes it difficult for dancers to keep their bodies warm and limber enough to perform. They were dancing for an empty auditorium, too, so the crew became their de facto audience. “The crew was really supportive and super into it, so it was like every take was performing, and they were so positive and encouraging of everything,” Schull says.
After they wrapped the performance itself, Schull, Stiefel, and Radetsky did get to take their final bow in front of just enough spectators to give the impression of a packed theater on screen. “They had told the audience to just go berserk, and then also Julie Kent and Peter Gallagher were in the audience as well, so we got this huge standing ovation from people who hadn’t seen us dance a single step,” Schull says. “And I got really emotional, because it was getting a standing ovation with such energy from these people for all of our work that we had done, and I remember being really moved by it.”
16. The Center Stage costumes posed their own challenges.
Combined with the pop songs, the flashy, non-traditional costumes make for an especially captivating final performance—but they also made things more difficult for both the dancers and costume designers. Stiefel’s leather pants, for one, ripped every single time he slid on the floor. “I think we made 24 pairs of those,” costume designer Ruth Myers told Vulture. Schull’s pointe shoes, dyed firetruck red for the “Canned Heat” number, also became increasingly problematic as the shoot wore on through the night. “Those shoes were slippery little suckers,” Schull told Entertainment Weekly. “I slipped and fell quite a few times because the shoes were slipping and my legs weren’t strong enough at that point."
And, of course, the pièce de résistance—the white tutu that Cooper spins Jody right out of, revealing a snappy maroon leotard and skirt beneath it. “Doing chaîné turns while someone’s pulling your force backward is challenging,” Schull explains. (Not to mention the 10 minutes it took to wrap Schull back into the costume every time they shot another take.)
17. The music video for Mandy Moore’s “I Wanna Be With You” is Center Stage-themed.
Mandy Moore’s hit single “I Wanna Be With You” serves as the soundtrack for Cooper and Jody's pivotal love scene, and the music video highlights the song’s connection to Center Stage, too. In it, a 16-year-old Moore sings her feelings out while Radetsky showcases his impressive ballet skills (and biceps) in the background. The video also includes clips from Center Stage that feature Schull and Stiefel.
18. Amanda Schull learned a valuable lesson from watching Ethan Stiefel on the Center Stage set.
Since Center Stage debuted in 2000, Schull has gone on to have a successful career in film and television, appearing in shows like Suits, Pretty Little Liars, and 12 Monkeys. In addition to all the memories, one of the most important things she took from Center Stage was a lesson about taking your time on set, which she learned watching Stiefel shoot the Stars and Stripes variation.
“After each take, he would run off, watch the playback, and then run back and do it again, and he didn’t care how much time it was taking for him to do that, he wanted to make sure he got it right, and everyone respected and appreciated it, and gave him the time,” she says. “If you insist on taking your due time, then you’ll get something that is a much better overall product, and I remember really being taken by that.”
19. A Center Stage television series is in the works.
Center Stage was followed up with two made-for-TV sequels, Center Stage: Turn It Up (2008) and Center Stage: On Pointe (2016), and longtime fans can look forward to yet another backstage pass to the ballet world in the future. Sony Pictures Television is developing a television series that “follows a new, inclusive class of dancers as they work to stay at the academy and clash against the traditional students and style the ABA is known for,” according to Deadline.
20. Center Stage gave viewers the chance to see that ballet dancers are far from one-dimensional.
Ballet dancers are taught to be disciplined, strive for technical excellence, and, to a certain degree, fit in—after all, part of the beauty of ballet is the dancers’ ability to move in unison as one synchronized body. This lends itself to the assumption that the dancers themselves exhibit a similar sense of sameness in their own lives: perfect, pretty, somewhat one-dimensional clones. Jody, Eva, Maureen, Charlie, and the rest of the dancers in Center Stage, with their various complexities and aspirations, contested that stereotype.
To better illustrate the point, we asked Amanda Schull—who loves to bake when she’s not busy filming, taking ballet class five times a week, or caring for newborn son George Paterson Wilson VI—which baked good best embodies Jody Sawyer.
“She wouldn’t be something floofy with no substance. She wouldn’t be a really tall-tiered birthday cake that just tasted like vanilla, icy frosting,” she says. “Maybe a black forest chocolate cake, or … a dense fruit and nut cake—not a fruitcake, there’d still be some icing on top. But you’d cut into it and you’d be like, ‘Whoa, this is so much more filling, and I feel so much more satiated. I’m such a better person for eating this slice of cake.’”