Julia Stiles starred in Save the Last Dance as Sara, a midwestern ballet dancer who trains for a dance audition
SAVE THE LAST DANCE, Julia Stiles, 2001
Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance
| Credit: Everett

Julia Stiles still holds Save the Last Dance close to her heart.

In a recent interview with Today, the actress, 39, reflected on the hit teen dance film, which was released in theaters 20 years ago this month.

"The absolute best thing about making that movie was the dance," said Stiles. "I mean, the rehearsals, and the dance training. I was, like, sign me up; where do I start?"

Save the Last Dance follows the story of Sara (Stiles), a white midwestern girl and who moves to Chicago to live with her father after her mother dies in a car accident. But Sara, a ballet dancer, quickly finds herself an outcast at an all-Black school where she ends up falling for Derek (Thomas) and becoming fast friends with his sister Chenille (Kerry Washington). 

Looking back on the film, Stiles said the dance scenes were "really challenging and really daunting" given her lack of dance experience in real life.

"So there was a lot of playing catch-up," she said. "But it was so fun. And such an awesome opportunity to get to do that kind of, like, rigorous training, and choreography rehearsals. I had to bust my butt to get in shape. 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."

Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas in Save the Last Dance
| Credit: Paramount/ Everett

Stiles explained that she was cast for Save the Last Dance after the director, Thomas Carter, watched her character Kat Stratford in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You do a dance on a pool table drunk.

"He saw that and he was like, 'Oh, you have rhythm,' " she recalled. "So then I screen tested with Sean (Patrick Thomas). And then another actor who was up for the role. And then they hired me."

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Stiles also shared why she thinks the film is still so beloved 20 years later. "It's entertaining, and it has the formula of dance movies which I love. But it does have something deeper going on," she said.

"It's a pop teen dance movie. But underneath it is, like, 'We've snuck in some pretty major ideas,' " Stiles added. "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?"

Stiles continued, "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."

Kerry Washington
Save the Last Dance cast
| Credit: Paramount Pictures/courtesy: Everett Collection
Kerry Washington
Julia Stiles, Kerry Washington in Save the Last Dance
| Credit: Paramount Pictures/courtesy: Everett Collection

Last week, Stiles reunited with Thomas, 50, and caught up to talk about the film's lasting impact in an interview with Entertainment Tonight.

"I never ever would have expected that, to have people still talking about it 20 years later," Thomas told ET.

"I'm really proud," Stiles said. "When we made the film, I was like, 'Really? This is still an issue? People don't approve of a Black guy and a white girl together?' It opened my eyes."

Stiles and Thomas also told ET that working with Washington, 43, was a special experience for them as well. "She's amazing," Stiles said. "I could feel it when we were making the movie that it was her time."