I remember talking on the phone in my mom’s kitchen as a young teen, coordinating a ride with my bestie to the movie theatre to see Center Stage the day it came out. We were obsessed as soon as we saw the first previews weeks before—both bunheads ourselves (albeit at way less glamorous Mississauga ballet schools), we felt like this was the movie we never even knew we’d been waiting for. Understand this was pre-Save the Last Dance, pre-Step It Up, pre-Honey—we were starved for a good dance movie. And Center Stage DELIVERED. To this day, it remains one of those flicks I’ll always, always watch when it’s on TV.
All this to say: when I was offered the chance to interview lead dancer-actor Amanda Schull—who’s now starring in the TV remake of another classic movie, 12 Monkeys—I jumped at the chance. A lot more laid-back than Center Stage’s plucky Jody Sawyer, Schull is effusive and familiar chatting over the phone from L.A.—and just as excited to talk about her newest TV role as she is to take a dance down memory lane.
What do you love most about playing Dr. Cassandra Railly in 12 Monkeys?
Probably her strength and her intelligence. When I first booked it, it seemed like a very straightforward role—the doctor wanting to do good—but over two seasons my character has transformed into this strong, physically and mentally, capable woman. She’s never intimidated, never backs down from a potential dangerous situation. It’s a really refreshing character type, and really fun to play.
Were you a fan of the movie when it first came out?
I was a fan of the original, but I didn’t watch again before I took this role. I wanted to approach it with a fresh perspective, because it’s not a straight remake, and I didn’t want people to think that it was just a cover of the original.
The show was just renewed for a third season. What do you hope will happen to your character?
What I want for her and what I want to do with the character are different! [laughs] I want her to be happy. I want for her to be able to understand what is going on more with the army of the 12 monkeys, what they want from her, and how she can stop them in their tracks—without compromising her sanity.
How did you first get into acting?
I was an apprentice at the San Francisco Ballet and a casting director came to one of our rehearsals to scout talent for Center Stage. I landed the role of Jodie. Before that, I had definitely already considered acting, but knew it had to happen after ballet. In fact, after I wrapped Center Stage, I went back to dancing for seven seasons with the company. Ballet is a finite art—your body won’t let you do it forever, so I wanted to do it while I could. But I kept in touch with my agent that whole time, and when I was ready to retire from dancing I went down to L.A. and started making the rounds.
As someone who came from the dance world, what was the biggest similarity in Center Stage to your real life?
It was very similar, because I got the role just as I was getting my apprenticeship to the company. I was going through the same thing as Jodie. I’ve also been told a lot of the same corrections and criticisms as my character in terms of my body, my feet, my dancing. I never had a affair with a principal dancer though! Some of the movie is definitely exaggerated for entertainment, but that life is very competitive and challenging, especially for girls, and the movie depicted that well.
What were the biggest differences?
I never put that much time into my hair! Jodie always had these great hairdos. I would never mess around with braids and curls and everything.
Why do you think dance movies are always so popular, even among non-dancers?
I didn’t realize at the time that we were doing anything that would resonate with so many people. We were just having a great time and doing our best. One thing that made our movie special was the director, Nicholas Hytner, hired actual dancers and let them have freedom to do what they do best. There weren’t many body doubles, so there weren’t these moments where you can see the reality breaking. There was also a lot of realism with the plot and the characters, which always resonates. And then the fact that it was a classic coming-of-age story—that’s always relevant.
What was it like on set with the other dancers?
I had gone to ballet summer camps for most of my life and it felt like an extension of that. It was the time of my life, I could not believe that I was getting paid to do this. I loved working with everyone, we had so many giggle fits. We’d even spend the weekends together. It was a joy.
What was your fave scene to shoot?
The most memorable for sure was the scene on the boat. We had so much fun—even though I was totally seasick! I was barfing between takes.
Most fans of the movie would probably name that final dance scene as their favourite. How many times did you have to shoot the part where you untwirl your tutu?
Actually, we couldn’t do it that many times because the tutu was held together by hundreds of teeny snaps and getting it back done up was so time consuming. By the way, real tutus are tacked together at the end, so the idea that it would be able to come apart like that just isn’t realistic! Anyway, I had to make sure I got it right. The first time, when Ethan [Stiefel, who plays badass ballet dude Cooper Nielson] pulled on the tutu, I couldn’t move, so I had to try it again with more force. But we got it within a couple takes. Actually, they let me keep that tutu, I still have it somewhere.
If they decided to do a remake for 2016, would you want to be involved?
I feel so precious about Jodie. I would need to make sure that where her character had gone and what she was doing fit with my idea of her. Fans of the movie have their own ideas too, and you want to make sure you don’t disappoint them.
What was the most significant thing you learned from this first role that you still apply in your career now?
What I learned from that film in particular, because we had such long dance days in the studio and on set, was the importance of preparation. That applies to ballet as well as acting: you really need to show up and know what you’re doing. Those days were so long, so if you didn’t come prepared you made it even longer for everyone.
What’s been your fave role to date?
Cassie [on 12 Monkeys] is hands-down my most interesting role so far. But I’ve been lucky in that all my roles have been unique and interesting. On Suits, my character [Katrina Bennett] is bizarre and quirky in such a great way. In Murder in the First everything is based in reality, so there’s an onus to make my character [Melissa Danson] even more believable. But I really try to ground everything in reality, I try to live in each character’s bones.