Who is Sean Patrick Thomas? Though his name may not immediately ring any bells, he’s got a face that you just know you’ve seen somewhere before. Around Hollywood Thomas immediately garners recognition by identifying himself simply as “the black guy, Cruel Intentions .”
But this simple description does not encapsulate Thomas’ experience or his goals for the future. Thomas sat down recently with The Hatchet to give the whole story on his ambitions, his experience and his starring role in the new movie Save the Last Dance (Paramount).
Thomas said he identifies with his role as Derek, a high school student striving to break out of inner city Chicago and become a doctor.
“We’re both ambitious, family people,” he said. “We both have similar goals, lofty goals.”
Derek’s priorities change when he meets Sara, played by Julia Styles ( 10 Things I Hate About You). Sara is a white suburban teen forced to move into a run-down Chicago apartment with her father played by Terry Kinney ( The Last of the Mohicans) after her mother dies. Derek and his sister Chenille, played by newcomer Kerry Washington, befriend Sara and try to acclimatize her to urban life.
Along the way Derek offers to teach Sara the intricate art of hip-hop dancing and the two enter into a close relationship despite the fact that interracial dating is taboo in their community. Thomas rekindles Julia’s interest in ballet, an art that she gave up when her mother died.
“It’s basically an old fashioned love story,” Thomas said. “It’s about two star-crossed lovers from different sides of the tracks that have their conflicts and complications.”
As the movie progresses, Sara and Derek’s relationship presents them with a number of challenges. Sara works to prepare an audition for the Julliard Dance School while Derek grapples with an old friend Malakai (Fredro Starr), who needs help in a drive-by shooting.
Save the Last Dance stands apart from other teen movies because its characters evoke genuine emotion. Thomas said he embraced the chance to play a role that adds depth to the teen genre.
“I thought I could do it in a way that hasn’t been done,” he said. “I thought I could bring a little more gravity to it than you usually see.”
Though the story itself is quite gripping, the complicated hip-hop dance routines, performed by both Styles and Thomas, are easily the highlight of Save the Last Dance. Thomas gives an impressive performance, especially considering the fact that he had little prior dance experience.
“I learned a lot of it in the field of battle” Thomas said. “I spent a lot of times in clubs in Chicago hanging out pretty much every night.”
Billed as a teen movie, Save the Last Dance also tackles some fairly serious issues such as gang violence and interracial dating.
“I think the movie puts out the opinion of a lot of black women that I know,” Thomas said. “They don’t like seeing a black guy with a woman who’s not black.”
Thomas said he sees a problem with this type of reasoning and feels that the movie, in the end, works to refute it.
“I think ultimately that argument ignores the fact that before you’re anything else you’re just a man,” Thomas said. “Before you’re a black man you’re a man. Before you’re anything you’re just who you are.”
His character may be hard to define, but it is easy to tell who Sean Patrick Thomas is. Thomas is a young actor looking to explode. His previous credits include roles in Cruel Intentions (Columbia Pictures), Can’t Hardly Wait (Columbia TriStar) and Courage Under Fire (Twentieth Century Fox), as well as several other movies and stage productions. Although his part as Derek is Thomas’s first leading role, he said he approached it with little reserve.
“You’d think it would be harder, but for me it’s better,” he said. “I do better work when I have more pressure on me when I have more to do, when I’m the guy.”
Thomas can also be seen in Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 (Dimension Films) and on the Saturday night ABC series “The District.”
Thomas said he is proud of his role in “The District,” in which he plays a D.C. police officer, and of the show’s underlying message.
“I think that it manages to put an optimistic spin on fighting crime,” Thomas said. “Most shows give the impression that the bad guys are winning. `The District’ puts the spin on it that these criminals will eventually be beat if we stick to it.”
Thomas was born in D.C. but grew up in Delaware where he attended the University of Delaware. Apparently professional acting was not always in the cards for Thomas.
“Acting was just kind of like my side activity, kind of the thing I did to fill my time (during college),” Thomas said.
Acting eventually became his passion, and after graduation Thomas moved to New York to study theatre. He honed his skills by first performing on the stage before eventually moving to Los Angeles, where he secured his first film role.
Thomas said he has enjoyed his work in the movie industry so far and hopes to expand as an actor and break through common hurdles for black actors.
“I’m excited about playing roles that weren’t necessarily written black,” he said. “I want to play that young hero that they don’t usually don’t write for a black guy.”
With three major projects out right now Thomas is taking his first real look at the big time.
“I have responsibility to myself as an actor to try other things,” he said.
Save the Last Dance has the potential to transform this young man into a major celebrity. This prospect of this does not shake Thomas, who is keeping his eyes on the horizon and his lofty goals in mind.
“I want to play James Bond, but I might be a little young for that right now,” he said.