Newcomer hip-hops to a box-office success

When Sean Patrick Thomas switched career paths from law to acting, his mother wasn't thrilled. She usually supported him in everything he did, he says, but she had reservations about acting as a profession.

Then Thomas landed roles in the surprise hit movie "Save the Last Dance" and CBS's "The District." His mother didn't need any more convincing. "She just loves all this Hollywood stuff and interviews," he said in a recent telephone conversation. His mother occasionally accompanies him to interviews. "Knowing that she loves that stuff, I love to have her along."

On its opening weekend Jan. 12, "Save the Last Dance" knocked "Cast Away" out of the No. 1 spot at the box office, earning $24 million. To date, it has earned close to $50 million.

In the movie, the handsome actor from Wilmington, Del., plays a black high school student who inspires a white girl to dance again after her mother dies in a car accident. He teaches her hip-hop moves, and they eventually fall for each other. It's Thomas's first leading role.

"It challenged me on the level of having to do the dancing, on the level of fighting, playing certain stereotypes, and being melodramatic," he says. "I knew that if people saw it, they would like it."

When Thomas auditioned for the role, his phone didn't ring immediately. But after the filmmakers auditioned dancers, they decided it would be better to teach an actor how to dance than the other way around. Thomas was soon hanging out with choreographers and was "fed a steady diet of hip-hop."

The charismatic actor, who has an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, earned his master's in fine arts at New York University. His favorite roles at NYU were the plays "The Piano Lesson" and "MacBeth."

"There's so much joy [in acting] that it makes you more committed to pursuing it for your life's work," Thomas says. "It's so much fun."

When he first moved to Los Angeles four years ago, Thomas acted in commercials and in a short-lived TV pilot. To pay the bills, he tutored students for their SATs and worked as a substitute teacher.

In between mentoring, he was offered parts that focused more on hoodlums and silly comedy than intellectual and challenging roles.

"It was just frustrating in the sense that when you walk into a room, people expect you to bring the funny stuff or street stuff to the table because of what you look like," he says. "That's just not what I bring to the table.

"I figured that I'd eventually get to do something that was for me."

His positive attitude paid off. Since 1996, he's had minor roles in a handful of movies - "Courage Under Fire," "Conspiracy Theory," and "Cruel Intentions."

After he appeared in "Manchester Prep," a TV spinoff of "Cruel Intentions" (now canceled), his career gained momentum. On "The District," he plays a Christian detective who works alongside police Chief Craig T. Nelson.

The up-and-coming actor says he just wants to keep acting. But understandably, he has certain standards. "I prefer roles that are well-rounded and have a lot of depth and complexity," he says. "Roles that give you an opportunity to flex your imagination and your intellect."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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