HOTSEAT- Hollywood 'hoo: UVA's other famous Thomas
After his turns in several Hollywood blockbusters, some might say Sean Patrick Thomas' ascendancy to the big screen was inevitable. But to hear the UVA alum tell it, his interest in acting owes more to his being in the right place at the right time.
"They were doing a production of A Raisin in the Sun, and the black acting pool was kind of shallow," explains Thomas. "I had an art class in the Culbreth Theater, and one day, [drama professor] Richard Warner stops me and tells me to come audition."
Thomas landed the role of Nigerian student Asagai, and from that point on, acting was his life's ambition.
"I knew it was for me when I was really nervous to go out there opening night, and then I got out there and felt so at ease," he says. "I had never felt that comfortable in any circumstance in my life up to that point."
Still, Thomas didn't consider an acting career until his fourth year, when he decided to apply to graduate acting programs. He knew he hadn't chosen the most stable line of work, and had some selling to do with his mother.
"My father had died between first and second year, and it left my mother kind of numb for a while," he says, "so she really didn't catch on until it was too late. She used to say, 'You're going to be poor forever,' but I knew she was only telling me about the things she was afraid of, and that I had her full support."
After earning his M.F.A. from New York University in 1995, Thomas became joined the thousands of other struggling actors in Los Angeles. As it turned out, the struggle didn't last long. Only a few months after arriving in Hollywood, the 24-year-old actor had landed a speaking part in the military whodunit Courage Under Fire alongside Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan. To this day, Thomas says watching Washington work was one of his best learning experiences.
"I'd watch Denzel ad-lib things that weren't in the script," he says. "I hadn't realized I had that freedom after having done theater, where you only get one shot at a scene.
"And then my line would come up, and I'd forget because I was too busy watching him."
Thomas soon moved beyond his starstruck first days to snag a role in the 1999 prep-school scandal drama Cruel Intentions, a box-office hit, and as the leading man in the 2001 coming-of-age romance Save the Last Dance, a performance he says has given him a false reputation.
"I go to a club, and people think I'm supposed to be this great dancer," he says. "I just learned my choreography, and there's some stuff in there that's anatomically impossible for me to do. But I did do about 75 percent of the dancing you see in the movie."
Thomas returns to Charlottesville this week to screen his performance alongside Danny Glover and Charles S. Dutton in Honeydripper.
"Watching those two was watching two masters," he says. "They're constantly aware of what's happened in the scene before, and they let the scene come to them instead of just spitting out the lines. In the midst of hair and makeup and learning your lines, you forget basics like that."
As for what's next for Thomas, he just wrapped a TV movie production of A Raisin in the Sun that gave him a "weird, full circle feeling."
"I played George this time," he says. "Hopefully I'll get to play Walter in about 10 years."
What do you like best about Charlottesville? The mountains
Favorite hangout here? The White Spot
Most overrated virtue? Charm
People would be surprised to know about you: I'm afraid of dogs.
What would you change about yourself? I'm kinda shy.
Proudest accomplishment? Moving to New York without a clue about what I was doing
People find most annoying about you: I'm rational and efficient to a fault.
Whom do you admire? The working man
Favorite book? Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown
Subject that causes you to rant? Crimes against children
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Still, as always, being onstage
Biggest 21st-century creep out? MySpace
What do you drive? Lexus GX470
In your car CD player right now: Greatest Funk Hits
Next journey? Fatherhood
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Evading police on Rugby Road
Regret: Didn't party enough in college
Favorite comfort food: Pepperoni & sausage pizza
Always in your refrigerator: Sliced roast turkey
Must-see TV: Lost, 24, any Philadelphia Eagles game
Favorite cartoon: Underdog
Describe a perfect day. Any Thanksgiving or Christmas with lots of family around, then everybody shuts up and lets me watch football
Walter Mitty fantasy: Traveling back through time and freeing the slaves
Who'd play you in the movie? Me, of course. If I'm unavailable, Djimon Hounsou
Most embarrassing moment? Locking myself in a car while being attacked by bloodhounds (long story)
Best advice you ever got? Pretend you're a good actor.
Favorite bumper sticker? "Save a horse, ride a cowboy."