Dancing and acting go hand in hand, especially on the stage. But what happens when you take a professional ballet dancer and put her in a major motion picture? In the case of Amanda Schull, you get a double threat. Schull made her film debut in 2000’s Center Stage, but returned to her dancing roots afterward. Now she’s back in Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer.
If you’re picturing a sequel to You Got Served, you’re wrong. Mao’s Last Dancer is based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin (played by Chi Cao) who at the ripe age of 11 is plucked from his modest hometown and taken to study ballet in Beijing. During his journey of self-discovery, he falls in love with an American dancer. The role fits Schull like a glove. Here, she discusses the differences between dancing and acting and the importance of great casting.
Kate Ritter (MM): What made you decide to pursue a career in acting?
Amanda Schull (AS): I have always loved acting. I did a lot of musical theater growing up, but I never genuinely considered it for a career. I think it was a combination of luck and destiny that led me to getting cast in Center Stage, which sparked the reality that a future in this business might be possible for me. However, I still had a life as a professional ballet dancer that I needed to complete. After seven wonderful years with the San Francisco Ballet Company, I decided it was time to pursue acting full-time.
MM: What is your background in dance? How does your dancing inform your acting and vice versa?
AS: I started dancing at about age four. I took classes in many different styles of dance. Eventually, I narrowed my focus to ballet. In all honesty, I hated it for quite a few years. Ballet required way too much discipline, but eventually, as I matured, I realized how beautiful ballet is and how incredible of a feeling it can be to do it well. I was a double major in dance and journalism in college. After my sophomore year, I went to the San Francisco Ballet School for the summer, they asked me to stay for the year and then offered me a contract to join the company.
I think dancers have an advantage over non-dancers when it comes to acting. We are trained to embody each character we portray. A dancer instinctively knows that physical presentation is just as important as the dialogue. A peasant walks differently from a prince; the posture of a cocky person is much different from someone who is shy.
MM: How did you get involved with Mao’s Last Dancer?
AS: I got the role with what started out as a conventional audition here in Los Angeles. The unusual part was that I never met anyone directly associated with the film until I had already been cast and was ready to shoot in Australia. Everything was done long distance on tape. The casting director wanted to give Bruce Beresford a feel for who I was since he wouldn’t get to meet me before we worked together, so she had me sit and chat with her for about 20 minutes while the camera rolled. It wasn’t until I was in Australia, already working on the film, that I met Bruce and the rest of the cast and crew. It was such a perfect fit, everyone clicked immediately—the casting director really knew what she was doing!
MM: How is dancing for the screen different than for the stage?
AS: They are very different. On stage you have one shot, one opportunity to show the audience what you have prepared; with film you have many different takes. There are benefits to both. Obviously with film having the opportunity to do something repeatedly until you have shown what you want is a huge advantage. However there is something magical about performing in a theater, especially with a live orchestra, lights, beautiful costumes and the energy of the audience. Some of my most thrilling moments have been on stage, and in turn, some of my most disappointing.
MM: You experimented in television with reoccurring roles in “One Tree Hill” and “Pretty Little Liars.” How does acting for television compare to feature films? Do you prefer one over the other?
AS: Like dancing on the stage versus screen, there are benefits to both. Television moves much more quickly than film, which can be great and frustrating at times. There is much more leisure when doing a scene for film, longer setup times for the lights and camera, more angles to consider and usually more opportunities for the actor to produce the desired performance. With television, the turnaround time from production to the airdate is much shorter, so the product needs to be created much more quickly.
I love having the luxury of working with the same director for an extended period of time, really cultivating a character and story. I’ve been lucky, I have honestly loved and respected the vision of all of the film directors with whom I have worked, but I can imagine that if that weren’t the case, spending that much time in that close of proximity would not be very pleasant.
I also enjoy going to a television show set, accomplishing what I prepared and moving on to the next scene without a lot of down time. I just love to act no matter the medium!
MM: If you could only choose to do one thing—dance or act—which would it be and why?
AS: I love them both. I was lucky. I had a great dance career, and really, I’m just starting my acting career. I guess I’d have to say that I’d choose to act since there are so many things I want to accomplish with this profession. I do however, really enjoy to incorporate them both whenever possible!
MM: What’s up next for you?
AS: I’m looking forward to reprising my roles on “One Tree Hill” and “Pretty Little Liars.” Both characters (or should I say all three?), Katie/Sara and Meredith, are so much fun to work with.