For those who grew up loving 10 Things I Hate About You, Drive Me Crazy, or Center Stage, Susan May Pratt needs no introduction.
For those who didn't, she played Julia Stiles’ Shakespeare-obsessed best friend in the 1999 Taming of the Shrew–inspired comedy, then she was Melissa Joan Hart’s scheming frenemy in the 1999 movie that introduced us to Adrian Grenier, and she was also “the best goddamn dancer” in the 2000 ballet drama.
Although none of those films were massive commercial successes — 10 Things made $38 million while Drive Me Crazy and Center Stage both topped out around $17 million — many children of the ’90s connected deeply to at least one of them. And to that curated collective, Pratt is as iconic and important as Heath Ledger, Britney Spears, or Jamiroquai’s "Canned Heat."
But starring in back-to-back-to-back cult favorites didn’t translate into more work for Pratt. “Center Stage changed my life. It was the first time that strangers on the street recognized and approached me. But it didn't, unfortunately, as you know, change my career that much,” she told BuzzFeed News during a recent candid phone interview. “It didn't do that well and it didn't actually give me any other opportunities.”
After the release of Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed ballet drama, Pratt went on to earn guest-starring roles on TV shows (like Charmed and Mad Men) and bit parts in independent films (like 2002's Searching for Paradise opposite Chris Noth, and 2003's Undermind), but none of those jobs helped her move further up the Hollywood ladder. “It's kind of disappointing to have one's career peak in your mid-twenties and have it be a downhill slide since,” she said with a laugh. “[It’s] been hard for me in the last 15 years that my career has not progressed.”
But acting was not a profession Pratt spent her childhood dreaming of — a fact that takes a bit of the sting out for the now 41-year-old mother of two. Pratt left school at 16 to pursue modeling in Milan before heading to college in New York, where agents began sending her out for commercials, which quickly led to film and television auditions. “I was kind of really lost at that point," Pratt said. "I didn't know what I wanted. So I was like, OK, let's try this!”
She scored her first acting role in a 1998 episode of Law & Order and then put college on hold after being cast as Mandella in 10 Things. “The cast was all really young — like me and Gabrielle Union were the grandmas in the cast because we were in our mid-twenties and the rest of them were literally teenagers,” Pratt recalled of her co-stars Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Larisa Oleynik, and a then-unknown (at least in America) Heath Ledger. The young cast, she said, would have massive dinners every night.
The original DNA for Mandella was drastically different than what made the final cut of the film, Pratt said. “Mandella was a really dark character in the first few incarnations of the script. She was very much trying to kill herself so she could join Shakespeare in heaven,” the actor revealed, noting there was a scene in which Mandella furiously scratched at her wrists with the edges of a spiral-bound notebook. “There was also this scene — You know Isadora Duncan? She was a dancer and she was in a convertible and she flung her scarf around her neck and it got wrapped around the wheel and she was decapitated. Well, Mandella would do weird things like that. She'd get into a convertible and fling her scarf around her neck or dangle it off the side.”
But at the first table read, director Gil Junger noticed how disturbing Mandella's scenes were and set out to soften the character, and by extension, the film. “I remember I was sitting next to Gil at the table read and the only note on his notebook was, ‘Cut Mandella,’” Pratt recalled, with a chuckle. “I was like, Aww. That's harsh. … I didn't have any perspective on the business or anything. I didn't get it yet.”
Now, she said, “I can see why they cut [those dark scenes]. … That wasn't that movie and it wouldn't have made the money it did if all that was in the movie.”
A less troublesome Mandella made her way into the movie, but she was still a supporting character who was further reduced in rewrites and editing. And the moderate success of 10 Things didn’t result in any extra industry attention.
Still, Pratt had another role lined up: She segued directly into playing Alicia in Drive Me Crazy, a romantic comedy that starred Hart and Grenier as friends turned enemies turned more than friends. While initially introduced as the salty best friend, Alicia was quickly revealed to be the film’s villain — a turn Pratt relished. “It's much harder to be nice than to be mean,” Pratt said of her character. “She was so nasty, it was super fun. I've never really had that amount of fun again.”
What did follow was, arguably, the biggest and most memorable role of Pratt’s career: prima ballerina Maureen in 2000's Center Stage. Maureen was the perfect combination of Mandella’s darkness and Alicia’s mean streak. But she was more grounded than those heightened characters, giving Pratt the opportunity to explore the internal motivations behind her bad attitude.
“We got to show that the reason a lot of people act like bitches is because they're really unhappy,” Pratt said of Maureen, who was driven to an eating disorder in a desperate bid to stay one step ahead of her fellow ballerinas — a career path the dancer’s mother wanted more than Maureen did herself.
Although Pratt was not a trained dancer, her character’s storyline was something she personally related to. “I was not a particularly happy person in my teens and early twenties and I remember a lot of people in college thought I was just a total bitch,” she said. “It wasn't until a couple months into school where someone would be like, Hey, you're actually really nice. So I really loved Maureen's character arc because it showed a lot of times people behave badly just because they're very unhappy, and that’s a nice message.”
Though it was emotionally draining to bring such a personal story to the screen, Center Stage was even more physically demanding than Pratt could have ever anticipated. “I remember being asked over and over again, over many months of auditions, 'Do you dance, like, for real?' And I was like, I'm not a ballerina. I took ballet when I was a kid, but I'm not going to oversell here,” she said. After landing the role, Pratt immediately jumped back into dance rehearsals, but two weeks of refresher courses was no substitute for 10 years of training.
“Those dancers have such muscle memory and they would show the combination to the dancers and they'd get it right away, whereas it would take me a week to learn that,” she said. “There's just not the ability. It was hard because I couldn't do it. And then the choreographers on set were very honest. I would be like, How was that? And they were like, Ummmm, that was terrible. And then, on the day that I was supposed to shoot all the scenes with my body double, where I would do some part of a routine and she would shoot most of it, she got the flu, and they couldn't redo it. So if you watch the movie carefully, you'll see that I only have a body double in one or two scenes, tops. There would have been a lot more dancing for my character in the movie if she hadn't gotten the flu that day.”
There would have also been more Maureen in the movie if the film’s original script had been executed exactly the way it was written. “My part and Zoe Saldana's parts were bigger — it was like three equal parts in the original script,” she said, with the third part centering on, of course, Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull). But from the onset, Pratt thought the movie didn’t need as much Maureen.
“When I read the script, I was like, This is too long by at least 20 pages,” Pratt remembered. “I remember in rehearsals with Nicholas Hytner being like, This scene I'm doing is really like the same note as what I just said in this other scene. But he didn't listen to me. And then I was laughing so hard when I saw the movie because they cut out all the stuff I had thought was repetitive. I remember loving my character and actually being glad they cut it down. It didn't quite gel. … It just didn't make sense to have a movie about three equal characters. It made sense that it was Jody’s story in the end.”
Jody may have technically been the lead of Center Stage, but Maureen and Saldana’s Eva are equally memorable in the eyes of audiences. “I really appreciate that people like the movie. It means something to me,” Pratt said. “As an actor, we hope to touch people with what we do and communicate because it's all about storytelling. … I'm glad to have been able to tell the stories I have.”
Two years after the release of Center Stage, while working on a TV movie called Charms for the Easy Life, which co-starred Gena Rowlands and Mimi Rogers, Pratt met fellow actor Kenneth Mitchell, whom she later married. The couple live in Los Angeles with their two children, and Pratt has continued to act — she recently appeared on CSI: Cyber and Showtime’s Emmy-nominated Masters of Sex. But in order for her to consider a potential acting job, there’s one requirement: She has to make more money than her babysitter.
“My babysitter makes $15 an hour. If I'm getting paid less than my babysitter, that's pretty much it,” Pratt said. “Like, I've shot in Prague and Atlanta and that's all fine if I'm getting paid enough that we can cover child care or bring my children with me. They'll send me on an audition for a no-budget indie, I'll be like, Hey, guys, how much does this pay? Because you know my rule: If I get paid less than my babysitter, I can't take it!”
And Pratt is fine letting some of those roles go, particularly because there is also a new passion in her life at the moment: She is finishing up her bachelor’s degree in business while checking off prerequisites for a master's program at the University of Southern California in occupational therapy.
“Yes, I'm disappointed that my career hasn't been more successful than it has, but I've enjoyed it and I've really benefited from it and I feel like I'm beginning to know when it's time to diversify,” she said. “My personality, as I've come to accept it, is more suited towards other things. I'm the only person in my family without a Ph.D. — my sister is a scientist, my dad is a scientist, my mom had a Ph.D. — and I really love being in school right now. I would prefer to write an essay than [make] a movie. But I'm still auditioning — I mean, I have an audition in an hour from now.”
As it turns out, Pratt still has some Maureen in her.