Directed by Thomas Carter, Save the Last Dance followed dancer Sara (Stiles), who after the death of her mother moves from a small Midwestern town to the south side of Chicago. She then falls for Derek, an African-American teenager (Thomas) at her new high school, who also shares a love for dance. Kerry Washington portrayed Derek's sister Chenille. It touched on issues of interracial couples, race and class.
"I’m really proud to have been a part of the movie, especially because it resonated [with audiences]," Stiles told ET's Nischelle Turner. "It's even more impactful now, but when we made the film -- and this is admittedly my naïveté and what you would call my white privilege now -- I was like, 'Really, this is still an issue? People don't approve of a Black guy and a white girl together?' And then through the voices in the movie and some of the supporting characters, like Kerry Washington's character giving a voice to a different perspective, it opened my eyes to a lot of issues surrounding race and that's still being talked about now."
The two actors couldn't have been more grateful to have been part of Save of the Last Dance, but there's one thing that Stiles regrets about her time on set.
"My one regret about Save The Last Dance and making it is that when we were in pre-production and doing all of the dance rehearsals, I was doing the ballet too, and [choreographer] Fatima [Robinson] would take Sean and Kerry, and all of the other actors out to the club in Chicago," Stiles recalled. "And every night I'd get a phone call, 'We're going here, we're going there,' and I was such a do-gooder that I was like, 'I can't, I have ballet rehearsals at nine in the morning.'"
"And I missed all of the incredible clubbing experience, what was I thinking?" she added, with Thomas quipping, "I would like to ease your conscience on that, but I mean you missed out. We had a good time. It was fun."
The film was an instant hit, debuting at No. 1 at the box office and making $27.5 million in its opening weekend. It grossed $131.7 million worldwide.
"Anything that I work on [I] keep my expectations in check because you can never predict what is going to happen with a film, but I think what is so meaningful to me is that, yes, it made money at the box office, which is always great and a sign that a movie is popular, but to me the long-term residence of the film and the ability for it to entertain people 20 years later is what you hope for as an actor," Stiles noted of the film's lasting effect. "You want to be part of something that sticks with people. So that's really special."
Thomas, on his end, added that he "never ever would have expected" the film to be such a success. "When Julia and I were doing this we worked hard, we had a lot of fun. But at the same time, like Julia said, you kind of keep your expectation in check because you never know," he explained. "And to have people still talking about it 20 years later, I have guys sending me pictures or women sending me pictures, like, 'I married this Black guy and you made me feel like that was OK,' and stuff like that. I hear life-changing things to this day about it, which is just kind of mind blowing to me. I so much appreciate it."
After two decades, Save the Last Dance's storyline continues to resonate with audiences. If it was released now, Thomas believes it "would still hold up," because "everything about the film is honest."
"We didn't try and shout things from the rooftops or make these deep philosophical pronouncements. We just kind of told a story about these individuals in this given circumstance," he continued. "The core of it had so much authenticity and integrity that I do think it might play very well today."
Stiles added, "The thing that I like about the movie is that we snuck in all those serious issues into a movie that is entertaining and a teen dance movie."
The movie is also one that the actors' co-stars, friends and fans constantly bring up when they see them. Stiles even recalled Keke Palmer expressing her admiration for the film while working together on Hustlers.
"I remember I was working on the movie Hustlers and it was my first day on set, and I so wanted to be a part of that movie and I knew it was something special," the actress remembered. "And I am about to do a scene with Jennifer Lopez, so I was even a little bit nervous, and Keke came into my trailer and she was like, 'I got to tell you how much that movie...' And she went on and on and on and it was so sweet and it broke the ice for me too. It gave me that sense of, 'Yes. I deserve to be here. OK great!'"
As for their biggest memories of working together, Stiles and Thomas both agree that their chemistry and trust was key to the film's success.
"Sean and I had a lot of time together, particularly rehearsing the choreography," Stiles shared. "I felt like we were a really good team. And you can always feel this sort of undercurrent of pressure, the pressure I put on myself in terms of getting the dancing right, but the studio was watching and I felt like I could rely on you, Sean. So you were like a rock, very, very calm and mature and steady, and that is a gift because you don't actually get that with a co-star."
"I would have to agree with Julia," Thomas followed. "I felt 100 percent supported and I felt like we were always on the same page about getting it right and doing good work...And the best thing about working with Julia was, I felt like there were times on set that not everyone had our backs, not everyone was 100 percent a believer at times. And I felt like we were able to look each other in the eye and be like, 'We got this,' and I depended on her for that everyday and it was great to have that."
Save the Last Dance is available on DVD and digital from Paramount Home Entertainment.