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Introducing Elisabeth Oas

by Dale Dobson

Chicago-area actress Elisabeth Oas recently spent some time with digitallyOBSESSED, discussing her debut on the big screen and the DVD format in Paramount's teen drama Save the Last Dance.

(Note: Our conversation has been edited for continuity and clarity.)

dOc: Tell us how you got involved with Save the Last Dance.

Oas: Well, it was just another audition, like I go on every day. I auditioned for it, and then, probably two months later, I had a callback. And‹they were also auditioning in L.A. and New York‹and then I had a second callback, and I found out that day that I got it.

dOc: Was your Chicago location a factor?

Oas: I auditioned in Chicago‹I don't know if it was a factor, I don't think so. They were reading for all the roles in the three major cities.

dOc: Was this your first major studio picture?

Oas: It was my first major studio picture with more than one scene. Before that I'd done Cheaters and Unconditional Love, and those were both studio films, but they were only a scene apiece. And lots of independent films.

dOc: It looks like New Line's Unconditional Love has been re-titled Who Shot Victor Fox, and it's coming out next year sometime.

Oas: That's news to me! I was wondering what the hell was going on with that one!

dOc: Probably not on the schedule you thought originally...

Oas: I know, I'm like, "okay, is it ever comin' out?"

dOc: When was Save the Last Dance shot?

Oas: It was shot in January and February of 2000; they started shooting in October of 1999, or November.

dOc: I gather that director Thomas Carter likes to shoot a lot of retakes.

Oas: Yes, he's a complete perfectionist. He will take a long time with one little thing. He's kind of known for that. But it works, y'know?

dOc: Was there much improvisation on the set?

Oas: There was and there wasn't. We would shoot it a few times the way that the script had it, and then we would shoot it... maybe a few times, he'd say, "let's mess around with this." Like the gymnasium scene, we shot it both ways. Originally I was on a balance beam, and there were some different lines; and then we shot the lines in the script on the rope, and then we shot improv with me on the rope, and that's what ended up being put in.

dOc: Did you have to do any looping in post-production?

Oas: Yep, I went in to do looping twice. In Chicago.

dOc: What did you think of the project when you first became involved in it?

Oas: Well, I mean, I was, y'know, I thought it was GREAT! I thought... I was just really happy to be involved in something that big. I didn't know how it would turn out, how it would look... I knew it was a teen movie, I knew it had an opportunity to be really cheesy. And then, surprisingly, it wasn't. When you first read the script, you can see it not being... everyone's cup of tea.

dOc: I think a lot of what worked was... these characters that might have been fairly two-dimensional... the casting did quite a bit to elevate it. And Thomas Carter made it a little bit grittier than this type of film tends to be.

Oas: Exactly. The performances were very honest, therefore the audience bought it.

dOc: That's why I was curious. When you go into a project like that, you must be, sort of, 'well, it's work, but...'

Oas: Yeah, and as far as my character goes, there were days where I was just, like, "Oh, my God, I am so stupid. This is going to be so stupid!" And there were other days, where it was, "Oh, this is gonna look great." I remember, before it came out, being very nervous.

dOc: You had no idea how it was all going to be assembled.

Oas: I didn't know if they'd, like, cut me out of the whole thing, or... As it turns out, everything I filmed got in there.

dOc: I was looking at the deleted scenes... no sign of you on the cutting room floor. I think my favorite line of yours is the one when you're all coming out of "Steps," [the dance club] after the fight, and you say something like, "Cops an' sh**! I'm gone!" Not a favorite line for the right reasons, I guess, but...

Oas: Right! That scene was filmed the very last day of shooting, probably at about six in the morning. We were, like, creating night.

dOc: The film did surprisingly well for what might have been a small film, not easy to market. I have to ask you, what's up with the camera during the end credits?

Oas: The camera?

dOc: You have a camera with what looks like a big telephoto lens on it, during the big dance sequence.

Oas: Oh, yeah! They made us all hold these cameras!

dOc: Yours was more prominent than some of the others, though I did see a couple of other people with cameras...

Oas: I don't... they made me hold it! It was... I was really annoyed at holding it too! But everyone had to hold 'em, and at the time, y'know, Kodak was on the set, and they were all, like, "Hold up our cameras!" It was supposed to be some case, where you could also do your makeup or... I don't know what it... I don't even remember what the little gizmo on it was! It's kinda funny, they were totally into me, like, holding a camera, I remember that. And I was just kinda like, "All right, I'll hold the camera."

dOc: It appears and disappears...

Oas: Does it make you want to buy a Kodak camera?

dOc: No, I couldn't even tell it was a Kodak, y'know, even on the big screen here.

Oas: The most annoying woman was on the set that day, from Kodak, I remember. She was totally like, "yeah, we'll get some promotions going, and some commercials, la da da..." the whole time. I was just, like, "this lady is so full of sh**..." You can totally tell the people that are like that, and the ones that aren't, y'know? Just by the way they speak...

dOc: With no clue what they're selling, they just think they can push the buttons and people will magically buy things...

Oas: Right. They're all about making you feel important for that minute.

dOc: I don't want our readers to think we're going too mainstream here at digitallyOBSESSED, so I wanted to ask you about your Betty Page Uncensored stage project with the Psychotronic folks.

Oas: I just did the one show... I'm not gonna go into that... but the show itself... It was good to originate a role like that. She certainly was a very fascinating woman, and so I was really happy to portray someone like that. No one ever had before, and so...

dOc: She's sort of been this oddly innocent, cheesecake/bondage icon of the 1950s...

Oas: That was really great. The show ran for a while, and got some good reviews. It was a good experience for me.

dOc: What are you working on now?

Oas: Right now, I'm working on a show called The Day Maggie Blew Her Head Off. It's, um, actually a comedy...

dOc: I'm thinking comedy or really bizarre performance piece!

Oas: It's a world premiere at the Victory Gardens Theatre, here in Chicago. I'm playing Maggie's husband's mistress. She is an exotic dancer who wants to be an actress, who's got a lot of common sense, but kind of comes off as... not the most intelligent person, but not stupid. She's got a lot of big dreams, which... we'll see.

And I'm also working on an independent film called Stop, which will be shot sort of like a documentary, but not. It's about a woman who's making a documentary about this woman who's a famous mathematician who contracts a very rare form of cancer, and discovers through her math how to travel back in time through her life, to relive moments she would like to relive. And I play that woman. It's very low-budget, but it's an interesting story and I'm excited to work on it. It's only going to DVD.

dOc: That's where a lot of the more interesting projects come from, the independent scene on DVD. Save the Last Dance impressed me simply because it wasn't too slick, a big Hollywood thing. Freddie Prinze, Jr. wasn't anywhere near it.

Oas: Right, exactly!

dOc: I should tell you, on the DVD, they have these chapter stops, and you're prominently featured on two of them!

Oas: REALLY? Oh, cool!

dOc: It looks like you have this huge presence in the film!

Oas: I'll have to get the DVD!

dOc: You'll have to!

Oas: Awesome! Yeaaaah!

dOc: So there you are.

Oas: That's cool.

dOc: That is cool. I enjoyed seeing the film again, and listening to Thomas Carter's commentary. He seems like a really intelligent, articulate guy.

Oas: He is.

dOc: Was working with him a different experience, compared to other directors you've worked with?

Oas: Maybe a little bit, just because he's very... picky. Not that he's giving you a line reading, but... He definitely wasn't difficult to get along with or work with, by any means.

dOc: So tell us about the bar you recently bought with some friends. Let's plug that while we're at it...

Oas: It is on... the main streets are State and Division, it's on 12th West Elm. It's Chicago's version of Coyote Ugly. Just an anything-goes tavern, with girls dancing on the bar and lots of fun stuff goin' on there. All female bar staff. Right now, it's actually called "Spike's Rat Bar," but in six months, the name will change to "Ugly Bar." We bought it from this man, Spike, who's retiring. Spike is this sixty-five-year-old, five-foot-three, Vietnam vet... very amusing man, just such a character. It's a sports bar right now, and we're changing it all around. We took over June 1st, and things are going really well so far.

dOc: One last question. For those who haven't figured it out yet, you and I are old acquaintances going back to 1992 or thereabouts. The last time I really talked to you back then, you were playing the French Horn, and acting, and you weren't sure which way you wanted to go. Was there a major turning point where you just decided this was what you wanted to do?

Oas: To me, I was always going to be an actress, but it was, like, was I going to do the French Horn as well? And what it really became with me was... I didn't want to be adequate at two things. I wanted to be exceptional at one. I had a bigger passion for theatre.

dOc: Glad you went with your passion on that.

Oas: Thank you!