role call

Devon Sawa Answers Every Question We Have About Now and Then

And Christina Ricci, and that butt scene, and the sexual awakening of an entire generation. Photo: Photo Illustration by Stevie Remsberg

If you were alive in 1995 and somewhere between the ages of 7 and 17, it’s likely that Devon Sawa’s tush in Now and Then was either wholly responsible for, or at least contributed to, your sexual awakening. Personally, I’ll never forget the first time I saw that butt. I was a freaky 8-year-old who loved séances and hanging out in cemeteries when Now and Then hit theaters, which meant I was perfectly primed for a coming-of-age tale following a group of tweens (Gaby Hoffmann, Thora Birch, Christina Ricci, Ashleigh Aston Moore) who loved séances and hanging out in cemeteries. For the first half of the film, I remember feeling gleefully seen, watching fledgling writer Sam (Hoffmann) moodily scribbling in her journal and obsessing over strangers’ graves. I remember feeling relieved, imagining that in a few years I might have a group of fun girlfriends who’d patiently sit with me while I summoned the dead in a knit poncho. Then came the butt scene. I did not think about death for a long time after that.

In the scene in question, the central foursome are biking to a nearby town to do some investigating into a mysterious death (another one of my favorite youthful pastimes). On the way, a bird poops on the perpetually doomed Chrissy (Aston Moore), and the girls must find a water source with which to assuage the problem. They soon find a river, but also stumble upon their sworn enemies, the Wormers, a group of local boys headed up by Scott (Sawa), whose interests primarily include hurling water balloons and punching people at small-town baseball games. The camera cuts to Sawa — who was 15 at the time, and on the cusp of becoming a Jonathan Taylor Thomas–esque lust object — frolicking in the river, naked. His pale white tush gets many, many seconds of screen time. The girls gasp and gawk, and Thora Birch’s Teeny turns to her friends, grinning. “I saw his penis,” she says wryly. “And the balls.”

Implacable rumors have long swirled that Sawa’s actual junk is on display if you pause the film at the right time. Having once been an adolescent with a VHS player and a lot of free time, I can confirm that this is not the case (Sawa has also debunked it). Even so, the mere suggestion of it was enough to send an entire generation of young girls — all of whom had likely never seen a dick and were still half-terrified about the idea — absolutely reeling. “Devon Sawa’s butt” is now shared cultural shorthand for “the first time I was able to conceptualize horniness.” Back in ’95, I had mostly been interested in boys as an intangible concept; my celebrity crush was Pierce Brosnan, a 42-year-old. That changed as I was confronted with the stark reality of Devon Sawa’s butt. Soon I was buying up all of the Tiger Beats at the local drugstore, isolating Sawa’s face with a pair of scissors and creating deranged, ransom-note posters. He was my bisexual gateway drug. All of my celebrity crushes afterward — young Leonardo DiCaprio, Shane from The L Word, post-hererosexuality Kristen Stewart — were made in his androgynous, delicate-boned, faintly emo image.

Part of the appeal of the Butt Scene was the way in which Lesli Linka Glatter directed and shot it. Sawa’s moment didn’t feel creepy or frightening, like most things having to do with sex feel when you’re that age — it felt fun and goofy and safe, a collective peek into a future we didn’t have to rush into before we were ready. If ever a film was shot from the Young Female Gaze, Now and Then was it. But back in the ’90s, her dreamy, dark, nostalgic look at growing up didn’t exactly translate to the majority-male film critic population. Roger Ebert hated the film, comparing it to Stand by Me, which he loved — and just happened to be about four boys growing up beneath the looming specter of death. “What distinguished Stand by Me was the psychological soundness of the story,” Ebert wrote. “We could believe it and care about it. Now and Then is made of artificial bits and pieces.”

Sawa has since done plenty of memorable work, leaning into his teen-heartthrob phase for a few years before trying on a punkier persona with films like Final Destination and Idle Hands. More recently, he starred in The Fanatic as a famous actor being stalked by John Travolta. But earlier this year, he gamely agreed (“why not?”) to talk about the legacy of Now and Then, starring alongside Ricci in Casper, his onetime teen-heartthrob status, and his butt for the duration of our delightful interview.

Do you remember your audition for Now and Then?
Like it was yesterday. I remember that I was in my childhood home in British Columbia, Canada, and this gentleman I used to put myself on tape with, who was an actor in Vancouver — the same guy that put me on tape for Casper — he came over and we laid down a VHS tape in our family room, and sent it off. I know that I’d been recommended by Christina Ricci for the part, and I waited a good solid week, and learned that I got it.

Why did she recommend you?
We’d spent a week together doing school for Casper. I’d worked about a day and a half on the film, but we’d done school together. And we clicked and got along and she recommended me. You’d have to ask her why, but it was a very sweet thing to do.

As you were gearing up to shoot Now and Then you’d already done Casper and Little Giants, both of which were hits. Did you feel famous — were you able to sense what was happening?
Absolutely not. I was doing Casper and Little Giants back to back. Steven Spielberg was [producing] them simultaneously and put me in both. But the teen magazines weren’t big in Canada. There was no internet. Crossover between what America was loving at the time and what Canada was loving was always a bit different. With toys, with what we watched on TV. Teen magazines weren’t as big, but young girls in Canada weren’t really into those things that much. So when I hit all those magazines, nobody really cared out there. I didn’t feel famous at all; I didn’t know I was starting to snowball in America until I came back down for Wild America.

So when did you figure out you were America’s teen heartthrob?
When I started working with Jonathan Taylor Thomas. I’d gone back to Canada and done a couple of Canadian films, and after that, I came back and did Wild America, and found out it’d gotten to where it was.

Was there a specific moment?
It was a long moment of figuring out. It was great. Listen, it was very flattering. When you’re 17, it’s overwhelming. But I felt very lucky.

Were teenage girls stalking you two down during filming?
I remember one incident with Jonathan Taylor Thomas where we were in a limo in London and we were being chased by young girls. It felt … not real. It felt like a Beatles thing, and we shouldn’t be in it, you know? It felt a little surreal. I’m just lucky I had very supportive parents and grounded friends, so it didn’t translate over. I was a normal kid while all of this was going on in America, kind of. And then there was one day I woke up and said, “I hate this.” And I wanted to do SLC Punk, Idle Hands, “Stan.” Everything to get me out of that Teen Beat or “heartthrob” title. I wanted nothing to do with it anymore.

What changed for you?
It was just my age, I think. I didn’t want to be the pretty boy or whatever they were calling me. I didn’t want to talk about my favorite food or where my first kiss was, you know? My most romantic song. These things weren’t interesting to me.

Did you ever regret making that shift?
No, because I started doing stuff I really enjoyed doing. I grew up and didn’t like those teen magazines anymore, and the girls that were fans of mine grew up too. And so it was a shift that happened organically.

When people approach you now, what do they speak to you about the most?
Casper. Final Destination. And probably Idle Hands.

A few years ago, I read a great piece on Jezebel by Rachel Vorona Cote about your “walloping impact on young female viewers of Casper” and how you “offered the refuge of fantasy.” Most women my age feel that way about your early films. Is that weird for you?
I know the piece you’re talking about. It was very sweet. I’ve come to terms with that, I guess. It’s flattering. The Casper scene — it could’ve been anybody. A lot of people could have done it. Everything fit into place — the way they shot it, and JJ Abrams wrote that scene. It was the most perfect ending to a movie. I’m glad I was part of it and I’m flattered I got so much attention for it, and that some people feel that way.

THE kiss. Photo: YouTube

Did the scene affect your real romantic life? Did you operate in that space for women?
I hope not! No, I’m much more awkward. I’d never look at a girl and ask, “Can I keep you?” That’s crazy talk. I’m way more awkward than that.

Let’s go back to Now and Then. Tell me when you first met Christina.
I remember walking into her school room [on the set of Casper]. I had to be approved by a bunch of people — Spielberg, the director. The last person I had to go see was Christina. The school room had Red Hot Chili Peppers everywhere. An autographed 8-by-10 Red Hot Chili Pepper poster, red chili pepper lights. This 13-, 14-year-old girl! Big Chili Pepper fan. I had no idea who they were.

Was she intimidating? It sounds like it.
She was a little intimidating. She had a little bit of a “I’m the boss around here” vibe. But she warmed up quickly. We had chemistry right away, I think. We clicked as friends really quickly. She’s a really sweet, really cool girl. We spent a lot of time on Now and Then together, hanging out a lot.

Does looking back on filming feel as nostalgic as the movie itself does?
Yeah, it does. It felt like summer camp. We were all in this hotel, and we all hung out and tried to stay out as late as we could. It was very safe, we filmed in Savannah, Georgia. There was a movie theater a couple blocks away, and we saw Pulp Fiction four or five times in the theater.

Was there teen drama playing out behind the scenes? Crushes, fights?
All of that. We were like, 13, 14, 15 years old. Everything you can imagine in a childhood camp went on. Bickering between the girls, bickering between us. Then the next day everyone’s friends again, then somebody’s not talking to somebody. It was so childish and so innocent. I don’t think anybody would recall what it was all about.

While researching for this interview, I read a quote in E! about how all four of the leads had a “wild crush” on you.
Oh, man. I’m flattered! I didn’t know. I don’t know who said it. It may have been taken out of context. I don’t know. We were all so young.

Apparently there was a “contest” to win you over.
Oh, boy.

And they said Christina Ricci won. Is that accurate?
She would’ve.

I plead the Fifth.

Thora Birch already sold you out.
That Thora. Loose lips Thora, we’re gonna call her! You already know more than I would tell you [about what we were up to on set]. Thora wasn’t smoking, but the rest of us were. We were doing things we shouldn’t have been doing when parents weren’t looking.

Gaby Hoffmann has said she was too mature while filming the movie — smoking, watching Pulp Fiction — to really appreciate what it meant to girls of that generation. Did you feel that way?
I didn’t. Girls mature a lot faster than boys. They weren’t just average girls, either. These are four of the top young ladies in Hollywood, who were witty and smart. They were old for their age, all four of them. They were little thespians. But I was immature all the way up — I’m still growing. It was a little young for me once it came out. It was for everybody, though! Everybody enjoyed it.

Did the critical reception at the time bother you? Did it even reach you?
There was no way to pay attention back then. Back then you only saw what your publicist and agent wanted you to see. It’s not like right now, when I’m constantly Googling “Fanatic review.” You couldn’t do that back then. We’d get positive reviews in the mail, but other than that, you didn’t know. There’s no Rotten Tomatoes to check.

What scene stands out in your mind when you think back on filming?
The “Can I kiss you?” scene is one of the first scenes that, as an actor, that I felt in the zone for. I remember doing Little Giants and just showing up to set and having fun, doing what I had to do and not thinking anything of it. For some reason on Now and Then — I don’t know if it was all the Pulp Fiction, or the age — I felt very in the zone, like I wasn’t acting. I was just doing it. Maybe it was the chemistry? It felt great. Plus the director was phenomenal. That’s one of the first times where it was pretty much a predominantly woman crew and cast and producers and director. It was huge. It was big for its time.

I was supposed to be nervous, luckily. We didn’t rehearse it. We rehearsed the lines and just kept the kiss for the first take, so it would feel the way it did, which was supposed to be awkward and uncomfortable for me and whatever for her. It all played into it.

Was there anything you didn’t like filming, that made you uncomfortable?
The nude scene was — it was so important that it was very safe and locked off, and nobody could be there: “Are the socks on? Is everything fine?” It was so overly protective that that’s what made it kind of weird. If we’d just done it, it wouldn’t have been so weird. It was because they were being so overly protective, it felt very awkward. But really, for years, people have been like, “I paused the scene, and —” Listen. There’s no way New Line Cinema is letting four young boys run around a set naked. I hate to break everybody’s heart, but there’s no way to pause anything, because we had full-frontal socks.

When was the last time you saw the movie?
We did a screening a few years ago, and my wife saw it for the first time. She hadn’t seen Casper, she hadn’t seen this. She’s a few years younger than me, so she had Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, and she was in Canada. She loved it. We tried to put it on for my kids when it came on Netflix, and they weren’t having it. They’re too young for any of my movies. It’s really weird to show them me as a 14-year-old boy; it’s really hard to explain to them. They’re 5 and 3. The first one I tried was Wild America. I thought, This is the goofiest movie and it didn’t survive the test of time. It’s like, “What is going on in this movie?” But Chip and Potato won.

I don’t remember what happens in Wild America, exactly.
Three boys go off into America to shoot wildlife, different parts — swamps, the mountains. They try to shoot their own wildlife documentary!

So basically it was an excuse to get you and JTT in the same movie.
Exactly. It was basically them trying to capitalize on the Teen Beat thing. It was a big-budget movie but we still had dudes in bear costumes and rubber snakes. [Laughs.] I’m watching it now like, Wow, this is crazy, that’s clearly a guy wearing a fur jacket, growling.

Do you keep in touch with JTT?
We spoke for the first time in 20 years a few months ago. Zachery Ty Bryan, who I do occasionally speak to, happened to be at his house and put me on the phone with him. It was the weirdest — do you know what I mean? I’m talking to JTT again for the first time in 20 years.

Were you actually friends as kids?
Yeah, we were. Two different kids, but definitely friends.

Why do you still keep in touch with Zachery Ty Bryan?
Why are we friends? I don’t even know why we’re friends. We just are. We’re two polar opposites, me and Zac. He’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat and he’s got some things to say and I’ve got some things to say. But we still get along pretty great.

It strikes me that Teen Beat would die for these details.
Somebody needs to start those back up. They all disappeared.

When was the last time you saw anyone from the cast of Now and Then?
Christina and I saw each other a couple months ago. Thora I’ve spoken to a few times, but we don’t all really keep in touch. None of us did after the film. It was like summer camp, and that was it. We all went our separate ways.

On Twitter, where you’re very active, you talked about how you were a hyperactive kid who couldn’t sit still. How much did that factor into your quest for child stardom?
That’s why I got into acting. When I was 5, I remember this one teacher had a real problem with me sitting still and wanting to be the center of attention, so she suggested to my parents — as more of a punishment than anything — that if I wanted to be a class clown, I should join a theater group. And I just fell in love. It was a way to channel my energy, and things just took off after Casper. The schools I went to at the time didn’t want anything to do with Casper or Little Giants; they couldn’t understand and didn’t want to be supportive or FedEx work, or give me the time to be absent. It was really hard to make it work, so I had to move to another school willing to work with an on-set teacher, and do things they were doing in America with other children.

Does any part of you resent having been a child star?
No. I often got mad when I would hear about other child actors complain about child acting and how horrible it was. I got lucky. I never had any bad experiences. It was always very positive; the people I worked with were very great. I had to miss prom and all of that, but the things I did do — I’m very fortunate. But it’s not always the case. I didn’t realize that until Macaulay Culkin and I had a serious conversation about what it was like growing up for other kids in the business. Some kids didn’t want to be doing it like I did.

Would you say you avoided the classic path of destruction?
I had a little path of destruction. But I genuinely always wanted to be on set. It didn’t matter — it wasn’t about the fame or anything like that. I loved being in theater.

What was your destructive path?
When I was in my 20s. You plunk a kid down in Hollywood with a lot of money — my house was on Cribs, Final Destination had come out, there was the “Stan” video with Eminem. It became more important to me which party or club I was going to than why I’d gotten into it in the first place for. I wasn’t reading scripts. I wasn’t doing art anymore. I took a bit of a nosedive, but I got out of that.

I remember doing some really bad horror films after Final Destination. I got thrown all these horror movies with a good chunk of change, but they weren’t great. I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I quit the business. I figured, I’ve been doing this since I was 8 years old, I’m doing well, so I thought, that’s it, I’m done, I’m gonna walk away. I went back to Canada, did real-estate stuff. I guess somebody at the agency I’d been at for years didn’t get the memo, because they sent me a script for a Mark Wahlberg movie called Max Payne. All of a sudden this new management company calls, they want me to come back. I put myself on tape. I started only doing things I loved to do after that. It was like, Oh, here I am again. This is what I want to be doing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Co-starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Wild America was a 1997 movie about reckless teen nature documentarians. Later Sawa films and a music video, in which he played a Salt Lake City punk, a demon-possessed teen, and Eminem’s homicidal stalker, respectively. Just before Now and Then, a 14-year-old Sawa similarly courted teen stardom with a brief role in Casper, in which he plays a human version of the friendly ghost and asks a young Christina Ricci, “Can I keep you?” In which Scott kisses Roberta, and she proclaims she will “beat the shit out of him” if he tells anyone. Chip and Potato is a Netflix series about a pug and her mouse best friend. Zachery, another fresh-faced young star in the ’90s, co-starred with JTT on Home Improvement. Around age 25, Sawa worked as a landlord and didn’t make a film for another five years.
Devon Sawa Answers Every Question We Have About Now and Then