Today, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time without a plethora of Nicholas Sparks movies to soothe our hearts and numb our minds, but when A Walk to Remember hit theaters in 2002, it was only the second film adaptation of the author’s novels. And unlike his inaugural flick, 1999’s Message in a Bottle, this was the first aimed at a younger demographic.
Starring alongside then–pop superstar Mandy Moore, Shane West was cast as resident brooding bad boy Landon Carter, a character that wasn’t too far-flung from his reality at the time. After a steady run on ABC’s family drama Once and Again and a few teen rom-com roles, West had built up a considerable following and steady buzz surrounding his career, but it wasn’t until A Walk to Remember that he’d not only finally land his breakout role but also become a lusted-after Hollywood heartthrob.
For those who need a refresher: A Walk to Remember follows the popular, rebellious Landon, who finds himself on the route to redemption as he crosses paths with Moore’s Jamie Sullivan, the town reverend’s devout and optimistic daughter. As the two enter into a star-crossed romance, due to Jamie’s terminal-leukemia diagnosis, she captures Landon’s heart and ultimately inspires him to turn his life around, while Landon teaches Jamie how to really live.
A Walk to Remember not only jump-started both West and Moore’s acting careers, but it has also lived on as one of the most beloved romantic dramas of a generation. In a conversation in early June with Vulture, 19 years after A Walk to Remember debuted, West discusses how his music ended up in the film, Jamie’s sweater, and the possibility of reuniting with Moore for a project in the future.
What drew you to the part of Landon?
Look, we were all a lot younger, and we were looking to start our careers. I don’t think I was very picky at that time, but I had the luxury of being on a television show at the time called Once and Again. I had done two teen films prior to A Walk to Remember that, for studio films, just didn’t do as well, monetarily. I loved the Nicholas Sparks story; I immediately loved the director, Adam Shankman. I obviously knew of Mandy Moore, but I didn’t know of her as an actress.
The joke at the time was, Well, people don’t really know who I am, so I guess if a movie doesn’t do well, I think I’ll be okay. That was another one of those things: You didn’t want to do too many teen films and not have them do well. But this one was so special in story and content. Adam said something immediately at the very end of the project, “Worst-case scenario, we brought the cast together. Just know that you guys all made a great movie. Whether anyone sees it or not doesn’t matter. Just be proud of what you did.” And that’s kind of our thoughts going into it. This was a great story, and it deserved to be told. But we didn’t know what was going to happen, of course.
Obviously, Landon is super-brooding for half of the movie. Did you take inspiration from any specific characters as you prepared to live in that mood?
No, that was me. That is another reason why I think I got it. At the time, I was playing a little bit of a brooding son on Once and Again. I had a band that I was trying to get off the ground. I was always into rock and roll and punk rock, so transitionally, it was kind of me. It was more or less, Did the studio want me? Did Adam want me? Did the project want me? But as far as having to draw on anything, I kind of had free rein. It was just cool because that’s a bit rare. Most projects, I’ve always tried to find something to draw on, but with Once and Again and A Walk to Remember, it was just extensions of myself.
Mandy’s music is front and center in the movie, but it’s not super-well-known that your band had music featured on the soundtrack too, right?
I did, with the worst scene ever. My little band at the time was called Average Joe, but we were just playing for fun. Nothing was copyrighted. By the time we wrote this song [“So What Does It All Mean?”] and the soundtrack accepted it, we couldn’t get the rights to Average Joe, and we had no idea what to name ourselves in the 24 hours to do so. So we just threw our last names on it, [and] it looks like a law firm. So if you basically look at the soundtrack, I think it says West, Gould, Fitzgerald, or something like that, which are just our last names. Later we changed [our name] to Jonny Was. But the cool thing about that was I knew Mandy was getting music on the soundtrack. I knew that was a part of the deal — as she should. I brought up a song I had written and thought it would work for the film, depending on if they wanted that kind of style of music or not. They said, “Look, we loved the demo, but you need to spend the money to produce this for real, and I can’t promise you anything. Even when you do spend the money, we still may not accept it.” We rolled the dice, went up to Oakland, and we recorded with Sandy Pearlman, who is famous from the Blue Öyster Cult days. [We] got it produced properly, and we got a gold record out of it, so that’s pretty neat.
Is the song in the movie or just on the soundtrack?
The song is on the soundtrack, but it’s also in the movie for one second — a good trivia question for the fans out there. It’s when I pull up in the Mustang in the beginning of the movie, when we’re all meeting up to haze the poor kid for jumping into the lake. There’s a moment where you can hear loud rock music before I turn the car keys off. That’s the song. That’s Adam doing that. He didn’t need to do that. They could have just slapped it on the soundtrack as a song that no one heard.
What happened to your rock band?
Reality set in. We turned into Jonny Was, and I started working on ER, and around that exact time, I had done a film called What We Do Is Secret that was based on this old-school punk-rock band called the Germs. In reality, I actually joined them. They got back together, and I started singing for them for probably like five or six years. We toured around, and it was pretty wild. It was very underground, and ER was very accommodating, even though they probably didn’t know half the time that I would run off and play a show. But it was such an amazing experience. Someday I’ll have to write about it, but it kind of cured my pop-punk aspirations at the time.
We [Jonny Was] talked to Capitol Records at one point. We had a deal with Kung Fu Records, which was cool. But it wasn’t something that we felt we should do. We really had to change a lot in writing, and I kind of discovered more of the realism of playing with the Germs. I knew [Jonny Was] had come to its end. Obviously, I focused more on acting.
With movies like A Walk to Remember, Whatever It Takes, and Get Over It, you became a true teen heartthrob. How did that change your relationship with fame?
It was a bit overwhelming at the time, but not necessarily negatively. Some of our Jonny Was shows were sellouts because of that, which was insane. We didn’t have a label. We didn’t play around. We were just selling out the L.A. Theatre and the Roxy. We knew a lot of it had to do with the success in acting all of a sudden. It was harder to go to Disneyland, the CityWalk in Universal Studios, and those kinds of things. I know Adam, after the premiere wrap party, pulled Mandy and I aside and said the reaction was so positive, which was awesome yet surprising for us. We just didn’t know that everyone was going to be crying. He said, “Prepare for everything to change. Your lives will never be the same.” And that was a pretty cool moment. He was right.
Do you remember who else was up for the part of Landon?
I don’t. I do know, at one point, they may have been talking to Jessica Simpson before Mandy, and I remember thinking that would be very difficult to make happen. I remember thinking Mandy, even though I didn’t know her, was perfect for this. We had a sit-down audition. It was one of the nicest auditions ever, where Mandy and I got to read together, with the director, at Warner Bros. for an hour or two, almost like we had the part. You don’t really do that. But I think he had always said that [Mandy] was his favorite and I was his favorite, so he wanted to put us together, work with us, and see if we could have chemistry. Apparently, we did.
Was Jamie’s sweater always supposed to be such a central through-line and butt of the joke in the movie?
I’m 99 percent sure, yes — not realizing the film would be as successful as it was, would we know it’d become kind of an iconic piece of clothing. But it was, and they spent time on it, making sure it looked the way that it did. There might have been some moments where Adam ad-libbed and said, “Let’s talk about the sweater more.” But it was basically there in the script.
I remember talking to Mandy about this last year. There’s certain things that you remember, and there’s certain things that you don’t. We never really paid attention to the sweater. What we really paid attention to all the time was Mandy’s hair. Because she had dramatically rolled the dice to completely change her image for this movie. She was blonde, and now all of a sudden, she was brunette, and that was something that we were always talking about and staring at. That was the true, behind-the-scenes reality of, Wow, she looks great. This totally worked. So I think the sweater thing was just kind of a couple jokes here and there, but I don’t know if we were truly paying attention to it on set. Adam did a great job of keeping us joking around, laughing, happy. We never really realized that we were doing something that was going to affect as many people as it did until we went to the premiere.
The butterfly-tattoo scene is one of the sexiest moments in the movie and yet it’s so innocent. Was that planned in the script?
The butterfly on the shoulder? We were just pulled over near the alleyway. Then [Adam] put a camera inside of the car. But that’s just how shooting goes. When you look at certain things like that, it’s written down — it’s not much dialogue. It’s more [that] you’re reading the text and then you go and do it.
It was fun to do. It’s hard to not smile when you’re looking at Mandy’s cute, adorable face — to react to that. And it made it easy. I couldn’t get that tattoo right. I was screwing it up constantly. There should be outtakes. I don’t think there are — where I peel it off and it’s like a third of a butterfly, or half a butterfly, or it didn’t work at all. Then she starts laughing and then it’s all worthless. So I think the combination of us joking around made the ultimate reveal more of a success.
What was it like having Daryl Hannah play your mom?
That was supercool because I had been a fan of hers growing up. I believe Andie MacDowell was up for [the role], who I was also a fan of. Daryl got it, and she should have. She was great. She changed her hair color, too. No one was talking about that, but she’s mainly known for being blonde, and she wanted to change it up for that film as well. Obviously, I was a little smitten in a way. She could tell me to do whatever; I was going to listen to her. And she’s very easy, very accommodating. They’d fly Daryl in for specific scenes and fly her back out. But she was great.
Of all the Nicholas Sparks movies, A Walk to Remember and The Notebook are probably the most popular. Why do you think A Walk to Remember really resonated with people?
That’s a tough question because he’s made so many. Maybe the right time period? Maybe chemistry? I haven’t seen all of Sparks’s movies. My only guess would be the simplicity of the story, the right time, the right place, and the chemistry that we all have. I think they couldn’t have cast it any better. It just all worked. And everyone was there to do their job and be supportive. I’ve been on a lot of different sets, and they’re all different. This one absolutely stood out. I think having Mandy really helped, because she knocked it out of the park but also came from this music background, so she was able to do that and perform.
One of the moments that stood out for me when filming was when we were doing the play. My character didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to act, and didn’t care. She comes out and does this amazing vocal performance, and that’s exactly when Landon knew, and he falls in love with Jamie. I remember during that long, long day of shooting, sweating under those lights, that we had something special. Because I could just tell the way she was killing it in the performance, the way it was being filmed — all I had to do was sit there and react. Maybe that was lightning in a bottle right there. I was struck by her performance in reality, during the moment. I was proud of her in reality, during the moment. I was also trying to act, which was also some of what Landon was feeling. So I believe she was feeling it, I was feeling it, and the audience will know if you’re lying or not. We certainly weren’t lying.
That leads me to my next question. There was obviously so much chemistry onscreen; was there chemistry offscreen between you or any of the other actors?
We all had chemistry offscreen, in the sense of bonding and in friendship, including [Mandy], which is the funniest thing because all the other characters had been bullying her. Everyone liked each other. It was the opposite of the movie. Everyone got along and had a great time. And yeah, there was chemistry. I think we [Mandy and I] both had a little bit of a crush, but then we were just there for each other in the most honest and purest of ways. That sounds incredibly corny but is true and rare.
Do you have any untold stories about filming that maybe people might not know?
I bought the car from the movie. It was the opening, where I pull up in the car, and I absolutely bought that car, and Adam bought the other car because it was cheap. I still have mine. I’m thinking I’m going to sell it next year because I just can’t have it anymore. I technically ruined the car, so I’m already worried about selling it because it’s not the same color that everyone loved. I painted it black with a red stripe, instead of orange with a white stripe, so I’m sure I destroyed the value. But whatever. It’s a fun thing.
One of my favorite things was at the very end of the premiere. My publicist at the time came up to me with the passes for the after-party, and she was bawling, and I didn’t know what was wrong. Mandy and myself, the rest of the cast, we were just cracking jokes in the back of the theater. We had no idea that this was going to hit home. She gives [the passes] to me, and she goes, “Here are the passes. I hate you.” The after-party took this turn where we were all looking after each other and holding hands and going, “Are you okay?” We didn’t know that the film would resonate so much. We’d get photos sent to us, like the line “standing in two places at once” and the alleyway. Certain locations where I was like, “Oh man, I hate to tell you, but that alleyway I don’t think was really planned out. They just found one on the spot and said, ‘Let’s shoot. Let’s go.’”
Which locations were more planned out?
There’s one thing that did stand out that scared the hell out of us. At the beginning of that movie when we jump in that man-made lake, it was freezing and terrifying, and apparently there were giant eels in that lake. They had to send scuba divers into the water to try and clear it out before we filmed it. They never told us that they had cleared it out, and the poor guy I was rescuing, we were pretty much terrified the whole time until we wrapped that up. They had built that for some scene in Dawson’s Creek, I believe. So it was man-made, but somehow stuff got into it. It was pretty gross.
Dawson’s Creek had put Wilmington on the map in the film world, and when we started, I think there were four or five seasons. I stayed at Kerr Smith’s house [Jack from Dawson’s Creek], actually. I do not know the history of Dawson’s Creek, but I do know I auditioned for it, and I didn’t get [the part]. Not for Dawson and not for Pacey. I don’t even know what character. It was several years down the line. It was probably for Kerr Smith’s role.
The film has a very finite ending, but was there ever talk of a sequel of sorts for Landon’s character?
My favorite is when I’ll hear about sequel possibilities, and, well, what is the sequel? She dies. I don’t know if she comes back. We could turn this into a genre piece, and she comes back from the dead, and it’s a zombie movie. What we’ve thought about is potentially doing another movie down the line where it’s us, and maybe the surprise is I pass away. But I don’t think it would continue as Landon and Jamie. I think it would continue as Shane and Mandy if a different project happened. There’s no script; I’m just throwing it out there that we’ve always been like, “Yeah, that’d be cool if we did something one day.” But we’ll see if it ever happens. That would be the “sequel”: a different project starring the same, familiar faces.
Where do you think Landon is now?
Remarried with six kids. No, I’m just kidding. I think he continued doing what he was going to do. She was his inspiration. I think he lived his life to the fullest. It’s hard to say if he would remarry, because you could really go two different ways with that. You can say that this is the love of his life, and having her near him in his heart keeps him going with his life and his career. But you could also say the same thing would set him up for happiness with someone else, just with all respect to the past. I can’t imagine anyone reading the book would want to hear that. So I would say maybe he would stay single and happy, hopefully not miserable because he is staying single.
I mean, he got married at 18. So it’s possible he found someone else.
I know, let’s be honest: They were so young, for God’s sake. I would hope that he would have another wonderful relationship later in life.
What did you think of the film’s religious undertones when you saw the script?
I didn’t think of it. Mandy, I don’t believe she did either. I do remember when we started doing press, when TRL was a thing out in New York, with Carson Daly, we started getting hit with some specific religious groups being very supportive of the movie. I don’t think we ever set out to do that. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m thankful that they loved the film, but it wasn’t set to do that.
Here’s a little bit I forgot happened. There’s a movie called Save the Last Dance that came out with Julia Stiles. Right before we started shooting, it made a lot of money, and there was no cussing and there was no alcohol. Basically, we were told, this movie succeeded while being PG. So in the beginning, the reason why you don’t see us drinking beer or wine when we’re hazing, smoking cigarettes, or any of that kind of stuff was because they cut it out at the last second. They were going to try and make it a little bit grittier or tougher, but they decided at the last second, thanks to the success of a different film, that we don’t need to do that. [They said], “Just pretend you had been drinking. Pretend you were ‘bad kids.’” Maybe that also softened the film and made it safer, so to speak. Maybe that also kind of helped out with some of the religious aspects. I don’t know. More power to them. I’m glad they liked it.
What was the most challenging scene you filmed in A Walk to Remember?
Maybe crying on my dad’s shoulders. That was really tough. Because the scene went, for me, just knocking on the door and having to all of a sudden cry, which I had a hard time doing on film. That could be maybe the most challenging. Back in the day, I had a Discman. I was listening to the Cure or someone that could depress me and then when they were ready, I just sat on the street outside my [character’s] dad’s house and then they came over and tapped me on the shoulder to let me know that they were rolling. Then I would take the Discman off and go. That was probably the most challenging: good old ugly-crying.
TV was where you got started, and it has been the main crux of your career in recent years. But you have a new film called No Running at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Do you want to do more mainstream movies?
It’s all about the right fit, what the project is. If they want me. It’s certainly not like we don’t try. It’s a strange world right now. It’s kind of an A24 indie film or the Marvel Universe. It’s why television has taken over film. It’s just been a golden age of television. Most people want to be on television now, so that’s what I’m continually looking to do. But film is always there. It’s just harder. It’s a blessing to have No Running get into Tribeca — that was something that came my way. To actually play a father in that, to play the sheriff in the town, was pretty cool. That’s a really good film, and I’m glad it’s getting respect. I got to play some crazy military lunatic last year in some film called Escape the Field that should be coming out pretty soon. I’ve got two small films I’m supposed to do this summer.
You know, it’s hard. I’d love to join the Marvel Universe, the DC Universe, the comic-book world because I’m a big comic-book fan. But they have to take the chance on you. So until I’m asked to be the next Batman, I don’t know when that’s going to happen. We continue to look for the right projects and the right series, and thankfully I’ve been able to stay true to myself and do the projects that I want to do and have success with both.
What do you want for your career at this point? Would you do another romantic movie like A Walk to Remember, or is that totally outside your scope now?
I would do it. I still have the same aspirations and interests that I had when I started, which is, fortunately or unfortunately, however you look at it, pretty vague. I would love to do a love story, but now if I do, [it has to be] better than A Walk to Remember, since we happened to have success with that. I want it to be the right love story. I want it to be the right person. I want there to be chemistry there that has the right people behind it, because we did catch lightning in a bottle with that. I’ve always wanted to do fantasy, Game of Thrones–type stuff, space-type stuff, science fiction, and all that kind of stuff, just being the guy.
The big joke is I’ve always wanted to do a Western because my last name’s West. Nikita was a love story. Even Salem, in all of its twisted witchcraft ways, was a love story. But those characters, even though they were love stories, were a little bit darker. I’ve wanted to do something a little edgier as I got older because I knew I could go back to doing the heroic love story. It just has to be the right project. It would be cool in the final year of This Is Us to pop in as a surprise. I don’t know how that would work, and I don’t even know if that’s even possible. I don’t want to mess with the world that they set up. When it comes to those things, I want to pick and choose right. I’ve been fortunate in the love-story world to make fans happy with Ray and Neela in ER, and make fans happy with Michael and Nikita on Nikita. And in a smaller, cult extent, myself and Janet in Salem. So there’s been that, with obviously Jamie and Landon at the top. I want to keep batting 1,000 when it comes to [projects]. But if it’s there, I’ll do it.
Personally, you’ve remained pretty private in the years since the movie. How have you managed that?
A lot of my friends and I have been talking about that recently. We’re a part of that generation now: the late 30s, early 40s, where we were adults when social media started. We weren’t kids and teenagers; we weren’t old; we were pretty young adults. But we were able to know how the world worked before everyone was stuck on their phone, and I think that kind of helped us out — to stay away from a lot of chaos. It also depends on personality. I was never the type that wanted that. You need and want the fame, to a certain extent, to be able to get the jobs that you may want down the road, to further your career, and to do passion projects and special projects. Like I did with the Germs film. But you don’t have to be in the public eye all the time.
So I kind of shunned it while still liking it. You want to be acknowledged for the work that you’re putting in, but I was never really a TMZ person. That was not what I was striving for, not that there’s anything wrong with that for anyone else. But it wasn’t my thing. I wanted the work to speak for itself. I do remember, mid-20s, leaving a bar and there’s a million photographers, and it’s just like, I’m going to stop going to these places. I just try to be private about it. I don’t want to throw my dating life in anyone’s face. I don’t think anybody really needs to know about that. If I get married and have kids, I’ll let the world know.