Looking for leads

He has played "a lot of boys," the actor says, including the boyfriend on the hit show Felicity. Now he wants to be a leading man.

By SARAH HAMPSON,
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, August 14, 2004 - Page R3

Scott Speedman knows that a story on him will start with this: his love affair with Keri Russell, the beautiful star of the hit television show Felicity, on which he rose to fame as her boyfriend, Ben Covington.

"It was intense," the handsome 28-year-old actor drawls, draped on a sofa in the lounge of the Drake on Toronto's Queen West.

Life-changing?


Speedman: "My love life is pretty stagnant.  I'm probably at a very selfish point in my life.  And L.A. is not exactly a good place to meet charming ladies that you want to bring home."

"Yeah, I guess it was," he acknowledges. He is Mr. Laid Back, fresh from a morning shower, his green eyes out of place somehow, like expensive precision-cut jewels, in the context of his casual (okay, shabby) appearance, his loose-fitting jeans, his untucked, open-neck shirt, his wet, blond hair that he runs a hand through from time to time.

The Drake is the hotel du jour, still, for the hip, a place given to making a scene if there isn't one happening already. They host performance art series on a regular basis.

As we talk, a piano player practises, and in the café, literary types look as if they've spent half the night, unproductively, at their computers. It's rife with the vibe of creative angst. Even the tops of the ottomans in the lounge are upholstered in thick plastic to reveal their inner coils.

But Speedman covers what he wants of his when he wants to. "We weren't living together, but we were working together every day," he offers. Felicity ran from 1998 to 2002 and made Speedman, who was born in England and raised in Toronto, an actor to watch in Hollywood. He got the role by sending a videotape of himself from Toronto, where he lived at the time. He had only recently started a career as an actor.

"It's tough to work with your girlfriend and play boyfriend and girlfriend on TV and try to maintain a relationship outside. It definitely wasn't my strong point. It's a high-pressure job. I was 23. She was 22. We were still very young people. So yeah, there was a long process there. It's complicated. I'm not that good at talking about it. Mainly because, she doesn't want me talking about it very much." He is in touch with Russell "off and on," he says.

Speedman knows the Hollywood game. You do interviews to keep yourself in the public eye. You get asked about being a heartthrob, and even if those questions come well into the conversation, the answers to them are plopped on the top of the story, like whipped cream.

(By the way, his reported dalliance with Gwyneth Paltrow, with whom he did the movie Duets in 2000, was "just a rumour," he says. "We were sighted together, that's all.")

Speedman puts up with the superficiality of Hollywood and the media's prurient interest in love-life details, because he himself is not preoccupied with the business of fame. Or so he says. "It's weird on some level," he says of his sex-symbol status. "But it doesn't bother me. It's on a deal-able level," he explains.

Maybe you've noticed already how detached he is, how laconic. He may look like a pretty boy, but he doesn't act like one. He seems more inclined to pull a shredded piece of paper with a few lines of scribbled poetry from his back pocket than a cellphone. (In fact, he doesn't own one.)

He recently bought a house in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, where he can be close to the mountains. He likes to go for what he calls "running hikes" by himself with a backpack and his iPod.

Speedman has an attitude that if Hollywood wants him, they'll have to come find him. "I think I got to where I got because I did what I wanted to do, and I'm not going to do anything I don't want to do." He is deeply serious about the art of acting.

"It's the thing that wakes me up in the morning, to do, to get better at. It's been like that for a long time, too long for me to look back and go, I don't care, it just fell into my lap. I'm not that kid any more."

Speedman is referring to his early breaks and Hollywood buzz about his potential that started the day he decided, as a lark, to answer a casting call. That was back in 1995, and the movie was Batman Forever. He missed the part of Boy Wonder, which went to Chris O'Donnell, but Warner Bros. was impressed, so the legend goes.

At the time, Speedman was living in the Toronto suburb of North York with his family (he has one older sister), who had immigrated to Toronto from London when his late father was hired to oversee the expansion of the British store Marks & Spencer into North America. After attending Earl Haig Secondary, where he was a gifted athlete, Speedman trained as a potential Olympic swimmer.

Media reports have blown that fact out of proportion as part of the hype about his impending stardom, he says. Some published stories say he was in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona until sidelined by a nerve problem in his neck, but Speedman says he was never part of the team.

"After the Olympic trials in 1992, I was ninth at 16, which is good, not great. Then I got the nerve problem from overtraining. I don't know if I ever would have made the Olympics. I think it's offensive to people who did make it when journalists write that I was an Olympic swimmer, when I was not."

After high school, he entered University of Toronto, where he swam for their team, but he didn't finish his first year. By that time, he had taken a few acting classes at the Professional Actors Lab, with David Rotenberg, a published novelist, acting coach and graduate of the Yale School of Drama who previously worked in New York, directing Broadway shows. And he had begun to get a few acting gigs. The chance to be Boy Wonder came that same year.

"If you look at the tape of the Batman [audition], I was a scary, drugged-out kid, 18, going through what I was going through. I had just quit swimming. I was having fun. I was a teenager for the first time. I wasn't exactly a bombshell at all."

Still, everyone took notice. Rotenberg says that he rarely sees actors as young as Speedman was the first time he entered his workshop with as much raw potential. "His mother [a retired schoolteacher] phoned me. I don't usually take calls from mothers. But Scott had just dropped out of U of T, and she was worried. I told her not to worry. I said, 'Do you like your house? Because your son will be able to buy you a bigger one soon,'" Rotenberg recalls, adding that Speedman has been continually courted by big Hollywood directors and was close to getting parts in Pearl Harbor and Spider-Man.

Following the end of Felicity, Speedman has played a number of interesting roles, including a werewolf to Kate Beckinsale's vampire in the fantasy horror movie Underworld, a rookie cop with Kurt Russell in Dark Blue, and a devoted husband in My Life Without Me, opposite Sarah Polley. He will be appearing in the sequel to Underworld, due out some time in 2005, and in XXX: State of the Union, as agent Kyle Steele in a stellar cast, including Willem Dafoe, Samuel Jackson and singer-songwriter Ice Cube.

"I'm looking for challenging leads," he says. "I'm at the point where now I'm starting to get into the world -- I'm not there yet --where I can play a lead, where I can run a movie."

He is excited about his role in XXX. "He's a man," he says of his character. "I've played a lot of boys. There's something about the character that I think will be good for me to do."

Part of Speedman's reason for being in Toronto was to spend a week with Rotenberg, perfecting his craft, before returning to Los Angeles for the XXX shoot.

"It's about maturity, but it's also about confidence and complexity of thought," he says, flying off on a tangent about how to be a leading actor. "It's also about making sure you're not handing over the reins in every scene. You have to think like it's your movie, and make sure that it's your scene, even though it may be a flashier part for another actor. You're not taking away from anybody. That's not what I'm talking about. But you just have to make sure you're not always being a nice actor and handing over the reins." Rotenberg calls this process "a divine selfishness. You have to dedicate yourself to be compelling."

Acting is what Speedman is thinking about. You can see he's consumed by it. The word "complexity" has come up several times in conversation. He doesn't like the simple. Which is just as well. He is trying to be honest as an actor yet calculating as he enters each of his scenes on camera. He wants to be part of Hollywood without allowing it to have power over his life. He is doing interviews even when he would rather be playing basketball, his latest athletic passion. And he'll even answer more questions about the love stuff.

"My love life is pretty stagnant," he says. "I'm probably at a very selfish point in my life. And L.A. is not exactly a good place to meet charming ladies that you want to bring home. There's a huge amount of desperation. Climbers. All sorts of people looking for a ticket."

He is, too, of course. And that is what makes the process, and how to do it gracefully, intelligently, all the more complex.

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