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Speed Demons (Strawberry Saroyan, US)

10.02.02

SCOTT SPEEDMAN IS A TEEN-TV HUNK (ON 'FELICITY') WITH A STARLET GIRLFRIEND (KERI RUSSELL).  NO WONDER HE'S SO TORTURED.

He is blond.  He is beautiful.  He is on the WB.

So how much more do you need to know about Scott Speedman to be able to guess what his life is like?  You can just imagine it:  days full of precious line readings and personal-training sessions; preparations for a role in Scream 6 (or is it 7?) amid earnest proclamations of devotion to his series; paparazzi-crowded lunches with Katie Holmes and dinners with the entire cast of Popular.  

Meeting the 25-year-old actor one morning at a Los Angeles coffee shop does nothing to immediately dispel that picture.  "Speedy," as he is known, is surfer-dude hot, in a T-shirt and jeans with bed-head hair.  He exudes undeniable traces of his Felicity character, Ben Covington: the sparkly eyes, the slow, vague sweetness.  But then, over bacon, sourdough toast and coffee, he proceeds to tear the image all to shreds.

First off, he confesses, he's not entirely crazy about the show that made him famous: "The best thing about Felicity was the pilot.   I think the show really reached its peak with that and the last episode of the first season," he says, referring to the cliffhanger in which Felicity (Keri Russell) had to choose between Ben and Noel (Scott Foley).  "After that, it's just kind of like, What do you do with these characters?"

He says he isn't much interested in doing the film parts that come his way, which he characterizes as what you would expect a young WB star to be offered.  Rumor has it that he turned down a role in the next Freddie Prinze Jr. movie, as well as one in Charlie's Angels, but Speedman won't say.  He has, in the two years he's been in L.A., accepted only one film role, in the small, heartfelt Duets (which recently opened to horrendous reviews, about which Speedman, not surprisingly, declines to comment).

He looks like Brad Pitt's kid brother (and, in fact, took the role in Duets that Pitt vacated when he and Gwyneth Paltrow broke up), but he ardently admires talented, unlovely character actors like Paul Giamatti (a Duets costar), John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman (both of Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and, most recently, the Broadway revival of True West).  Speedman's war on glamour also includes vehemently anti-"power couple" sentiments: "I hate that whole thing--it's weird and it's gross," he says despite the fact that he dates famous castmate Keri Russell.  "We don't go anywhere together," he says by way of differentiation.  "We don't do any of that."

He doesn't own a cellphone.  He does own a TV, but he stores it in a friend's garage.  Recently, he spent his hiatus not making some teensploitation flick or living the Hollywood high life, but, rather, performing in an Edward Albee play, The Zoo Story.  In a church basement theater.  In Toronto.  IS this any way for a hunk to spend his summer vacation?

From the star, Speedman was destined for stardom--but of a different sort.  He was born in 1975 to Scottish parents, Roy and Mary Speedman, a department-store buyer and schoolteacher, respectively, living in London.  His mother, a track star, had once held the world record in the 600-meter indoor; his father was a top amateur rugby player.  When Speedman was 4, the family moved to Canada, where they pursued athletic excellence en masse.  His sister, Tracy, now a junior high school teacher in Toronto, where they grew up, recalls their mother "waking us up on a Sunday morning to go for a family run--every Sunday morning." 

Young Scott turned out to be particularly gifted as a swimmer: By age 12 he was part of a relay team that held Canada's 400-meter medley record, and by 17, he was competing in the Olympic trials.  But soon after the trials, Speedman injured his shoulder while swimming and "couldn't make it through the water," he says.  That dream died, but another was born.  Since he was already attending a high school for "gifted artists and athletes," Speedman simply dropped out of the sports program and into the acting curriculum.

"I just started watching all the plays and stuff," he says, but he came to find similarities between the two activities.  "The work to be a good swimmer is comparable to what it takes to be a good actor," he says, adding that in either pursuit, "if I don't work hard, I'm awful.  I'm not someone who just breezes in."

He showed an early flair for the business of acting: Accepting a dare from a girlfriend, at age 18, he submitted a two-minute video to a Canadian show called Speaker's Corner, which gives all comers a chance to speak their mind.  On Speedman's mind?  He wanted the role of Robin in Batman Forever, which he had heard was casting in Toronto at the time.  So with youthful aplomb, he stood before a home video camera, declared his heart's desire, rattled off his phone number and...got a call from the Batman people.  Such are the advantages of being young and marketable, but to this day, Speedman claims to have been surprised by the break.

"I have no idea why I got called," he has said.   "My friends and I watched the videotape, and I look like a 16-year-old drug addict with a bad Caesar haircut."  ["That's a pretty right-on description of it, actually, if you've seen the tape."  -Carmexa] Ah, and a face that, in the words of one reporter, "would make Narcissus jealous."   Speedman didn't land the part, but he did get an audition, which led to an agent in L.A. and eventually to his role on Felicity.  But not right away.

He remained in Toronto and began acting in local films and TV, landing his first part two years after his swimming injury, at 19, in a TV series called Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.  He describes waiting in a panic for eight hours of taping to say his single-word line -- "Dad!" The role coincided with his first week at the University of Toronto.  Shortly thereafter, Speedman quit school, which seemed to be a smart move since he soon hooked up with some young directors at the Canadian Film Centre and was cast in several student movies.

However, he quickly found himself stranded in the no man's land of Canadian made-for-TV movies.  "It was stupid, bad, boyfriend-of-the-week stuff-- you know, who am I gonna beat up now?" he recalls of his roles, which included playing Nancy's boyfriend, Ned, in the Nancy Drew TV series.  He fled to New York to take acting classes, but the city didn't suit him.  Within months, he had moved back to Canada, where he found himself jobless, broke, and sleeping on his mother's couch.

Scott Speedman's Hollywood break was close at hand, though.   One day, his mother answered the phone to hear a casting director for a new TV show called Felicity.  Apparently, Speedman's long-ago Batman audition tape had resurfaced, and the director wanted to test the young actor for a lead role.   Speedman hastily put together a video audition tape and, solely on the strength of it, was hired one week later.  A few days after that, he was on the set in L.A., so discombobulated that he showed up for work in a shirt fastened with safety pins.

"It wasn't that he was destitute, it was just that he was a mess," Felicity co-creator J.J. Abrams remembers with amusement.   Abrams's production partner, Matt Reeves, concedes that casting such a key character off a videotape was a gamble: "We joked, 'We hope he's OK from the chest down.'"  Speedman was more than OK -- he had something Reeves and Abrams hadn't been able to find in the legions of young Hollywood studs they'd considered.   "Our problem was that although we saw all kinds of handsome guys, nobody seemed to have a soul.  Felicity is going to go 3,000 miles for this guy," Abrams explains, referring to the title character's decision to blow off Stanford and instead follow Ben, her high-school crush, to college in New York.  "And it can't just be because he's good looking or else she's going to come across as incredibly shallow."  Speedman, the series' creators agreed, had looks and soul, a combination Reeves says reminded him of Steve McQueen: "He's got that same slightly tortured, introspective quality."

That quality has made Speedman a hit in the critically acclaimed (although less than highly rated) series, now heading into its third season.   But it's also a quality that -- reflecting the actor's true nature, as it does -- has led Speedman to search beyond such reliable teen-friendly material.  In Duets, his portrayal of a priest-turned-cabdriver is charming and quiet -- but skillful.   Says the film's director, Bruce Paltrow (who cast him, in keeping with Speedman's luck, from a videotape just days before shooting began), "I wanted someone whose face could mirror things in a subtle way."  In Speedman, he found it.

He also found an actor with a few eccentricities.   "He had a process before a take," Paltrow reports, laughing.   "To get his juices running, he sprints around the block.  He says, 'Can you hang on a second?' and he takes off and runs as fast as he can."  Costar Maria Bello wasn't quite so entertained by the pre-scene sprints: "You're doing a really emotional scene with him, and you're like, 'Scott?  Where the fuck is he!?'"

Duets costar Huey Lewis recalls that during shooting, Speedman's father was gravely ill, and the young actor "had a video camera, and he was taping all the cast so he could play a little film of the set in the hospital."  Speedman's father died after shooting wrapped, but not before his son traveled home one last time.

His role in Duets is small, but the making of the film gave him a star-sized profile on the personal front, thanks to rumors that linked him romantically with costar Gwyneth Paltrow.  He denies that gossip: "We were always friends," he says, "but my first day of shooting, she was nominated for the Oscar, so anything she did, anywhere she went, everyone was watching."   Still, given that his actual love interest is Russell, he's used to the attention.   "Yeah, sure, we're dating," he says, "But that's ours."   It's an attitude he also carries -- graciously but non-negotiably -- into other aspects of his offscreen life.  "It's one thing to be an actor who does publicity," he says, "but it's another to be a celebrity who appears in movies sometimes."

For now, at least, Speedman seems to have found the balance between his life as a teen heartthrob and that of a young actor looking to deepen his talent.  Perhaps at his own peril, he is growing up.  This summer, Speedman moved out of his one-room cottage with a pull-down bed and into a real apartment on the west side of L.A.  The biggest problem he seems to have is not knowing how to decorate his new home -- "It's a lot of pressure.  I don't want to make a mistake," he says, deadpan -- and trying to decide whether he's ready for a dog.

"I wanted to [get one], but no one would let me because I'm irresponsible.  It's a big thing to take on...I feel like I just got out of high school."  As the actor pulls out of the parking lot, he waves from his dusty burgundy rental car, a vehicle of indeterminate but decidedly unassuming brand.  For a moment he looks like what he may actually be: a good-looking TV star disguised as a regular, hardworking guy.  Or is it the other way around?

 

 


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