A Felicitous Trip to Star Status (John Allemang, The Globe and Mail)


Young Canadian stumbles into leading-jock role on fall hit.

Where does television find its stars? Not where you'd expect, if Felicity 's Scott Speedman is one to go by. The 23-year-old Torontonian is the leading man in the critically admired series about university life and love that is one of the 1998 season's few real successes.

His ruggedly handsome face adorns the teen magazines whose readers adore the character he plays so convincingly: the sensitive, savvy, yet still self-centred jock Ben Covington. For The WB and CTV, the networks lucky enough to have snapped up Felicity, the young Canadian has the ideal mix of style and intelligence to pull in the smart young audiences advertisers covet.

But just eight months ago, Speedman was in Hollywood terms a nobody. How far was he from being a TV star? For a start, he was sleeping on his mother's couch in Toronto, having spent all his savings on an ill-conceived few months at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse theatre school.

His short resume included a number of network movies-of-the-week, the sort of schlock U.S. studios make in Canada to take advantage of the cheap dollar, but Speedman had already decided unemployment was preferable. 'I'd dropped out of the scene. I just wasn't happy doing TV movies, playing the jock-of-the-week and beating up a girl or something.'

The move to New York was an attempt to go legit, to learn the techniques of performance that he didn't have to know as a hunk in a walk-on part. But ballet rehearsal, singing classes and early mornings just didn't suit the guy who refused to play jocks and yet still held on to the jock mentality.

And then, one day in February, the phone rang. He was needed in L.A. Two years before, Speedman had sent a tape of himself to a Hollywood casting director. His name -- and his face -- had surfaced when the people from Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment were despairing of finding Felicity's male lead. It was a part that called for an unusual combination of intelligence,
sensitivity and good old-fashioned sex appeal, because after two minutes in his company the beautiful but repressed egghead Felicity is ready to follow Ben Covington anywhere. Such men are rare, at least among the actors who hang out in Hollywood waiting to be discovered.

Speedman didn't want to be found, which may be a large part of his appeal. But the literate, thoughtful script that was couriered to him changed his mind. 'The next day, I went to a casting house at Yonge and Bloor in Toronto and put myself on tape. It was just me and the cameraman. We did a love scene and he read all the girl's lines. It was very weird.'

That was a Friday. The following Wednesday, he got the call. The studio wanted him. Two days later, he was in Los Angeles meeting with Felicity producers Matt Reeves and J.J. Abrams. On Sunday he met the rest of the cast. Monday morning he was filming.

The TV industry moves fast, almost too fast for Speedman. 'I was so nervous, I thought I was going to throw up.' Sipping fruit juice in a Toronto cafe, he comes across as someone too laid-back to be stressed by a teen TV show. But the frantic reality of the business places immense pressures on young actors whose training is necessarily limited.

Speedman's co-stars in Felicity had prepared for their roles with work on Dawson's Creek, Power Rangers and Aaron Spelling's Malibu Shores, recognizably mainstream stuff. The Canadian's background was much spottier. Up to the age of 16, his discipline was long-distance swimming. He attended a high school that offered a specialized program for gifted athletes, and at the Olympic trials in 1992 he finished ninth. Then his shoulder gave out, and his competitive career was over.

But when he and some friends heard that the casting director for Batman Forever was in Toronto looking for an athletic Boy Wonder, they went down to CITY-TV's Speaker's Corner video forum and made a pitch for themselves. Two weeks later, Speedman got a call to audition at a swank Toronto hotel. 'My mom didn't want me to go,' he laughs. 'She thought it was some sleazy porn operation.'

Though he didn't get the part, the casting director recommended him to a talent agency. But his blank resume didn't help him at the auditions he was sent to, and it was only when he strategically forgot it at home that he got his first role, at age 19.

'It was Kung-Fu: The Legend Continues. I was so nervous, I waited eight hours in my trailer not knowing what I was going to do. I had one line -- 'Dad!'  It wasn't even one line, just a word. I'd just started my first week at [the] University of Toronto, but after that, school didn't stand a chance.'

Fortunately for his artistic skills, Speedman hooked up with some young fillmakers at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto: When he wasn't sleeping his way through Psychology 100, he honed his talents in the school's training films, eventually landing parts in Can I Get a Witness and Kitchen Party.

Like many serious young actors -- he likes to quote from Jack Kerouac, another jock-turned-artist -- Speedman much prefers film to television, to the point of not owning a TV set. But Felicity, he insists, is different from the mass of lowbrow fare on the tube. 'The thing with this show, all the writers and directors are coming out of feature films, and what we aim to do is make a little film every week. They'll do 20 or 30 takes for each scene, and spend weeks in the editing room. And my character's not just some
dumb TV jock, he's ambiguous and undefined: Is he a dick or a nice guy or just an immature 19- year-old trying to figure out who the hell he is?'

The retakes and ambiguities convince him it's art, but Speedman has now been in L.A. long enough to know that Felicity is still very much a business. Even as he mocks co-star Keri Russell for her latest photo spreads in teen magazines, he's contractually obliged to pose for breathless publications such as YM. And the getaways to Big Sur to hike the coast and read
Kerouac -- who never posed for YM -- become a little more necessary now that he can't walk the shopping malls in happy obscurity.

'I talk about how the show is like a film, how it's so real and such a creative place,' he says with an introspective sigh. 'And then I turn around on the set and notice how all five of us regulars are camera-friendly and commercially appealing. It's a constant reminder that this is television. The rules still apply.'


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