Hubert Burda Media

Scott Speedman on learning to fight, playing against type and Animal Kingdom

Once a competitive swimmer in real life, now an in-demand actor on TV and silver screen, Scott Speedman shares how natural athleticism – and some weird luck – have seen him evolve from teen heartthrob to a schizo surfer dude.

Scott Speedman is in an easy, breezy mood when he calls from his home in the hip Silverlake district of Los Angeles. He has just wrapped the second season of Animal Kingdom, his critically acclaimed and popular TV drama series, and is on the verge of starting the prep work on his next feature film. “This is like my first day off,” Speedman says as we get started. It’s not a complaint, but simply a statement of fact from an actor who’s much in demand these days, both on and off the set. Despite its dark underbelly and odious characters, Animal Kingdom was a surprising hit on American TV and continues to expand its audience overseas. 

And even before they shoot the first scene, there’s already strong buzz about Shadow Girl, a movie in which Speedman will play a past-his-prime mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter who finds redemption in an equally down-and-out paparazzi photographer played by Zosia Mamet of Girls fame.     

Born in England and raised in Canada, Speedman was well on his way to becoming an Olympic-level competitive swimmer when injury curtailed his aquatic career. Attending a special high school for athletes and artists in Toronto, he turned his attention to acting classes and a budding career in Canadian television. 

Speedman’s big break came in 1998, when he aced an audition for American TV show Felicity, about the lives and loves of college students in New York City. With the series airing in more than 50 countries and regions (including Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines) the actor’s fictional Ben Covington became the heartthrob of female fans around the globe. Although it ran for only four seasons, Felicity jumpstarted Speedman’s career, as well as those of series star Keri Russell and writer-director JJ Abrams.

Copious movie roles followed, including in high-profile films like Dark Blue with Kurt Russell, Underworld and its sequels with Kate Beckinsale, xXx: State of the Union with Ice Cube and Willem Dafoe, Barney’s Version with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, and The Vow with Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum. There was also a short-lived network series called Last Resort, about a rogue nuclear submarine. 

Suit, shirt and tie: Canali. Shoes: Church’s. Watch: Montblanc.

And yet it wasn’t until Animal Kingdom came along last year that Speedman began to gain traction as someone more than a sidekick or second in command. His character Baz Blackwell is part of the Cody Gang, a family of small-time criminals who migrate between surfing and staging heists in a southern California beach town. Janine “Smurf” Cody (Ellen Barkin) is the “tough love” family matriarch. But it’s her adopted son Baz who runs their violent field operations and keeps the other brothers in line. 

“Baz is the nearest thing the series has to a responsible adult, with the coolest head and tenderest heart – perhaps because he’s not a Cody,” read the LA Times’ initial review of the show. That was before his dark side was revealed in later episodes – Speedman plays the schizophrenic beast with frightening precision.

Please tell us about your next acting gig, the movie shadow girl

It’s a cool little story: an interesting fantasy about a girl who’s “invisible” – a metaphor for what she feels like in life. She ruins the life of this champion UFC fighter who she bumps into, and eventually decides to fix her wrong. So she puts his life back together and they go on to have a romance.

I heard you’ve had to become an MMA fighter to do this movie, by training with legendary coach Marco Morales.  

You know, it’s an interesting thing. I don’t know what I don’t know, if that makes any sense. 

Yeah, ignorance is bliss.

It’s a very limited budget and a very limited time frame to achieve becoming an MMA fighter, and honestly I’m not going to. I’m too humble and respect too much what those guys do to really think I’m going to achieve some level of anything close to what they are, but I’m going to do my best.

So you’ll make it look like you know what you are doing. 

Exactly. And I’m not an un-athletic kid, so I’ll figure it out, I’m sure.

Have you ever had to do anything like this for a past role? 

The only things I’ve had to do, which I really enjoyed, were fight training for certain movies, and movement things here and there. For the Underworld franchise, I had to do a lot of stunt work and jumping around. I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to pull off what they need me to do in terms of choreography, but if you talk to me at the end of next week – that’s my first five days – I might have a different story for you, like, “No way I’m going to pull this off!”

And on to Animal Kingdom. How does a kid born in London and raised in Toronto transform into a southern-Californian surf-dude gangster?

I always feel that if such a character exists – in this case a surf-dude gangster – I can pull it off. I’m the guy for the job. But to be totally honest, I didn’t look at it how you’re describing it. I look at Baz as a dysfunctional, deeply flawed human caught up in a family dynamic more than an outlaw with a surfboard. Crime doesn’t really appeal to him, it just happens to be their family business. The fun part about being an actor is that you just show up and all of a sudden you’re holding a gun and running into a bank and you’re doing it, so I just kinda jumped into it. I knew when I read the character that Baz was definitely something I could take within an ensemble cast and really break it open.

Baz is easily the most complex character in the whole show.

I know what you mean. He’s got the most corners. On the surface, he’s sort of the leader of the guys and the high-school quarterback of them all, but that’s really not who he is. He’s probably the darkest and the most morally dubious. He’s not a good guy and there’s an ugliness to him too, which appealed. You feel that Pope [one of the other brothers in the Cody Gang] is going to be the darkest, most awful guy, but he turns out to have the strongest moral code, a set of rules he really sees as his version of right and wrong, and Baz doesn’t see it. 

Do you consider it a dark show? 

You know, I do. It’s challenging television, but yes, I do consider it a dark show. My personal, humble opinion is that the show is at its best when it deals and revels and is confident in its darkness.

Is Animal Kingdom actually filmed on location in Oceanside, California?

We do most of the shooting in and around the Warner Bros back lot [in Hollywood]. They built a huge house to scale, with the pool, running water, an elementary kitchen – a fully functioning house! And then we jump down to San Pedro or Long Beach, but then three times a season we’ll go down to Oceanside for a week. We do a ton of shooting down there in a very, very, very short amount of time, which is super fun.

Season two is finished shooting, and I presume Animal Kingdom will go on to season three.

You never know, but it definitely feels like we have the momentum, that it’s going to go on for at least a little while. I would be very, very surprised, as would everybody, if it ended after two seasons. It’s really hard to tell what’s good these days in ratings and all that. Being weaned in the ’90s, I still think in terms of  “overnight ratings”, but it’s really difficult to measure,
a hard thing to quantify. I’ve done enough shows and enough movies now that I know when something is landing. It’s not like a hugely broad audience just yet, but it’s a pretty fervent audience. I don’t think it’s jumped over to mass popularity just yet. 

You seem to have worked in every genre there is – crime, comedy, action, drama, horror, and even musicals, if you include duets. Do you have a favourite genre, or one that you feel best at?

I don’t know what it is that I would be best at, but I certainly do like the thriller genre, which I immerse myself in as much as possible. Some of my new favourite television shows, I can see being in that genre. That’s the stuff, going forward, that I would like to do more of, for sure. It’s a very broad genre, and I include The Parallax View and All the President’s Men in this category – something inherently cinematic.

Have any other actors had a particular influence on you?

The guys that I’ve enjoyed working with and definitely learned a lot from are Kurt Russell and Paul Giamatti, those kind of dudes. He’s the real deal, man – Kurt Russell.  He is one of the super-underrated movie stars. You forget how good he is. It’s just hard to do what he does well. 

Tell me about growing up in London and Toronto.

My whole family is Scottish – everyone was born in Scotland, everybody except me. My dad worked in London for Marks & Spencer, then we moved to Canada when he was opening up their Canadian stores.

And you became a competitive swimmer at a pretty high level.

Yeah, definitely. I don’t know if I would be doing this without that, in a weird way. I was at this weird high school for the competitive mind and competitive athletes, and then they had this gifted-artists programme. I was a “miler”, which is the worst, like a long-distance swimmer. The 1,500 [metres] was my speciality when I was swimming very well, but the high-school life was minimal because the school was just sort of there to help you get out of class, so you go train at the end of the day. After the Olympic trials, I got injured and started hanging out outside of the athletes rooms, hanging out with all the “weirdos” – actors, artists, dancers. I started dating a dancer and my focus immediately shifted. I didn’t feel like rehabbing that much any more, and all of a sudden this stuff started to kind of bubble up, and it was cool.

So you just decided to take a stab at acting?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. A really weird set of circumstances came up, really super lucky, and I just sort of fell into it in one of those weird ways. But the business – at least then, and maybe still now in Toronto – insulated me in a way that made it a lot easier for someone who was going to be playing those types of roles. There weren’t that many dudes there. The pool was smaller. If you could string a couple of words together, you had a better chance of working than you did anywhere else because
there was so much shooting going on up there, and they kind of needed the bad boyfriend-of-the-week kind of guy, which I could sort of do.

Was that right before Felicity?

No, no, no. This was like the end of high school. I heard through a girlfriend that [casting director] Mali Finn was in Toronto doing this huge, broad search for Boy Wonder in Batman – the George Clooney one. City TV [channel in Toronto] had this sort of speaker’s corner box, where you pay a dollar and talk about politics or whatever. I went on there and said I wanted to audition for Batman, and Mali saw my tape and called my mom. I auditioned. It went well and she gave me a couple calls back. Obviously, I didn’t get the part, but she got me a good agent in Toronto, so that’s how I got started. And then, four years later, I got the call for Felicity.

Were you surprised when you got that call?

That was another weird thing. I had actually dropped out of everything when I was about
22 to go to New York and study theatre for a bit. I left my agent and dropped out of theatre school because I didn’t like it. Six months later, I was sleeping on my mom’s couch with no agent,
and my mom said that some casting agent from LA had called her to try to get me to audition for this thing. It was like WB [TV channel] and I didn’t want to do it. But somebody got me the script and I read it, and I knew right away that I should do it. I made a videotape in Toronto, sent it to JJ [Abrams] and Matt [Reeves], and they cast me off that because they were so close to shooting.

Even after all these years, you and Keri Russell seem to be really good friends.

Yeah, it was such a fast thing, getting that job. Pretty much two days after getting the job, I was on set with Keri, and she has been my close friend now for coming on 20 years. We always hit it off. I’ve done enough shows, I’ve done enough movies and none of them have really had that sort of impact, that sort of life-changing thing that happens, so there’s bonding over that. It was a special show. 

Was there a time when you were afraid of being typecast as a pretty face rather than a serious actor?

I don’t know why, but that never really worried me. I don’t know why, but it just never boxed me in. Internally, I never boxed myself in that way. I always felt like I was going to have a long career and was confident that I was going to be able to work, and maybe work at a higher level now rather than in my mid-20s. 

LA is obviously home. What do you like to do when not working?

I like to get out of here when I can, for sure. Northern California is sort of my go-to. That’s become sort of a home. If I continue to work [in Hollywood],
I would love to get a place up in the Big Sur area.

Just to relax and chill?

I don’t have a lot of chill in me. I run a lot. Because of the swimming thing, I’m kind of programmed with a high energy level. That’s probably why I found that sport: a lot of hyperactivity. So when I’m on vacation, I usually find myself with the headphones on, trail running and that sort of thing. But away from LA.

You do have a tendency to fly under the radar with the paparazzi.

It’s partly where I live, partly I have never played into it. It’s an instinctual reaction. Some people see a press line and they get excited. It probably does the opposite for me, although I am getting more willing to do certain things. But no, it’s not something that I buy into. I don’t spend a lot of time in Hollywood. I don’t seek the paparazzi scene, I’m not on Instagram flaunting my selfies just yet, but we’ll see what happens. But that’s not my thing.

Looking ahead, what’s down the road?

Just movies. I’m not locked into anything yet, not that I know of, to be totally honest with you. Now more than ever, I just want to be making good movies. 

But as you said, Animal Kingdom could be a long ride.

We’ll see, man We’ll see what happens. Who knows? That’s the cool thing with doing 10, 12, 13 episodes … you have time to do other things. 

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Photography Lionel Deluy 

Styling Warren Alfie Baker   

Grooming Kim Verbeck  

Location Edge Studios Los Angeles