From Pro Swimmer to Movie Star: Scott Speedman’s Unlikely Rise

Scott Speedman in Atom Egoyan’s The Captive.
Scott Speedman in Atom Egoyan’s The Captive.

Life could have turned out much differently for Scott Speedman. As a one-time member of the Canadian Junior National Swim Team, the Toronto native spent the bulk of his formative years training as a competitive swimmer, even placing ninth in the 1992 Olympic trials. But when a neck injury put an end to his Olympic dreams, Speedman turned his attention to acting. 

Though landing a lead in J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves’ hit coming-of-age college series Felicity in 1998 (playing a former high school swimmer, no less) turned him into a bona fide heartthrob, Speedman admits that he has never had an interest in playing the Hollywood ideal. It’s the flawed characters that get the now-39-year-old actor most excited about a part, as evidenced by his role in The Captive, which hits theaters on December 12th.

Directed by two-time Oscar nominee Atom Egoyan, whom Speedman previously worked with on 2008’s Adoration, the film tells the story of the suspicious disappearance of a young girl named Cass and the years-later discovery that she is still alive and being forced to assist her captors in luring other young women into their world. Speedman begins the film as a newbie investigator in the child exploitation unit and, as it progresses, becomes yet another one of its hardened veterans who will stop at nothing to close the case. We spoke with Speedman about his transition from athlete to actor, what attracts him to a project, and the challenges of dealing with controversial subject matter in The Captive.

You started out as a competitive swimmer until a neck injury forced you out of the sport. Is that something you still deal with today?
Anybody who does any sort of sport intensely at any age has repetitive stress injuries and that’s basically all it was. It was kind of a nerve injury and I think the non-medical term for what I had was “arm burnout,” just from over-training. I was a distance swimmer, a miler, freestyle, and the training back then was definitely very intense. I had a good couple of years of competing at a prime age and then my arm just kind of gave out. I’ve told this story many times, but it was definitely one of the best things that has happened to me.

How did you make the decision to transition from athlete to actor?
I was at this crazy school for gifted athletes but also for gifted artists and I just got immersed into it. All of a sudden I was not training five hours a day and I realized there were girls in the world. So I started dating a dancer and hanging out with all of these actors. And then just on a whim I auditioned for a movie, which I didn’t get, but the casting director definitely hooked me up with one of the better agencies in Toronto, where I grew up. From there I just got lucky a bunch of times and found myself down here doing a TV show. It was not as easy as it sounds, but I was very lucky for sure.

You mentioned your first audition being on a whim. Do you remember what that was like?
I do! Yeah they were looking for Robin in Batman Forever, the one that starred Chris O’Donnell.

So you started small.
Yeah it was kind of hilarious. It was a very stereotypical thing: You went to this hotel and there were like 100 kids on the top floor and you do this improv with Mali Finn, who’s a great casting director. I got a callback and then another callback and I knew that was going to be kind of it. I knew I wasn’t great but I definitely was hungry and wanted it and she helped me out.

So how did you get involved with The Captive?
I had done a movie with Atom Egoyan in 2008 called Adoration and I just really liked him. We got along well and it was actually kind of a career turning point for me, so that was definitely really close to my heart. I was lucky enough for him to call me a couple of years ago when this was coming around and he essentially wrote this part for me to do. I was more than happy to jump at the chance to get to work with him again. I was obviously a huge fan of him but definitely of everyone else.

So he wrote the part for you?
Yes, which has never happened to me. That is kind of a cool thing when it actually happens.

The film touches upon a number of taboo topics — child exploitation, pedophilia, and violence toward women being a few of them—and it has attracted its fair share of detractors as a result. As a director, Egoyan has never shied away from a topic just because it might be unpopular. Why was it important for you to tell the story?
To be totally honest with you, I never look at something as dramatically as its importance for me to tell it. I really look at: Is this an interesting human being and can I bring myself to play this human being? I don’t get so much involved in what it is trying to say socially or otherwise, I am just trying to get in there and try to be as truthful and honest as I can be with the character. That’s the most important thing to me. I don’t really worry one way or another about how it’s going to be received critically and socially; I just sort of get in there and try to bring the guy alive as much as I can.

In terms of your role in the film, did you need to do much research or any training specific to the part?
Yes, and that was obviously the sad, scary, daunting part of it. Because you do want to get a feel for what it is that these guy deal with on a day to day basis and I was lucky enough to get to work with a couple of guys for a couple of hours. Obviously they were intensely private, as they need to be, but it was just a window. More than anything you got a feel for their lives; they all have kids and none of them will ever let their kids have a sleepover, for example; they just think way too much for that to happen. Usually they can only do the job for two or three years before they have to move departments. A lot of stuff like that really got to me, and there were a couple of books I read that were really intense. The scariest part for me was learning was how much this sort of thing is going on and how prolific it is.

Do you like to do a little bit extra work and research when you can or do you like for a character to be on the page as much as possible?
I am a college dropout so any chance I get to get in there and learn something? That’s kind of great. I am lucky enough to be in a job that requires it sometimes. And if you are doing it right you try to do every part of it, and part of that is definitely research. But a lot of times right now for me it’s more like, “We start in two weeks. Let’s go.” I would always like more time to do more research and to get under the character a bit more, but you do what you can. But that is definitely a very exciting part of the job.

What’s coming up next for you?
You know, I am trying to figure that out right now. I am trying to get a job. [laughs] My mom gets upset with me because one of the last interviews I did I said, ‘Yeah I’ve got nothing going on right now,’ and that was a headline. And my mom called and she’s like, “Are you alright? What’s going on?”

And then she sent you a check for $25.
Yeah, she was all worried. But I’ve spent a couple of years doing different kinds of jobs and now I am trying to find something special to do. And if that means sitting out a couple then I probably will and try to find a great TV show or a great movie to do next. We will see.

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