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Going gangbusters: The cinematic journey of Scott Speedman

Scott Speedman, star of "Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster," photographed in Toronto during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, 2011.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Scott Speedman had a moment 12 years ago or so. And he appears to be having one now.

As TV watchers know, the first came courtesy of the popular series Felicity where, as the hunky Ben, his acting opposite Keri Russell garnered rave reviews while his chiselled features, fab physique and phosphorescent pearlies set teen hearts a-throbbing. With Felicity's demise in 2002, greater things were expected of the London-born, Toronto-raised actor. But somehow the promise was never quite fulfilled – unless you consider being cast as a vampire-werewolf hybrid (as Speedman was in the Underworld movie franchise) a guarantee of thespian immortality.

Now Speedman's career appears once more to be on the ascendant. The strongest evidence for this isn't his co-star appearance in the huge romantic hit The Vow,but rather his nuanced performance as the titular character in Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster,opening this weekend in Canadian theatres after recent, generally well-received bows in New York, Los Angeles and San Diego. The film had its world premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, where it was named best first Canadian feature, then scored a fistful of Genie nods, including one for Speedman as best actor.

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Speedman, who got into acting after a neck injury derailed plans to be an Olympic-calibre swimmer, has, in fact, had films in TIFF for five consecutive years and put in promotional appearances each of those years. Edwin Boyd isspecial, though, because "most of my career, whether on television or film, has been more support stuff," he said during a visit to Toronto a few months ago. Here he's the S-T-A-R, on-screen for virtually every one of Edwin Boyd's105 minutes. "I've been feeling in the last two, three, maybe four years that I've been coming into my own as an actor," he observed. "So playing Boyd wasn't that hard a fit; I've always felt the acting thing was going to work well for me the older I got [he's 37 in September] I wasn't so at ease with the boy idol stuff; it never was a suit that fit so well for me. This one, I felt ready."

Edwin Alonzo Boyd was, in fact, a real-life character, a handsome Second World War veteran who, after his postwar return to southern Ontario and a thwarted attempt at an acting career, turned to robbing banks. Working first on his own, often in make-up, then with a gang, Boyd's flashy exploits – among them daring escapes from Toronto's Don Jail – were assiduously covered by the press. Indeed, before being caught and sentenced to life in prison in 1952, he was cast by his fans as a sort of folk anti-hero, the Canadian equivalent of Jesse James or Pretty Boy Floyd.

Speedman plays Boyd with considerable gusto, physicality and not a little vulnerability. "I didn't want to get too moral about it, the shame about robbing banks," Speedman remarked. "Because Eddie really was having a blast, I think. He got addicted to the life, the excitement of it, the energy coming at him, the whole performance aspect of it." The vulnerability comes from the remorse Boyd feels at the hardship and heartbreak his criminality brings to his long-suffering war bride (Kelly Reilly) and their two children, as well as to his father, a retired cop (Brian Cox).

Speedman confessed he knew "nothing at all" about Boyd until 2010, when director-screenwriter Nathan Morlando handed him the script. "I wasn't even sure if [Boyd]was a historical figure or not," Speedman admitted, but almost instantly he "felt this great character emerging through me." At the same time, the actor feared Morlando – a novice director who'd been keen on bringing the Boyd saga to the screen for years (he'd even tracked down the paroled Boyd to his new home in British Columbia and conducted numerous interviews with the ex-gangster before his death in 2002) – might be a touch too obsessed and controlling about his labour of love. Fortunately, it didn't happen: "He and Allison [Black, Morlando's wife and producer]did a smart thing by hiring people who had a certain essence that would carry the characters well and handed the reins over to us," Speedman explained. "It didn't feel constricted."

The shoot for the $4.5-million film was brisk – just two months in 2011, February and March – in snowy Sault Ste Marie, 700 kilometres northwest of Toronto. And while Speedman has called Los Angeles his home for close to 14 years, he wasn't put off by the wintry milieu. "I kind of enjoyed it, in fact. It was a nice break from the non-weather of L.A."

Speedman said he's always been "choosy" about his roles. But "they're making less movies now and there's a lot of competition for great roles," to the point where he feels compelled to take some night acting classes. "I need something or at least I'd like something to happen with [ Edwin Boyd] It'd be great if it got some attention and helped me get some more stuff."

It just might be happening: Last weekend, in a mostly positive notice, the Los Angeles Times declared: "It's the dashing, quietly charismatic Speedman who proves the main draw."

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