role call

Scott Speedman Answers All Our Questions About Underworld

On why he left the franchise after two films, the pressures of fame at a young age, and wild times in Budapest. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Subterranean Productions

For the next few weeks, Vulture will be selecting a film to watch with our readers as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from writer and Twitter editor Wolfgang Ruth, who will begin his screening of Underworld on March 24 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch the live commentary.

Before Twilight, there was Underworld — Len Wiseman’s 2003 steampunk-y vampire film starring Kate Beckinsale as the huntress and “death-dealer” Selene. Opposite her was Scott Speedman as Michael Corvin, a medical student and descendent of the storied Corvinus clan. Michael’s rare blood type makes him capable of absorbing both vampire and Lycan (a.k.a. werewolf) DNA — thereby turning him into the target of nearly every supernatural hunter in Hungary, all of whom hope to use his gift amid a centuries-long feud between the two factions.

When “turned,” Speedman’s character transforms into a unique hybrid with oily blue skin. But Michael spends much of the rest of the movie being chased, kidnapped, handcuffed, or waiting to be rescued by our acrobatic heroine, Selene. The movie positions the pair as a sort of Romeo and Juliet, but in Budapest. Playing a romantic lead was familiar territory for Speedman, who’d just ended a four-season run on the WB series Felicity as Ben Covington, a.k.a. one-third of TV’s greatest love triangle. In Underworld, Speedman plays Michael as reserved until Selene’s arrival punctures (in a good way) the monotony of everyday life, and eventually builds him into a heartthrob co-protagonist.

Though Underworld was met with mostly negative reviews when it was released, 20 years later, it’s a cult classic, filled with stunts, gun-fu shootouts, vampires crawling on ceilings, hints of sex, and Bill Nighy as a Dracula-like overlord. It spawned four sequels, though Speedman didn’t return after the franchise’s second installment, 2006’s Underworld: Evolution. Here, he told us why.

What was the audition process like for this film?
I was finishing off my first TV show at the time, and I remember being not sure about going in for it. I hadn’t read the script yet, and attached to the script were Len Wiseman’s drawings. I could see how his visual style was just off the charts. It really felt like a commercial hit to me, like, Wow, this could really have a chance to do something, especially with the budget they were trying to do it at. So I remember auditioning with Len, it was pretty quick. It went well, and then I took off for a week to Big Sur, just camping. No cell phones, no nothing, something that would never happen right now in my life. I knew I had a good chance of getting it. Then I got home and there was a voicemail saying that I was gonna go do that movie. So it was cool. Len was super cool. I was a little bit shy or scared about what I was getting myself into. But he was, and still is, so warm and great and has such a point of view that it made everything easier.

What were his drawings of?
It was of the Lycan. You saw that and some of the things with Selene, the angles, the rain. It’s actually kind of amazing when you go back and watch these movies now. That era, you sort of miss that visual style. Some of the steampunk elements, maybe not so much, but the visual style of The Matrix and Underworld and other movies like that — you really miss that sort of sharp, beautiful film style.

What scared you about getting into a project like this?
Len has this story about it. I called him, I was kind of nervous. I was like, You’re not gonna make me roar, are you? Like some sort of Lycan? [Laughs]. He still tells that story today. I mean, now it’d be fine, but back then I was still in my shell, trying to come out. That terrified me, that I was gonna have to do all this basically animal work on set. Like Andy Serkis type of stuff. It was kind of silly. But Len had this point of view of what he wanted to do and walked me through all that stuff. It was just hard to jump off the ledge, especially coming from this very secure world of being on a TV show. It’s almost less scary to take a leap on some daring indie than it is on something bigger like this. Obviously, I’m super happy to have done it.

Did you have to do a chemistry test with Kate?
No, I don’t think so. I think if she had already been cast, I got approved. She probably approved of me, and that was that. I was coming off the TV show and that’s kind of how that works sometimes. Sometimes on the much bigger stuff, there’s gonna be screen tests and all that, chemistry reads. But we didn’t do one, I believe.

Where were you in your career pre-Underworld, circa 2002-ish?
I was on a TV show that did well. I got that job out of Toronto and had never been to L.A. before that. I sent a video tape down to J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, and they cast me. Then I was kind of thrust into this world. You still see it happening all the time now to young actors and actresses. It’s sort of a whirlwind and they get opportunities, but they’re on TV shows so they can’t get off. So that’s where I was. That year, I was lucky enough to do a movie with Sarah Polley and Mark Ruffalo called My Life Without Me and this. So that took me into the second part of my career. I was happy to be working on something different; that show was so important to me and for many different reasons. And it was great to be doing something different.

You had been hoping for a role in a film like Underworld?
I mean, yeah. There’s so many movies and genres and things you want to do, especially at that age. But being a young man at that time, definitely something action-oriented. It still is super interesting to me. Super fun to do. Especially if you have a director like Len. I was lucky to get to work with him because there’s not that many guys that can shoot like that. That was as exciting as anything to me, to have somebody that understood the visual style of the thing he was trying to do. A lot of people get these jobs, but really can’t meet the moment that way. But he could.

How did you prepare to take on this role?
Honestly, just training with the stunt team. I understood the role, that’s kind of why I got the part. Whatever I was bringing to the table at 26 years old or whatever served them that way. I have a bit of an athletic background, I was a swimmer and a runner and was training in certain kinds of ways, especially back then. So that lended itself to being able to somewhat take on the physical aspects of that role. I’m pretty coordinated, so I was able to jump in. Those stunt guys are obviously incredible, but I was able to hold my own enough where they could do certain things with me, and train and do the fight sequences and all that. I jumped into that full on and loved that.

What approach did you take to acting out both vampire and Lycan qualities at the same time?
[Laughs.]. I still don’t know if I’m that sophisticated of an actor that I was able to hold two dichotomies of the vampire and werewolf at the same time, especially back then. A lot of it back then was, Hold on for dear life, please don’t screw this up. Hopefully they’re filming this correctly. Hopefully I’m giving them what they need. I wasn’t spending a lot of time like, living as a werewolf, and then trying to live as a vampire and then combining the two.

Was there a moment when you realized you had nailed the role?
That’s a tough question. Because it was 20 years ago, well, 21 years ago this summer or fall since we filmed. I remember feeling like this was a big indie film that we were lucky enough to sneak away to Budapest to do. We were doing six day weeks, like 14 hour days with Sundays off. That’s it. And we were doing it on a budget, so it felt like, We’ll see if it does or doesn’t work. The set was really well run. It wasn’t really until the second movie where I felt a little bit more of the mojo in terms of finding my way into that character. I never feel that cemented into something where I have the confidence to say to myself, “Oh, yeah, I know what I’m doing now.” I just don’t have that gear.

Is there a stunt that you’re especially proud of that made it into the film?
I don’t think I’ve seen that movie for a long time. I’m probably confusing it with the second movie, but I got to do a little more wire work in the second movie that I know made it in — like big jumps and leaps and all that kind of stuff. I remember watching my stunt guy do a jump off a very high ledge onto the ground that they were not letting me do, that I wanted to do, especially back then.

Talking about being on set in Budapest, what were those long days like?
When you have time off on the weekends, and if it’s just one day, and you’re around like 100 people every day for 14 hours for six days in a row, I usually just try to be solo and go for a walk. That’s such a great city. I remember just walking across the bridge into the Pest side, which is more restless, and I was walking for hours and decompressing. But we had a blast, got along great. We were at a very cool hotel. To be young and to be in Budapest shooting a movie was super fun.

Did you and Kate get along while shooting?
Oh, she’s the best. For someone that has such a huge career, she’s one of the more underrated actors. She’s effortless onscreen, and one of the smarter people I’ve ever worked with. We had a blast working together. She’s super funny, too. She’s fucking hilarious. It’s a bit like summer camp for three months, with all the things you do when you’re in the summer camp of making a movie together.

In the first film, Michael is often a kind of damsel in distress. Did you take note of that dynamic while filming?
I didn’t even think about it until much later, watching it and realizing, Oh yeah, you are sort of the damsel in distress of this movie. It was great in that way. If you’re lucky, how many hits do you have? Not that many. So whatever element of that was there, totally cool with me.

Do you remember filming Michael’s first kiss with Selene, when he’s handcuffed to the table?
I’m having trouble remembering certain scenes, but that was our first kiss scene, I think. You would know better than me, clearly. I remember scenes in the second movie that were pretty intense. But that first scene, I think we had a good working relationship and a good chemistry, so we probably did a bunch of takes. All of that was pretty easy. Sometimes there are nerves to get through, but that was always pretty effortless.

The second movie does feature a more erotic scene, set in an abandoned semi-truck. What do you remember about approaching that scene?
That was interesting to me. I was like, Wow, that’s a sex scene. We’re gonna have a sex scene. I think Len and Kate were together by that point, and it was a sort of odd, interesting dynamic. I was like, Do we need the sex scene? And I think Len’s honest description was basically: We’ve earned this moment, it’s what we’re building towards. To not have it would be wrong.

And we just don’t do that anymore. If you look at today’s commercial movies, Marvel or DC or a lot of these bigger tentpole things, you don’t see scenes like that anymore. It’s a real rarity. That’s what stands out to me, I think. It’s like, Wow, we really did a sex scene in an action movie.

Another scene I need to mention is the finale, where Michael fights Bill Nighy’s Viktor. What was the biggest challenge of filming that?
The challenge was the choreography, which was extensive. It was towards the end of the shoot. We were in water, right? I think my nails kept falling off. It was freezing. You’re wet. It’s like day 80 of the shoot. Bill is incredible, by the way. He was so helpful on that movie and an amazing actor and sort of grounded everything for me. I remember taking home dailies from that scene just to watch it, and it was super challenging. We were short on time, but it really worked out.

Is there anything Bill said to you that stays with you today?
Yeah, private conversations, really, about life stuff. On the second one, we went out for dinner and talked more about life stuff and how he interacts with the work and how he’s been able to work for as long as he has. That really hit a nerve with me and definitely influenced me. That was in Budapest too, I think.

Do you have a wild Budapest story?
I had a driver named Frank who took care of me the whole time. You get so close to these guys, and he barely spoke English. Obviously, I didn’t speak the language. We had a crazy strong bond; I still got pictures of him I look at every once in a while. He would drive me everywhere, and it just became this sort of buddy-comedy movie of me and this guy Frank. We got in a car accident one day that nobody knows about. It was all good, not a bad one, just the craziness of making a movie. That’s why so many movies are made about making movies. It’s just this funny, weird circus. You get to know these people so well for such a short amount of time — the bond is so strong and then you just go on and never see them again.

What happened with the car accident?
My best friend flew in to hang out with me for a week and we picked him up at the airport. We got in a car accident, me and him had to jump out and tail a cab on this highway. We weren’t on the side street in Budapest. So, it was funny. Totally. It’s all good.

How did this role change your career?
Just because of how the business works, if you have a movie that opens like No. 1 and your name is above the title, no matter what it is, it opens up doors, if you want to take them. If you are in a place where you’re ready to jump into that, it does set you up for those things.

What kinds of doors opened up for you?
Not to get too personal, but at that time I was in a very different place than I am now. The attention of being on a TV show and the attention of this movie and it colliding all at once, and then getting other opportunities, I was somewhat ambivalent and took a bit of a detour and timeout, for many different reasons. I’ve seen other people go through these things and jump in, ready for that moment. It’s a timing thing. I went off and did my own thing for a while and was trying to figure it all out as an actor.

What did you do in all that time?
I got in my car, drove around the country a lot, played a lot of basketball, went up to Big Sur a lot. I was still working, but I was in a different head space for sure. I had some life stuff going on that took me off this path. Then, somewhere along the line you remember how much you love doing this and wanna do it and dedicate more of your life to it. That’s where I am now. It has been for the last decade or so.

You didn’t come back to the franchise after Evolution — was this the reason why?
Yeah, probably. I loved working with Len, and I loved working with Kate. I was in that period where I was just drifting a little bit more and wanting to do different things, or wanting to do nothing. So I was figuring it all out. That’s probably why, more than anything else.

Did you have hopes for Michael’s character development? Or were you done with the franchise?
I wouldn’t say I was done with anything. I don’t even remember how that happened. I just know that I wasn’t in the head space to be doing more of those at that time. Much different head space now and that character — I always think that character has his own story to tell. He’s such an interesting guy and the powers that he has, those two things together would be really interesting to see in his own story. But I mean, that really wasn’t that. At that point in my career, it wasn’t like, Oh, I don’t wanna do this. I just drifted a bit.

Was it difficult leaving, then re-entering the acting space?
Well, it was all of it. I was lucky enough to have things be successful at a fairly young age, and some people are great with it. But a lot of people have moments — we still see it today — where it’s a struggle. Getting out of it and coming back in, it’s challenging. It’s been fun at the same time to try to get back into working more and saying “yes” more — to challenging opportunities, scary opportunities. To your point, your question, it’s all of it. It was difficult.

Do you think you had done so many different things by that point that you didn’t know what to do next?
No, not at all. I think it was just being confused as a younger dude and trying to figure it all out. Other people do it in different ways and they’re more extroverted. I’ve said this before, but at that time I remember seeing red carpets and just, God, that seemed crazy to me. And talk shows and all that kind of stuff, the part of the job that isn’t just showing up and doing a movie — it’s showing up and selling, being this salesman. That was confusing to me — being known and identified and walking around was a challenge for my personality.

I wanted to ask you about Underworld: Awakening, the fourth movie in the franchise. There’s a flashback in the beginning of the film, in which we see Michael get shot by police, is later captured and hung upside-down in a freezing chamber, and then he runs off mysteriously. This Michael is played by a stand-in with your “likeness CGI-ed on top,” per Screen Rant. How involved were you with that ending for the character?
I haven’t seen it, to be totally candid with you. I have not seen it. I remember them wanting to use my likeness and that was cool with me: Yeah. Go for it. That’s above my pay grade in terms of what they want to do with all that. I love everybody in that whole franchise, and was totally willing to do whatever they needed.

Michael leaving Selene didn’t feel out of character to you?
Well, I didn’t know what they did. I really had no idea. Honestly, you telling me that, I didn’t really know exactly what that was, so.

Did you see the films that came after Evolution?
No, I missed those. I’m not good at watching my own stuff or stuff I’m remotely involved in. When I watch television, I always watch stuff that I have no chance of being in. I watch a lot of comedies that no one asks me to do. That’s my version of watching shows.

What about the first two Underworld movies?
Yeah, I did see those. I believe so, yes.

Do you think you skipped the last films to help detach you from the character you played?
Not at all. Once they go in a different direction, they’re totally going there. That’s what they have to do to continue to make that world work. And they had different stories they wanted to tell and, God bless, go do it.

Before leaving the franchise, were you aware of any storylines that were supposed to involve Michael?
Not that I know of.

Have you thought about Michael’s story continuing on?
I mean, yeah, I haven’t really thought about the specifics in terms of story; that’s a very cool character, who doesn’t have an “origin story.” To see that character in his own thing, yes, of course that would be interesting to me, in some capacity, whatever that would be. There’s many different tangents and storylines, many different worlds you could play around within all of that. Even within the styles of that genre, you could play around with that character, the dynamics in that world, him being outside of it and reluctant to be a part of it. I love that genre, so it’d be fun for me.

Would you revisit Underworld?
That’s, again, above my pay grade. But I mean, of course, you know. Absolutely. Super fun idea to think about that character. Not necessarily like a “standalone” thing or whatever, but something would be interesting for sure.

Who was wrong: the vampires or the Lycans?
They both have got their flaws. Everybody’s making mistakes there. That is a deep question. I’m trying to recall all the specific story dynamics of who did what and I’m not sure I’m up enough to call somebody the winner and loser, morally. I also don’t know because I’m split. I see both sides, literally. You’re asking the wrong guy. I’m neutral on this one.

Have you seen Twilight?
I have never seen Twilight, no.

Oh my God.
I know, I know. I remember seeing the trailer for Twilight and going, That is going to be a monster of a movie. People are going to go nuts for that thing. Some movies just cut into, like, a way that is commercial and hard to describe.

What do you make of Underworld’s legacy, 20 years later?
Well, just the fact that we did something that you and I are talking about in 2023, 20 years later. I’ve been lucky enough to jump into a few things that people still ask me about, but those are rare. I think there’s two or three things I’ve done that stand the test of time, that people are still interested in. What’s going on with that character? Are you interested in doing more? That’s crazy to me, that’s amazing to me.

Underworld is now streaming on Netflix.

He means Felicity.
Scott Speedman Answers All Our Questions About Underworld