When director Jan de Bont set about casting the various faces and secondary characters that populated bus #2525 in his 1994 actioner "Speed," it was very important to him that they reflect the multicultural identity of Los Angeles. Not only that, but he wanted there to be a heavy dose of realism in his choices, actors who seemed to be people you could look over on a morning commute and see reading the paper, sipping coffee, gazing out the window and starting their day.
On the occasion of the film's 20th anniversary, I thought it would be interesting to track down as many of those actors as possible and tell the story of "Speed" from their perspective. It was a gargantuan task. While a number of them have remained in the industry in some way, many have moved on to other careers. But their individual stories are nevertheless as fascinating as the exciting production of the film itself.
Some you certainly recognize, like well-known character actors Alan Ruck and Beth Grant, who have starred in everything from de Bont's "Twister" and TV's "Spin City" to films like "A Time to Kill" and "No Country for Old Men." Others have toiled behind the scenes and remain in comparatively thankless positions in the industry, like Marylou Lim, a set costumer who frequently collaborates with actor Will Ferrell, or 100-year-old Milton Quon, a legendary Disney animator who worked on "Fantasia" and "Dumbo" and whose memory is as sharp as ever.
Two of them — Jim Mapp and Paula Montes — are no longer with us. And two others — Sherri Villanueva and Carmen Williams — I was simply unable to trace (though if they end up reading this, I hope they reach out and allow me to plug their perspective into this unique portrait). I ended up getting 14 of the 18 actors on the record, far more than I could have hoped for in even my wildest dreams.
It was truly an honor to seek out each of these individuals, who deserve as much credit for the success of the film as superstars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. When it became an exhausting scavenger hunt, tracing clues to find, say, David Kriegel, who now owns a unique children's dance studio with his wife in Studio City, or Loretta Jean Crudup, who somehow finds the time to act in Christian plays and write a novel while helping to feed the poor and work for young women down on their luck — the reward was all the more satisfying.
Ultimately, "Speed" seems to have been one of those productions where everyone truly delighted in each other's company, driving back and forth on the 105 freeway just ahead of its public opening and around in circles on a tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport in the late summer swelter of 1993. It was fun to spark their memory and take a drive down memory lane with each and every one of them, and I can't thank them enough for their time.
Below is the story of "Speed," in their words.
David Kriegel: Oh my god. It's been 20 years? Wow. That makes me really freaking old.
Beth Grant: My daughter was nine months old when we did that movie and it was a big deal for me to do a movie that she couldn't come to the set; the location was a live speedway!
Loretta Jean Crudup: Let me tell you, it was my very first motion picture. I worked in the industry for the State of California but I didn't get into the movies until I was 59 years old. A lady that's in the business called me and said, "Loretta, I don't know what this is all about but a friend of mine just called me looking for a black grandmother and your face flashed in my mind and I told her all about you."
Milton Quon: I had just turned 80 at that time, I think. I was sketching the day after the audition at Santa Monica airport and when I got home my wife was waiting at the curb, and she says, "You got the part!" I had to go down to SAG to pay $1,200 or something because you had to become a union member to participate.
Simone Gad: At the audition, Jan de Bont told me he liked my cat-eye glasses. I've always worn vintage glasses. When I was hired they actually constructed a pair like mine and put rhinestones on them with my prescription. But I wasn't allowed to keep them.
Marylou Lim: I was doing some background and PA work the last couple of years in college. It was just like, "I need to pay some bills." So I went up for that and the audition was just screaming, basically. And I got the role. It seemed fun and different. Reading it you're just like, "What? A bomb on a bus? OK, that's gonna go." But I was really interested in fashion and costume design, and working on that movie, I got to see it in the production part of it and I met costumers. Bob Morgan was one of them. I talked to him about getting into costumes and he basically told me, "Just start working as a PA on productions."
Carlos Carrasco: It wasn't projected as a blockbuster or a tent pole movie or anything like that. I think the studio had agreed to put some money into this kind of interesting project, mid-level stuff. I mean, at the time, who was Keanu Reeves? He was Ted. And Sandy, I love her and I can't say enough about her contribution to getting that movie made, but it was still like, "Sandra who?"
Hawthorne James: When I read the script I said, "This is kind of corny. I don't know if I want to do this or not." And they didn't have a lot of money to shoot this movie because nobody believed in it. It had been turned down by every other studio, every actor. We didn't have a villain until we were a week or two into shooting. I think they had gone to, like, Christopher Walken and all kinds of people before Dennis Hopper said yes. So we were shooting a movie and there was no villain. Nobody believed in it.
Carlos Carrasco: Thinking back about "Speed," it's a complicated, bittersweet memory. When you're a character actor, you work in the trenches for years and years and you don't often get a shot at getting out. And then you throw in the whole business of being an ethnic actor. So when "Speed" first came into my life, I was beyond thrilled because it was a showcase role. It was a positive ethnic role model role. It was a hero role. I have a long history of playing bad guys and, you know, beating up the old lady and getting the drugs across the border and stuff like that. And I just thought, "Wow. This is great. This is gonna be fabulous. And also holds the potential of elevating several careers to the next level." That's the head that I went into that project with. And then about a week and a half or maybe not even that long before shooting, we all showed up and they said, "Hey, very exciting day today. We're gonna read our new rewrites. Here are the new scripts. Let's buckle down and read." And so we did and I remember pages turning and pages turning and looking around the table and just really feeling all of the air going out of the room. All of our disappeared. Essentially just became all these people in the back of the bus screaming and yelling.
David Kriegel: I just actually read the original script. About six months ago a friend of mine, we were cleaning out stuff and I pulled out the script and thought, "Wow, that is a whole different deal." It was more of an ensemble, where everyone gradually found out about their different talents or backgrounds and used them collectively to solve this problem. If I'm remembering correctly, my character was a film student and because I had my camera and video gear with me we were able to tap into the bad guy's video signal and see that he was watching.
Carlos Carrasco: They also brought Daniel on board, and good for Daniel, he got to be in a big hit movie. But they brought him on as the gang-banger from East LA, you know, "Hey, mang. I'm gonna shoot you, mang." It's like, you know, "Blame it on the Latinos." Stuff like that. And Natsuko lost everything that she had. Natsuko was actually an instructor at Shakespeare & Company. She specializes in a style of vocal training called Linklater Method. You get a woman like that and you put her on a bus and then you take away all her lines?
Natsuko Ohama: I think in the first go 'round there was probably more detail to almost all the roles. More backstory. That was true of Keanu as well. Some of the characters had more family things or it was just fleshed out more. But I think that would have slowed down the movie. I had no problem with it at all.
Simone Gad: Jan told me I was going to have a bigger role, but still, it's a significant role for what it is. Both he and the producer really liked what I was doing. They told me my role was helping to make the whole thing very real. So I focused on that and soaked that in.
Julia Vera: I had a scene with Carlos but it was in Spanish. I think that's the reason they took it out. And they left me one line. When he's talking about the big gap in the freeway and he's saying, "Everybody hunker down," and I say, "Que dice?!" Like, "What is he saying?!" Everybody gets a kick out of that. I'm supposed to be a cleaning lady or a housekeeper or something like that.
Beth Grant: Originally my character had just gotten engaged the night before. Annie, I believe, was a stand-up comic and we knew each other because we took the bus every day. And everybody was so excited that I had gotten engaged. When the bus driver died, he had a heart attack and I had kind of given him CPR. When I get this rewrite — now I'm whining. There's no history, no character. And I'm not the hero! Jan said, "There's too many heroes in this. We need a coward, and you're it."
Hawthorne James: The heart attack stuff, I asked them about that, because I didn't want to be Fred Sanford on a bus. One of the only black guys on the bus and he would have been the only non-hero. It cost me money, because otherwise I would have been on the bus with his heart attack for the rest of the movie, but I was glad it changed.
Alan Ruck: I think I was supposed to be a dick. I was supposed to be, you know, kind of an entitled and really inconsiderate asshole lawyer who gets put in his place pretty quickly by Carlos' character. I went in and I read with Jan and I think he just decided he was gonna have me be goofy and likable.
Loretta Jean Crudup: All of us were promised a speaking part. I was there when they said it. All of a sudden the producer and director were looking over all of us and he pointed and said, "Loretta Jean, I want you to say this: 'I want to see my babies!'" And I said that. And he pointed to another one and told her what to say. And there were only three of us, besides the ones up front, that got a chance to have a speaking part. The others got very mad at the producer. The man who played my husband, Jim Mapp, got so mad. They did not tell us they had changed the script, so there was some anger on the set. But I still get residuals. It was very lucrative for me!
Carlos Carrasco: There's that initial actor reaction of, "Oh, how many lines do I have?" But for me it was a little deeper than that because I think my part, after the rewrite, was down to about five lines, three of which I found offensive because this hero character had been sort of reverted to a stereotype, just another big, lumbering, Latino idiot. It was very distressing. I seriously contemplated leaving the project.
Beth Grant: It wasn't like this was a bad script that they were trying to make better. It was more about streamlining it. I think it was the right decision and I'm sure Graham Yost would agree, because they really made it work. And it deserved Joss Whedon's sense of character. I teased him once when I did an episode of "Angel." I said, "You took my whole part away… Thank goodness!" But Jan was able to preserve the characters without the dialogue. He said, "Stick with me, because I'm gonna shoot this like a European film and we're gonna use really subdued colors and I'm gonna get coverage of you and it's gonna be very dramatic." I knew how gifted he was and I knew, you know, he was a shooter, so I believed him that he was gonna shoot it that way.
Carlos Carrasco: I went in and I spoke to Jan and I said, "Look, I'm upset and I don't really know if I want to spend a couple of months on something that I've lost my belief in in terms of what it portrays and what it shows for my people." And he was very sympathetic. He said, "Look, all I can tell you is that we're gonna be shooting with many, many cameras and I give you my word that I will do everything that I can to fix it." So I stayed.