After the opening weekend of “Speed” last June, studio executives awakened to Keanu Reeves’ potential as an action star, making him enough multimillion-dollar offers to keep him in Uzis for years.

But instead of committing to the $7 million lead in a sequel to the $112 million box office smash, or to another action pic, “Dead Drop,” right off the bat, Reeves took a career path less-traveled, signing on with New Line Cinema’s dark comedy “Feeling Minnesota” for $200,000.

Reeves is one of a growing group of actors who are taking a tip from their stage-trained cousins across the pond: They’re learning that the best way to create a financially rewarding and lengthy career is to alternate commercial vehicles with lower-budget, performance-driven pieces.

And savvy agents and managers are awakening to te fact that there are benefits beyond brownie points when star clients occasionally sidestep the best-paying gig in favor of a smaller film.

“There was a little Norman Jewison film called ‘In Country,’ which Bruce Willis did for scale right after the first ‘Die Hard,’ ” says Arnold Rifkin, William Morris Agency’s head of worldwide motion pictures. “What I tell my clients is that the director and the material are always the reason to do a movie – the money should be secondary.” That pic did little at the box office, but it showed Hollywood that Willis was more than a posable action figurine.


And the “Die Hard” star is probably the highest-profile actor following this trend; he recently worked for peanuts in “Pulp Fiction” before getting $15 million for his reprisal of John McClane in “Die Hard With a Vengeance.”

WMA client Danny Glover has his “Lethal Weapon” price – he can fetch in the low seven figures for an action pic – but has worked for scale on performance-driven pieces like “To Sleep With Anger” and “The Saint of Fort Washington.”

Wesley Snipes received in the neighborhood of $6 million for Columbia Pictures’ fall actioner “Money Train,” yet he worked for markedly less in what promises to be the ’90s answer to “Some Like It Hot” – namely “To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.”

Winona Ryder will be taking a drastic pay cut from her “Little Women” price to star in “Boys” – the second film from writer and director Stacy Cochran, the creator of the dark comedy “My New Gun.” Bridget Fonda will segue from her $3 million stint opposite Al Pacino in Castle Rock’s “City Hall” to Neil Jimenez’s new project, and for that she will only pull down a low six-figure fee. Jimenez wrote and co-directed Samuel Goldwyn’s “The Waterdance.”

Good will tour of duty

Agents know that a star may even accrue some good will for trying to stretch as a performer, and that one failure in the independent marketplace will not damage a star’s asking price at the studios. It’s often far more dangerous for a star to stretch in a big-studio production, as Sylvester Stallone did with “Oscar” and “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.”

“Part of my job is to put a client in business with as many filmmakers of as varied backgrounds as possible,” says Erwin Stoff, Keanu Reeves’ longtime manager at 3 Arts Entertainment. “There is a time for an actor to do an overtly commercial film, but if there is a director with a unique voice, I will encourage my client to work with him because that role will have a positive effect on the longevity of his career.”

Reeves learned the lesson of material over money some eight years ago when he accepted a role in “Dangerous Liaisons” that paid one-tenth the amount he would have received to star in the sequel to David Cronenberg “The Fly.”

For Fox’s “Dead Drop,” which starts filming this spring, Reeves will nab $7 million and 5% of first dollar gross. But long before the pic opens, Reeves will appear in “A Walk in the Clouds,” a role for which he will get paid substantially less up front. The studio’s $18 million period romance from the director of “Like Water for Chocolate,” Alfonso Arau, opens in April.

In “Minnesota,” which opens next month, Reeves chose to work with a debuting director, the relatively unknown scripter Steve Baigelman.

But when an A-list star takes a pay cut to get a smaller movie greenlit, there are usually conditions. The actor’s deal is generally structured so that if the film is successful, he has an ownership position significant enough that he can actually earn more than by merely being an actor for hire in a big studio film.

The risk must be rewarded, actors and agents argue, just as an investor in a riskier bond is afforded a higher rate of return than from a savings account.

Ilene Feldman, whose eponymous agency represents Bridget Fonda and Tim Roth, says that for the film “Bodies, Rest & Motion,” Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz and Fonda worked virtually for scale – “but they were essentially made equal partners with the producers and writers because their time commitment was like equity invested in the project.”

While many clients of the Big Three agencies have to be encouraged to venture into low-budget fare, Feldman’s stable of independent-minded actors offer her the inverse problem: Her clients constantly turn down big-budget studio films, forcing her to push Fonda and Tim Roth into taking their respective roles in “City Hall” and MGM/UA’s kilt epic “Rob Roy.”

“It’s very important to get a large studio film in the mix,” says Feldman. “When Bridget did ‘Point of No Return,’ she was on billboards all over town – likewise (for) ‘It Could Happen To You.’ That helped make her the kind of star the studios put on their casting lists and studio executives think of. ‘Rob Roy’ will do that for Tim Roth.”

Material and money aside, there are some directors most actors will take a pay cut to work with – among them Robert Altman, Woody Allen (who can get an A-list actor to work for scale plus $10,000 a week) and Martin Scorsese.

“It’s always advisable for a Jim Carrey to protect his success by playing to his strength and building up his price from picture to picture,” notes one Big Three talent agent. “But if Marty Scorsese calls and says, ‘I want you to play Ira Gershwin for scale,’ he would be a fool not to do it.”

Many of the high-priced stars of Scorsese’s “Casino” are working for below-market rates, including Sharon Stone, who worked for half her current asking price of $7 million. Also, the public has a way of turning on a star when his asking price becomes bigger news than his box office – witness Chevy Chase’s fall from grace.

Or as Reeves’ rep Stoff suggests, “Mixing up the roles sends a message for an actor. It says What I’m about is the work, not just the money.’ “