With four film releases this year–Divergent, That Awkward Moment, Two Night Stand and Whiplash—it would be an understatement to say that Miles Teller has arrived. A New York University Tisch alum, who hit pay dirt after college by landing a pivotal role opposite Nicole Kidman in 2010’s Rabbit Hole, Teller soon after found himself with what any young actor covets—a CAA agent. He moved to Los Angeles in search of solid dramatic roles and weathered casting directors’ decisions to go with the hunky guy over his everyman type. Teller, who’s a rock drummer in his spare time, thirsted for something that connected to his musical background. It arrived in the form of Andrew, the masochistic music conservatory drummer who’ll do anything to meet his acerbic jazz band teacher’s demands in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. For three and half weeks, Teller threw himself into jazz drumming, a completely different style of percussion from what he knew, blood blisters and all. His mastery of the music is one thing; the fierce intensity that Teller creates playing against J.K. Simmons’ ruthless professor, is something altogether game-changing. It’s the type of face-off that makes Timothy Bottoms’ and John Houseman’s student-law professor exchanges in 1973’s The Paper Chase look like a spat between cub scouts. Recently, Teller traded in his drumsticks for boxing gloves, as he preps for the role of pugilist Vinny Pazienza in Ben Younger’s biopic Bleed for This. He’s also set to reunite with Chazelle for the director’s contemporary romantic musical La La Land, which also stars Emma Watson and is due in theaters this March.
Where were you in your career when you first received the offer to star in Whiplash?
I was filming Divergent. I had just finished Awkward Moment, which ended in January, and then Divergent was in March, and then I got the Whiplash script some time in May 2013… Damien wrote the script with me in mind. He saw me in Rabbit Hole. By the time I got the script, I was the director’s first choice. I was told to read the script and get back to them. I didn’t even meet Damien until after I had accepted.
What made you take the chance on a first-time director like Damien Chazelle?
For me, it’s always like, “Screw it, it doesn’t matter.” I mean, Two Night Stand was one of the favorite scripts that I read. (Director) Max Nichols had never directed a feature at all. So, based on the script in that case, and the fact that Ruben Fleischer was the producer, really helped me make the decision. I auditioned for it. I really wanted it. But Whiplash was based on Jason Reitman being involved (as a producer), and just how good the script was, and the fact that I grew up playing music.
Many young actors today, such as Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley, balance prestige and franchise projects. You’re playing Mr. Fantastic in the reboot of The Fantastic Four. Why the need to book commercial fare?
There’s a whole world out there. At the end of the day, most of the small, independent films stay in the U.S. Rarely do they get much overseas distribution. You want to have a movie that plays internationally. Many times, it’s an action film because there’s not a language barrier. You figure the bigger budgeted films are going to play more worldwide. I do think international audience is important. So, that’s something you take into account. But at the end of the day, independent films pay a couple thousand dollars. Spectacular Now made over $6 million. Whiplash should make $10 million. For me to make my money on acting, I couldn’t just do a bunch of Spectacular Nows, because I would have to do 10 of them to make what a college-level grad makes… I’m a guy who’s making a living off of acting. When I graduated college, do you know what all my buddies were doing? Waiting tables, doing this and that, because it’s hard. Most guys around my age right now are lucky to guest star on a TV show. The studios aren’t making dramas anymore. They’re making big action films, superhero films and comedies. That’s it… I love independent films and that’s where my passion is, but if you want to do everything only for your passion, at least for me, I’m going to be living in a pretty shitty apartment and struggling to pay the bills. I’m in a better position now. Before, I wasn’t bankable enough. You’ve got to get to a certain point before you can be that choosey.
In the wake of Whiplash, what kind of offers are you receiving?
Bleed for This is a true departure from anything I’ve done. I look at older actors like Sean Penn, and even (Ryan) Gosling and Leo (DiCaprio) to a certain extent. When they were my age, they were putting some really good stuff down. I’m excited that I’m being offered roles now. I’m not the son, I’m not the kid, I’m not this and that. That’s a good sign. The best parts are for actors in their 30s and even 40s. So, I’m just excited to leave that coming-of-age stuff behind and now I can start choosing some more character stuff, stuff that’s a little farther from my skin. When I moved out to L.A. from New York, the feedback I received was, “You’re a really good actor, but not quite right.” The prettiest guys were always getting the lead. There was this weird kind of Abercrombie phase. Back in the day, it was guys like Tom Hanks, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and John Cusack. It was the time of the everyman. I guess that’s where I fit in. I’m trying to get in really good shape for this boxing film. But it was a little frustrating in the beginning, when I was losing out on parts to guys with more chiseled features. I felt like I was the better actor.
In your opinion then, what enabled casting directors to get onboard with your everyman image? Did it just boil down to traction in terms of landing roles?
I don’t know. There’s a certain pedigree there, too, with certain casting directors. They work with certain directors and they want to cast great actors. And then there are other ones who maybe do a certain kind of film that isn’t necessarily about the acting. I think with me I just want to present an opportunity. I can do comedy, I can do drama, and you know that I’m going to prepare. At this point, I’ve been the lead in enough films that you know that I know how to do a job. I have a great reputation and that’s something I’ll always have.
Photograph and video of Miles Teller taken by Mark Mann
Below, Teller talks about some of the jazz drummers who inspired his performance in Whiplash: