Starting with Whiplash, Miles Teller is set to power some of this year’s most intriguing films. Tom Ellen meets 2015’s breakout star
Outside a pancake house in north Hollywood, Miles Teller is holding up a pair of bruised and battered hands. “I can’t really move them,” he laughs, forcing them into half-closed claws. This damage is the result of a film he’s just finished shooting – aptly-titled boxing drama Bleed For This – but they could just as easily be a by-product of the project I’m here to speak to him about: Whiplash.
The film, out this week, sees Teller play a timid, solitary college student with one life goal: to be the next great jazz drummer. He thinks he’s nailed it when he’s recruited by burly bandleader Terence Fletcher (a mesmerising, terrifying JK Simmons), only to discover that Fletcher’s teaching “methods” involve public humiliation, physical abuse and maniacal dedication. It’s a brilliant film, and could tee up a transformative year for Teller, who’s best known for the young-adult franchise Divergent. In addition to Whiplash and Bleed For This, 2015 will also see the 27-year-old heading up Marvel’s The Fantastic Four as pliable protagonist Mister Fantastic. With a schedule like that, you can’t help feel that in 2016 he won’t be able to enjoy the kind of relative anonymity that allows for brandishing blisters on a busy street…
You did most of the drumming in Whiplash yourself, right?
I think the editor said that 90 per cent of the drumming my character does in the film is really me. I got a drum kit at 15, but I’d never even had a lesson before this movie. So, it was nice to be taught how to properly hold the sticks, stuff like that.
Were you in bands growing up?
Yeah, I was in a band called The Mutes. We’d cover Silverchair and Green Day. We were playing a high-school parade once, and all the generators went, so we had no sound. So, it was, “Yeah, OK, ‘The Mutes’.” Drums are the only thing that works in that situation, so I just kept playing by myself.
There are some fairly intense scenes in Whiplash between you and JK Simmons. Was he hurling chairs and slapping you for real?
Oh yeah [laughs]. The chair-throwing scene was pretty intense, but if it was an actor who was ‘in’ that character the whole time, or was just a f*cking asshole, I’d probably say, “Nah, I don’t want you to slap me.” But JK is so great, so committed, and it was just so easy to be there in the moment with him.
Your character is obsessed with jazz legend Buddy Rich. Who are your own drum heroes?
I always liked Mitch Mitchell – he played in that kind of ‘Animal’ style. Also John Bonham, Keith Moon. Someone actually came up to me at Toronto [Film Festival] to say they’re making a Keith Moon biopic, with Pete Townshend producing, and they were interested in me for Keith.
Are you playing Dan Aykroyd in a John Belushi biopic?
I don’t think that’ll happen. It’d be cool if it did. I saw Emile [Hirsch, who’s playing Belushi] at a Sundance party and he got on the mic and was like, “Me and Miles are doing Belushi together! He’s gonna play Dan!” And of course there are all these reporters there. Afterwards, Emile said, “Man, I never would have said it if I’d known there was a f*cking mole in the room!”
What about playing Elvis Presley? You get compared to him a lot on Twitter…
That’s the one I really want. I play guitar, I sing, I kind of look the part. Just gotta make my accent a little more ‘Memphis’. There are a couple of scripts floating around, but I feel they’ve never really got [an Elvis biopic] right yet. All the producers I talk to want to do it so he’s 16 and he’s having his first kiss, and I’m like, “Nobody f*cking cares about that sh*t!” You’ve got to see him rocking and rolling, not as this awkward kid. I want to do the Walk The Line version; they want to do the Hairspray version. But hopefully it’ll happen. I just need to find the right filmmaker.
Going back to Whiplash, does it feel like this film could mark the start of a huge year for you?
It’s definitely the sort of film that actors and directors love. I just did a photoshoot with Benedict Cumberbatch, and he was saying Whiplash was his favourite film of the year. So, I’ve got people I really like telling me how much they love it, which is great. I’m definitely starting to get roles that showcase me more in a way that I want.
Why do you think that is?
Well, I know the parts I want, I know I can act them, but there’s a certain physicality you need sometimes. I don’t want to be the ‘funny friend’; I want those f*cking dramatic, great parts, so I had to do something to put me into that world a bit. I’d been training and dieting since April for The Fantastic Four and Bleed For This. I lost 20lb, my body fat was six per cent. So, now I’m just enjoying eating rice and bread again. They gave me a pizza when we wrapped [on Bleed For This], and I carried that box around like it was my f*cking baby.
You mentioned The Fantastic Four – how much can you say about it?
Actually, I just got an email that said “Don’t say anything” [laughs].
Excellent. The last big-screen Fantastic Four outings were fairly colourful, over-the-top affairs – is this one similar?
No, it’s more character-driven. This one is definitely grittier, more real. Reed Richards [Mister Fantastic], to me, is as complicated a character as any I’ve played. You don’t change your acting just because it’s a big studio film. I wanted the guy to be three-dimensional. I wasn’t on set every day thinking, “Hey, I’m the stretchy guy!” It was: “I like this girl, how do I talk to her?"
Did you keep an eye on the online reaction when you were announced for the film?
Not really, but I saw stuff like, “Are you f*cking kidding me? The dude from Project X?!” But you expect that. Because it’s been around for so many years, people see that comic book world as sacred.
You were in a serious car crash in 2007. What do you remember?
There was a moment when everything slowed down, we lost control at 80mph, going across three lanes of traffic, and before the car started to flip I had the
clear thought that “people die in situations like this”. Not “I’m going to die”, but “people do die”. I was laying 30ft from the car, unconscious covered in blood,
but three weeks later I was back in school and I had a cast and I had all these scratches on my face.
Were you concerned that the facial scars would get in the way of your career?
Yeah. When you start to heal, scabs come off, but then… you find that certain things don’t go away. You think you can cover them up with make-up. You can’t. The feedback from auditions was I was a good actor but it didn’t make sense for the character to have scars. I thought, “I’m gonna be the actor that people know for having scars” – like Joaquin [Phoenix] with the cleft lip for a little bit, until he became… Joaquin, you know?
Was acting always the plan?
I don’t know, man. I did drama at college, but I also smoked a lot of pot. So I didn’t really do any plays because a) I didn’t have time, and b) I just f*cking wanted to get high. But since I graduated, I’ve been doing three or four films a year, so I’d compare my work ethic to anybody’s. You can’t just keep getting high and not answering the phone [laughs].
Whiplash is at cinemas nationwide from 16 January
[images: Sony Pictures]