Miles Teller: Cinema’s Next Great Bad Ass?

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“No, fuck no,” says Miles Teller when I ask if he grew up listening to jazz, as we sit down to chat about his new role in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. But for the 27-year-old actor, who grew up playing music, he may not have always been a fan of the particular genre, but loved his role as an aspiring jazz musician in the film, which premiered at the New York Film Festival and rolls into theaters this week. And when it comes to Teller’s boyish Hollywood charm and charisma, there’s more than meets the eye. Lurking beneath his “exterior of sports and stuff” lies versatile actor waiting to get his hands dirty.

Since his breakout performance opposite Nicole Kidman in John Cameron Mitchell’s heartbreaking Rabbit Hole, Teller has managed to navigate between huge studio films like Divergent and the upcoming Fantastic Four to Sundance hits that have won him acclaim, both with last year’s The Spectacular Now and this year’s Whiplash.

 “I feel like this movie puts me in a different conversation with people.” 

After moving from Rabbit Hole to coming-of-age comedy and now roles that showcase a more mature side of the actor, Teller is ready to separate himself from adolescent roles and take on films with a bit more grit. Based on the real life experiences of Chazelle’s early years in the competitive world of jazz, Teller plays Andrew, an aspiring jazz drummer intent on becoming a legend. When he’s plucked from his small ensemble to join the big leagues, led by drill sergeant conductor J.K. Simmons, his personal life begins to unravel as he’ll stop at nothing to achieve his goal and please the ruthless depends of his leader. Literally pouring his blood, sweat, and tears into his drumming, Teller takes on the role with impressive dedication, portraying an unlikeable but recognizable character fighting to make his life with something. 

So last week during NYFF, I sat down with him to talk about his own background in music, his relationship to Hollywood, and the musical theater kid lying underneath his tough exterior.

Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think that you couldn’t have been faking a lot of that drumming. So how much musical training did you have prior?

I had musical training most of my whole life. I started with piano when I was six, picked up saxophone in middle school and high school bands, and then I picked up a guitar because my mom played guitar. So I started that when I was thirteen and then I asked for a drum set when I was 15. I just wanted to be a rock drummer, so I asked for a drum set and then started playing in bands and stuff.

Did you listen to jazz?

No, fuck no. For this movie I did, but no, I had no real interest in jazz per say. But I was very aware of who Buddy Rich was; anybody who knows music or gets behind a drum kit should know who Buddy Rich is. 

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And when you think of jazz, you don’t usually think about the physicality of it.

Yeah, it’s very physical. Your instrument is really an extension of your arms and your legs. When you’re playing it’s very rhythmic and a lot of movement there.

Was getting to do two things you love—acting and drumming—something that attracted you to the film?

Absolutely, yeah.

How did you meet Damien and become involved?

I was filming up in Chicago and I got this script and my agent told me that the director really liked me for the role but I had to decide very soon. Even though I was his choice and he was offering it to me, they were going to move on quickly. So then I read it and was like, oh man this is an incredible opportunity for a young actor, this is really a tremendous script. I asked when it would start and they said it starts shooting in six weeks and you’ll start practicing drums and taking jazz lessons as soon as you can. So I got to LA, and I might have met Damien for the first time when he dropped the drum set off at my house. He brought over his drum set, and that was about it. They sent me his short film of Whiplash but I didn’t watch it because I didn’t want to see anybody else playing the part.

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When you’re seeking out roles is a new challenge or learning something an aspect of a role that you look for?

Yeah, for sure. Acting is a big enough challenge as it is, but sometimes it affords you an opportunity to learn a new skill. I love music and drums were always the instrument that came most naturally to me. So to be able to find a movie where I was able to play the drums was great. Most of the time as a drummer people are telling you to be quiet, because you’re not playing notes, you’re just playing the beat, and if you’re playing yourself it’s obviously not as cool as playing with other people. So to be able to do a movie where two days was just of me playing a drum solo, and for a lot of it Damien would just be like, “Play a drum solo!”

With a really fast shoot like this, did that help to really immerse you in this world?

Yeah, it just added to the craziness of it. All that stuff in the practice room where I get pissed off and punch through a snare drum, we filmed all of that stuff in one day. So I’d be playing as fast as I could and sweating, and then take that shirt off and put on another shirt and do another sequence of me playing very frenetically. I don’t think this movie would have been as good if we shot it over three months, because I do think there’s something about limitations being your friend a lot of the time because you do have to push yourself.

I probably didn’t want to see myself cry in a movie but that ended up happening.

Where did this movie factor into what you’d been working on—were you looking to take on something more dramatic and intense?

Eventually, but the time I was just kind of burnt out. I had done five movies in about a year and was ready to take a break because I hadn’t really taken a break for like two years. I wanted to do something dramatic and intense. I probably didn’t want to see myself cry in a movie but that ended up happening. But yeah, I wanted to do something a little more gritty.

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It hasn’t been that long since your first film role in Rabbit Hole but you’ve had a pretty whirlwind few years. How has that been for you and are you trying to take advantage of it as much as you can?

I’m not an anxious person, I really don’t get anxiety, but my mom says when I was growing up and we’d go to an amusement park or something like that, I’d just be like, this is so cool, what’s next? Always just looking at what’s next. So I can be in the moment and really enjoy and understand where I’m at, but it just takes a while I think for your career to catch up to things you want to do. It takes a year to shoot a film and then a year for it to come out and then people have to see you in that light. Then you get offered something different based on them seeing that movie, because for a lot of stuff, people don’t have much imagination.

You have to convince them for it. And now I feel like this movie puts me in a different conversation with people. When I started out in Rabbit Hole my agent had to really convince people that I could do comedy, because they were like, “The kid from Rabbit Hole? What are you talking about?” I want to show that I’m very versatile because I have a lot of different interests, and I think that’s kind of the spice of life.

Was it a fun experience working with a director you’re age?

It’s great, it’s awesome. I love the fact that I’m beginning to work with directors who are kind of like my peers and my colleagues.  For a long time I felt like a kid and the director’s like my dad’s age, and you just feel that gap.

I want to separate myself from these younger, more adolescent characters and play stuff that’s closer to my own age and shit, and badass stuff.

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I imagine you need a good level of trust and intimacy in order to get a good performance.

Yeah, me and Damien would have sex everyday after working. I’m just kidding. No, but it’s good if you’re the same age as somebody and you’ve grown up in the same era because you’re going to have more in common than somebody who is a lot older than you.

Speaking of which, how was working with JK?

JK’s great. We work the same way, where we can be very serious in a scene and then as soon as you yell cut we can make jokes, and he’s not in character the whole time. I’m not in character the whole time, that would be a very uncomfortable place to be if he was trying to boss me around and shit all the time.

Were you a fan of his?

They say him in Oz is supposed to be really good. I’ve never even seen Juno, but I know him from those commercials. 

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Do you find you have to step it up when you’re acting opposite someone like that?

You can do all the preparation in the world but at the end of the day you have react to what that person is giving you, you have to be in that world. JK and I, both our characters both had really clear intentions, and that’s a credit to Damien’s script. He wrote very fleshed out characters that we could both run with and get excited by.

You’ve done a good mix of big Hollywood films and smaller indies. Do you like to have that balance or is there something you prefer?

I don’t have this anti-studio mentality. I’ve had a lot of freedom working in the studio system. I very rarely have worked on something where I’ve felt like the character is not in my control, like where I felt the studio was making me make the character the most appealing—appealing to grandparents and teenagers and young kids because that’s what a lot of studio movies have to do, they want to appeal to everybody because that’s how you make money. So I’ve not had a bad experience with studios, but since they’re not really making these more interesting character-driven dramatic artistic pieces, that’s where you do go independently because you feel like it’s you and small crew and you get to go to all of these remote locations. 

Do you feel like you’re more a part of it and a collaborator rather than just an actor?

Yeah, you feel more a part of it, and less like you just press a button and out comes a movie kind of thing. You just feel like you’re there for every beat of the story.

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What kind of films are you into watching for pleasure?

I really don’t watch a lot of films. I’ll watch something if it’s a director I want to work with, like Derek Cianfrance. I really like the stuff that he does. I want to do different stuff, like I’m doing a boxing movie in November and that’s absolutely something I want to do. What young guy doesn’t want to do a boxing movie? Especially this one where it’s a true story about a young guy, who in the middle of his career got in a car accident and broke two vertebrae in his neck and they said he’d never box again or walk again and then he comes back a year later and wins the title. It’s this incredible story and Martin Scorsese is producing it. That is the ideal project for me right now because I want to separate myself from these younger, more adolescent characters and play stuff that’s closer to my own age and shit, and badass stuff.

And you’re doing a musical with Damien next…

Yes! Because underneath all this exterior of sports and whatever stuff, there’s a kid who loves musical theater. I do like to sing and I like dancing. Back in the day there was Frank Sinatara and Marlon Brando and then they were doing Guys and Dolls..Gene Kelly, that’s cool, classic cool, and I think if you do it right it’s something it’s something that people will really respond to. It’s been out of cinema for a while, but when it comes along and it’s like a Chicago or a Moulin Rouge, people really dig it.