It’s the day after the premiere and after party for his latest film, Whiplash, and Miles Teller has certainly felt better. “Hungover,” he admits as he arrives to meet up at his neighborhood coffee spot in Hollywood. But this guy deserves a wild night out: For the last two years, the 27-year-old has been ricocheting between thoughtful indies like The Spectacular Now and big-budget studio affairs like Divergent, culminating in this weekend’s Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s riveting drama that debuted to raves (and awards) at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Teller stars as Andrew, a jazz drummer at an elite music conservatory who wants so badly to be a musical great that he not only forfeits all personal relationships, he also withstands the emotional and physical abuse of a fiercely intimidating instructor (J.K. Simmons).
Teller shares not only Andrew’s musical talent, but also his drive. He says he hasn’t taken a break in two years, and after making the promotional rounds for Whiplash (for which he’s drumming up Oscar buzz), he’ll head to Rhode Island to shoot the indie boxing drama Bleed for This. He’s already wrapped two other potential big hits: Next year’s Divergent follow-up, Insurgent, and the new Fantastic Four reboot, in which he’ll star as Reed Richards. As if that wasn’t enough to keep him occupied, Teller also had to deal with an online brouhaha last month, when he was quoted as saying he felt “dead inside” after wrapping Divergent, forcing the Philadelphia-area native to vehemently (and very frankly) defend himself. “In all my interviews, I am very candid,” he told Yahoo Movies. “I don’t censor myself, but also I’m very proud of the career I have. I’m not a f—king bad person. I don’t think I’m better than anybody so I don’t really worry too much about what comes out of my mouth.” Indeed, Teller didn’t hold back as we peppered him with questions about his life in the movies.
How much musical experience did you have prior to Whiplash?
I grew up playing piano, then I played saxophone for a little bit. I was in the high school band, and I had a drum set when I was, like, 15. I never took a drum lesson — I took piano and saxophone lessons. But I always took my drum kit with me.
You had a high-school rock band as well, right?
Yeah. We called ourselves The Mutes, because we were playing at homecoming court, and right when we were supposed to start jamming out, the power in our generators went out.
And how would you rate your skills now? Could you go out there and vibe with a jazz band?
If they were playing [Hank Levy’s] “Whiplash” or [Duke Ellington’s] “Caravan,” I could, because I know those songs pretty much by heart. It’s hard, though. Jazz is the highest form of percussion.
In Whiplash, Andrew drums so hard that his hands bleed. Did actually happen to you during filming?
Yeah. I’d show up on set, and there would be blood on the cymbals and all this s—t. I’m like, “Damien [who is a former jazz musician], how realistic is this? I don’t want to lose our audience by just being this outlandish with it.” But he said that, when he was playing all the time, his hands were all torn up. And when I started practicing four hours a day for weeks [for the film], I started getting blood blisters. So it was pretty real.
How much of the on-screen drumming did you actually perform?Apart from a couple of inserts [with a stand-in] while I was doing something else, 90 percent of it is me. And then other times you have to sweeten up [the sound] in the studio because we didn’t have the right mics [during filming].
The film was based on a short film Damien had made a year earlier. Did you talk to the actor [Johnny Simmons] who played your character in the original?
No. I didn’t even watch the short until way after we were done filming. And I had never seen anything of Damien’s. I just knew the script was really good.
J.K. Simmons is just ferocious in this film. He’s constantly antagonizing you, sometimes very slyly and other times very outright. It’s so different from that nurturing dad he played in Juno. Were you surprised to see him go so dark?
No. I’ve never seen him in anything. I never saw Juno. I’ve seen like five minutes of a lot of s—t. I know him from the Farmers Insurance commercials. Oh, [and] I saw him in Spider-Man.
At certain points, Simmons tears you down with such intensity, you break down in tears. How do you make yourself cry on film?
I think about the Phillies, and the season that they’re having, and it just pours out. They were pretty bad this year and last year, pretty dogs—t.
I read that your pal and Divergent costar, Shailene Woodley, couldn’t get ahold of you during the making of this movie.
Yeah. That’s because she doesn’t have a phone and she lives in a tree. I was just talking to her earlier. She talks to me for a little bit, then she’ll just f—king disappear.
It sounds like you didn’t have many opportunities to socialize while filming, anyway.
We shot it through 19 days. There wasn’t a lot of time to [prepare]. I didn’t want to be hungover or anything. So it was the first movie where I stopped talking to my friends and kind of shut myself off, yeah.
Andrew sacrifices a lot of his relationships – even the one with his girlfriend – in order to satisfy himself artistically. Could you relate?
The key word in all of that is balance. A lot of people have a hard time balancing. I’ve got buddies who have girlfriends, and you never see them. They have a hard time balancing their girlfriend and their friends. And then throw in your family in there, and throw in your f—king passion, you’re not going to be able to give the same amount of time to everything. So yeah, I’m glad that I don’t have to really suffer for my art, although there are times you absolutely do give a lot of yourself to it, and [film] is a medium that you get out of it what you put into it.
In the past few years, you’ve balanced between indies like Whiplash and The Spectacular Now, and studio movies like Divergent and That Awkward Moment.. Have you adopted a “one for them, one for me” strategy?
[Laughs] No, because honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve ever done a “one for them” type of film. For me, it’s always about the script and the people I want to work with. I’ve been offered literally a million dollars to do a s—tty script, and I have not done it. You think about it for a second, but I think you want to be very precious with your résumé, and the choices you make, you should be able to defend them.
You’ve been filming movies for more than two years straight.
Yeah. Divergent was a long shoot. It was four months, and it was my first long shoot like that. Afterwards I just thought I would take a break from it, because even the year before that I did four films back-to-back-to-back.
Speaking of Divergent, you recently told W magazine that you felt “dead inside” while shooting the movie, and that taking the role was a “business decision.”
I thought the way it was framed was unexpected. I talked to [the reporter] for like an hour, and that wasn’t like a focus of discussion. But when you say “business [decision],” people think you’re talking about money. It’s like, “Dude, we didn’t get paid a ton of money on Divergent.” I’ve been offered so much more money to do s—tty scripts. I did [Divergent] because I was able to work with Shailene. And yeah, it was a bigger movie for me. I got to be a small part in hopefully a big, successful movie, man. And that’s also good for your career.
[But] people don’t ever want you to talk about money if you’re an actor, because they just assume you’re making tons and tons of money. For The Spectacular Now, [I made] literally, like, 6 grand. For Whiplash, [I made] literally, like, a couple thousand dollars — not even $10,000. So for me to make what somebody with a college degree makes, I would have to make nine Spectacular Nows a year. I love doing independent films, because you have more control of your character. Yet as soon as you start doing a lot of studio films, it’s like, “Oh, you’re selling out.” So it’s a fine line there.
But, yeah, I was pretty shocked that interview made [news]. I was getting calls from my agent and publicist. I read the interview and I was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s not really what I said. How should we handle this?’ Then my publicist released a statement without talking to me, which I was upset about, because she came out with a statement [in which I said], “I’m sorry for my words. I should have chosen them more carefully.” It’s like, “No, I didn’t say that.”
How did Lionsgate react?
They were just kind of confused. They were a little put off by it, as would I. If I worked with you, and we had a great time on set, then I read some f—king weird quote, I’d be like that, too. I emailed them, just saying, “Hey, this is the first time my words have ever been like misquoted in a way, and I just wanted you guys to know I’m very happy to be part of the Divergent family.” And it was done like that. They emailed me back like, “Miles, we know. We love you. It’s fine.”
What about Shailene?
Shailene didn’t even know about it.
Because she was in her tree?
No, [because] anybody that I f—king work with knows that’s it bulls—t. It’s just something where people want you to click on their article, so that’s how they [lure you]: “Miles Teller Feels Dead Inside!” It’s like, “Really?All I told you was that I just did five movies back-to-back and I was kind of burnt out.”
There’s also a sensational appeal to an actor dissing his own movie.
Right. And Divergent has a lot of fans, as it should. It’s a good moral [story], and it has a female protagonist.
Were you hearing from those fans directly, on Twitter and what not?
Oh, yeah. I mean, for the most part I try not to check all that stuff.. But some of them… literally, this one [person] said, “F—k your face. Divergent is better than your life.” And I thought that was pretty funny: F—k your face!
I want to hear more about Shailene’s tree house.
Well, she probably sold it by now.
Did she have dinner parties there?
We didn’t, but when we were in Atlanta, [filming Insurgent], we had dinner parties. Shailene is very ethic. We’re completely different people, but at our centers, our moral compasses, and our responses to things, and with what we’re trying to put out in the world — I think we’re very similar.
You told The New York Times recently that you thought a lot actors in your generation weren’t “proper actors.” Did you mean they don’t respect the craft?
Yeah. I didn’t want to make it this whole generational thing, because it can be for any generation… I got my theater training up in New York. I went to school for it. And I think a lot of people want this kind of instant gratification, this Millennial thing. It’s like, you make a YouTube video, and then if you get enough views, you can get a TV show out of it, and all this reality television stuff. For me, all that stuff wasn’t around and yeah, I think acting is absolutely a very rich craft, and it should be something that should be practiced. It’s not something where you can just kind of go and f—king wing it. I think you should be aware other actors, and the stuff that’s come before you, and what you want to do. I think they should take it very seriously.
Next up you’re going to film a boxing movie, Bleed for This.
Yeah. I play Vinny Pazienza. He was a boxer in Rhode Island in the ‘80s, and he got in a car accident, and broke two vertebrae in his neck, and they said he’d never walk again, and he comes back less than a year later, wins the title. It’s called Bleed for This because that’s what his dad would always tell him: “Stop wasting your money gambling. You bleed for this money.” [Boiler Room helmer] Ben Younger is directing it. Martin Scorsese is producing it. I go up to Rhode Island in like three weeks.
And you’re on a pretty strict diet for it. What’s your physical transformation been like?
It started in April. So while I was filming Fantastic Four, I was getting ready for my boxing movie, Mike B. [Michael B. Jordan] was getting ready for his boxing movie, Creed. So he was gaining weight. I was losing weight. Since April, I’ve dropped like close to 20 pounds. Just lean muscle mass, trimming body fat.
Can you tell us anything about Fantastic Four?
The trick with [comic-book movies] is that you’re taking characters that have already been established, and you want to make them your own. I didn’t go on the set thinking I was Mr. Fantastic every day. I was trying to really study and come up with something for Reed Richards. For me it’s just a character study: Reed Richards is a very interesting, complex person. It’s a nice feeling when you’re playing somebody who at any given time is the smartest person in the room, and that’s your own kind of superpower. That gives you a nice power.
Do you get the sense that this series is taking steps to be vastly different from the last?
Yeah. I mean, I haven’t really seen the last ones, but I know they seemed a little more saturated… I don’t want to say [they’re saturated] in the comic books. But I think with ours there’s a more grounded approach to it.
Have you felt any of the love — or wrath — from the comic community who might feel protective of these characters?
Oh, that stuff’s everywhere. If you go looking for it, you’ll find it. It’s like with a girlfriend: If you want to go through her Facebook, you’ll find pictures of her kissing some other dude. Because there was a boyfriend before you. But for me, it’s just better to keep it out of sight, out of mind. At the end of the day I don’t work from the outside in. It doesn’t matter. What they’re saying isn’t going to affect the way I approach my work.
And there’s already a sequel planned?
Yeah, unless the first one does terribly [Laughs].Then they’ll probably take that off IMDb.