"It was such a leap for me, going from Whiplash, playing this little kid who's getting smacked in the face, to playing Vinny Pazienza, five-time world champion, badass warrior, the man," says Miles Teller, the 29-year-old star of Ben Younger's boxing drama Bleed for This (in theaters Nov. 18), as we sit down at the Savannah Film Festival to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast. "I owe so much to Ben. I didn't meet a casting director for it. It was Ben who said, 'Miles is my guy.'"
For years, Teller has excelled at playing characters coming of age - in 2010's Rabbit Hole, opposite Nicole Kidman, who received a best actress Oscar nomination; 2013's The Spectacular Now, for which he and Shailene Woodley shared a special acting prize from the Sundance Film Festival; and 2014's aforementioned Whiplash, which won Sundance's audience and grand jury prizes, was nominated for the best picture Oscar and brought a best supporting actor Oscar to his scene partner J.K. Simmons. Now, in Bleed for This, Teller plays a grown-up character - and the sole lead of a movie - for the first time, and has been winning raves for the way in which he did so.
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Teller, born in Pennsylvania, was raised across the country on account of his father's frequent job changes. He first tried acting in second grade, when he was enlisted to appear in a production of Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat. But it wasn't until he was a sophomore in high school that the athlete and class clown first began to take the craft seriously. Teller auditioned for a production of Footloose - partly because the guy who gave him rides home was auditioning and partly because the drama teacher was an attractive young blonde - and he landed the part. "I remember getting my first laugh," he says, "and thinking, 'Yeah. How come I haven't been doing this?'"
Throughout the rest of high school, Teller participated in the Florida State Thespian Program, for which students from across the state performed monologues before judges. "It added a competitiveness to acting which I enjoyed because I played sports," he recalled. One of his monologues advanced to the finals, where he performed it it in front of 2,500 people at a state festival, which led to him being recruited to a six-week summer program in New York. That, in turn, led to a recommendation that he audition for the NYU Tisch BFA program at the Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, where he ultimately wound up.
"Most of my time at NYU I was high," Teller acknowledges. "I smoked a lot, but I took the classwork - I took scene work and my studies when I was at Strasberg - very seriously." In 2007, however, during the summer between his sophomore and junior year, his journey almost ended in tragedy. He and two friends who had attended a concert in Connecticut were driving back to Florida on I-95, going 80 miles per hour, when their car flipped eight times and he flew out the window, winding up unconscious, covered in blood, and temporarily paralyzed 40 feet away. Amazingly, he escaped relatively unscathed - "I got lucky, dude," he sighs - apart from a number of scars across his face. ("You notice that certain things just aren't healing," he reflects. "You're like, 'Okay, these are permanent. These are scars.' And they're on your face. And, as an actor, you know that you're gonna need that thing called your face to play these roles." He adds, "The scars don't look bad now. If anything, they give me a little bit of an edge.")
Teller graduated from NYU in 2009, and two weeks later he was on the set of John Cameron Mitchell's film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole. It almost never happened, because he hadn't prepared a monologue for the day when a manager visited his class. "I almost left," he chuckles. "Thank God I didn't." Instead, he came up with one, performed it and, as a result, got representation, which led to the first audition for Rabbit Hole's casting director. His second audition was for Mitchell himself, who showed the tape to the film's producer/leading lady Nicole Kidman, who was totally convinced that Teller was the young man for the tough job of playing a guy who accidentally kills a four-year-old child in, of all things, a car accident. It paid only $5,000, but Teller's work put him on the map.
In the ensuing years, he starred in a remake of Footloose and a handful of comedies, including Project X and 21 and Over. Then he played his first leading part in Get a Job. And then came James Ponsoldt's low-budget indie The Spectacular Now, in which he plays a tortured teen alcoholic. While Teller's own upbringing was far happier than the character Sutter's, he nevertheless says he felt like he "knew this guy," and received strong notices. His chemistry with Woodley was evident enough to lead to him being cast opposite her again, a year later, in Neil Burger's big-budget literary adaptation Divergent. "I'd never worked on a movie that size," he emphasizes.
Divergent was Teller's fifth straight film, without much of a break between any of them, and he was feeling "kind of burned out." While making it, the actor was sent the script of Whiplash, a film about a young drummer at a music conservatory, which Damien Chazelle, then a little-known filmmaker also in his twenties, had written with him in mind. The material was special, the character had ambition of the sort Teller could relate to - but it clearly would be demanding, and he wasn't sure he had the energy to give it at that time. "I told my agent, 'I don't know,'" he recalls. "And then I read the script again, and I was just like, 'Suck it up. You don't want someone else to play this part.'"
If, based on the reviews, Whiplash represented Teller's best project to date, the one that followed, 2015's The Fantastic Four, represented his biggest - and his biggest flop. Josh Trank's comic book adaptation was trouble-plagued from the start and tanked upon its release, but Teller doesn't regret doing it. "They picked me to be one on a call-sheet of a $150 million movie," he says. "I took that as a great responsibility and I'm proud of the way me, Mike [Michael B. Jordan], Kate [Mara] and Jamie [Bell] carried ourselves, honestly, from the beginning of that process to the very end." He adds, "Did we have an airtight script beforehand? No. Was the idea that it was gonna get better? Absolutely."
Teller has bounced back from that disappointment in a big way with Bleed for This, which he shot back in 2014, but which was held for this awards season. He says he has been itching for it to be released, noting how proud he is of his work on it (including eight months of training to transform his body into fighting form), and even more so of Pazienza's high regard for the finished product. "They don't make movies about your life when you're still alive - it just doesn't happen," Teller says. "It just means everything [to me] for him to watch that movie and just be so proud of it and feel that we did it justice."