Two years ago, Miles Teller cut his fingers and took a beating as a jazz drummer in the three-time Oscar winning film Whiplash. This year, Teller endures a different type of pummeling as two-time world boxing champ Vinny ‘Paz’ Pazienza in Ben Younger’s Bleed for This. Paz was at the top of the world in 1991, then the second boxer in history to win both the world lightweight and junior middleweight titles.
But then tragedy struck. Following a training session, Paz got in the passenger seat of his friend’s Camaro. They were doing 50 on the road when they were cut off, sending the vehicle into oncoming traffic. Paz woke up in the hospital with two cracked vertebrae in his neck and a third resting on his spinal cord. The doctor said Paz would never box again. But what followed was one of the greatest comebacks in boxing history. “I love these people with that warrior mentality,” says Teller. “You have a doctor—the highest people in the field—telling you, ‘This is impossible,’ and there’s just something in there that says, ‘Not for me.’”
This project came to you about two years ago before Whiplash released.
I got the script and thought this was an incredible opportunity for somebody else. I hadn’t played a part like this; I wasn’t playing any part around my own age, but I was slowly making my way up there. When it was time to meet with Ben Younger, I thought this guy was doing my agent a favor. I went back home to Florida to see my family, and that’s when I got the call from Ben offering me the part. He saw Spectacular Now. To see me playing out of sorts, this high school teenager, and then think of me for Vinny Paz, that was a huge leap of faith.
How did you prepare to play the “Pazmanian Devil”?
When I got the part in March, I had 19% body fat and weighed 188 lbs. I got a nutritionist and a trainer over the next eight months, and I had two other films in between. For those eight months it was a strict diet and working out. When I got to Los Angeles, I got a boxing trainer, and that’s when the days got intense over the next five or six weeks. Four hours a day boxing, two hours lifting weights and two hours with a dialect coach. By the time we went into production I was 168lb with 6% body fat.
If a neck injury didn’t stop Vinny from boxing, why did he ultimately stop?
It’s hard for any professional athlete to walk away at any point in time, but for Vinny, I think getting that 50th win in the ring was pretty important to him, and once he was pretty old, it just made sense.
Aside from Vinny’s warrior mentality, what else struck you about him?
He had a gift for selling a fight of the ilk of Muhammad Ali. Vinny was powerful in the ring, he had nice footwork and a ton of knockouts, but he wasn’t the most technical fighter. When I finally got to meet him, I’m getting to a guy with 50 pro wins; he’s been beat around. Vinny broke his nose 100 times. He was always covered in blood in any fight. He had the heart of a lion to risk paralysis, but to still walk and box again. He loved to box.
When I met him, he was still intact. He’s 54 and he’s not walking around with a walker as opposed to Kevin Rooney, who has dementia. It’s a brutal sport. He doesn’t like training other box- ers. I think in his own words, they would need to win just as much as he did.
He’d get frustrated if they didn’t match his own tenacity. He never drank or did drugs throughout his career. He liked to gamble because he liked the risk-reward stakes of it.
Typically in other boxing movies, it’s the woman in the corner of the ring who is the fighter’s conscience: Adrian in Rocky or Vikki LaMotta in Raging Bull. It’s interesting, but Bleed for This doesn’t hang its hat on a woman in Vinny’s life.
You could make a version of this movie that’s romanticized with all the aspects of Vinny’s life, or make it with all the aspects to reach a certain rating or audience. One of the most important things was to make this movie truthful. It took me a second to know that it was a different girl’s name in each scene. I kept looking for the girlfriend in Vinny’s corner, and it was always a different girl.
Given Vinny’s daredevil attitude to keep boxing after the car crash, is this a guy who would be at peace dying in the ring?
Once his neck was healed, the bone grows back stronger. In regards to those boxers who die in the ring, in boxing you want all the glory, but you can’t ignore all the pain, and there’s always a potential risk of dying. A lot of boxers have a disjointed, kind of tragic home life. That wasn’t the case with Vinny. He came from a normal, loving, middle-class family. I know Vinny saw Rocky as a teenager and rode his bike home and told
his parents he was going to be a world championship boxer. He’s just that big badass dude.