Miles Teller knows he doesn’t look like Channing Tatum, and he doesn’t “give a shit.” The supremely gifted 26-year-old actor, who caught viewers’ attention in a big way with his supporting role in 2010’s “Rabbit Hole,” is the sort of non-blonde, not-quite-square-jawed rising star whom countless outlets have undoubtedly labeled “unconventionally handsome.” But none of that has stopped the dark-haired multi-talent, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, from pursuing his dreams incessantly — not even when a devastating car accident left him with facial scars that initially caused his headshot to land in casting directors’ “No” piles.
These days, Teller, whose scars have faded and whose skills have blossomed, is hearing the word “Yes” more than ever. After following “Rabbit Hole” with versatile work in both comedies (“Project X”) and musicals (“Footloose”), the theater-trained guy’s-guy (he’s prone to saying “man,” “dude,” and “bro”) has made a triumphant return to drama, proving himself one of the best reasons to catch the Sundance hit “The Spectacular Now.” Playing Sutter, a hard-partying high-schooler whose daddy issues have prompted self destruction, and who may just find salvation in Amy (Shailene Woodley), his unpopular, potential soul mate, Teller is tender and compelling, giving that rare adolescent-angst performance that’s entirely free of pretense.
Meeting me in the lobby of New York’s Bowery Hotel, Teller hangs up with buddy and fellow man-of-the-moment Michael B. Jordan (of “Fruitvale Station”) before dishing about those scars, the feelings he won’t express to his boys, the seriousness with which he regards his craft, and the way his and Woodley’s trajectories mark the “incestuous” nature of the biz. Teller is a walking bit of refreshing proof that every young male star doesn’t need to be a Brad Pitt clone. And still, scars or no scars, square jaw or no square jaw, the guy proves within minutes that he could charm anyone into submission.
In “The Spectacular Now,” Amy’s interest in graphic novels immediately brought me back to your character in “Rabbit Hole,” who made comic books of his own. Your performance in that movie was the kind that made a lot of people, including me, step back and be like, “Whoa, who is this kid?” Did it feel like a real turning point for you?
I knew that [the movie] would give me a great opportunity, and I knew that if I could hang with actors of that caliber, that I’d be in a good place. I just figured the script was really good, and then when you have Nicole Kidman, and Aaron Eckhart, and Diane Weist, and Sandra Oh, that’s a pretty impressive cast. Yeah, I was excited for sure. That was the first thing I’d really done, so I guess people didn’t know about the comedic part of me, but I was excited to show my dramatic side. I knew it was some really meaty stuff, I knew it was smart, and I knew it was deep.
There are other elements of your career that feel like they’ve almost been conspiring to bring you to this movie. For instance, with all the talk of Sutter having been the life of every party, we might interpret him as the end of stage of the Miles Tellers of “Project X” and “21 & Over.”
Yeah! I guess it would be a prequel because he’s younger than those guys, which is how it goes sometimes in this business. But every script that I’ve done, it’s been because it’s appealed to me. I really didn’t film that many days on “Project X,” but it’s funny, and it’s the one thing I probably get noticed for most. But I have a lot of different interests. Like, my buddies that I party with wouldn’t know the stuff that I think about, or the stuff that moves me. They wouldn’t know that about me.
You must not party too much, otherwise TMZ would have probably told us about it by now.
I don’t know, man. I’m smart about it. If you’re partying and it’s affecting your work, then there’s going to be stories. I keep a low profile. And TMZ probably doesn’t even know who I am. I have some people come up to me in LA, but that’s about it. But I have been known to go to Vegas and…partake!
Sutter is this ostensibly popular outsider whom people, in general, don’t expect great things from. In what ways do you identify with that character?
With Sutter, I think that we were pretty similar in high school, in that, if I didn’t know that I was going to succeed, and if I didn’t know that I was going to go to college, and I didn’t have the drive, then I would have been Sutter. Because I pretty much was literally friends with everybody. I really was, like, the life of the party, I guess. But I always knew I was lucky that my parents never got divorced. Most of my friends’ parents got divorced, and my buddies would always tell me, “Man, you’re so lucky. You have such a great family foundation.” So I thought it was nice to think about, if you strip all of that away, where are you getting your confidence from? Who’s telling you that you can do whatever you want? Where do you find that? You’re always looking for that. Sutter’s always looking for that father figure, like with the guy he works with, or his teacher. But he just always disappoints people.
So you know who this guy is. I feel like the film itself is very aware of who this type of person is. He’s an archetype but he’s not a cliché; he’s a people-pleaser who numbs his insecurities. Was there a lot of discussion among you and James and the writers — a collaborative discussion — about who this guy was going to be, or was it all there?
No, the script was really great. The script gave us so much. James, I knew, was going to handle everything intelligently and respectfully. As a person, he’s a really smart, thoughtful guy. I saw “Smash” and I knew that, as an actor, that there weren’t going to be false moments, because he really does a good job of just letting people be without casting a lot of judgment. I think that this film could have really judged Sutter harshly, and really made a comment on his drinking, but it doesn’t. It sort of just put this character out there and you see him weave in and out of this world.
Yeah, the alcoholism is interestingly presented in that it’s barely talked about. The ex-girlfriend brings it up, the boss brings it up, but it’s eventually just, like, Amy and Sutter’s thing. For her it might be casual, but for him it’s clearly a problem. Any thoughts on how it just kind of hangs there?
Yeah. I think you see the repercussions of his actions. I don’t think anybody needs to say, “Why do you drink everyday?” I don’t think he necessarily has to go through a therapy session for it, but you see that he loses his girlfriend, and he ends up losing Amy, and he gets fired from his job, and he crashes into a mailbox, and he almost kills Amy. I think it does a nice job of dealing with it in kind of a roundabout way, instead of just being head-on, like, “You have a drinking problem! Do you know that? Have you thought about what this could do to your life?” I like that it doesn’t get real preachy.
I wanted to ask about your scars, because there are times when they’re especially noticeable in this movie. There’s one on your chin, one on your neck, a few on your face, and one on your shoulder. What are they from?
Six years ago, when I was 20, I got in a really bad car accident with two of my buddies. My friend was driving my car and we were going about 80 mph on I-95, and he went to switch lanes, but there was a car there. And he just overcompensated, so we went across three lanes, flipped like eight times and I got ejected out the window. I had been sitting in the front seat, and my friends got out of the car and found me laying 30 feet away, unconscious, covered in blood. I see my buddy, and I’m like “Hey man, what happened?” And when he said we were in a car accident, I was like, “Aw, shit man, my mom’s gonna be so pissed!” And then I go to sit up and I see the look on my friend’s face. He said “don’t sit up, you’re hurt really fucking bad.” Then it hit me: “Okay, I’m not in a car, therefore I’ve been ejected.” And then there were all the thoughts that come with that — all the stories you hear. At the time I couldn’t feel my legs. It just overwhelmed me and I started crying and all this shit, and I blacked out and woke up in a hospital with a doctor stitching me up. I had a bunch of stitches in my face, this cut on my neck was pretty bad, and I had like 20 staples in my shoulder. Three weeks later I was back at college, but I was pretty messed up. Every audition I went on, they were like, “Oh my God, what happened to your face?” Everybody would ask me that. Now, nobody. I’ve had people I’ve known for a long time be like, “Did you get scratched or something?” And it’s like, “No man, I’ve had these scars forever, you just never noticed.” [“Rabbit Hole” director] John Cameron Mitchell loved them. He’s like, “I think they’re so real! It tells a story!”
I was going to say — there’s something almost incidentally symbolic about them, particularly with characters like Sutter. But casting directors were tough on you about them?
When I first started auditioning, they would tell my manager, “Oh, we really like him but we can’t submit him for this with all those scars on his face.” There was a time in the beginning where I thought, “Am I only going to be able to play characters where this has been explained, where you know why he has these scars?” So I was pretty upset, because I just didn’t know if this was going to really be a dead end to this career that I wanted to have so badly, and that I had been training for. Now I don’t give a shit. Now I like ‘em.
On that note, in addition being part of an introspective character study, the role of Sutter is a romantic lead. Do you get offered this kind of role a lot?
Last year was the first time. Last year was my first foray into leads, so I did this movie to get a job, and then right after “The Spectacular Now,” I shot two romantic comedies: “Two Night Stand” and then “Are We Officially Dating?” So in terms of the romance stuff, I’ve done a couple of those now, and I’m excited to have some lead parts. I don’t think anyone comes to this business being like, “I just want to support, like, four people in front of me.” I mean, I come from the theater, so I love the ensemble and the collaboration of that. But in high school you’re always the lead, and in college you play the main person in a scene, so it’s nice to get some good scripts and do that.
What do you think makes you different from other rising male stars in your age bracket?
I don’t know! I feel that I do things differently, but I don’t know. Everyone does different things, and there’s things that certain actors do where I’m like, “Man I wish I could do that.” You think you can do everything, but, realistically, you can’t. I think I have a pretty eclectic taste. I love a lot of different things, and different things interest me. I don’t know — I’ll just say my genes!
Well, you have your own look. You’re not cookie-cutter.
Yeah, that’s why I’m in film. If I was more attractive I’d be in TV. [Laughs] All the pretty people are in TV.
But you also seem to have a lot of raw talent — the kind that’s inherent and not simply taught.
I respect acting as a craft immensely. I did some training, but I just really, really respect actors and what they do. People think it just comes naturally, and there is natural ability for sure, but the amount of preparation that actors do — you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who works harder. Like Meryl Streep — she always talks about how much she prepares. I like to think that I prepare more than most. I guess maybe that helps.
We didn’t discuss Shailene yet. The two of you obviously have a great deal of chemistry, and I want to know how much of that is developed on set. Because you’re working with the guys who wrote “(500) Days of Summer,” which was another film with good couple chemistry.
Scott Neustadter and Mike Weber. They also did the screenplay for “The Fault in Our Stars,” Shailene’s next one.
Yeah, which is causing this kind of triumvirate, since you and Shailene are starring in “Divergent” together too.
It’s awful. This whole business is incestuous.
But the chemistry clicked?
You know, a lot of that is in the writing. [Neustadter and Weber] are weaving the arc for these characters, so we already know where we’re going and where we’re coming from and all that. But as actors, Shailene and I match up well together because we have similar styles in that we do everything very honestly. We’re not very showy actors, and I think our technique is just to be very present. So if she does something very different in the scene, I’m going to respond to that and vice versa, which is nice, because you don’t have to force somebody to come along with you. It’s just very natural.
And with “Divergent” coming up, it must feel good to have this collaborative foundation set. I’m not sure what the chronology is — did the first partnership influence the second partnership?
We did this first, and then Shailene found out about “Divergent” a couple months after we finished. I auditioned for the lead in “Divergent” a while ago, and that didn’t go anywhere. I don’t know if the fact that we worked together helped or hurt that, but the producers actually had seen “The Spectacular Now,” and they were just like, “Hey, Miles, do you want to play this guy who’s sort of at odds with Shailene?” And I was like “Who’s involved?” They said, “Kate Winslet,” and I just said ,”Yes.” In the second book, me and Kate have a lot of interaction. I’m excited about that, man. The director’s good — Neil Burger, who did “Limitless” and “The Illusionist.” You gotta have these big ones. At some point I gotta get some box office. I don’t really care, but…everybody else in the business does. You have to have movies that do well.
Do you feel like you’re being pressured into that?
No, I just think that if you have some hits, it helps you do the movies if you want. You factor in everything. When I was at NYU, Joe Pantoliano came to our school and somebody was like, “How do you pick your movies?” and he was like “Do three movies a year. Do one for the money, one for the location, and then do one for the art.” If a movie was like, “Yo, we’re shooting in Hawaii, and it’s very low budget and you’re not going to get paid anything, but the script’s pretty good,” I would do it. Just because I would like a vacation.
So you would go for “The Descendants 2” with Shailene in Hawaii?
That would probably end up happening.
I’m assuming you won’t be dancing in “Divergent,” but thanks to “Footloose,” we all certainly know that you can.
Haha! I don’t know, I think my character in “Divergent” is an incredible dancer. He may never dance in these movies, but he’s very good!
That’s just part of how the character exists for you?
That’s just part of him. He’s a really, really good dancer. People just never invite him out.