Since his portrayal of a guilt-wracked young man in “Rabbit Hole” deservedly vaulted him into the spotlight, actor Miles Teller has committed to different shades of the high school/college experience. He snagged considerable parts in “Project X” and “21 and Over”—both anarchic, single-night party films—and while upcoming projects range from YA sci-fi franchises (“Divergent”) to college-graduate dramas (“Get A Job”), he first realizes a stunning take on teenage love in James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now.”
In the film, Teller plays Sutter Keely, a carefree senior obsessed with Cassidy (Brie Larson), partying and taking thing easy—at least until his girlfriend dumps him and real college prospects start inching into view for everyone else. His reaction is to rebound with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a shy girl who quietly falls in love with him, and the film explores their relationship with a sweet, unconventional, and heartbreaking hand (our review here). Recently, Teller chatted with us over the phone about the realistic and surprising nature of the film, as well as the Zac Efron film “Are We Officially Dating” and producing his own projects.
The film opens with a party montage that almost carries over from “Project X,” but immediately settles down into something more contemplative and subtle. When you met with James originally, what did he describe that made you realize his overall approach for the project?
We met at a bar—that was really the only time that I had talked to James about the project before they ended up offering it to me. We both talked about the script a little bit, but really James and I just talked about our upbringings. He grew up in Athens, Georgia and I grew up in a small town in Florida—both very similar, small country towns. He told me that Sutter reminded him of himself when he was younger, because he was a bit of a party guy without any aspirations—which I find hard to believe because he went to Yale, so I don’t know how much of that is actually true.
I watched [Ponsoldt’s second feature] “Smashed” so I knew a bit of his style, but it’s not like James has a huge resume of films that I could check out. I really just made the choice based off that meeting and feeling like he was a really intelligent, thoughtful guy. Those tonal elements are all in the script though, and I’m so glad that the film does shift and go deeper because if not, I think people would just start typecasting me as this party guy.
What sort of upbringing did you have during your years in Florida?
The town I grew up in had maybe 7,000 people: we had a Wal-Mart and an Applebees when I first moved there, and now we maybe have a Super Wal-Mart and two Applebees. The culture down there—we didn’t have much to do. We would do a lot of hanging out in parking lots, sitting in on a lot of tailgates and bonfires. But it’s great—my best friends today are still the ones I grew up with in high school, and I hope that if I do have kids that I can give them that rural upbringing. I think you develop nicely when you don’t have a bunch of distractions, trying to get into pop culture so much, and just be able to hang outside and take it slowly.
You and Shailene stand as being closer to the high school experience than James; during filming, did you and her advocate for any aspects that weren’t there originally?
Not really, I mean, I picked out my backpack [laughs]. In the movie it’s like bright yellow, and I don’t think James wanted it when I first picked it out. I was like, “Yeah, man, Sutter would have a bright yellow backpack ‘cos he’d think it’s cool and people would always see it.” So fashion changes, but other than that they’re still teaching science and history; people are still in cliques, and they hang out in parking lots and all that stuff.
Did James point to any specific cinematic influences while talking about the film?
Well I guess what James brought to the table were these really long takes that are in the movie. For example, Shailene and I had no idea that the walk-and-talk when I kiss her for the first time—that’s like a five-minute take without cuts that we didn’t know was going to happen. When you show up on set you don’t know where the camera angles are going to be, but James does a wonderful job of letting you play, and at the same time giving notes when he needs to. He made Shailene and I feel extremely comfortable, in that we were in complete control of our characters—we picked out our wardrobe, Shailene didn’t wear any makeup. I mean, we were those characters while we were down there [in Georgia, where the film was shot].
Were there any films depicting high school that really grabbed you at that age?
When I was in high school, me and my buddies saw “Superbad” and that was a great film, as well as “The Girl Next Door.” I thought those two were great R-rated comedies, and actually, when I got a chance to do “Project X” and mostly “21 and Over,” I was really excited because I got a chance to give people that same experience that I had. But when I was really little I used to watch “Wizard of Oz” and Indiana Jones movies like everyday. Then as far as musicals go, I love musicals. And Donny Osmond singing “Close Every Door” in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is the best song ever performed. Specifically Osmond too, because at the end of it, when he does the line, For I know I shall find, his voice goes up on it, and it’s just beautiful. Big shout out to Donny Osmond. He and I are going to do a movie together, no doubt.
Your upcoming project with Zac Efron and Michael B. Jordan, “Are We Officially Dating” allows you a narrative in which you’re closer to your current age; who do you plan in that film, and what part of the mid-twenties dynamic is it exploring?
That one is a really great script—I think it appeals to guys just as much as girls. I play this guy, Daniel, and it’s these three guys—me, Michael B., and Zac—who are in their twenties, in-between college and marriage. Your twenties are a weird period, especially when you’re in a job that’s not necessarily your dream job, and you’re supporting yourself in the real world. I think relationships are really interesting at that point, because it’s not just the infatuation with a girl whom you hold hands with walking down the hallway; this is a girl that you could potentially marry.
In the movie, Michael’s character is going through some troubles, and we basically all make a pact to stay single. It sounds like it could go in a “National Lampoon” territory, but really we’re saying, “We have a few more years where we can be selfish and just hang out. So let’s enjoy this time.” And of course, along the way, some women come along in our lives and it just gets complicated, and it is. It’s that question of “What constitutes dating?” Is putting someone else’s feelings above your own what constitutes a relationship? I think it’s dealing with that, but it’s very much for girls as it is for guys.
You have the massive tentpole release of “Divergent” coming up next summer; has that experience allowed you opportunities to spread out into other areas of interest, like writing or producing?
Well, Zac produced ‘Dating’ and that was the first film that his company [Ninjas Runnin’ Wild Prods] had done, so I’m starting to talk with him a little bit and understand it. Producing’s hard—I think a lot of people just want to put their name on it just see the credit, “Produced By.” But if you’re producing a film, you are there in the pre-production, and you’re really getting that project off the ground. So honestly right now I’m trying to work with some writers who I feel are talented, and see if we can get a story going, let them know what part I’d like to do, and see where that goes.
[Scott] Neustadter and [Michael H.] Weber are two writers who I really love; I’m trying to work again with James, although I think I’m a little too young for Hillary Clinton [in Ponsoldt’s next announced effort, the biopic “Rodham.”] We have the same hair, but unfortunately I think it’s an age thing. And gender? They told that to Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” and he gave one of the greatest performances ever.
Are character-based dramas currently your focus? Or do you want to head back to comedy, or elsewhere?
I did my first romantic comedy, “Two Night Stand” and also ‘Dating.’ I just did some action in “Divergent” and there’s a project that’ll likely be announced soon in September that is exactly what you said, a character-based drama. That’s what I’m into at the moment; you can only make people laugh for so long until you start getting tired.
“The Spectacular Now” opens in theaters August 2nd.