The onscreen and public personas of actor Miles Teller appear closely related at first glance: there’s the natural charisma (see: the smooth operators of “Two Night Stand” and “That Awkward Moment”) alongside the leading-man confidence that helped land him the part of Reed Richards in Josh Trank’s upcoming “Fantastic Four” reboot. Yet in each film there is at least one moment, if not several, that cements why he’s one of the most sought-after actors working today, such as the quiet apology for an accident in “Rabbit Hole,” or the stubborn confrontation in “The Spectacular Now” with his character’s deadbeat dad.
Go ahead and add to that list a ten-minute drum solo and all of the psychological and physical trauma required to perfect it. Damien Chazelle’s second feature “Whiplash” (read our review) sees Teller playing a devoted, talented, and sometimes unlikeable jazz drummer eager to please his music conservatory’s band instructor (J.K. Simmons). Alongside Chazelle’s thrilling direction and sense of rhythm, Teller manages a visceral performance throughout, and displays a real-life acumen for the drums as well (having had to learn the film’s jazz arrangements in just three weeks).
Obviously the collaboration between Teller and Chazelle proved fruitful for both —Teller is set next to star as a drummer and pianist in the director’s “MGM-style” musical “La La Land”. We sat down with the actor recently in Los Angeles to learn how he’s handled the shift towards more demanding roles, including both “La La Land” and the Vinny Paz boxing biopic “Bleed For This,” and what he gets from the challenge.
Since “Whiplash” is rooted in Damien’s experiences in his high school jazz band, what would the scenario had been if it was inspired by your experience with music growing up?
I played saxophone in middle and high school band and had some pretty tough teachers, but it was nowhere near as intense as in “Whiplash.” For drumming, it was very much just straight rock n’ roll —I didn’t have a teacher or anything. I played in a band in my garage, and it was always just a very enjoyable experience. We played our homecoming, a couple of high school variety shows, and a couple concerts in the bigger city in Florida that was 20 minutes away.
What was your band’s name?
In the pantheon of high school band names, that’s not bad.
No. There was this other punk band, and they called themselves Libyan Hit Squad, so nothing as extreme as that. When we played our homecoming parade, our generators died and we didn’t have any power and sound, so that’s how we chose it.
The visual rhythm and complexity of “Whiplash” is incredible, especially considering it only took you 19 days to film. How many set-ups a day was the crew doing?
A ton. I think we did a hundred on the last week.
Most of the extras were musicians?
Most of them were. I was pretty nervous the first time we were playing [Don Ellis’] “Whiplash” or “Caravan,” which I loved a lot more because that thing just drives. It’s such an up-tempo piece. But yeah, I didn’t want to be that actor that didn’t know what he was doing and lose the respect of the band. And actually a lot of musicians have come up to us, thanking us for making this [film] because musicians don’t really get the credit for the amount of time and pressure they handle.
How would Damien approach the sequences on set? Measure by measure?
Yeah, I’d do like the first 16 bars of “Whiplash”, and we’d have that all down and memorized. But we would jump around too, playing measure 16-18 and so forth.
How long did it take to nail the end sequence of “Caravan”?
We took two days on that. It’s hard to justify a movie ending on a massive drum solo unless you earn it, and I think we did a pretty good job of that.
How are you feeling now moving into “La La Land” in a similar sort of role as Andrew?
They want me to meet with the piano teacher for that [film] coming up. I’ll get a sense of what I’m gonna be playing —it’s all original music— but right now, I’m doing this boxing movie.
What’s the process of shifting between the two roles simultaneously like?
It’s a different thing, but a lot of that intensity is the same between the two. Physically, you really have to transform. It’s another skill set. People talk about boxing as dancing all the time, so what I’m trying to figure out now is how it clicks for me.
What does that entail?
Today, I’m meeting my accent coach for an hour, then working out here at the hotel for an hour and a half, and then tomorrow I do press in the morning and then I’ll go box for about two hours. Then working out two hours after that. [laughs]
Boxing looks like they’re throwing punches, but they’re not. To move your body that kind of way —most guys are in the gym a couple hours a day for a year before they think about going in the ring, and I’m having to get into a ring with people real soon. Since I’ve been here in LA, I’ve been working at Freddie Roach‘s gym and getting a sense of things, but I’m definitely not comfortable for people to be throwing punches at me yet.
We talked to you last around the release of “The Spectacular Now” a little more than a year ago. You’ve packed in more than five films since then —how do you look at that rapid journey to where are you are now, and also moving forward?
Absolutely this year has been the most work that I’ve ever done. Since April, I’ve known what I was doing every hour of the day for the next five, six months. I completely love “The Spectacular Now,” but I want to start playing characters a little closer to my own age, like this boxing movie. In that there’s no academia, there’s no school. It’s just this 27-year-old boxer who’s kicking ass. But yeah, a lot of actors look at their early work and they’re like “oh god please don’t watch it.” But for me, I feel pretty lucky that I’ve been in projects that have held up years later. I’m proud of them.
“Whiplash” is now playing in limited release.