’s star has been steadily rising ever since his breakthrough role opposite Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole
.” Thanks to his barnstorming lead turn in “Whiplash
,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and his upcoming performance as Mr. Fantastic in 2015’s “Fantastic Four” reboot (there’s a sequel already scheduled for release in 2017), he’s about to hit the supernova.
With “Whiplash” finally opening in select theaters this Friday, Indiewire sat down with the actor to discuss his role as a student drummer in Damien Chazelle’s drama, his upcoming slate of films, and his recent interview with W Magazine
, during which he said he took on this spring’s teen blockbuster “Divergent
” for “business reasons.”
READ MORE: J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller Impress With a Ferocious Student-Teacher Dynamic in ‘Whiplash’
“Whiplash” was a sensation at Sundance this year. Did you know going into the festival that you had something special?
Not really. I saw it at Jason Blum’s office at Blum House Pictures in a small conference room with my girlfriend and my publicist on a 50-inch TV. It was good, but the first time that you see anything, it’s not a very pleasant experience. You are just so focused on what you’re doing that you’re not watching the whole film because it’s an extremely subjective experience. So yes, I thought it was pretty good, but I was unsure. Once I saw it up at Sundance, playing at the Eccles, and I saw the way the audience responded to it, I was finally able to enjoy the film because it wasn’t my first time seeing it. The response was confirmation that it’s a really great film that stays with people because of the final scene in the movie. That’s so rare nowadays for a film to end with the most powerful scene.
About that last scene, when did you shoot it? At the tail end of filming?
We shot that towards the end. Pretty much all of the music was shot sequentially. I started out in the lower level band early on, and then I moved up to studio band and the JVC. All of that was in chronological order, and we did the drum solo finale scene within two of the last three days of filming.
So I know you drum, but how much of the drumming did you do on set?
All of it.
There are certain spots where Damien sweetened up the audio, but there’s a good chunk of what you’re hearing is actually what I’m playing.
Is that really your blood then, on the drums?
It’s blood, I don’t know whose it is. Shit, I don’t know what Damien was doing in the prep time for this movie. I did have some blood, not nearly as much as my character had, but it’s funny because we were thinking there was going to be such a continuity issue with bloody band-aids because depending on where I was at, I’d have a band-aid on my index finger — but then it was like three band-aids, and this and that. Makeup was always worried about that to the point where we didn’t have time to focus on the band-aids matching all the time and whether or not the blood was in the right spot. There’s a lot of me in the movie ripping off band-aids, putting them on, putting blood on them and sweating.
Did you have to take your drumming skills to the next level before embarking on “Whiplash”?
Yeah. I started drumming when I was 15 and I had played in rock bands, but I had never played jazz. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been playing, once you go into the world of jazz, it’s its own world, its own school of thought. It’s a very high form of percussion for the drummer, so for me, I very nervously started practicing and then I was getting frustrated because it was something that I knew very well, but completely flipping it on its head. I’ve been telling people it’s like doing everything with your right hand your whole life and then trying to do it with your left hand. Try brushing your teeth with your left and to see how that feels. After you do it for a while, you’ll start feeling more comfortable with it. That’s kind of how I felt.
I’m guessing that frustration played into the performance in a big way.
Yeah, it did. I mean this movie for me was by far the closest I’ve come to life imitating art. That came from playing the song. All those guys are real musicians so they’re really playing and I’m really playing the drums — and the music is complicated. I’m trying not to mess up. In the drum-off scene, that’s really all of us drumming as fast as we can and really expending ourselves, which is nice because it’s easier to be exhausted than to play exhausted.
Was the coach who worked with you to prep for “Whiplash” as hard on you as J.K. Simmons’ character?
No, not at all, because I always told the dude to fucking chill out because it’s just a movie. But for me, Damien was kind of my first teacher because he was a jazz drummer. He was very nice. Then I worked with this other guy and actually another guy they gave me is Nate [Lang] — Nate plays Carl in the film. He was giving me the drum lessons in real life.
About J.K. — he’s incredibly menacing in “Whiplash.” What was it like acting opposite such a force?
It was great. When you read a script or when you’re thinking about the scene, you have an idea of what the other person is going to do, but at the end of day I can’t over prepare for what I think he’s going to do because you just need to be able to react to what he’s doing. For J.K., he would be so versatile in his takes and he was so professional and so well-prepared that it was really easy to be in the moment and respond to what he was doing.
Did his verbal abuse get to your head at all?
No, we were just playing characters. Thank God once the scene ended we could crack a joke and bust each other’s balls. I think we both take the work and the scenes very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously.
Your character in “Whiplash” is obsessed with his passion. Are you the same way when it comes to acting?
I mean I think that I am able to balance my life more. As much as I love acting, it’s not the most important thing in my life. I have a lot of relationships in my life that I would not sacrifice for acting in any way. But at the same time I think where I related to Andrew is that drive and ambition. I do have that in me. I think where we are similar is that for most people — all my buddies — they have no idea how hard I work or how bad I want it. People think I’m a pretty easy going, laid-back, go-with-the-flow kind of guy. I am, but underneath there is a pretty strong desire.
I remember first seeing you in “Rabbit Hole” a few years back, not having a clue who you are, and now you’re signed on to not one, but two “Fantastic Four” movies. When you look back at how far you’ve come since “Rabbit Hole,” does it all feel a bit surreal?
Yeah kind of, but with acting it skewers time a little bit because for me, you film a film, and then you go and do other films while that film is in post-production. Then it comes out, you’re with people for a little bit, and then they disappear. So you’re always in so many places at once, and right now I’m enjoying talking about “Whiplash,” but I’m prepping for this boxing movie that I’m going to be doing. Right now that’s the sole focus for me.
Early on I remember I’d look at someone’s IMDB and they’d have so many things in pre-production, post-production and completed — and I always wanted to fill my resume. I was excited to add credits and work on different projects with people. So I will say that my career has gone how I’ve wanted it to. If I was in college, I probably would have naively thought it happened quicker, like you do one film and a director sees you and then you’re off onto the big films. But I’m happy with being able to work on independent films that have turned out really well.
I do remember that from “Rabbit Hole” — going up to Toronto and watching Nicole [Kidman] on the stage answer all the questions because Aaron [Eckhart] didn’t want to answer any of them, and I just remember that being such a surreal moment for me.
Along with success comes more scrutiny. Your recent comments about making “Divergent” for “business reasons” went viral, and you publicly denounced them on Twitter as a result. Did that experience throw you off guard?
Not really because going forward I know the kind of person I am. I know that I did not do “Divergent” for money, which is how it came across even though it said business reasons. It made it sound like I did it for business reasons and I wanted to turn my back on the thing that was paying me money and say, “Oh, this sucks, I need to have a bigger role.” It was unsettling because — look I’ve been offered a lot of money to do terrible scripts that I’ve turned down. I am very proud of my resume. I have no problem defending everything that I’ve done, and I am proud of the work I’ve done. I have never done anything for a paycheck, which is a very easy thing to do. At this point, I could have easily done some bad movies for money. It was interesting because I’ve some said some weird stuff before in interviews that didn’t get any kind of traction. But as soon as you mention anything “Divergent” it goes viral. I mean holy crap, it literally was everywhere and the only thing I wanted to make sure I did — because my agent brought it to my attention — I was like, “That’s not what I said so I don’t really know what to do here. But I want to make sure this gets taken care of, so get my the producer’s emails and get me Lionsgate, give me their emails and I’ll write them a personal email.” They know the kind of person I am.
Shit, if I had a bad reputation on set, if I used to show up on set and not know my lines or was a prima donna, then, yeah, I would be in some hot water. But anybody who has worked with me will tell you that I’m extremely well-prepared and professional. If anything I try and keep positive. I’m very excited to be making a movie. I do think it’s a wonderful profession and I never would want anyone to think that I take it for granted or that I don’t value the projects I’ve been able to work — because I do value them.
It’s kind of like trying to figure out how to clean it up. I really feel like I did not say what she had printed. For me, it was the first time that it had happened and I know it’s not going to be the last time, so it reminded me that not everybody has your best interest at heart, they also have their own and at the end of the day they’re trying to get people to click on their stories.
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