Miles Teller is hung-over, which, if you’ve seen many of his films, doesn’t seem that surprising. “What time did I get back here … three?” he says over many cups of coffee in the fake-hunting-lodge lobby of the Bowery Hotel. “I stayed down here till probably 4:30. Then I ordered room service: pasta.” He’d been out with co-stars Zac Efron and Michael B. Jordan celebrating the premiere of That Awkward Moment, a chick flick for guys (“I’m so glad you didn’t call it a bromantic comedy,” he says) in which he plays a goofball charmer with a surprisingly effective swagger, a character, at least on his beery surface, not entirely unlike the lushes he played in both 21 and Over and The Spectacular Now, the latter of which brought him wide acclaim.
But he was given more to work with as the broken Ferris Bueller of Spectacular than in 21—which, he concedes, “would have benefited from a little more heart”—and, for that matter, than in Awkward, where the role as Daniel, who also likes his drink, lent him an easy shtick to master. “I could show up and do Daniel, because you don’t really see a lot of his history or anything,” he says.
Teller is not quite at the point where he can turn something like that down, but that may change soon. Somewhat awkwardly, That Awkward Moment hits theaters at the same moment that Teller’s career is taking off, thanks to the Sundance success of Whiplash, a far more brutal type of bromance in which Teller’s character, a ruthlessly determined drumming prodigy at a Juilliard-like music school, faces off against a sadistic bandmaster played by J. K. Simmons. It won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize the same weekend Teller was doing Spanish-language press in Miami for Awkward.
Teller, who turns 27 this month, comes off—and not unappealingly so—a lot like that swashbuckling jokester he’s typecast as. He’s a surprisingly ordinary-looking baby-faced guy who charmed his way out of the manatee-infested Confederate backwater of Citrus County, Florida, where his dad worked for a nuclear-power plant (until it recently cracked and shut down after being deemed too expensive to fix) and his mother sold real estate (until the market crashed). Teller played baseball, saxophone, and drums—in a church youth-group band, briefly (“Hard-rocking for Jesus,” he says)—while acting in school plays. He worked at a restaurant called Crackers and was into the Grateful Dead. His best friend is still a guy from high school, who’s now a Navy SEAL. What they had in common was ambition: “We’re not content with just being a part of a bigger collective,” he says, where everyone does what they’re expected to. “That’s Citrus County: The Musical,” he jokes. And so “I got out.” He moved to New York to study acting at NYU, where he racked up $100,000 in student loans he says he still hasn’t paid down.
His big break came senior year, just before he moved to L.A., when he was cast in John Cameron Mitchell’s 2010 film Rabbit Hole, in which he played a high-school student who accidentally runs over a child. The grieving parents are played by Nicole Kidman—who wouldn’t speak to Teller until their characters spoke—and Aaron Eckhart, whose agent visited the set, saw Teller act, and signed him. Soon Teller had a part in the remake of Footloose, as Willard. His upcoming role in Divergent—a multipart dystopian teen epic that promises to feed the same pop appetite for dewy-skinned Orwellianism as The Hunger Games—should make him a heartthrob even without Efron’s jawline.
Those scars on his face and neck, which make him look so much like someone you might know, are from a 2007 car accident “that I should not have lived through,” Teller says. “I got ejected out the window of a car that flipped and rolled, going 80 miles an hour. We flipped eight times. When the car stopped rolling, I was 30 feet from it, unconscious, covered in blood.” You can see those scars onscreen, along with much of his pasty body. His character jokes in Awkward that he’s only worked out once—in 2004—and it’s believable, though Teller is more studly in person. For Whiplash, he was instructed to not get any sun or exercise. But in Divergent he’s got to play, basically, the equivalent of an evil Navy SEAL. Teller knows that he’s never going to be as pretty as Efron: “I tried hard every day in the makeup chair: ‘Just do whatever you’re doing to Zac.’ It’s impossible.”
But there’s an upside to that. In the closing credits of Awkward, there are outtakes from the production, including one in which Teller is sitting with Efron in a café window and miming a “double blow job” (“which is apparently a thing”), Efron and Jordan’s imaginary members in each hand, mocking the inevitable gay subtext of the sex-obsessed bro-thruple, when Efron spots real-life paparazzi. But none of them pay any attention to Teller. “Nobody cares about me!” he complains. (For what it’s worth, he’s still upset that the Citrus County newspaper doesn’t write about him.)
“I remember me, Zac, and Mike went to an arcade in Chinatown,” says Teller, “and it was fine because nobody knew we were there. We came back the next day, word had been out, and there were all these fans outside, waiting for Zac, so Zac had to leave. Zac was like, ‘Are you guys coming?’ I’m like, ‘No way. We’re just hanging out.’ ” Unlike Efron, Teller can actually get away with, as he does at the Bowery Hotel, telling a girl who asked if he could watch her stuff while she went to the bathroom that he was going to go through her purse. “Zac has people try and break into his house once a week. He said he heard this racket and he ran out there, and he said some big fat girl was trying to climb over his gate and she was stuck. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ He’s like, ‘Where are you from?’ She’s like, ‘I’m from Georgia.’ He’s like, ‘Are there other people out there?’ ‘There’s, like, seven of us.’ ‘What were you trying to do?’ ‘Meet you.’ One chick’s playing a banjo like in Deliverance.”
Teller is still on this side of the Hollywood looking glass, at least for now. Oddly, though he has obvious chemistry with Shailene Woodley, who plays his girlfriend in The Spectacular Now and his mortal enemy in Divergent, and he talks about her often and in glowing terms—“She’s unlike any person I’ve ever met. Last time I saw her, she said that she had given away all her possessions and she was just couch-surfing. Really, she had one suitcase and her Prius, that’s it”—as of yet there’s been little manufactured gossip about a love affair.
Right now, Teller just wants to make enough money so that his parents can retire in Citrus County, where nothing much ever happens and the people are “normal.” But whether or not banjo-wielding stalkers are in his future, there are powerful new centrifugal forces at play thanks to Whiplash. At Sundance, Emile Hirsch, who is set to play John Belushi in an upcoming biopic, blurted out at a Creative Coalition event, “I just want to give a shout to Miles Teller. He’s playing Dan Aykroyd in our Belushi movie.” Which may or may not happen: Right now Teller’s schedule doesn’t seem to allow for it. “Ten minutes after that, my agent is getting calls and my publicist is getting calls. People from the studio said, ‘Is Miles not available now? What’s going on? Is he playing Dan Aykroyd?’ All these headlines that I was playing Dan Aykroyd.”
Alas, none of them was in the Citrus County Chronicle.
*This article originally appeared in the February 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.