Tan, tall, and well appointed in a gray suit, Miles Teller enters his room at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills looking like a movie star, albeit one from a different era. Teller's got the sort of wary, lived-in facial features that recall Robert Mitchum more than any of the smoothly symmetrical soap-star hunks that populate today's superhero franchises, which makes Teller's rise through their ranks all the more impressive: He just finished filming Fantastic Four, Josh Trank's gritty comic-book reboot due out next summer. In the meantime, Teller is promoting the terrific Whiplash, a drama directed by Damien Chazelle, where he stars as a young jazz drummer with a cruel, manipulative martinet (J.K. Simmons) for a teacher. It's the hardest part he's ever played, Teller tells Vulture.
Have you ever dealt with a director who really got in your head, like J.K.’s character does to you in Whiplash, and tried to screw with you in order to elicit a better performance?
Yeah, I’ve had directors who think they need to do tricks and manipulate you. I don’t work that way. I’m not a dog — you don’t need to show me something shiny to get me to look up on that line. My favorite directors are people like Damien who are very collaborative and respect what you do but will give you a different way of thinking about the scene, as opposed to just telling you to squint on a line or move your eyebrows during this word. That kind of micromanaging can get frustrating for me because as an actor, you want to suspend your disbelief. You want to feel like you’re in that moment; you don’t want to remind yourself that it’s fake. And it’s very easy to realize that a movie set is fake when you’ve got a camera right here, a light right here, a microphone right here, and you’re talking to a red X. It’s easier when the camera finds you, and that’s what Damien did a lot on this film. When I saw the film, I found out so much of it is in close-ups. I told Damien, “Shit, man, I don’t remember acting for a close-up in this whole movie!”
How hard is it to let all that go once the shoot is over? Is there a residue from the character, from the experience, from all the hard work that lingers?
Oh, this one was very easy for me to let go of. For the month that we shot, I was so in it. I wasn’t going out with weekends — it’s not like I finished filming Friday night and then would call my buddies, being [like], “Yeahhh, what’s up?” Wow, I just sounded like Aaron Paul in that Xbox commercial. [Laughs.] With this particular role, I knew I was going to focus so much on the performance that I didn’t want to have any distractions. I isolated myself more for this one than I ever had before, so by the time it was over, I was freakin’ happy to get rid of that. I could actually go outside!
A lot of young actors can take a very masochistic approach to their craft, seeking out the performances that will physically and mentally test their furthest extremes.
I think at first, as a young male actor, you want to show people you can be charming and funny. You want to do the stuff that you know you can do well before you start getting into more character stuff, and now Whiplash has given me the opportunity to show something different. The stakes in this movie are high, and those are the kinds of films I want to do. Even when I was acting in college, I didn’t want to do scenes that were just two people talking at a coffee table. I wanted to do the scene where they’re fucking throwing things against the walls! If you’re going to do one scene from a play, pick the one where the shit’s hitting the fan.
Before he got the funding to make Whiplash into a feature film, Damien shot one of the centerpiece scenes as a short film, with J.K. Simmons and another actor in your role. Did you ever watch the short, which was a big film-festival hit?
They gave it to me, but I did the movie purely based on the script. I knew who J.K. was, but honestly, I knew J.K. because of the Farmers Insurance commercials. Actually, I thought those were for State Farm, and he corrected me, “Those were Farmers Insurance, Miles.”
He was also the voice of the yellow M&M, let’s not forget.
Is he? Good for him, he’s got a great voice. But yeah, they sent me the short film and I didn’t watch it. I didn’t want to see anybody else playing my part. It was the same thing when I did Footloose, I never saw the original film. I just trusted Damien, although I didn’t even meet him for the first time until I’d already signed for it.
I was busy filming Divergent up in Chicago and they needed to know if I was gonna do it or not, so I said yes. I still haven’t seen Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the only feature film he really made before this, but I just loved the script and thought it would be an incredible opportunity for me.
When you’re acting with J.K. and he’s tormenting you like this, do you prefer to stay in that headspace in between takes? Or is it important for you both to be communicating with each other?
Maybe it’s because we both have sports backgrounds or something, but after we do a scene where he slaps me, he doesn’t have to ask me afterwards, “Was that okay? Was that too hard?” It’s fine. In between scenes, we’d be joking around, because when you have this absurd dynamic in between our characters where he’s throwing chairs at me, you have to be able to laugh at it. Otherwise it’s awkward for everybody.
Your body doesn’t know that all this is made-up, though. All the drumming, the constant stress, the screaming in your face … that has got to take a toll.
It’s actually nice to do a movie like this that’s so physical, because then I’m not worried about my face at all. I was actually playing these songs, and once you’re doing the job, you’re not worried about your own acting anymore. You can just go on impulse and instinct.
Do you normally worry about your face when you’re acting?
Oh, for sure. You’re always very aware and self-conscious, especially in a close-up, where you should be hyperaware of what your face is doing. Like when you see actors who are looking between another actor’s eyes — like all, “What do you mean?,” with their eyes going right to left — that’s a very conscious decision on their part, because they’ve seen other actors do it in a movie before. They like it because it conveys a sense of searching and anxiety. In a close-up, the littlest things will translate so much.
I’ve heard some interesting rumors about Fantastic Four. It sounds like Josh Trank is shooting it in a really unconventional way.
I would say that Josh has a very strong tone, for sure, and that will be his trademark throughout his career. It’s like the way you can talk about Fincher or a number of other directors: They can make very different movies over the course of their careers, but you always know what the tone of it will be. Josh has this reputation right now of doing these gritty, real, grounded versions of characters in insane circumstances. He can find the truth in there — and for any actor, I think the truth is what we’re after.
You and the actors you’ve been working with lately — Shailene Woodley, Michael B. Jordan, Ansel Elgort — are now all starting to blow up. Is there any sense of how to prepare for the even bigger fame that lies ahead?
I take things project to project. If people based how good they were as an actor on how many Twitter followers they have — when your popularity is that far ahead of your résumé — then you’re gonna get into trouble. The most important thing about my work is trying to get better. That’s really the only thing I’m interested in at this point.