“Is that a Frenchie?” Miles Teller asks a nearby couple. We — Teller, the couple, and their French bulldog — are sitting in the lobby of Manhattan’s chic Bowery Hotel. He kneels down to scratch the dog’s chest and says, “Was he hard to potty-train? Ours was.” The actor — currently starring in the firefighting drama Only the Brave and soon to be seen in Thank You for Your Service, a film based on the nonfiction book by journalist David Finkel about returning Iraq war vets — has a French bulldog back at the home he shares with his fiancée, model Keleigh Sperry. “These guys are the best,” says Teller, dressed in a thin sweater and jeans and still fawning over the dog. “I love ’em.”
If Teller, 30, is unself-conscious with dogs, he’s a lot more cautious with his words. Which is understandable, since not all that long ago an infamous Esquire profile labeled him “kind of a dick.” “There’s nothing I can control about how people see me as a person,” says Teller, who spits tobacco juice into a plastic cup throughout our conversation, “but I can control how they think of me as an actor.” Certain big-budget superhero missteps aside, he’s done well with the latter, winning acclaim for his soulful and intense performances in Rabbit Hole, The Spectacular Now, Bleed for This, and the Oscar-nominated Whiplash. “This is the part of my career where I wanna start stringing together great roles,” says Teller. “People outside of the business will think of me however they want, but I want people inside the business to see everything I can do. I gotta get moving.”
I have to say, and I know this is something you’re probably not jazzed to discuss, but when I mentioned to a couple friends that I’d be talking to you, the first thing they brought up was your Esquire profile. Without getting into the circumstances of that piece, how much does your offscreen likability affect the reception to your onscreen work? Or put another way, does it matter if people like you?
Look, I don’t have Instagram and I’m not blowing up Twitter and I’ve still gotten cast in a bunch of great projects. I absolutely know actors that have been cast in things because they have a big social-media following but I don’t know — certain people expect that if you’re an actor in your 20s that you should be glad-hand-y and smiley and all that shit. Maybe some people have been turned off of me because I take what I’m doing pretty seriously and I don’t feel the need to charm everybody. So, do I think of acting as a popularity contest? No. Was it tough for me when that Esquire article came out? It was.
Tough on your life or your career?
If how that story made me look was how I really was, I’d think I was the biggest douchebag too. The main idea in that story was that Miles Teller doesn’t give a rat’s ass what you think of him. That’s really not true. I absolutely do care what people think about me. But I can’t put much weight into whether the public likes me because the more important thing is that, as an actor, I can truly say that there’s not a single director or actor who I’ve worked with who’d have a bad thing to say about me. I’ve never missed a day of work. I’ve never not known a line. So I feel good about where I am.
I’m sure I’m far more neurotic than you are, but if I knew that someone I’d met thought I was a jerk — after an interaction that seemed fine to me — then I’d probably obsess over what I’d missed or what had gone wrong. Did the Esquire story cause any of that kind of introspection on your part?
If you really let that kind of thing get to you, man, it’ll get stuck in your head. And when I put my head to my pillow at night, I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I honestly felt like I was behaving like an asshole to people. I know the kind of brother I am. I know the kind of son I am. I’ve had the same friends since I was 14, 15. I’ve been with the same girl for four-and-a-half years. I have a dog. I know who I am, and it’s not who I was in that story.
I was just reading an article the other day about Tom Hanks, and I know you’re not nearly as famous as he is —
[Laughing] What? You think I’m not as famous as Tom Hanks? I’m walking away from this interview!
But he was paraphrasing some line about how notoriety doesn’t change people, it just amplifies who they really are.
I totally agree with that.
So how does that phenomenon manifest itself for you?
The only thing fame has changed about me is that I’m more self-aware when I go out in public. Marlon Brando would talk about this, about how fame is the worst thing because it removes you from society. That’s the only thing that’s different. Mostly I’m comfortable in my own skin. As an actor, you have to be. When you’re in a drama class in front of 14 people and you have to push an imaginary box across a room for 30 minutes while everyone’s watching, you better be okay with who you are.
You mentioned drama class. You’ve said that a lot of actors from your generation don’t have proper training. What does “proper training” mean to you?
My generation is the one that really experienced the reality-star boom, and there are a lot of people who want to get into acting as a cash grab or a way to be famous. That wasn’t me at all. For me, part of the thrill of being an actor was moving to New York to get training in Strasberg. That’s what I aspired to do. The whole idea of working on acting in a small room, doing memory exercises where you’re sitting in a chair for four hours trying to really feel a coffee cup — that’s the experience I wanted. I really consider acting a high art. But I would probably massage that “proper training” phrase little bit now; I’d put things a bit more softly.
You also said you want to be the actor of your generation.
Well, I do want to be that. And that’s not me working from the outside in and saying I need to appointed that — it’s just how I feel. But I’ll think I’ve been doing good work and then I look at the greats, at Pacino or something, and see what they were doing at 29 and 30 and it’s like, all right, man, you need to flip that switch, you’ve got to step up. I want to push myself to get to where the greats got. It’s rare to see an actor break out in his late 30s or something, so now’s when I have to get going.
Do you think you’re taking the right steps?
I’m trying. I went through a phase where I was doing movies that didn’t line up with the serious material I was doing in college or whatever, but it’s rare to have a big movie part in your 20s. Like, I started out with Rabbit Hole and that was great and then I saw Superbad and I wanted to make my Superbad. It’s so easy to criticize actors’ roles, but early in your career you’re not really making choices about roles, you’re just trying to show that you can be professional and handle the job.
Just so I’m clear, which of your movies was your Superbad?
That’d be 21 & Over. The result wasn’t as successful as Superbad but the experience was great.
I know it’s a cliché, but is bouncing between movies that pay well financially and movies that pay off artistically an appealing idea to you?
It’s never, never, never just for money, but it is okay to do something bigger budget that then lets you pay off student loans or pay off your parent’s mortgage. There’s a human side to show business that people at home don’t think about. If I did a role that — my uncle’s quadriplegic — and if I did a role that meant I could buy him a handicap van, or I could take my grandparents to Ireland … I can go to bed at night just fine. But as I get older, doing Whiplash, Bleed for This, Only the Brave, and Thank You for Your Service — that’s all work I’m proud of.
Who do you see as your competition? Is it the Alden Ehrenreichs and Ansel Elgorts of the world? Or is it older actors?
Ansel is a fair bit younger, so I don’t think we’re really up for the same stuff. Alden and I did both audition for Han Solo, but I don’t really think of myself as competing in any real way. I don’t compare myself to anyone. That’s just not how I think of it. It’s more that there are actors whose careers motivate me. Philip Seymour Hoffman was my guy. Sean Penn — I just saw Mystic River for the first time two weeks ago and he has this monologue on the porch with Tim Robbins: “I can’t even cry for my daughter.” That’s freakin’ acting man.
Why is that kind of tortured realism the standard for what good acting is? I always think of Nicolas Cage and how there should be more wild cards like him around.
You think about Nicolas Cage a lot?
On a good day.
I loved him in the Bad Lieutenant remake. He certainly goes big. Maybe I could be going bigger. All my acting teachers taught me that you can go big if you fucking believe it. I’m always trying to learn and get better. You know, I’ve gotten to talk with Robert Duvall a couple of times. He motioned for me at this party and we sat down and talked for two hours.
What’d he tell you?
Well, it was mostly him talking about dancing and steak. But it’s the longevity of a guy like Duvall that’s motivating. I also just saw the Who in concert and I got to talk to Roger Daltrey for a little bit and that was freakin’ cool. He was like, “I’ve seen Bleed for This and I’ve seen Whiplash.
You’re good. Don’t fucking sell out.”
You’re more of a Deadhead, though, right?
I love the Dead.
What’s your favorite?
I’m a “Touch of Grey” guy.
“Touch of Grey” is great.
Sorry, that was a bad joke.
Oh yeah, because that’s their one hit. “Sugaree” is the one I’d pick if I had to pick a favorite Dead song. But the great thing about the Dead, right, is that you can literally hear the same song 100 different ways depending on the year and what drugs the band was on. When they were on hard drugs the songs would be slowed way down, and the guitar licks are always different each time.
Do you enjoy the Grateful Dead’s music sober?
What’s the point?
There you go. You said it.
What was the deal with that video of you that TMZ posted a while back where it looked like you were having, you know, a pretty good time at a Brett Dennen concert?
I dunno, man. I think if people want to make me out to be some fratty guy, then so be it. When I’m at a concert I’m looking to escape. I can’t close myself off to doing what I want to do because of how it might get covered. But the Brett Dennen thing — people were like “he’s clearly on psychedelics.” It was a Brett Dennen concert. He’s soft rock. I really wasn’t on psychedelics. This narrative — that I like to party — keeps following me around. But when I go to a film festival, I bring my grandparents, you know?
Maybe partying runs in the family.
My grandma does not shy away from a cold brewski.
To go back to acting: Does working on something as heavy as Thank You for Your Service, which is about dealing with real emotional trauma, change the way you think about what’s next for you? Does playing lighter parts feel frivolous after playing a real-life veteran with PTSD?
Thinking about what veterans go through makes everything feel frivolous. But I’ve always wanted to do projects that have a lot of stakes. It’s also an interesting market right now for actors. It’s hard to sustain a living if you’re only doing independent films. Financially, it’s like you would have to do ten movies to make what someone with a bachelor’s degree is making at their entry-level job. Truly. You have to balance these things.
For sure, but I’m a little more curious about the creative ripples of a role like this than I am about the financial ones.
I was very hesitant about doing Thank You for Your Service. I felt like to even act like I was fighting in a war and then had post-traumatic stress disorder was almost unethical. I pretend for a living. I pretend! And to do that with the story of real people who’d gone through war and PTSD made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know if I had the right to tell that story. But I came around because I felt like I could do it with authenticity, and I cared so much about these soldiers. Knowing what I felt about the real Adam Schumann — I wanted the responsibility of telling his story. In a lot of ways it’s the most important movie I’ve ever done. The number of vets in the country is staggering, and the story of PTSD and their coming home is almost never told.
Something that was interesting to me about the film was that even though it’s about the aftermath of the Iraq war, it’s not concerned about the rightness or wrongness of that war. It doesn’t lean much to either side politically, which feels rare for anything these days.
It’s not about U.S. imperialism or any of that shit.
Yeah, it just struck me that being politically opaque isn’t something you see Hollywood movies do much. There aren’t a ton of movies about potentially sensitive political material that seem, like Thank You for Your Service does, just as likely to move red or blue audiences. Why do you think that is?
If you’re talking about the films that get championed by the Academy — then that’s because the Academy members are probably people with more of a footing on the left. The most popular films, the ones that people really go and see, those aren’t the films that the members of the Academy are necessarily going to be into. I like to tell blue-collar, working-class stories.
You grew up all over, right?
I spent half my life in the Northeast and half in the Southeast. On War Dogs they were calling me FloraPhilaJersey because my dad’s from Pennsylvania, my mom’s from Jersey — she went to high school with Bruce Willis — and I mostly grew up in a very small country town in Florida. That means I have some southern in me. I never would have expected to feel connected to the South when I was a kid listening to Silverchair on the beach in Cape May.
So you have an authentic feel for the heartland stories you want to tell?
I’m an actor. I’d like to think I can understand just about anybody. But, you know, I was at an election-night party for Hillary Clinton, and the first results started coming in and Citrus County, Florida, where I lived, was one of the earliest places to have its votes counted and it was hard, hard red. I’ve got friends all over the political spectrum.
What made you want to be an actor?
In high school, sophomore year, my buddy who I played baseball with was saying he was doing a play and I should too. I was already playing sports and I was playing music at the time and acting became another outlet. Playing in a band or on a team — to me theater has the same kind of camaraderie. I also had a high-school drama teacher who ran a really professional theater program. I was fortunate in that way. I got a taste of what it was to take acting seriously. I enjoyed the pressure.
Your world now, Hollywood, has been under a microscope since all the Weinstein news broke. Were you aware of his reputation?
What about the more general casting-couch aspect of Hollywood? Had you heard stories or rumors?
Not really, no. But I think this stuff exists everywhere there are men with power who can abuse that power. I also think that the people speaking out about Harvey Weinstein are mostly from a slightly older generation than I am. They’re 20 years older than me. Hopefully that’s a sign that there’s been some progress. But I don’t know, man. Harvey never bought one of my movies.
What’d you think when you heard that Josh Trank, after the problems between him and the studio on Fantastic Four, dropped out of directing his Star Wars spinoff? Was that surprising to you? It seems like it’s as much of a curse as it is a blessing for young directors to be given these big franchise movies.
I don’t know much about the Star Wars situation. I know that what Josh wanted to do with Fantastic Four was to make a darker version of a superhero film and I guess that’s not what the studio wanted. But for better or worse, I’m just an actor. I don’t have a lot of control over how things end up. We all worked hard on Fantastic Four. I didn’t know it would turn out how it did.
Is it unsettling to not have a sense if the movie you’re making is good or not?
It’s like this: Say you tell me the type of house you want to build, and I helped work on your house, and then people look at that house and they’re like, that house is fucking disgusting. You built that? I’m like, kinda but I really was just doing what this guy told me. I think one of the reasons that a lot of actors end up producing is because it’s frustrating to be such a collaborator on the set but then nobody asks you shit about the film once you’re not on set anymore.
You really had no inkling when you were working on Fantastic Four that it wasn’t coming together? Not even in an ambient way? That’s fascinating to me.
No, not at all. And it was vice versa on Whiplash. When I was filming that, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that the movie was going to get nominated for best picture and J.K. Simmons was going to win the Oscar. The acting experience is the only thing I can control on a movie. That’s what I sign up for: Who I’m working with, if I have to go through boot camp, if I have to diet for ten months, what the character is. How the movie turns out? That’s another thing, man.
After working with Damien Chazelle on Whiplash, how frustrating was it to not wind up in La La Land? You were attached to that movie for a long time.
I’d say things played out in an interesting way. I’d also say it played out much differently than people think. The New York Post or somewhere said I was offered four million to do it and turned it down because I wanted six. I’m pretty sure a talent agency planted that story to try and turn me against my own agent — it was absolutely false. The money side of it was fine. I can 1,000 percent assure you that if there was a part I wanted to play, I would not turn down four million dollars to do it.
So what happened? Why didn’t you play the Ryan Gosling part?
A couple people know the truth. When that movie was almost falling apart, I stayed attached to it and told directors that I really wanted to work with that I couldn’t jump ship from La La Land just because the project was in flux. I’ll go to my grave knowing that when push came to shove I expressed extreme loyalty to Damien and that movie. That’s sorta all I can say.
What would it take for you to go back to a franchise-driven movie? Fantastic Four was a rough experience — after it came out anyway —and then didn’t you say you felt dead inside working on the Divergent sequels?
That was another thing that got taken out of context.
Because I was talking about doing five movies in 15 months or something. I was saying I was burnt out from all the work, not because of anything about Divergent. On Divergent: Insurgent I’m working with Shailene Woodley, who I’d just done The Spectacular Now with. I fucking love Shailene. So check that box. Kate Winslet. Check. Naomi Watts — tight, let’s do it. Why would I ever sign onto something and then badmouth it? It doesn’t make any sense.
How much pressure is there for young Hollywood actors to land a franchise?
Yeah, the last few years, I was seeing all these superhero franchises plucking up actors, and the feeling was, You think you’re a leading man? Then you need to make a Spider-Man, a Captain America, a Fantastic Four. So it was definitely a real thing to be aware of. But it wasn’t something I felt I needed. It’s not my appetite. I mostly watch documentaries and independent films. I did Fantastic Four because of the chance to work with Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell and Kate Mara. At the age Jamie Bell was so good in Billy Elliot, I was still figuring out how to talk to girls! And that movie was also an opportunity to carry the history of a beloved franchise, which was a responsibility we wanted. But doing it wasn’t about competition or fame.
Is it dangerous for an actor’s craft to be tied to a franchise? I’m sure Robert Downey Jr.’s accountant is glad he’s spent the last ten years playing Iron Man, but just as a fan of his it would have been nice to see such a gifted actor push himself now and then.
Well, when I was in college, Joey Pants came to talk to the students and people were like “How do you do a film career?” He was like, sort of what you said before, “Do one for the money, do one for the art, do one for location. If you do that you’ll be happy.” That’s not really something that I abide by too much, but it’s a tricky business. Downey Jr., a couple of years ago he wasn’t in any kind of movie and then Iron Man put him back on the map. People criticize superhero movies, but whether they work or don’t work, those movies are very hard to make. No one is phoning them in. It’d be impossible to.
Which of your own performances proved to people that you could handle lead roles?
Well, Rabbit Hole let everyone know I take acting seriously. Then from there it was Footloose — I did that one because I wanted to show I could handle working on a big studio movie. That was such an awesome feeling. But the truth is you can only do what scripts you’re offered; you gotta make a hand out of the cards you’re dealt. I honestly have no idea how many actors have looked at a script before I see it.
I know that John Cameron Mitchell was intrigued by the questions that your facial scars might raise about the character you played in Rabbit Hole. How much did that mean for you in terms of believing that having scars wouldn’t hurt your career?
It was big. When I first was going out on auditions, literally every room that I walked into they would say “Oh my god! What happened to your face?” They’d just walk up to me and say that. But, yeah, I went through two years of really intensive laser treatment surgery — the same kind of lasers they use for tattoo removal. I was getting that done to my face every couple of months.
Wait, the first thing people would say to you on auditions was, “What happened to your face?”
Oh yeah. I was surprised at how confrontational people were. If you watch Rabbit Hole my scars look more defined than they do now. But I just got lucky with John. He’s such an artist. He was just like, “I love your scars. They give your character a history.”
So the next time you sit down with your manager to talk about how things are going and where you want to get to ultimately, what will that conversation sound like?
It’s just about the quality of the script, and if there’s a real character there for me to play.
No, really. What’s the road map for you? I mean this as a curious question, not a prying one. How does a young actor progress?
Okay, I need opportunities. I remember when I got Bleed for This, I was 26. I filmed it at 27. I could show you a picture of what I looked like — I was very doughy. I was “funny-friend” shaped. And in my mind, I was like, now I gotta play this champion boxer badass dude to show that I wasn’t just a funny-friend guy. So, it’s just about getting opportunities that seem intimidating to me or don’t seem natural to me or to producers. I want to get attached to things that I’m not sure I’ll be able to pull off — that’s what’s most exciting. I know I’ll never embarrass myself onscreen, but there’s gotta be the feeling of Holy shit. This is a real thing I have to do now.
Okay, if you could snap your fingers and play a part, what sort of part would it be?
I want to do, like, a Tootsie.
And play the Dustin Hoffman role?
For sure. Maybe I couldn’t do it. Maybe I shouldn’t even say it. But, man, I’d love to give it a shot.
This interview was edited and condensed from two conversations.
Annotations by Jordan Larson.
government to deliver weapons to the Afghan military. Named after The Chronicles of Narnia book, this Australian band of teenagers rode the grunge wave (and Kurt Cobain grief) with their 1995 album Frogstomp, which somehow sold 4 million copies worldwide. Teller spent a few years of his childhood in this bucolic pocket of the Jersey shore. Trank made his directorial debut at the tender age of 27 with the widely praised 2012 sci-fi film Chronicle. That same year, he was then handed the reins to the Fantastic Four reboot. After the film was released to poor reviews and underperformed at the box office, Trank tweeted, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” In May 2015, Trank left the Star Wars spinoff he’d been working on. Director Damien Chazelle’s second film, about an ambitious jazz drummer (Teller) pushed beyond his limits by a bullying conservatory teacher (J.K. Simmons). The tiny-budget film raked in $49 million and earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and Simmons won the award for best supporting actor. Chazelle has a long-standing obsession with jazz music (like Teller’s character in Whiplash, he struggled to become a jazz drummer at his Princeton high school), and all three of his films have centered on the medium. In February, he became the youngest person to win a Best Directing Oscar with La La Land. Teller was set to play the lead in Chazelle’s La La Land, opposite Emma Watson. Teller told Esquire he found out he no longer had the part when his agent called him, saying “Hey, I just got a call from Lionsgate. Damien told them that he no longer thinks you’re creatively right for the project. He’s moving on without you.” Then, Teller says, he texted Chazelle, “What the fuck, bro?” In April 2015 Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone signed on for the two lead roles. Teller told W Magazine that he was feeling “dead inside” at the time he first read the Whiplash script, after filming a handful of movies, including Divergent, without a break. Of the latter film, he said, “I didn’t have an interesting part [in Divergent], and I’d taken the film for business reasons: It was the first movie I’d done that was going to have an international audience.” A trilogy of films adapted from the best-selling YA trilogy about a postapocalyptic dystopia. In the 2011 remake of the 1984 hit, Teller played Willard, a goofus who learns to dance. He was highly praised for the role, with the Times’ A.O. Scott calling out Teller’s “natural charisma that is both comic and kind of sexy.” The actor and director originated the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. When he was 20 years old, Teller and a friend were in a serious car accident that left him with facial scars. The car flipped several times and Teller was hurled 50 feet. In this biopic, Teller plays Vinny Pazienza, a boxer who attempts a comeback after a car accident leaves him nearly paralyzed. In preparation for the part, Teller spent six weeks working with a boxing trainer, whittling down from 19 percent body fat to 6 percent. Sydney Pollack’s 1982 comedy in which an unsuccessful actor (Dustin Hoffman) disguises himself as a woman in order to get cast on a hospital soap opera is regarded as one of the best comedies of all time, and was nominated for ten Oscars.