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Next-Big-Thing Miles Teller on His Sundance Favorite, Whiplash, Drummer Hands, and Shailene Woodley

Miles Teller.

Is it possible for an actor to break through at two consecutive Sundances? Last year’s festival, critics sat up and took notice of Miles Teller for the first time, dubbing him the heir to Say Anything–era John Cusack following his charming, heartbreaking performance in the young-love story The Spectacular Now. (Both he and co-star Shailene Woodley won a special Sundance jury prize for acting.) At this year’s festival, his ferocious performance as Andrew, a jazz drumming student both spurred on by and at war with J.K. Simmons’s drill sergeant of a jazz band conductor in Whiplash — the opening night film and still one of the strongest narrative movies of the festival, from first-time director Damien Chazelle — demands more than mere attention, though. It’s a call for him to be taken seriously as an actor who, much like his character in Whiplash, seems to be striving for greatness. Jada Yuan spoke to Teller — a total charmer, by the way — about drumming, Divergent, and his buddy Shailene Woodley, who he’s pretty sure lives in a tree.

I thought this movie was awesome. What’s your drumming background?
I’ve been drumming since I was about 15. I played saxophone in jazz band in high school. My freshman year I just asked for a drum set. I thought I’d be pretty good at it and I was. I played in bands almost immediately. Played in two or three bands in high school and then when I went to college in my very small NYU dorm, I had my drum set with me. And then when I moved to L.A. four years ago, I brought my drum set out.

Your neighbors must love you.
Yeah, I think they do. Even in high school, all my sisters played music — we were all pretty musical — and my mom loved the chaos of it all. Someone was always singing, someone was playing piano.

What were the two or three bands like?
Pshhhhhh. Like, bad. One, we were called The Mutes, we got our name when we were playing our homecoming day parade. Right when we were about to go to our first song, the generator went out. So nobody could hear us. The only thing they could hear was the drums. Hence, The Mutes.

You were the one drumming?
Yeah. I’ve got some really bad pictures of me playing the drums. I’m like 15, I think I’m super cool, I have on a neon-green leopard-print hat, beads. It was so ridiculous. But I’ve always loved playing the drums. I think out of all the instruments I played, that was the most natural one.

What were the other band names?
Stupid stuff. One was called Once Upon a Memory or something. You know, you’re trying to be artistic and it just comes off as pretentious and stupid. When I was in high school, I was in youth group and the only reason I got into it was because they made me drummer, so I played with them. Just songs for Jesus; hard rocking for Jesus.

Wait, was it really?
It was a church youth group band, yeah. It was a fleeting moment.

When you found out you had to do jazz drumming for this was it daunting?
Yeah, absolutely. I thought there was going to be a lot of doubling. I knew I could play, but Damien [Chazelle, the director] had sent me the tracks. He sent me the [climactic] drum solo, and I said, “Who is going to be playing this stuff?” And he said, “You are.” And then it kind of set in, because I knew I was going to be playing this stuff in front of everybody. I was playing to a track and if you’re off, you’re off and it’s not going to work in the film. I’d never played what they called traditional grip ­— that’s where the drumstick lays like this [he demonstrates: it’s holding your drum stick with the palm of your left hand facing up rather than down]. I’d always done what they’d called match grip [palm facing down]. I never thought I’d be able to get my left hand right because it felt so weird to me. I really tried to orient my left hand more, so if it was a bedroom door or picking up a condiment, I’d try with my left hand.

How much time did you have to prepare?
I think it was like three weeks. Nate Lang, who plays Tanner [a more senior drummer] in the movie, gave me drum lessons. We would meet for like four hours a lesson and we’d do that two to three times a week.

Your character Andrew drums till his hands bleed. Were your hands ever actually bleeding?
I remember from practicing when I started getting my first blisters. Because they came pretty quick. And I showed them to Damien — I was literally getting blood on my drumstick. Because at first we’d be doing these scenes and putting blood on the cymbal and all this shit, like, Dude is this believable? Oh, man, when I was playing, all my drumsticks were stained with blood.

Do you get self-conscious about your drummer face?
Yeah, I get in the groove. Somebody pointed it out to me, “Your drummer face is like … ” [makes face like he’s smelling a fart and is angry about it]. But I love [it] because I know how much I put into it, and that movie was exhausting for me. That doesn’t always make it on the screen. So when Andrew is in there and he’s practicing and he’s cussing at himself and he’s sweating — the intensity — it’s rewarding. To make a movie in nineteen days, you don’t know what that’s going to look like. You don’t know how much of a completed film you’re going to end up with.

It’s kind of like an army movie or a boot camp situation. J.K. Simmons is constantly yelling in your face.
I’m so glad he didn’t have to be in character the whole time because it would’ve been absolutely freaking miserable. You have to finish things and be able to breathe. I remember this scene where he slapped me in the face, because we were trying to do it where he wouldn’t hit me. But it just didn’t look right. I said, “Just slap me … let’s just try to get it in the first few takes.”

I heard you were reluctant to do the movie at first.
I really wasn’t looking for something heavy at the time. I’d just finished a four month shoot on Divergent, which was the longest shoot I’d ever done. I was just kind of worn out. In my head, I was like, I just want to see concerts, I just want to see some music, and maybe do some light traveling, nothing too serious. And then the script came about.

Now, for Divergent, your character Peter is the mortal enemy of the protagonist Tris [played by Shailene Woodley] and part of the Dauntless faction. Did you get to jump on and off trains a bunch?
Yeah, we ran and jumped on trains.

Did you actually?
Yeah. I think the train is going twelve miles per hour. I sent that video to all my buddies. Really good buddy of mine, he’s a Navy SEAL and I sent that video to him. Like, “Dude, check it out. What do you think? How’s my form?”

Is twelve miles per hour impressive?
Yeah. Tom Cruise only does seventeen.

Wait, you know this?
I was talking to the stunt guys. I was like, “This seems pretty quick. How fast can we go?” He was like, “You guys could probably go around fourteen. You don’t go over that. The top guys do seventeen, eighteen.”

That’s awesome. I’d like to congratulate you on looking a lot healthier than you do in Whiplash, which I guess makes sense since your character eats, sleeps, and breathes drumming.
Thank you. For that movie, they gave me a pretty dorky haircut and some baggy clothes and my character’s not really sleeping. There was a bit in the movie — it didn’t make it [in], but my character was actually buying speed to be able to practice more. We didn’t really want you to judge Andrew too much. I think people at the end of the movie make their opinion about whether it’s healthy for this kid to be doing this. But we didn’t want to add drugs in there.

Didn’t Damien instruct you not to go outside?
He’s like, “Don’t go into the sun, don’t go to the gym. Don’t do anything” — yeah. It’s so funny: Andrew, he walks differently than I do, he carries himself differently than I do, and whenever we’d do the rehearsal of a scene, especially if it was a walking scene, Damien would always say, “Miles, way less confident.” And I’d be like, “Oh, right, right. Sorry, I forgot I’m Andrew.” And then I would switch that up.

Does Sundance feel different than when you were here last year for The Spectacular Now?
Yeah, well, this film was a riskier thing for me. It was a more challenging thing. When I was in college and we did scene work in class, we didn’t do scenes from romantic comedies. We always did the Sam Shepard stuff; we always did the fucked-up stuff. People are like, Oh, the guy from Project X and 21 & Over — we wouldn’t expect this. For me, it’s like, Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff I want to do.

So, what’s it like to work in this big-budget franchise, Divergent, with Shailene after spending all that time together as a couple in a tiny independent movie like The Spectacular Now?
We kind of have a shorthand now. In this whole world, this huge studio film schedule and this and that, we can — it’s just very playful. [Our] relationship is very playful. Also, it’s nice because I know I will see Shailene for certain months out of the year for hopefully the next few years. Because she’s a good friend of mine but she’s always freaking giving away all of her belongings and like, living in a tree, so it’s hard to wrangle her up.

Does she really give away all her belongings?
Last time I talked to her, she had one suitcase. She’d given away all her clothes and she was couch-surfing.

Has she lived in a tree?
I think Shailene lives in a tree.

Yes. I’m pretty sure she’s in a tree right now.

You also have This Awkward Moment coming up this month with Zac Efron and Michael B. Jordan. I spent a lot of time with Mike doing an interview this summer for Fruitvale Station.
Awesome. We’re about to do a bunch of press. I’ll say hi to him for you.

Was he trying to sleep with you when you did the interview? That’s kind of his thing. Every time he licks his lips, I take a drink. I’m drunk in the first minute.

Miles Teller on His Sundance Favorite, Whiplash