Miles Teller isn't a ruthless guy. The actor, 27, has spent the past few weeks clarifying his comment to W magazine that he felt "dead inside" filming the YA hit Divergent. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor clarified, "I meant just burnt out and fatigued from doing my first big-budget lengthy shoot and four months was a long time and I just wanted to relax afterwards." Watching the energy he puts into his films, you can immediately tell the actor isn't just feeding you a line.
And the biggest testament to that is Whiplash, in theaters today. Directed by newcomer Damien Chazelle, the intense drama tells the story of obsessive prodigy drummer Andrew Neyman (Teller), who's taken under the wing of his jazz conservatory's most feared and revered instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Unlike every other music movie, Whiplash isn't concerned with discovering the uplifting power of song. Loosely based on Chazelle's own life, it's about the danger that comes from the desire to be great and the costs, namely the personal relationships, your self-obsession forces you to chock up. A Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, it's Teller's most impressive film to date, the one certainly at the top of his acting reel. Whiplash hints at what Miles Teller could mean to Hollywood in the future, and proves he's the best actor of his generation.
But unlike his character in the movie, Teller isn't trying to hear the praise, though he knows it's there. He's just doing what he has to do, putting his soul into one movie at a time, trying to get on every major director's Rolodex. That's his goal, and he's not too shy to admit it.
When you read the script for Whiplash, did you expect the hype?
The easy answer to that is no because at this point I’ve done 12 movies, and I’ve absolutely worked on some where people have told me it’s testing through the roof. They always tell you, “This movie is gonna be you’re breakout. You’re gonna be big after this!” Most of the time that’s not true. Most of the time the movie does not end up being as good as the script. This is one of those cases where it is. The finished product was justified to me. When I knew it would end with that last twist, I said, “Man, this is a really good movie, and it has really high stakes.”
Those are the kinds of projects at this point that I’m gravitating towards. I just want a movie with high stakes because you can pick a script and it could be lovely, it could be a nice relationship story or whatever it is, and maybe you do the best version of it, but it’s still a 7 without a whole lot of drama going on in it. This one, I was like, “Man, this movie really goes for it. If we can maintain the integrity and the believability of it, we will have a very good movie that should hopefully be something people haven’t seen in a while.”
A lot of this movie lies in its tension, and that comes with the editing and the quick cuts. When you saw it, were you surprised?
Yeah, I was surprised. You’re right, all of the tension and suspense, those are things that the actors are not doing. That completely comes from the editing and how they’re shooting it. The first time I saw it, you’re overly subjective, always watching yourself, like, “Oh man, what am I doing?” It’s very uncomfortable. By the second time, once you’re able to watch it objectively. Damien [Chazelle] really did a kick-ass job. I didn’t know that he was shooting as many close-ups as he was. He did a very good job of hiding the camera and really keeping you unaware of what he was doing.
Speaking of Damien, this comes from his personal experiences. What conversations did you have with him to get into character?
None. I played drums for a while. Where I would use Damien’s experience was as a jazz drummer. I asked him some different technical questions, but in terms of the character, it’s a credit to his writing that I didn’t have any questions. I really understood what this kid was about and what he wanted to achieve. It’s the cliché acting questions: “What’s my motivation? Who am I talking to? What do I want? What do I need from them?” Sometimes it’s a little more complex as to what the character wants, but for Andrew it's very clear. He wants to be the greatest jazz drummer. That’s his only objective. So that was nice to play a character that didn’t have to worry about anybody liking him. It’s kind of exhausting to be in a movie and worry about everybody liking you sometimes.
What kind of drums did you play, and what kind of training went into preparing for the movie?
I grew up very musically. I play a lot of different instruments. I started with piano, then I moved to saxophone, then I played guitar, and then I played drums. I got drums when I was 15 fifteen because I wanted to play rock 'n roll. I wanted to play in a rock band. I had a bunch of friends who were really good at guitar, so I knew the competition for that was pretty steep, but I didn’t know anybody who was a drummer. I was always a really good dancer and very rhythmical, and just thought I would have a knack for it.
So I started drumming, and some buddies and I started playing in my garage. We played a couple of shows, played our homecoming. Then I just took my drums with me whenever I went somewhere. When I went to New York for college, when I went to California, I took them there. There’s really nothing better than having a buddy come over, having a couple beers, and jamming out for a while.
Did you play covers?
Yeah, we played some covers. In high school, we covered a Chevelle song and a Jimmy Eat World song. We covered Metallica’s “Fade to Black” because we had two pretty good guitar players.
Do you ever write any of your own material?
Oh, yeah. We wrote a bunch of songs. I don’t remember any of their names but I’m sure they were terrible. [Laughs.]
What was your band's name?
In high school we were called The Mutes because we played the homecoming parade, and right as we were about to start jamming out, our power went out. Our amps and generator went out. Then we got some kind of letter, I think, because there was an actual band called The Mutes in the '80s or something. So we had to cease and desist that and then I don’t remember what we called ourselves.
People who know me pretty well would say I’m a pretty laid-back, easygoing, fun guy. Underneath that there’s a side of me that people never get to see, and that’s that I do prepare a lot for these movies... I have a strong desire to be great.
Has there ever been anything in your life that’s made you as obsessed with perfection as Andrew is about drums?
For me, no, I’ve never been the perfectionist type. I don’t overly stress about things. People who know me pretty well would say I’m a pretty laid-back, easygoing, fun guy. Underneath that there’s a side of me that people never get to see and that’s that I do prepare a lot for these movies, and it is something that in the back of my mind, deep down inside, I have a strong desire to be great. I do have a passion for what I’m doing, and I would never want to deliver an average performance.
Have you ever encountered anyone as strict and as unrelenting as Fletcher?
Not really. I had a driver’s ed teacher that was a freaking psycho. He was actually my baseball coach for a little bit. He had a lot of anger issues. I remember him being kind of scary. I don’t know where that came from. I had a piano teacher that was pretty tough on me, but I just didn’t have the passion for piano so I was like, “Alright, I’m done taking lessons.” [Laughs.] It was easier to quit.
Do you have any idols you love as much as Andrew loves Charlie Parker?
I have actors I really love watching like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeff Bridges, Tom Hanks, and De Niro. There are plenty of actors that you look up to and admire because they do things that you can’t.
Over the last couple years, you really have been breaking out, though. Do you ever pay attention to that? Does it fuel you or terrify you?
At the end of the day, the only people that matter in terms of impressing or getting noticed by are directors, producers, and writers. Those are the people that I want to have seen my work so that they are interested in me, and I will get scripts for more demanding roles. The first thing I did was Rabbit Hole, and then it was really hard to get comedic auditions. As I started doing comedy they were like, “Oh, I don’t know about Miles for that. You can be the funny sidekick guy.”
People are always quick to put you in a box, but to me the exciting part is when directors that you really like have seen something that you’ve done, and want to work with you. There are different tiers in this business, and you have to work your way up to be in the one with the people that you want to work with.
Tara Aquino is the Complex Pop Culture editor. She tweets here.