I used to buy weed right there," the actor Miles Teller says, pointing cheerfully down a sun-dappled street in New York's East Village on a Sunday afternoon. "This dude's name was Zach. I met him playing basketball at the NYU gym." Teller, 27, is in town for the New York Film Festival screening of his new movie, Whiplash, but that's not until later, after a dinner that he'll probably skip in favor of lounging around his room in the Bowery Hotel, watching football and "laying on my girlfriend's ass."
Until then, he has decided to amble around his old New York stomping ground and ponder his past. There's the joint where he'd frequently chow down on Philly cheese steak, there's his favorite cheese shop ("You could get a quarter wheel of brie for a dollar fifty!") and there's the dorm of a girl he once dated. "It was one of the few where you could have your own bedroom — you didn't have to share it," he tells me, with a little half-grin. "So that was a big perk, obviously." Suddenly he stops in front of a theater where the sign out front broadcasts the title of his not-so-romantic romantic comedy. "Hey! Two Night Stand is playing there! It's only in five theaters in the whole country, so. . ." He snaps a picture of the marquee.
On the surface, Teller seems like the sort of guy for whom only five theaters would be totally fine and excellent. Tromping down the sidewalk, he exudes the easy-going dudeness for which he's typically been cast — a high-fiving, wisecracking bro who can charm his way out of mischief of his own making. Today the effect is amplified by a backward baseball cap, a Grateful Dead T-shirt, and faded jeans. "I feel like such a hillbilly. You know what it is? It's the Croaklies." But looks deceive: Teller is quick to explain that the one thing he shares with his character in Whiplash is a keening ambition. "I want to be talked about the way people talk about Hoffman and De Niro and Pacino," he announces.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle and shot in only 19 days, Whiplash takes place in a fictitious Julliard-like music conservatory where a Machiavellian teacher (played by J.K. Simmons) inspires fear and genius, in that order, and students sacrifice themselves on the altar of the perfect jazz tempo. In preparation for his role, Chazelle told Teller to not exercise and to stay out of the sun. The actor, whose musical skills then pretty much amounted to jamming around with his roommates ("I mean, I could very well be in a Bob Seeger cover band"), also submitted himself to a drum regimen almost as intense as his character's. "I would have felt like such a douchebag if I was doing this movie and couldn't drum," he says, seriously. "When I first started bleeding on the drumstick, I felt validity." But more than that, Teller transformed himself into the sort of tortured artist that he freely admits he's never had to be. The kid has always been lucky. He admittedly hasn't always been so ambitious. "I don't see very much of myself at all, if any, in Whiplash. There's stuff that [my character] is doing where I'm like, 'I don't think I've ever made that face in my life.'"
The movie won both the grand jury and audience awards at this year's Sundance, and much of the film's success lies with Teller's commitment to it. "You first meet him, and he seems like someone who would be just content to party every day and have no larger goals in life," Chazelle admits, laughing. "But as soon as you get past that surface just a little bit, you realize just how competitive he is. Miles reminds me a lot of Robert Mitchum or Brando — the sort of older-era actors who are famous for playing anti-heroes. I mean, you just can't help but watch him."
After years of playing sidekicks and teenagers, Teller will get a stab at playing the adult lead in four of his next films, including Bleed for This, a Scorsese-produced biopic about the boxer Vinny Pazienza (for which he's dropped 20 pounds and trained obsessively), and a Fantastic Four prequel in which he plays none other than Mr. Fantastic himself. Whether this success was preordained, however, or simply the happy effect of Teller's unflappable charisma, is hard to say. By the time we're wandering past New York University's Tisch School, from which Teller graduated in 2009, he's knee-deep in tales of his own legendary naughtiness as the youngest child and doted-on only son of an exceedingly normal and sane-sounding, middle-class family in teensy Citrus County, Florida, the manatee capital of the world and the ideal place, according to Teller, to "just sit in parking lots, doing nothing."
Teller was freshman class president, homecoming king and played drums in both his church choir and a band called the Mutes ("we weren't that bad"). Still, there was the requisite drinking ("me and my buddy used to steal his grandpa's Old Milwaukee and hide it in the woods next to our house") and womanizing ("we'd chug a couple and then ride our bikes over to the middle school girls that we knew who also drank and shit") and drugging ("I was always the kid people wanted to get high"). There were some run-ins with the cops for stealing street signs and other sundry teenage shenanigans. This was, according to Teller, an excellent way to grow up.
I would have felt like such a douchebag if I was doing this movie and couldn't drum.
In this titillating haze of popularity and fuck-upedness, it's unlikely that something as "gothic and counterculture" as acting would have entered the equation had Teller not noticed that his high school's new drama teacher was actually pretty hot. He auditioned for a production of Footloose and got cast as Willard (a role he'd later reprise in the 2011 remake, complete with a triumphant montage of him dancing his way through town). When he got his first onstage laugh he was hooked, and after attending a summer program for acting in New York, was told by his teacher that he should consider applying to Juilliard, Tisch and Yale. "Which was just crazy because we were not thinking along those lines at all. I didn't think for a second that I would move to New York and do theater school. My senior year, my mom booked the tickets and set up the auditions, because honestly, if I had to do all that stuff...it wouldn't have happened." Teller thought he'd bombed his NYU audition. He was shocked when he got a letter of acceptance.
And he might have just rolled along like that — a little lazy, a lot lucky — had something not happened that made it seem like maybe all his previous cosmic goodwill was being jerked away. He was coming back from a concert when his friend flipped the car eight times while going 80 miles an hour. Teller flew out his open window, broke his wrist, had to get 20 staples in what is now a gnarly scar on his left shoulder, and cut his face up something awful. "When I first started going to auditions," he says, "the feedback would be, 'He's a great actor, but it doesn't make sense for the character to have those scars.' Things had always had a way of working out for me, so when that happened, I remember having to do some soul-searching: 'Oh fuck, is this actually going to be a thing? Is this going to inhibit me from doing this?' That was a low point."
But then, that good karma had a way of floating on back: Teller got called in to audition for the role of the teenage driver who kills Nicole Kidman's son in Rabbit Hole, a part for which the scars not only made sense, but gave his performance an emotional vulnerability you could literally see carved into his face. He's been working steadily ever since. He's dating model Keleigh Sperry. He's finally moving into his own place, sans roommates ("I live with two buddies who are just disgusting. I left for five months, came back, opened the refrigerator, and I'm like, ‘What the fuck is that smell?'). He sometimes runs into friends from school who are waiting tables at events to which he's been invited — an experience that, for his part, he doesn't find awkward at all. "If anything, it's just good to see anybody you went to school with out in L.A.," he says.
Still, while his indie dramas have tended to be critically acclaimed, his comedies and studio films haven't fared nearly as well. Teller says that he only made $7,000 for The Spectacular Now, his most successful leading-man role to date. He is well aware of the danger of forever teetering on the precarious cusp of stardom. "I feel like I've been put on those ‘ones to watch' lists for a long time," he sighs. "You only want to be like a rising star so many times. And if someone were only to see me in one thing, I would hope it's not necessarily Divergent."
Whiplash seems, finally, to be tipping the scales, turning Teller into, if not a household name, at least a more bankable one among the industry folks he admires. "Spectacular Now put me on people's radar, as my agent would say. But I ran into Mark Ruffalo and he was like 'Dude, I saw Whiplash at Sundance. Kickass, man!' Reese Witherspoon told me how she was excited to see it. And that is a turn for me. It seems to be one that actors are really into. And, that's it, man. You want to feel like you belong, you know?"