SXSW: Miles Teller on His Career, Craft and Future Ambitions

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Miles Teller

It’s a great time to be Miles Teller.

Not only has he received worldwide acclaim for his performances in recent hits like The Spectacular Now and Whiplash, the 28-year-old actor has a double serving of blockbusters on the way this year. Next week sees him reprise (and significantly expand) his role as Peter in The Divergent Series: Insurgent, while this summer he’ll be donning some unstable molecules to headline the Marvel Comics adaptation Fantastic Four. ComingSoon.net sat down to chat with the rapidly-rising star at this year’s SXSW and was treated to an in-depth discussion about his career path and what, at his core, drives him as an actor.

Also in the below interview, Teller looks towards the future and at his currently-in-production Arms and the Dudes (reteaming the star with Project X producer Todd Phillips). He also promises that work is moving forward rapidly on his upcoming second film with Whiplash writer and director Damien Chazelle and talks about the mysteriously MIA ensemble comedy Get a Job (also starring Bryan Cranston and Anna Kendrick) and why fans unfortunately won’t get to see it for the foreseeable future.

Check back next week for additional video interviews with Teller and the rest of the cast of Insurgent. Also, if you’re in Austin for the festival, be sure to stop by Insurgent‘s interactive “Shatter Reality” virtual reality experience before catching the film in theaters on March 20.

CS: It seems like you’ve had quite a few impressive projects hit recently. Is that a case of you being very selective?

Miles Teller: Early on, you audition for the great ones. I guess “The Spectacular Now” was the first movie that was more in the vein of stuff I wanted to do. For that, I auditioned very poorly. Then they changed the directors and James Pondsoldt said, “Just meet me for a beer.” He never made me audition, which was lucky. If I auditioned, I probably wouldn’t have gotten it. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t audition. Then, moving forward, as you continue to kind of do good work, they trust you with the material. You don’t have to convince them. Although that does still happen. When I got offered this part of the boxer, I wanted to say, “Are you sure?” Because at the time, I wasn’t in very good shape. I had also played younger characters. This guy was a world champion 27-year-old boxer behind one of the greatest comebacks in sports. He was a tough son of a bitch. All these things that I knew I could do, but that I hadn’t shown yet. It took some trust by Ben Younger, the director on [Bleed for This]. At some point, someone has to take a leap of faith on you. From there, I think that, as you prove yourself, you get a little more creative control on the projects that you want to start doing. They don’t second guess you as much. For me, I hope that when people see that I’m playing Reed Richards and go, “I don’t know,” they end up seeing how much time I put into it and that I’m very serious. The boxing thing is the same thing. “The kid from ‘Whiplash’? That dude?” I like kind of being ahead of the curve.

CS: It’s getting stranger and stranger to go back and rewatch “Project X” where you play almost an alternate reality version of yourself.

Teller: And now I’m working on a new movie, [“Arms and the Dudes”] with Todd [Phillips] and Jonah [Hill]. On “Project X,” the parts I was auditioning for was to play one of the three kids. One of the three main dudes. Todd kept telling me whenever I’d get called back, “Look, man. You’re really, really good. You’re just not one of these kids. These guys are more nerdy. But you’re going to be fine. You’re going to have a good career.” Now I’m working with him and he said, “Yeah, dude. When we were doing ‘Project X,’ I knew you were a pretty good actor, but I had no idea. I’m really excited to be working with you.” That was really, really cool. “Project X” is, to this day, the thing that I get recognized for the most. It’s so funny, because I’m in that movie for literally two scenes. It’s such a non-narratively structured movie that I didn’t think people even saw characters in that.

CS: How did you end up using your real name for the character?

Teller: I was supposed to have a different name, but the name of the kid I wanted to use was a real student at Pasadena High School. They said, “We couldn’t get the rights to that. Are you cool using your own name?” I remember Will Smith talked about how the best thing he did was name his character Will Smith in “Fresh Prince.” Then people know your name. They said, “Are you cool using your real name?” and I said, “Yeah, sure.”

CS: Right now, it seems like you’ve got these big blockbusters like “Insurgent” and “Fantastic Four” mixed in with smaller, intensely dramatic films. Is that the ideal blend for you as an actor?

Teller: Yeah, it is. Because studios just aren’t making dramas. Back in the day before the recession, there was still an appetite for that. For whatever reason, studios just got kind of scared off. In their defense, people in times like that usually want to see comedy or want to see fantasy or action. That was just kind of the marketplace. When I was in college, I was doing scenes and studying dramatic theater. I wasn’t doing scenes from comedies. You’re either doing Tennessee Williams or Sam Shepard or some other, intensely dramatic stuff. I think every actor feels like they can do so much, but there’s only so many roles that you’re offered when you’re first coming out. What I’m excited about is that I now feel like I’m hitting an age where I have a lot more range as to what I can do. I can have a baby now. Not that I want one! I don’t want to be a father anytime soon, nor play one. As an actor, it’s very cool. You wind up getting better roles. For women, it’s almost like the younger you are, they love that. The starlets. For men, once you get into your 30s and even 40s, that’s when you start getting into some cool projects.

CS: You’ve also embraced some very physically demanding projects and I’m curious if that’s something you’re actively seeking. Do you enjoy having to really push yourself for a role?

Teller: It’s funny, man. Underneath this incredible work ethic I’ve developed is a very lazy person. I didn’t do a play in college, because I didn’t want to not smoke pot and play video games. (laughs) “I don’t need that kind of pressure! I’m fine!” Now, it’s almost like there’s two different versions of myself, because, deep down inside, I know I can be content with not doing anything and just being lazy. For certain projects, I want to be overloaded a bit, because I know that it’ll force me to put in that much more effort. The worst thing in the world is to be unprepared for a role. As an actor, you don’t want to show up and say, “I know I got this part five months ago, but I don’t really know this character yet.” That’s embarrassing and almost like sacrilegious, man.

CS: Has success changed your approach?

Teller: I’m still waiting to get to the point where I have like six months to prepare for something. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I would love to get to that point. Right now, I’m building, building, building so that I can show that I can be diverse and have people trust me to do some high-profile projects with certain directors. I’m just still waiting for the break. To just sit back and relax and have six months to prepare for a project. But that’s not happening anytime soon. I’ve been doing three or four films a year for the past three years. I only get like three weeks off in-between. It’s hard, because a lot of them are overlapping. I was filming “Fantastic Four” and “Insurgent” at the same time. Then, as soon as that ended, I was on this worldwide tour for “Whiplash” when I had this boxing movie starting in a month. At one point, I only had like two weeks of boxing training when I started playing this world champion boxer. That’s crazy to me. It’s just not fair to the man that I’m portraying. But that’s just how it goes, man. I remember talking to Jeremy Renner about all this. The first thing I ever did was guest star on a TV show he was on called “The Unusuals.” It was him, Amber Tamblyn, Adam Goldberg and Harold Perrineau. It was a 30-minute cop show in 2009. He was doing a cancelled TV show in 2009. I said, “What are you working on?” He said, “‘The Hurt Locker.’ It’s doing some festivals. We’ll see what happens.” I’ve gotten to know him a little bit through the years and I remember that, at one point, he was doing “Mission: Impossible” and “Witch Hunters” and “Bourne” and “Avengers” all at the same time. I remember saying, “How do you do it? Don’t you need a break to prepare for the roles?” He said, “Miles, I’ve been working my whole life to be in this position. You can’t really just say ‘I’m tired. I need a break.’ It’s very fortunate to be a guy where lots of people want to work with you.” I’ll get to that point where I can do Leo’s thing where he gets in with Martin Scorsese and works with the best directors and just does like one film a year and they’re all awesome. Maybe I have that with Damien [Chazelle] and we can just ease into that.

CS: I assume you’re already looking at another project together.

Teller: Yeah, that’s the goal. We still, as they say, haven’t signed on the dotted line and we’re still finalizing some details, but I think Damien is so, so talented. It’s also very cool to partner with someone who is around your same age. When you first get in this business, everyone is so much older. The directors are older than you and the actors are older than you. You just feel like you don’t belong. Now, as I start to work, I realize, “Oh, I’ve worked with this crew before! I’ve worked with this lighting guy! I’ve worked with this sound guy!” You start to feel more familiar with it and it’s really nice.

CS: Is there a fanboy side to you?

Teller: Oh, yeah! When I worked with Kate Winslet, I was seriously geeking out and trying to hide it. It’s cool when you meet someone like that who is the way Kate is. She’s so unassuming and she really puts you at ease. She was walking around with her script highlighted and wanting to rehearse and talk about the scene. She was so, so great, man. I love her.

CS: When you mention that you wish you had six months to prepare for a role, what does that ideally entail? Would you like to go full method with a performance?

Teller: You can go as deep as you [are able]. My thought when it comes to acting is, if your character is talking about something or has been through something or has a memory or whatever it is, you need to have something there for that. If you’re playing a character who goes into the woods by himself, you should do that. It gives you more stuff to work on. The worst thing in the world is to be in a scene and not know what you’re talking about. I can’t imagine ever doing that. That’s a terrible feeling for other people to have to tell you, “Hey, man. What’s going on with your character?” I don’t want that. If your character has a skill, six months isn’t a lot of time to develop that, especially if the character has been doing it his whole life. You can always go deeper. In theater, you rehearse for weeks and weeks and weeks and, once the show is up, the director leaves and the stage manager takes over. The director is there more for the rehearsal period. You can really take your time and figure out the character.

CS: What’s going on with “Get a Job”? It has such an amazing cast and seems to have vanished after wrapping production some time ago.

Teller: It’s funny, man. I have that chair back. It’s never going to come out. It was a great cast and the budget was low enough. It was my first lead in a film. I remember on that film feeling overwhelmed by it. I’m the lead of this film with Bryan Cranston, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Brandon T. Jackson? All these people. Marcia Gay Harden. I felt kind of sheepish about the whole thing and I don’t know. It was crazy because it was just when movies I was doing started picking up steam. Bryan Cranston, because of “Breaking Bad” was one of the biggest stars. Anna Kendrick was Oscar-nominated at that point. I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything from it! I think I did a little ADR about two years ago and that was it.

(Photo Credit: FayesVision / WENN.com)