Miles Teller is magnetic. He's only been in a few movies - and a couple of those we will kindly skip over when doing future retrospectives about him - but in each of them he has been the beating heart of warmth, humanity and - most unusual these days - sheer naturalism. You don't even see Teller acting, he just is the character. Which means those who know him from Rabbit Hole or the surprisingly excellent Footloose remake will still be surprised by his performance as Sutter, the always buzzed, always cool boy at the heart of The Spectacular Now. It's a great role, and one that Teller invests with an extraordinary amount of nuance and truth.
I talked to him about the movie, and I was surprised to learn that the young actor admitted something few of his peers will - that he's intensely competitive. More on that later in the interview.
With Spectacular Now, where you have a movie where there's a book to go to, is that something you do as an actor? Do you use the book as a guide or do you just go with what's in the script and what James Ponsoldt wants?
I read the book, but I didn't necessarily feel like it was something I had to honor once we got our own screenplay. There were certain things we tried to get in there from the book, but Sutter in the book is painted differently than how I was playing him. I was actually struggling to finish the entire book because I could see my image of Sutter getting a bit warped. I tried to steer clear of it in the end. But it's such a well-written book. Sutter in the book says things like "I'm the Sutterman" and "Fabioloso" - I tried to work those things into the movie, but I couldn't say them with a straight face.
Where did you find your Sutter? Is he close to you? Is he someone you know?
He's very close to me. I grew up in a very small town in Florida that was similar to the town we shot in, Athens, Georgia. I understood that you go to the gas station and hang out in the parking lot. I even drove the same car as Sutter - I drove an 86 Honda Accord. That was all externally. Internally I was a pretty popular guy, I had that stuff. I just had parents that were still married and loved me and everybody was real supportive and I never had to worry about people loving me.
This movie lives and dies on the chemistry between you and Shailene. Is that something you can fake, or does it have to be present the first time you walk into a room together?
You can absolutely fake it. I've done movies with people I didn't necessarily get along with but we could fake it and people would say, 'Man, the chemistry is great!' At the end of the day we're actors, and if the script says you're in love you should be in love with that person. It doesn't matter what you think about them outside of the scene. But with Shailene we do get along pretty well. In life there are certain people you click with and certain people you don't, and Shailene and I are pretty opposite. We're almost the exact opposite. But we both have this playful quality about us, and I think in the movie it shows.
How did you guys work together? Did you hang out in advance, were there rehearsals?
We didn't really have any rehearsal. We met with James and talked about the script and things that felt right and things that didn't, and then a week later we were shooting it. We developed our friendship as we were filming it.
James has said that any movie he makes has to be very personal. What kind of direction is he giving you to make it more in line with his personal vision?
What's great about James on this movie is that he was really collaborative. If we had a problem with a line he wouldn't fight us and make us say it. The vision was more of a shared vision. Obviously James had some great camerawork, some great shots, but in terms of telling the story he was very sensitive to our characters. He understood we were going through a lot emotionally and he would help guide us if he wanted something different. It's great doing a scene where everybody's opinion is valid. It was me, Shailene and James being collaborative and nobody tried to force feed anything.
When did you decide that acting was definitely what you wanted to do?
My sophomore year of high school we got a new drama teacher and she reinvigorated the program. Before her it was a culture where people hung out and just wanted to be away from the popular kids. They weren't doing productions. My buddy got me to audition for a play - it just happened to be Footloose, and it was Willard, the same part I had in the movie. By my junior year I was all about it and senior year I was the drama club president. I applied to NYU, Yale and Julliard, got into NYU and that was another good boost. I knew I was good in my high school.
Florida has a very competitive high school thespian program, where you could compete in acting. That was really significant because I played sports my whole life and that was my world. I thought I would go into broadcast journalism, that I would go to Syracuse and go into sports broadcasting. Then I realized I was pretty good for Florida, then I went to NYU and I realized I could hang with these kids too. Then I got cast in my first movie. I always did feel that if I could get in the room... there are a ton of great actors out there, but they don't have an agent. Getting an agent is so hard - it's harder than booking a movie.
How did you do it?
I got my agent on the set of Rabbit Hole. But I got my manager because he came to class when I was in college as a guest teacher. We all did monologues from I Love You Beth Cooper and I did pretty well. So funny - I didn't even know he was coming and I almost left when I found out we had to perform a monologue for him. I wasn't prepared at all, so I waited until the end of class and I did it and then he signed me. A couple of months later I auditioned for Rabbit Hole.
It's interesting to hear you say you're competitive. So many actors downplay that aspect, saying it's all about the art, but it's a highly competitive world. There's a big group of actors going for every single role.
Absolutely. It is all about the art, for sure, but at the same time if you don't want it more than the next person I don't know if you're going to get it. When I walk into the audition room and I see all those other kids - obviously I'm a little nervous about the audition - but I like that, it wakes me up a little bit. I like that everybody is auditioning for that role. When you're in the room, that's your time to get it.
Where do you see yourself right now? You've done some great, smaller, more serious movies like The Spectacular Now and Rabbit Hole, but you've also done broader, more mainstream stuff like 21 And Over and Project X. How do you see yourself navigating the next phase of our career?
Last year I did four films, none have come out - Spectacular Now is about to come out. I did two romantic comedies, Two Night Stand and Are We Officially Dating, and those are independent films. I did a film called Get A Job and I don't know what's happening with that, but it has a great cast. I've been lucky to work with great actors and great directors. Divergent certainly was a step in a direction I've never taken in my career. It was a big budget film and there was some action stuff and I wanted to get in shape. Also I play a not very likable character, which is interesting to me. But if you're me it goes literally movie by movie. I did two romantic comedies and I wanted something different so I did Divergent. Now in September I'm starting a new project and I can't really say what it is, but it is an independent film and it's more dramatic. Probably more dramatic than anything I've done - in a different way from Rabbit Hole, that's for sure.
I was about to say, wow, more dramatic than Rabbit Hole?
Rabbit Hole is terrific drama. It's a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. But this one reminds me of Black Swan.
What kind of action are you doing in Divergent? Doing action seems like a really fun opportunity.
It's fun, but at the same time you sit around so much. Divergent was a 75 day shoot, Spectacular Now was 25 days. It's three times as long and you shoot three times as slow. You shoot about a page and a half a day on something that size. But it was cool. I liked all the training. I got to do some gun work. I got to do some fight sequences, which was fun. I did a little bit of Muay Thai when I was younger. Like I said, I used to play sports so I like the physical aspect of it. I'm running on trains and stuff.