When I spoke to Miles Teller last week, the next item on his agenda was drinking with Queen Latifah. "We're old friends," he said. I racked my brain to think of the capacity in which Teller and Latifah's professional paths have crossed, until he stopped me to say that no, he wasn't sharing beers with the Oscar-nominated actress, but appearing on her eponymous talk show. Of course. "We would enjoy a martini together quite nicely, though," he said of Latifah, whom he hadn't yet met. "I hear she's a lot of fun."
Since his lucrative breakout trifecta ("The Spectacular Now," "That Awkward Moment" and "Divergent"), Teller has developed a growing reputation as the Millennial Generation's version of a leading man: fun-loving and collected but no less dapper than, say, a young George Clooney. It's a status he seems to share with his "Divergent" co-star, Ansel Elgort, who also saw a swift ascent that has yet to stall. Teller's latest project is "Whiplash," one of this year's Sundance smashes. Having just screened at the New York Film Festival ahead of its theatrical release, "Whiplash" chronicles an ambitious drummer (Teller) attending a prestigious New York conservatory. He's invited to play with the school's top ensemble, which brings him face to face with a gifted but vicious conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who doesn't hesitate to hurl slurs (and chairs) at his students and yell in their faces. Both actors give masterful performances in writer/director Damien Chazelle's new movie, capturing a complex tale about the lengths one goes to exact a passion.
Oscar buzz is percolating for "Whiplash" as Teller wraps two hotly anticipated blockbusters, "The Fantastic Four" and "Insurgent," both opening in 2015. In other words, this guy's star can only shine brighter. But let's skip most of that blockbuster mumbo-jumbo: It's Oscar season, people, and "Whiplash" may be a sleeper hit to look out for.
You and J.K. Simmons spend a lot of "Whiplash" yelling at each other. It has to be hard not to keep stewing after the cameras stop rolling sometimes, right? The guy throws a chair at you.
No, it was easy because thankfully I didn’t have to be in character the whole time and neither did J.K. I don’t think we tried to stay in that world between scenes. It would have been very suffocating and difficult to do. Between takes we weren’t all super buddy-buddy because you do have to build up a certain amount of aggression and animosity. But for the most part, it was a very jokey, fun set.
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash"
You're a drummer yourself, so how much of the drumming we see is actually you?
We had a double at first, but he ended up just sitting around a lot of the time. Pretty much everything you see in the film is me. Even what you hear. A lot of what you’re hearing is just what I was drumming on set back then. There was some stuff that we had pre-recordings of and some where we kind of sweetened some of the sound. We didn’t have the best microphones on the set, but they sweetened it in post-production. Pretty much everything you see is me.
Did you have to spend time rehearsing with the ensemble before shoots?
We didn’t rehearse any of that stuff.
So everyone showed up and dove right into it?
Yeah, we didn’t rehearse anything. I assume the musicians had the sheet music for a while and that they practiced on their own. At this point, all the musicians are well into their 20s and should be pretty accomplished. Everyone did their homework beforehand, and by the time you’re ready to shoot everyone is good to go.
In one of the movie's standout scenes, which is in the trailer, you have the infamous one-tear cry. Is that hard to muster up on camera?
What was tricky in that scene is there was more dialogue in there that ended up getting cut out. There are certain things that Fletcher says that affect me more. He’d be talking about things early on and I’d be getting upset. Then, for that, he responds to the single tear later on in the scene, so you just have to let things gradually build up and feel it. If you get the chance to work in more films like this, you get a better understanding of your body and your emotions so that you can try and do things like that. It’s very rare you’ll ever have a movie where the director says, “I need you to cry on this line.” But it just so happened that in this scene Terence needed to see a tear and comment on it, so that was just a very specific instance. As Liam Neeson says, “I have a very specific set of skills.”
Did you practice the single tear while rehearsing your lines?
No, I don’t say lines out loud to myself because I don’t want to have a certain way of saying it. I want the first take to be pretty organic, and you just want it to come out how it comes out.
Your character spends a lot of the movie in intense physical pain. He drums so hard his hands bleed. How much of that did you feel yourself?
It’s a combination of both. I’d say like 90 percent of it is me literally just playing to exhaustion. Your forearms, that’s where you feel it really. Your forearms kind of burn when you’re drumming that fast for that long.
How often do you find yourself at a drum set other than when you were living inside the world of this movie?
Never. Since the movie finished, I’ve pretty much been gone. The place I’m living at right now, things are a little cluttered, so there’s just not a whole lot of space. But when I move into my house [here in L.A.], hopefully in the next couple of months, one of the things I’m looking forward to most is having a music room and having a room with a drum set and guitars and amps. I have a couple buddies who are pretty good musicians, so I’ll have them come over and we can jam.
Miles Teller performs with The Roots on "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon."
Not to reduce "Whiplash" to awards consideration, but you and J.K. Simmons are earning substantial Oscar buzz. Do you pay attention to that at all?
Not really. People kind of tell you about it, and it’s never bad. But I’m just excited to see how the movie opens. That is something that I do pay attention to. I really hope that it does well in the first weekend because that’ll dictate how many theaters it eventually goes to. If it is able to transcend a small, independent film, it could reach national audiences, so that’s something I do keep an eye on.
I know you can't say much about "The Fantastic Four," but surely you're aware of the attention being given to that movie. Does it bug you how much people pick apart the casting choices and other details?
Like you said, there are a million blogs and websites talking about the casting and they hear one little thing, like, oh, there was rumor it was a found-footage movie, so then there were a million comments on that. If we’re going to be up for everybody’s public disposal of it, I try not to get too caught up with anything on the Internet. Out of sight is out of mind for me a lot of the time. I already know that people hate me for the fact that I’m playing Reed Richards and that we’re ruining their franchise. It’s tough because when you’re taking on a franchise that’s already been established, you do kind of owe something to the characters and to the creator. At the same time, you want to bring it to a fresh audience. My dad grew up with the "Fantastic Four" comic book and not a lot of kids did, so you also want to make a movie that they can enjoy. I will say that this film that we made is not really for little kids, I don’t think. We do take a more mature approach.
"Whiplash" opens in limited released on Oct. 10.