Photographer: Richard Burbridge
Miles Teller, the star of Whiplash—which won every major award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and received a standing ovation at Cannes—has a map of faint scars that runs down the left side of his body. “Seven years ago, when I was 20, I was in a car accident,” Teller told me. He was calling from his temporary home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, near the set of The Fantastic Four, in which he plays the comic book superhero Mr. Fantastic. “Some friends and I had been at the Gathering of the Vibes, a Deadhead festival in Connecticut, and we were driving back to my hometown in Florida. My buddy lost control of the car, jumped three lanes of traffic, and the car flipped eight times. I went out the window before the car started to roll. Everyone was yelling, ‘Where’s Miles?!’ I was covered in blood by the side of the road.”
Teller ended up with 20 staples in his left shoulder, a broken wrist, and deep gashes on his face, yet he recounts this story, as he does most of the events of his life, with almost no emotion. Growing up, Teller was popular (homecoming king!) and a star athlete; he has the matter-of-fact affect of a smart jock for whom things came easily. He seems unfazed by hardship, perhaps because the setbacks in his life are often followed by success. In fact, a year after the accident, when he graduated from New York University and had just begun auditioning in earnest, the car crash helped him get his first major part, in the 2010 film Rabbit Hole. “I played a guy who is the catalyst for a deadly accident,” Teller recalled. “The director thought it helped that I had scars.” Teller loved auditioning. “I still do. It’s like sports: I love the idea of doing a monologue and getting adjudicated. As the great actor Ed Harris said, ‘I see auditioning as a five-minute play starring only me.’ ”
It also helps if you don’t suffer much rejection. Teller has intensity mixed with quirkiness and a natural, easy charm. From the jump, he scored plum film roles: He danced in the 2011 remake of Footloose; was romantic and lost in the 2013 coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now; went bromance-raunchy in this past winter’s That Awkward Moment; and is sweetly seductive in Two Night Stand, which is out now. In Whiplash (in theaters on October 10), he is reinvented once again, this time as an aspiring jazz drummer who is both tortured and challenged by a brilliant, sadistic teacher (played with devilish gusto by J.K. Simmons). The movie works on two levels: as a battle of will between artists and as a meditation on the fight for excellence in any field.
“When I first read Whiplash, I was feeling dead inside,” Teller confided, in a rare display of emotion. At that time, he was in Chicago shooting this past spring’s Divergent. “I didn’t have an interesting part, and I’d taken the film for business reasons: It was the first movie I’d done that was going to have an international audience. I called my agent and said, ‘This sucks.’ He told me about Whiplash.” Teller was not the first choice for the lead, but when he heard that the actor Dane DeHaan had turned it down, he started taking drumming lessons immediately.
Although he had played drums in bands in high school, Teller needed to amp up his skills: He worked with an instructor three times a week, practiced four hours a day, and watched footage of legendary jazz drummers like Buddy Rich. “I was in good shape from Divergent,” Teller recalled. “Damien Chazelle, the director of Whiplash, told me, ‘Stop working out! Don’t go outside!’ He wanted me pale and doughy. This is the first movie where I shut myself off from the world. It was, by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Teller is riveting in the role; his intensity palpable. “I tried to talk to Miles when he was making Whiplash, and it was difficult even to find him,” the actress Shailene Woodley told me. Woodley stars opposite Teller in Divergent; the two became close when they were filming The Spectacular Now. “I would love for us to be a famous screen couple,” she continued. “Like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. I want to do a musical with him!”
When I asked Teller about their partnership, he was typically nonchalant. “I think Shai’s going to be upset because I’m planning a musical with another actress,” he said. That other actress is Emma Watson, and it isn’t clear if the project will happen. In the next few months, Teller will finish Fantastic Four; head to Atlanta to film Insurgent, the second installment of the Divergent trilogy; and then begin prepping for Bleed for This, the true story of the boxer Vinnie Pazienza, who was seriously injured in a car accident but who bounced back to win the International Boxing Council Super Middleweight Championship.
“Do you know if Elvis ever had a car accident?” Teller asked, only half-joking. “Because my main dream is to play Elvis. That’s my goal. I think he and I look alike and do a lot of similar things well: sing, dance, and I think he played sports.” Did he have his heart set on Early Elvis or Deadbeat Vegas Elvis sweating in the white jumpsuit? “I want to play Young Elvis,” Teller said, sounding passionate. “They’ve never gotten that right. It’s easy to do wrecked, bloated, and drug-addicted. I want to play characters who have the fever and win. It’s harder.”
Grooming by Marissa Machado for Kevin Murphy at Celestine Agency; local production by Peter Wilson. Digital Technician: Nic Herrera. Photography Assistants: Kim Reenberg, Enrico Brunetti. Special thanks to Lyceum Ballroom, Baton Rouge, LA.