It’s hard to believe it’s only been three years since Miles Teller starred in a Best Picture nominee. From the great heights of “Whiplash” came a startling crash as a year later “Fantastic Four” became something of an albatross around his neck. His co-stars in that misfire seem to be doing O.K., though. Michael B. Jordan rebounded with the monster hit “Creed” and has the upcoming “Black Panther” on deck. Beyond their personal relationship, Kate Mara had “The Martian” and the indie hit “Megan Leavey” while Jamie Bell finally escaped the forgettable AMC series “Turn” this year while earning some of the best notices of his career for “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool” last month. Teller? Slightly different story.
The now 30-year-old actor earned fine notices in 2016 for “War Dogs” and “Bleed For This,” but both were financial disappointments. Now Teller has two films debuting within two weeks of each other that feature, arguably, his quietest and grounded performances since “Whiplash” or “The Spectacular Now.” They may not be blockbusters, but when you see them you’ll recognize a Teller you haven’t seen in awhile.
In Joseph Kosinski’s already underappreciated “Only the Brave,” Teller plays Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a real life firefighter whose second shot at life blossomed when he became a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an Arizona firefighting brigade. Jason Hall’s “Thank You For Your Service” is based on the non-fiction book of the same title by David Finkel and finds Teller playing Adam Schumann, an Army Sergeant who, along with his fellow soldiers, finds it difficult to readjust to the everyday after two deployments in Iraq.
Last weekend Teller sat down to chat about the importance of both films in his life, the difficulty (or not-so) of crying on cue, screening “Thank You” for Veterans Administration Secretary David Shulkin, working with Nicolas Winding Refn and more.
Please note: There are some minor spoilers based on the historical facts of both films discussed during this interview.
Gregory Ellwood: Congrats on both your movies.
Miles Teller: Thanks, man.
Both films are coincidentally about real, modern-day people dealing with incredibly dramatic events in their lives. How did they end up being back to back projects?
So, I was attached to “Thank You for Your Service” and I was, I think, maybe about two weeks away from heading to Atlanta to do the boot camp. And that’s when I got sent “Only the Brave” and I met with Joe Kosinski right before I left and I was like, “Man, this is a great project. And when are you starting?” And he’s like, “Oh, we’re starting here.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God. It’s like a month after I get off ‘Service.’” I knew the toll that this was gonna take on me, but look, I guess that’s a good problem to have. It’s not ideal to do them [both] in that short a period, for that transition to be that short. But, I just felt really strongly about both these characters so I made it work.
You said you were attached to “Thank You.” Were you a part of it for a while? Were you trying to help get it off the ground?
No, I wasn’t involved that early, but I know that I was the guy that [Jason] had in mind for it. I was helping him read with some of the other actors to figure out the other characters and stuff and I was able to kinda get into that mindset.
In terms of “Thank You” what about the project made you want to commit to it? And what about the story was so compelling?
A lot of these films aren’t being in made in terms of movies that are actually about our countrymen and these guys who are doing these jobs. And a lot of my buddies are in the military. I have so much respect for the military and I think, yeah, look, what actor doesn’t wanna be smoking a cigarette, tattooed up, over there in Vietnam and all that shit? But, this is important subject matter and I just really felt for Adam. The script did such a good job and the book [as well in] depicting what life is like when they get off the plane and they get back home. I don’t know, I just really felt for him. I just had a lot of empathy for him and to experience all that and to then, just kinda come back home and be left with very minimal resources to deal with it, I just felt for that struggle.
When you met with the real Adam was there one thing in particular that you took away from meeting him before you shot the film?
Well, it’s interesting ’cause I met Adam obviously a couple years removed from the experiences that we were recreating. There’s many different versions of Adam. There’s the Adam who was over there in combat. There was the Adam before he went to war. Then, there’s kind of the post war Adam and the post traumatic stress version of Adam and that’s what these guys struggle with, is that sense of self and that figuring out what that identity is once they’re not wearing the uniform and once they get home. So, I don’t know, I just kinda took it all in. But, Adam’s a really incredible guy and it’s a daily kind of struggle for a lot of them, but it’s been nice to see with Adam even from when I first met him two years ago how much he’s kind of changed a little bit.
Was there anything he specifically asked that you depicted? He’s like, “Hey, when you do this, can you make sure that you reflect this? Or make sure that the relationship with my wife is some way?”
I remember the day, there’s a scene where Adam drops his kid and that [eventually transitioned to] him putting a gun his mouth. This film doesn’t pull any punches and I think that it’s a very honest film. I would just text him like, “Hey, man, I got that scene today, dropping your kid and whatever.” And he just said, “Dude,” he said, “You need to lose it, then,” he said, “‘Cause that was probably one of the worst days of my life,” he said, “I was an absolute wreck,” he said, “So, get them tears flowing, dude.”
I fees what like it’s always a cliché where press or fans assume it’s so difficult for an actor to get to that point where they cry on camera. And I’m sure for some actors it is hard and for some isn’t, but in both this and “Only the Brave” you have two of the most emotional key scenes in the film. The one you just talked about with the gun and then in “Only the Brave” when Brendan finds out what happens to his fellow firefighters. How do you get there? Is that a stupid question to ask?
Yeah, I mean, I never gave a shit about [whether I] need to cry to validate a performance. Honestly, I think it’s tough to watch someone trying not to cry, you know what I mean? But, I think that if you’re actually able to put yourself in these guys’ shoes and you’re not moved by it, then you’re probably not working on the right project. I just really felt I had a lot invested in these characters, I just really felt for them. And so, I was able to kinda put myself in their shoes a little bit and so, yeah, I don’t know, for me, I just have a lot of empathy for these characters that I’ve played.
Let’s talk about those two scenes in particular. When you’re shooting that moment in “Thank You” it’s set up as a long take and you’re in a truck with a gun. Was Jason just like, “Just go ahead. We’re gonna run it. We’re gonna let it go”? Do you remember what the idea was behind the extended take?
I don’t know if I knew it at the time. But, I knew it was gonna be a “push in” technically. I was aware of the shot and yeah, and it’s a pretty long sequence. I remember on the day just really trying to fill my head with as many thoughts as I could ’cause, to me, that’s[what I need]. It’s really tough and, as an audience, you don’t wanna watch someone acting that shit. That would be brutal. So, you just try and make it as honest as possible and feel like it’s just you and make it really personal.
The contrast is in “Only the Brave” where Joseph does almost the opposite of Jason. He pulls away when your character finds out.
I was very frustrated on that because that was just a very technical shot. I had to come in and I had to hit this mark and then, the camera was just right in my face. So, I couldn’t even look around to the people. I’m just looking at a fucking camera, like a camera box, and I couldn’t see anybody and I just felt like I was being dishonest and I actually went outside after a take or two and I just felt foolish. I felt like I was acting this moment. I felt like I had lost. I couldn’t even look at people, so that was a very technical shot. So, to marry kind of honest emotion with something technical was just tough for me, but Joe was like, “Trust me, we got it.”
I think there’s just different ways of doing it and I thought it was still powerful in that respect. But, clearly, it was such a different concept on the moment.
Yeah, it’s a totally different experience, yeah. You can’t be unaware of, we’re making a film. This is not real life when that camera’s right in your face.