If Miles Teller was in a faction like the characters in Divergent, he would be in Dauntless. And as for those Hunger Games comparisons? “It’s flattering to be compared to such a successful franchise.” It’s the 50th time, he estimates, he’s provided those two bits of information that day, he tells me, when I ask what questions about Divergent he’s had just about enough of answering.
Teller plays Peter in Divergent, the hit book trilogy-turned-film-franchise about a teenage girl named Tris (Shailene Woodley) in a dystopian future where citizens are classified into communities based on their attributes—Dauntless for the brave, Erudite for the intelligent, etc.—and anyone exhibiting multiple talents is branded “Divergent” and a menace to society. It’s the twilight hours of a Saturday of whirlwind press for Teller’s role in the forthcoming blockbuster and, like any good, hard-working It Boy, the 27-year-old actor is tired.
Understandably so. Not only is Teller at the center of the tornado of press promoting Divergent, which is expected to be the biggest young adult film franchise since The Hunger Games, he’s also been one of, if not the, most consistently working members of Young Hollywood since his attention-grabbing, “who is that?” film debut opposite Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole in 2010.
“It’s nice when you do small films and then big films and you’re not doing them because you’re trying to achieve a certain level of fame or notoriety,” Teller tells me, giving a very Hollywood-y assessment of what’s really going on here. Folks, Miles Teller is about to take over Hollywood.
It all stems from that Rabbit Hole performance. The gutting, scene-stealing turn immediately spiked his star quotient, landing him roles as the kind-of-twerpy Everyguy in a series of coming-of-age movies: Footloose, Project X, 21 & Over, The Spectacular Now. The raves he received for his performance in Spectacular Now combined with the buzz that getting cast in a film as major as Divergent has now made Teller one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors.
In just the next year, he’ll star in a Divergent sequel and play Mr. Fantastic in the reboot of The Fantastic Four. He’s in serious talks to star as Dan Aykroyd in the planned biopic of John Belushi, is attached to star in the boxing biopic Bleed For This, and recently became the toast of Park City for the second year in a row. Last year, he and Divergent co-star Shailene Woodley took home the Grand Jury Prize for Acting as high-school lovers in The Spectacular Now. And this year, he was the star and driving force behind Whiplash, a feature about the fraught relationship between a teacher and a music student that won both the Sundance audience and grand jury awards.
All of this is to say that, on the eve of Divergent’s release, Miles Teller may have mastered the art of seamlessly vacillating between acclaimed indies and bombastic blockbusters that all actors purportedly crave.
“I kind of avoided all of this—I very easily could’ve done a bunch of kid Disney stuff before,” Teller says, talking about the decision to star in a film like Divergent now. “I think I have a pretty likable appeal about me. I could’ve ended up doing that stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’m kind of happy with how things have evolved in my career. So I think now’s a good time do a YA franchise like Divergent.”
Hard as it may be to believe, Teller claims that he actually was ignorant of the sheer scale of the Divergent phenomenon until actually embarking on the recent press tour. (OK, maybe not that hard to believe—27-year-old males aren’t exactly Veronica Roth’s target demographic.) He’s coming around now to the hurricane force of Divergent fans, though. A trip last week to Phoenix for a promotional event at which he was greeted by more than 500 fans screaming at him about how much they hate Peter (nothing personal, the character’s just a bit of dick in the movie) illuminated that.
“I think everyone identifies differently with it,” he says, analyzing Divergent’s appeal. “My buddy’s a 30-year-old dude. He read the book in one night. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in this world.”
Originally, Teller had auditioned to play Eric, the militant leader of Dauntless, but, according to Divergent’s director, Neil Burger, he wasn’t quite right for the part. He was, however, apparently exactly right for the part of Peter, Divergent’s resident bully. “Miles can do a classic asshole like nobody else,” Burger tells me. “I got on the phone with him and begged him to do Peter.”
Playing Peter reunites him with Woodley, who plays the film’s Katniss Everdeen-like heroine (for those Hunger Games fans), Tris. This time, however, he doesn’t get to reprise the on-screen romance he forged in The Spectacular Now—that role goes to Downton Abbey’s Theo James as Four. Instead, Teller plays her adversary, a fellow Dauntless trainee who spends the time when he’s not needling Woodley’s Tris being jealous of her ever-growing strength. It’s a far cry from the duo’s last pairing, when their most dramatic fights were verbal sparrings stemmed from how much their characters love each other.
In Divergent, he kicks the shit out of her.
“I remember it was it was the start of their big fight scene and Miles picked Shai up and threw her a little too hard,” Burger remembers. “She was like, ‘You know what, that was a little much.’ And his response was like, ‘I barely touched you.’” It’s one of the most brutal scenes in a very brutal movie, as Peter takes no mercy on Tris when the two are forced to fight in hand-to-hand combat. But playing antagonists didn’t tarnish the bond Teller and Woodley forged shooting The Spectacular Now just before.
“They’re good friends, but they have this adversarial, just giving-each-other-shit relationship,” Burger says. “Like brother and sister, actually.”
Of course, it’s not surprising that Woodley—or anyone, for that matter—would remain long friends with Teller. Though he may be at ease playing the “classic asshole,” as Burger says, there’s a casual easiness that radiates off him (as much as something like “easiness” can actually radiate), both on film and off. Asked what he’d be doing a Saturday night if this was four years ago, before his career took off and before he’d end up spending his weekends talking to journalists like me, Teller responds, “I’d probably be sitting in Washington Square Park. Probably being a little high. Just chilling and listening to my iPod.”
Teller’s family moved around when he was younger before finally settling in sleepy Lecanto, Florida, a town landmarked by an Applebee’s and Wal-Mart, and which, despite his college years in Manhattan and adult life spent mostly in Los Angeles, informs Teller’s very casual, unpretentious attitude. “My favorite thing in Florida was just driving around with the windows down,” he says. While he enjoyed his time in New York City as an undergraduate at NYU, he’s well aware that the L.A. lifestyle better supports that vibe. “California kind of allows you to do that,” he says. “Though I guess you’re usually not moving a lot in the traffic.”
Florida pride also helps to explain how a guy who spent his formative college years bar-hopping in the most urban environment the country has to offer keeps getting cast as—and plays so well—the all-American, state school campus guy: in 21 and Over, in That Awkward Moment, and, to some extent, even as a high schooler in The Spectacular Now.
“I just grew up in a small country town in Florida where we started drinking young,” he says. “It was a lot of bonfires and acoustic guitar and kegs and all that stuff.” Time may have taken him to New York City and then Los Angeles, but “I’ve always enjoyed a nice red Solo cup full of beer.”
It’s unclear when in the coming months he’ll possibly have time to enjoy such a brew—the new Mr. Fantastic keeps himself pretty busy—but there’s no denying that Hollywood’s hardest working actor probably deserves one.