Heating Up

Miles Teller’s Movie Star Moment: From the Brink of Death to ‘Whiplash’

The 27-year-old is earning raves for his turn as a jazz drummer in Whiplash, and will star as Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four reboot. And he’s taking it all in stride.

Cindy Ord/Getty

Miles Teller shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be wowing audiences as a tormented jazz drummer in Whiplash, for which he did all his own percussion work. He shouldn’t be starring alongside pal Shailene Woodley in the Divergent franchise. And he shouldn’t be playing Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, in the upcoming Marvel superhero blockbuster The Fantastic Four. No. Miles Teller should be dead.

To the untrained eye, they look like normal scars; products of the typical follies of youth. But move down from the faded marks on his chin and the right side of his face, and you’ll see a long, pronounced slit across his neck. The wounds extend down to his shoulders and back.

When Teller was 20, he and his pals had taken in a music festival in Connecticut, and were driving from his former home in South Jersey down to his new one—the tiny town of Lecanto, Florida.

“My buddy was driving and we were in North Carolina going down I-95 at about 80 miles per hour with three lanes of traffic,” recalls Teller. “He went to switch lanes and there was a car there, so he turned the wheel back fast and lost control. The car went into the grass hard and fast, and we ended up flipping eight times. As the car was flipping, I flew out the window. When the car stopped rolling, I was laying thirty feet from the car unconscious and covered in blood. As I was laying there, my buddies ran up to me and thought I was dead.”

He adds, “I’m past it, but for a couple of years when the scars used to look a lot worse, it was tough to deal with. Now, it’s just a part of my journey.”

Seven years on from the crash, Teller is having what industry folks call “a moment.” His film Whiplash was the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, taking home the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award before launching a bidding war among interested studios. Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film is a gripping study of artistic obsession and the pursuit of greatness, shot in a Soderberghian yellow hue. It centers on Andrew Neyman (Teller), a jazz drummer at a cutthroat music conservatory who idolizes Charlie Parker, and hopes to become a percussion great. The one man seemingly standing in his way is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s ruthless, legendary conductor, for whom anything less than perfection is a slap in the face (or yours).

Chazelle’s film is a living, breathing, bleeding monument to the Gladwellian “10,000-hour rule”—that it takes about that long to become expert in a given task. To capture Neyman, Teller took drum lessons three days a week, four hours a day for three-and-a-half weeks, developing blisters on his hands from the constant skin-pounding, and even drawing blood.

“I played drums in a rock band but that’s entirely different than jazz drumming,” says Teller. “Jazz is a very high-virtuoso level of music to play for a percussionist.”

Teller will later admit that he’s using the label “rock band” very loosely here. He received a drum kit for Christmas during his freshman year of high school, and by sophomore year, was looking around for friends to form a band with so he could “get girls.” He found them while participating in S.W.A.T. [Student Worship Arts and Tech Team], a Christian after-school program for kids to hone their creativity. There, he teamed up with a bass player and a guitar player, and they formed a three-piece band. They eventually performed at the Lecanto High talent show, playing covers of Chevelle’s “The Red” and Metallica’s “Fade to Black.” But their first gig didn’t exactly go as planned.

“The homecoming parade was coming up, so we formed the little band to play on a float, and as the float was coming around and we were about to start jamming out, all the generators died on it, so we had no sound. From that, we created this band The Mutes, and we played a few shows. Our singer was actually really good, but hindsight is 20/20, so I’m sure we were pretty shitty.”

Whiplash was shot in just 19 days and then edited in 10 weeks to make Sundance. His agent talked him into the role, since it came at a very busy time in the young actor’s career. He’d shot the films Get A Job, The Spectacular Now, Two Night Stand, That Awkward Moment, and Divergent in rapid succession and wanted to take a break. But Chazelle’s script was just too good to pass up.

Onscreen, Teller is a bit like a young Vince Vaughn—gregarious, charming, and a tad suspicious. Unlike Vaughn, the up-and-comer has cast a wide net when it comes to projects, from bro-y, silly comedies like Project X and 21 and Over to indie dramas like The Spectacular Now and Whiplash to his turn as Peter, one of the antagonists of the YA film franchise Divergent.

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The outspoken actor recently grabbed headlines for slagging off Divergent, saying the role made him feel “dead inside” and that he took it for “business reasons” to ingratiate himself with an international audience. He’s since stepped back from those claims.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s a good movie and Shailene is a very good role model for young girls,” he says. “She’s lashed out at magazines for making her boobs look bigger with Photoshop or making her lips look more red, because Shailene doesn’t want that. So I think it’s nice to go to a movie where you have this badass and it isn’t about girls trying to be sexy; it’s the antithesis of that.”

Despite dating 21-year-old model Keleigh Sperry, Teller finds himself constantly linked to Woodley—his real-life pal and co-star in The Spectacular Now and the Divergent flicks. But it’s just wishful thinking, he says.

“It’s like with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams in The Notebook—you just wanted them to be together,” says Teller. “And they were together for a while. With any movie, you see it and you want the characters to be together, and then audiences sometimes hope it transcends the film into real life. With Shailene and I, maybe they think we make a good couple. That’s cool. But Shailene is a very good friend of mine and I will know her a very long time.”

After graduating from Tisch, Teller made his feature film debut in John Cameron Mitchell’s poignant drama Rabbit Hole, opposite Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. In a strange bit of kismet, he played a driver on the other end of an accident who accidentally strikes and kills a couple’s 4-year-old son.

“He’s a real discovery,” said Kidman at the time. “One of the beautiful things about him is that he blushes and we captured that onscreen. I love that because to see an actor’s skin change color is a great piece of acting. To be able to grab that magical moment makes the emotions so true.”

Teller will reteam with his Whiplash director Chazelle on La La Land, which starts shooting in the spring. He’ll play a jazz pianist who falls for an aspiring actress, played by Emma Watson, in Los Angeles. Teller took piano lessons as a kid, but quit at 14 when the lessons got “too strict.” He took the role to not only reunite with Chazelle, but also play a piano man—and work with Watson, who recently impressed the actor with her powerful U.N. speech.

“Emma’s a very intelligent, incredible girl,” says Teller. “And I’ve always liked the piano. It’s cool to be the guy behind the keys singin’ away.”

But the Teller role that has fanboys blushing is that of Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic—the leader of filmmaker Josh Trank’s The Fantastic Four. The film recently wrapped shooting, and will see the actor star alongside pal Michael B. Jordan (The Human Torch), Kate Mara (The Invisible Woman), and Jamie Bell (The Thing) as a “family” of crime-fighting mutant-heroes.

“I joked around at one point that I’d have to play a superhero because that’s just the pulse of the business right now for young actors,” says Teller with a chuckle. “I met Josh at a hotel a year-and-a-half ago, and I knew Michael B. was attached to it because during That Awkward Moment, him and Josh were texting each other ‘flame on.’ By the time it came around, Josh had to convince people I was the guy, but in his mind, I was always Reed Richards and he took a strong stand for me.” He chuckles again, as if embarrassed by his good fortune. “It’s going to be huge.”