With boxing drama Bleed For This now available on Digital HD, DVD and Blu-ray, star Miles Teller talks to NME about bringing iconic fighter Vinny ‘Pazman’ Pazienza to the screen and how it made him confront his own near death experience.
What was your training regime like to portray three-time world champion and boxing legend Vinny Pazienza?
“I had seven months to prepare but during that time I was shooting two movies and then I flew across the world to promote Whiplash. When I got cast I got with a nutritionist. At that point I was 188 pounds and, like, 19 percent body fat – I’d say that I was in ‘funny friend’ shape because I was working on comedies and stuff. But by the time we filmed I was 168 pounds and 6% body fat so that was a pretty big transformation. Everything you hear is true, you can’t eat anything you want. I wasn’t even doing cheat meals. A lot of guys getting in shape will kill themselves Monday through Saturday then Sunday they’ll give themselves a little something. But I didn’t even wanna do that because I started in bad shape so I didn’t want to look at myself on screen and be like, ‘Oh well, you had that fried chicken…'”
You put the hours in to be a convincing drummer in Whiplash. What did you do to become a believable boxer?
“I hooked up with Darrell Foster in LA – he trained five-weight world champ Sugar Ray Leonard for 18 years and worked with Will Smith on the Ali movie. Will called him a master in the art of boxing so I knew I was learning from one of the best. Top shelf. I had trouble with the initial footwork. So, in between the rope and bag work I was cutting loose to music we were playing on set. Stuff Vinny would have listened to like Guns ‘N’ Roses, AC/DC and Metallica. Darrell was like, ‘Shit man! You can dance?’ When he saw that he was like, ‘We’ll be good!’”
What advice did Vinny give you and what does he think of your portrayal?
“Early on I was shy because I thought it would be embarrassing for him to see me try and talk like him before I had the accent down. And if he’d seen me boxing in those first few days he’d have been losing his mind! For this guy, reputation is everything. He’s a five-time world champion dude! And I only have a few weeks to prep this! You’re not a professional at anything that quick! I met him when we got to shooting in Rhode Island and the day I really needed him on set was when I had to do a scene where Vinny first attempted bench pressing weights after his car accident while wearing the halo (a medieval looking spine stabilization device drilled into the skull). The only person in the world who can tell you how to fucking do that is Vinny Pazienza. I love the guy and I’m pleased to say he’s very proud of this film. He calls it ‘the real Rocky’ and now the film is out he says he’ll ‘die happy’ for sure.”
Vinny’s car accident is portrayed in harrowing detail on screen. You’ve said that you shouldn’t use acting as therapy. So, given your own near death experience was that the toughest scene to shoot?
“It was much like my car accident in real life… Me and my buddies are driving along hanging out and talking… Then, holy shit man, you’re in a very serious smash. The car started to flip, and we’re going like 70 miles per hour on a major highway. We weren’t screaming but when we lost control of the car it went across three lanes of traffic and the whole time me and my buddy in the front are just going, ‘Whoaaaaa…!’ I saw we weren’t gonna get it back and I was like, ‘This is bad!’ The car started to roll and I had the very clear realisation that people die in situations like this. It happened in slow motion… I was totally in the moment and thinking, ‘Holy shit I can’t believe this is happening to me right now!’ But then I woke up and more or less came to… I got ejected and was laying on the grass at the side of the road. I seen my buddy but I’m in a daze, ‘Hey man what happened?’ I’m like, ‘Oh shit! I can’t believe I just wrecked my Mom’s car!’ I tried to sit up and he just looked at me and said, ‘Miles, don’t sit up man, you’re hurt really fucking bad.’ Then I was aware of the blood on my face. I couldn’t feel my legs at the time. I was very emotional and then I just kinda blacked out.’ In this movie it’s similar, Vinny wakes up in a hospital and they tell him his neck’s broke.”
And the biggest physical challenge?
“Wearing the halo was tough, it’s a truly medieval contraption! This was an indy movie so we got the thing from a hospital and I just had to go with it. They had to jam it on there so it wouldn’t move when I’m doing all these crazy things Vinny did. I wore it on set for 12 hours a day… But hey, Vinny had one screwed on to his head for six months and still managed to train for a big fight!”
Did you take any hits for real?
“Pretty much any boxing film you’ve ever seen you can assume they had twice the amount of days we had and twice the budget. And because we didn’t have that you’ve gotta keep pushing forward. All of the fighters in the movie are real boxers. We had one guy who’s like a top ten guy. Edwin Rodriguez is a world title contender who plays Roberto Duran. He came to shoot with us two days after he’d just won a fight. I had just a day with him so they had to teach him all the numbers and we had to nail the choreography – it’s not normally what these guys do and they’re not in their own camp. So inevitably we’re making mistakes and taking hits for real but you’re not gonna yell, ‘Cut!’ We gotta get this shit done.”
What was your biggest sacrifice?
“No pizza. No beers. At one point during my training I really wanted something sweet. I was looking at a Jolly Rancher – one of them is 15 calories and about two grams of sugar – but I didn’t eat it! It wasn’t enough to look at it – I wanted to fucking devour it!”
You’ve said your trainer wanted to teach you boxing for real and promised that by the end of the movie you’d be able to ‘mess up some dude if he was talking to your girl’. Have your new skills been tested since?
“I’m not sure I could hack it in the ring for real but once you’re in that boxer’s mindset it becomes more than just having the ability to defend yourself. You’re thinking, I’ll be able to inflict some fucking punishment. You become the aggressor. You become the hunter. So, for a while you feel pretty comfortable just having that skill in your back pocket. In high school I played baseball, basketball and football when I was younger. My buddies were wrestlers and I did kickboxing for a while – we used to hit this Muay Thai gym and do it so I’m not sheepish about contact. But obviously if I can avoid getting hit in the face I’m taking that option.”
What was your favourite boxing flick growing up? Did any inspire you with this role?
“I was a little kid growing up in the North East, close to Philadelphia, so obviously Rocky was pretty big. I saw Raging Bull when I was in college. Loved it. Cinderella Man too. I just love sport. To me, it’s the greatest reality drama – unscripted, beautiful and full of heroic moments.”
Which of your forthcoming films are you most excited about?
“I got to work with Steven Spielberg who produced Thank You For Your Service. It’s an important drama (based on a true-life tale and written and directed by American Sniper’s Jason Hall) about the struggles of war veterans dealing with PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) and trying to adjust to life back home after Iraq. It’s out later this year.”
You’ve said you did no acting at college because you were too busy getting stoned. Do you miss getting high?
“I was in the Conservatory for Drama program at NYU. Monday, Wednesday and Friday I was in class 9am to 6pm. You’re doing a lot of scenes. But in terms of after school activities and doing plays? I was hanging with my buddies and didn’t do a single one. Robert Downey Jr says pot is the worst drug for an actor. It’s a motivation killer to the point you don’t wanna do shit!”
Bleed For This is available now on Digital HD, DVD & Blu-Ray