Miles Teller is that rare thing: an actor straddling the chasm between arthouse, goofball and blockbuster. Ahead of new film War Dogs, he talks to Mark Beaumont about body-morphing, war and the car accident that almost killed him
As a trained method actor, you wonder if Miles Teller – long after his new film War Dogs has wrapped – is still in character. The role in question is that of a rookie arms dealer discussing a multimillion-dollar deal with the US military while desperately trying to hide the fact he’s a stoner dropout on the blag. It might explain why the famously scar-faced 29-year-old – an actor capable of straddling the chasm between arthouse (Whiplash, Rabbit Hole), goofball (Project X, 21 & Over) and blockbuster (the Divergent series, Fantastic Four) – has his guard firmly up as he meets the press in an LA hotel conference room to discuss his blackly comic new film, in which he and Jonah Hill play real-life amateur gun runners David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, a pair of chancing-it Florida dudes who manage to loophole their way to a $300m government weapons contract. Or Teller might be media-burned; the last time he let himself relax in a press interview, with Esquire last summer, his opening small talk – brewskis, tattoos and jokes about his penis – had the writer describing him as “kind of a d*ck”. But ever so gradually, he begins to open up…
War Dogs opens with a damning indictment of the industry of war. Does it make you despair of modern politics?
“A lot of my buddies are military and I always looked at it in terms of the sacrifice they’re making for their country or the guy fighting next to them. But no, I never looked at war the way these guys do. I never thought of war as a way for small businesses to capitalise. There are gun dealers that love when war’s going on because they just look at it as dollar signs. It’s an interesting variable to add in, but for me war will always be about the sacrifice these guys and women are making and the effect that has on their families.”
You’ve been drumming since your childhood church band, but how much training did you have to do to become the 12-limbed jazz drum maniac in Whiplash?
“I was definitely not that skilled. I’d never held the sticks like that, I’d never played jazz. I only had about three weeks to turn from a pretty good rock drummer into a highly skilled jazz percussionist. Not as much time as you want but that’s usually, from my experience, how these things go.”
You’re expected to get hugely talented very quickly in one area for one film and then do the same again for another film…
“Yeah, and you lie and say, ‘I can do it!’ Damien [Chazelle, director] didn’t even know I was a drummer when he cast me. He didn’t know that JK [Simmons, his co-star] went to a school for conducting. So it was all very serendipitous – everything synced up.”
Have you always been musical?
“Music was always a pretty big part of my upbringing. I started out playing piano when I was maybe five and then played saxophone all the way up to senior high school; I played in a jazz band. Then guitar I picked up because it was lying around the house. I asked for a set of drums when I was about 15 because all my buddies played guitar so I’d be the only drummer. I started playing with some s**tty Florida garage-rock bands and played some shows, had people making some T-shirts, got a little merch.”
How were those shows?
“Fun, man! I remember getting our first mosh pit and we were like, ‘Cool!’ Just getting people moving and kind of p**sed off was a lot of fun.”
As a result of Whiplash, did you get to meet any musical heroes?
“Yeah, Lars Ulrich. He’s a huge fan of that movie. I remember when it premiered at Sundance. I was just talking to my buddy and somebody said, ‘Lars is here, he wants to talk to you.’ I was like, ‘Lars from Metallica?’ He just loves movies – he’s a film buff, man. We remained close. I love musicians. If I was better, I’d be very satisfied with being a musician. I still play guitar and always have a drum kit set up. I like having stuff for people to jam on if they come over.”
You’ve developed a versatility that allows you to do arthouse films alongside blockbusters…
“The way the business is now, I think you have to. In independent films you get very interesting characters; characters that aren’t for mainstream audiences because maybe it’s so dark. It’s really fulfilling work, but you don’t make any money. You’d have to make 10 a year to make a college degree income. Then you have studio films that, OK, people are gonna see, but is it a story that needs to be told? That’s what draws me to independent films. Money has never chosen a role for me; I’ve always looked at the role first and foremost. If you find that sweet spot of something that’s made at a studio and needs to be told, then great, man – but there are a lot of actors trying to get those parts.”
How do you feel about the transformative extremes actors are expected to go to to win awards?
“The body-morphing thing, like Christian Bale? Well, De Niro was doing it, but these older actors really set a high bar and as a younger actor you look up to these guys, like, ‘Oh man, I wanna do that! I wanna change my teeth and do an accent and cut my hair and gain weight!’ What you’re really trying to do is stop people thinking about you, the celebrity.”
If the role was right and there was no CGI budget, what part of your body would you have amputated?
“I hope I never have to make that decision! I mean, you look at Bradley [Cooper] doing The Elephant Man on Broadway. He’s doing that just with body work. So I think you can do a lot without having to go to that extreme.”
Do you consider your 2007 car accident a formative experience?
“Oh yeah. I went through a near-death experience at age 20 and less than a year later I lost two of my best friends in car accidents, five weeks from each other. You never think you’re going to have to go through that. It changes you forever. At that age you shouldn’t have to go through that stuff. But also it’s good because there are terrible things that happen to people all the time and you don’t know that just by looking
at them. It gave me an opportunity to, I guess, be a part of that world.”