Bleed For This star Miles Teller admits that his reaction to the call that he would star in a biopic portraying five-time boxing champion Vinny “the Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza, who came back from a spine-shattering car crash to win the middleweight title, was undoubtedly mixed.
“The first feeling I had was excitement that I got the role,” Teller says, leaning back in a chair in the Marshall House Hotel in Savannah, Georgia. There was a lot to be excited about, with the movie allowing him the acting chance of a lifetime and being executive produced by none other than Raging Bull auteur Martin Scorsese. “Then the ‘oh shit’ factor kicked in. I know that it was going to be a serious challenge to get in the kind of shape it would take to play this incredible guy.” But just as Pazienza persevered against all odds in countless boxing matches, Teller similarly rose to the occasion. The results are undeniable, with Bleed For This featuring not only a benchmark performance for Teller, but also a triumph of physical transformation.
To accomplish this goal he started off with a call to nutritionist Gary Kobat, who has helped create programs for L.A. Dodger J.P. Howell, Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord and a number of other sportsmen. Kobat got Teller’s blood work done, which revealed that the young actor was at 20 percent body fat and 188 pounds — dramatically bigger than Pazienza ever was. Having competed on the Olympic stage personally, Kobat was in the perfect position to craft an athlete’s diet packed with protein shakes, grilled chicken and vegetables.
Once Teller’s diet had been corrected, director Ben Younger brought in legendary trainer Darrell Foster, who has worked with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard over his storied career, to get Teller ready for the ring. The first step was to throw away any previous gym habits Teller had, and build from the ground up. “I wanted Miles to show up to my gym like he was a boxer, not an actor,” Foster says. “Step to me like you’re getting ready for the match of your life. This is a real man’s life that we’re telling right now and we’re going to do him justice.”
For five months Teller trained every day of the week, and a fitness regime built almost entirely out of boxing became his religion. Each morning was kicked off with a five-mile run to get his cardio up. “If it helped his technique, we were doing it,” Foster says. “The only break he got was to go fill the parking meter.” Though aesthetics took a backseat to actual boxing prowess, the results of Teller’s efforts showed in his physicality, weighing in at a lean 168 pounds and only 6 percent body fat.
Their work together became only more imperative as they began to film the movie, as Teller was facing off against real professional fighters, like middleweight champion Peter Quillin. Foster didn’t tell them to pull punches, either. “I told them to do what they did,” Foster says. “I didn’t want to see anything that looked like ‘play fighting’ on that set.”
That mission was accomplished: The fight sequences in Bleed For This were unquestionably gritty and realistic. The final stamp of approval came when the champ himself visited the set in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. “I was blown away,” Pazienza says. “Being there watching Miles brought back all the memories of those fights. You wouldn’t know the kid wasn’t a pro.”
Following his win of the Vanguard Award at the Savannah Film Festival, Teller discusses his road to getting ripped and how boxing made him a better man.
What do you think it is about boxing that is so transformative?
Let’s be honest, it’s not fun to get punched. There is a natural inclination to try to move away or flinch. It takes a certain mental power to stand up. That is something that you learn. That you are going to have to take a few hits, but when the time is right you are going to get your own punches in. There is something about the sport of boxing that makes you dig deep and find out who you are. I’m at this point in my life where I was ready for the challenge. I wanted to see what I was made out of.
How did you feel about Vinny’s story when you heard it?
People would say about Vinny that he was just a warrior. You want to talk about heart. This guy broke his neck, and was told that he might not be able to walk again. Those are very real stakes. He had a vision for his life and nothing was going to get in the way of it.
In what ways did you relate to his story?
I’ve had adversity in my own life. I got into a car accident myself when I was younger, and that’s been talked about in public. But I’ve also had some more personal struggles that I’ve kept private that were health related and that I’ve had to overcome.
Before you started working with Darrell, had you boxed before?
I popped my head into Wildcard Boxing a few times. I would hang out there and try to get advice from Freddie Roach, but he was in the middle of camp with Manny Pacquiao, so he didn’t have a lot of time for me. I got what I could, working with a few of the guys there, but when I started with Darrell it was a whole different beast.
Did you have a moment that really unlocked boxing technique for you?
I was having a lot of trouble with the footwork. I just couldn’t find the balance when I was moving around. Then there was one day in-between takes where I was in the corner doing a little dancing. I’m a pretty good dancer, and Darrell came over to me. He was like, “You can dance? We’re going to be alright.” He had me put that movement into the ring, and I had it then.
How strict did you keep to your diet?
I didn’t have cheat meals. I found it easier to stay away from anything like that than to be tempted. I wasn’t drinking alcohol either for about eight months, and I’m the kind of guy who enjoys a beer here or there. Funny enough, I started to really crave greens. You can accomplish a lot just by avoiding overeating during meals, and guess what? You don’t need bread. I will say there was one day that I saw a Jolly Rancher and had an inner battle. I mean that’s 15 calories and a few grams of sugar. I didn’t eat it.
What was a typical day like for you?
The first thing was a long run to get the cardio up. I had to be able to last through a full boxing match during filming, so we had to build that up. Then it was about four hours of shadowboxing, focus pads, heavy bag, speed bag, and jump rope. Once we got through that, we would do weight for about two hours. It ended with running through some of the combinations in the scenes for another hour or so. Then I had physical therapy, so we were spending the entire day in the gym.
What was it like to film those intense boxing scenes?
Sometimes I’d get hit. It would happen, because the guys I was in there with were actual boxers, not actors. I didn’t have a stunt double or anything like that. So every once [in] awhile a punch would get through and connect, but you can’t let that slow you down. Vinny was getting hit for real. He was getting cut and breaking his nose, so you need to be comfortable with the fact that you are going to take some hits and keep coming back.
Bleed For This hits theaters this Friday.