This can’t be Miles Teller.
No. Miles Teller—the breakout star of last year’s Whiplash, the guy who played the meek aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman, a pasty fleck of a boy brutalized, mentally and physically, by his mentor-tormentor at a Juilliard-meets–Full Metal Jacket arts academy?
OK, sure, Miles Teller was also front and center in August’s superhero franchise reboot of Fantastic Four—but, even by the actor’s own admission, his character “shouldn’t be in good shape. If you’re playing Reed Richards properly—a guy who’s isolating himself and is obsessed with academics and studying and traveling and exploring—that guy is not going to the gym.”
No. But this guy here, chomping on a Paleo plate on the patio of a Studio City restaurant, clearly is.
At a lean 6′-something, this Miles Teller has broad shoulders and the effortlessly rigid posture more reminiscent of Thor’s Chris Hemsworth, and his Grateful Dead T-shirt (hey, he’s an iconoclast) spouts an impressive set of coiled biceps. The guy’s back is even shaped like a kite.
No, this isn’t the Miles Teller we know, the inveterate, wise-cracking sidekick in his short, if already highly prolific, career. The guy sitting in front of me looks a little more like a Division I first baseman, or an avid CrossFitter.
Or even a lightweight boxer.
Vinny “the Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza, the real five-time world boxing champion who inspired Teller’s transformation, has a life story so compelling that none other than Hollywood heavyweight Martin Scorsese decided to bring it to the screen.
In 1991, after having won two world titles, Pazienza broke his neck in a car accident. He was told he wouldn’t walk again, but, thanks to a skull brace and a crazy workout regimen, he somehow managed to not only completely recover but also go on to win a third major-title fight just a year later. As executive producer on the project, Scorsese apparently needed just one thing: an actor who could handle the part.
“Honestly, when I read the script,” says Teller, “I was like, ‘This is going to be really great for someone else.’ It was this masculine, macho story about this world champion boxer. I don’t think after people saw Whiplash or That Awkward Moment they thought of me and said, ‘This dude is a badass fucking boxer.’”
But Teller met with director Ben Younger (Boiler Room), who he says “liked my vibe.” The 28-year-old actor got the part and immediately felt immense pressure. “At the time I was 188 pounds and 19% body fat,” he says, still showing a hint of embarrassment.
It was the ultimate challenge. “You can’t wait for people to tell you that [you have what it takes to become Vinny Paz],” Teller says. “You have to tell them.”
Miles Teller was a good student where he grew up in central Florida, but he also got into a fair amount of trouble. “It was Florida,” he stresses, by way of explanation. He and some buddies stole street signs. They snatched beer out of people’s garages. “We once wrote up a fake letter saying we were the high school weightlifting team and went around collecting donations door-to-door,” he says with the sort of smile that suggests he’d consider doing it again. “We got caught, and we had to go door-to-door and give it back.”
On his bicep is a tattoo: XXXII, the number 32 in Roman numerals. “In Florida,” Teller explains, “they don’t sell 40-ouncers, only 32s. We drank them, and people referred to us as the ‘32 Crew.’ ” But when asked if it’s really a “beer tattoo,” he scoffs. “It’s a friendship tattoo, bro!”
His father worked at a nuclear power plant. His mother was the first female personal trainer at Gold’s Gym in South Jersey and later became a real estate agent, then a decorator. Miles set his sights on attending FSU because it had a good BFA program. Plus, that’s where his high school buddies were going. But his mom pushed him to audition for acting programs in New York, forcing his hand by booking a trip for him to New York to visit Juilliard and NYU, where he eventually enrolled.
In 2009, Teller’s senior year at NYU, he scored his first major television gig, a guest spot on the short-lived cop drama The Unusuals, starring Jeremy Renner. Soon the film roles started rolling in, though for the better part of his early career, Teller seemed relegated to the sidekick role. There he was, consoling Zac Efron in That Awkward Moment, or playing the doofus buddy in 2011’s unnecessary Footloose remake. “There was a small period where I was like, ‘Am I not attractive enough to play the lead?’” he says.
He laughs as he tells of one memorable lunch meeting with his agent and manager. “They were, like, ‘Miles, it’s very competitive out there. It’s Hollywood. Maybe start going to the gym a little bit. Take a little more time in the morning.’ I was coming from New York, so I was like, ‘It’s not about what you look like, it’s about the work.’ They’re like, ‘No, it’s not. You can be the best actor in the world, but if you don’t have the look for the part, you’re not going to get it.’ ”
After the success of Whiplash, which opened the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and went on to win three Oscars (including Best Supporting Actor for co-star J.K. Simmons), Teller resolved to bring the painful, difficult side of Vinny Pazienza’s recovery to the screen. “Five days after he broke two vertebrae, Vinny started trying to work out again,” Teller says. “He tried to lift a weight. He dropped it, and this lightning pain went through his whole neck. He was like, ‘I thought I fucking paralyzed myself again!’ ” Eventually Vinny got the bar up. But, as he told Miles, “I knew that if I didn’t box again, that was not my life. I’d rather die than stop boxing.”
Like Paz, Teller was involved in his own horrifying near-fatal car crash when, in 2007, he and a buddy were driving 80 mph down I-95 in North Carolina. His friend lost control of the steering wheel while crossing three lanes of traffic. The car flipped over eight times, and Teller woke up covered in blood on a patch of grass 30 feet away. “The EMT told me, 99.9% of the time people who get in a car accident like that end up dead or paralyzed,” Teller says.
In a gruesome coincidence, two of Teller’s best friends died in car crashes less than a year later. “At this point it’s embedded in me,” he says of that traumatic period of his life. “It’s part of who I am. It gave me a certain level of introspection and emotional maturity that most kids my age don’t have. This shit can get taken away so fast. I learned to have a lot of patience.”
To prepare for the Pazienza biopic, Bleed for This, Teller cut back on partying (though, admittedly, not forever; “I was so hungover yesterday,” he says, before telling me about the dual-tap kegerator he’s recently purchased) and hit the ring four hours a day. He also lifted heavy weights for two hours and worked with a dialect coach for 90 minutes every day (Pazienza’s from Providence, RI, after all—not the easiest accent to capture), and saw a physical therapist most afternoons. “My girlfriend,” he says, referring to model and aspiring actress Keleigh Sperry, “felt like she was living with Vinny,”
Even while dodging green-screen fireballs on the set of Fantastic Four in Baton Rouge, he says, he was mentally “all Vinny, all the time.” He eliminated bread and alcohol from his diet entirely. “Breakfast was protein powder, ice, water, a splash of almond milk, and some frozen fruit—like, maybe, 10 blueberries.” For other meals, he gorged himself on chicken, avocado, spinach, and tomatoes. Eventually he consulted a nutritionist and had a doctor perform blood work to ensure his caloric intake and fat-to-protein ratios were perfect for dropping weight and building muscle. When Teller complained to Pazienza about his strict diet, the fighter replied, “Suck it up, twat cakes!”
Teller squeezed in boxing lessons at Hollywood’s Wild Card Boxing Club, owned by fight instructor Freddie Roach and director Peter Berg. “He was too skinny at first, and too fragile to be a first-class fighter,” says Roach. “But he put the work in.”
When Teller traveled to Europe to promote Whiplash, he made sure to wake up at 3 a.m. and, despite jet lag, hit the gym. “Anytime I had two hours, I worked out,” he says. “It would have been embarrassing to be on-screen as a five-time world champion and not look the part.”
Though the training was grueling, he was able to commiserate with his Fantastic Four co-star Michael B. Jordan (see page 88), who was bulking up for his own boxing flick, the Rocky spin-off Creed. While Teller would be a playing a lightweight, Jordan’s character would be a full-blown heavyweight. “Mike B. put on 17 pounds in three weeks,” he says. “Meanwhile, I was cutting, cutting, cutting body fat.”
About a month before shooting started for Bleed for This, he began working out with boxing trainer Darrell Foster, who’d trained fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard and helped Will Smith become Muhammad Ali for 2001’s Ali. Surprisingly, Teller says, it was the dance moves from his Footloose training that helped him gain confidence and Foster’s full trust. “I could tell Darrell was unsure about me, physically. But at the end of practice one day, he saw me dancing—doing my glides and whatnot. And he was like, ‘Dude! That’s it!’ Later he told me, ‘From the moment I saw you dancing, I knew you’d be fine.’ ” But Teller still had to face the biggest skeptic of all: Vinny Pazienza.
“He is totally not the obvious choice to play me,” says Pazienza. “But I saw Whiplash, and I went, ‘Whoa. If we teach this dude to box a little bit, this kid’s the man for the job.’ In the end, Miles did the most fabulous job. My fighting style was really wild; my name’s not ‘the Pazmanian Devil’ for nothing. But Miles captured it.”
On the first day of filming, Teller stepped on the scale again. He was now 168 pounds—6% body fat.
“We did this test: Without any fat, my body would weigh 155 pounds—just my muscle and bones,” he says. “That means I was carrying only 13 extra pounds. I felt superlight. I felt incredible.”
Teller also mastered the hardest part of playing a real-life boxer, according to Roach. “The fluid movement is very important,” he says. “It’s the hardest thing to get an actor to be relaxed when he has a guy two feet ahead of him trying to rip his head off. To be comfortable close to the opponent is important, and Miles handled it very well.”
In just a year, having gone from B-list sidekick to A-list superhero, from denizen of a “disgusting” Hollywood apartment (as his girlfriend describes it) to a baller house in Coldwater Canyon, Teller has a lot to feel “incredible” about.
But right now, he says, he’s thrilled simply to be home, having just finished shooting Arms and the Dudes, an action comedy about government contractors supplying weapons to U.S. allies in Afghanistan, directed by Todd Phillips (of The Hangover fame) and co-starring Jonah Hill. Teller’s also already signed on for the next sequels in both the Divergent and Fantastic Four series.
And though he still lets loose every now and then, he swears his physical transformation has led him to pursue a much healthier lifestyle. “Underneath all this is a very lazy guy who could very easily smoke pot and listen to music and play video games or whatever,” he says. “But it gets to the point where, when you’re high, if somebody calls, you don’t want to answer it. And you decide you can’t do that anymore.”
So has the hard partier from Florida—a guy who used to steal beer from other people’s garages but now sports a ripped physique, eats the right foods, and brings some level of moderation and maturity to his life—think he’s now officially part of the Hollywood “club”?
He smiles. “I feel like I’m not in ‘the club’ yet. But they know I’m coming. I RSVP’d.”