In an era when Hollywood's navel-gazing has reached epic proportions, it's refreshing to meet an actor who's actually not all that interested in what the industry has to offer. Miles Teller has all of the promise that a "next big thing needs"—and the talent to go with it—but if you talk to him about movies, he seems familiar with only the ones he's actually been in. Which is only two, counting his stand-out debut in last year's Rabbit Hole where he held his own against Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a teenager who accidentally killed their son, plus two more comedies coming out next year. And which may be why he stands out so much in this remake of Footloose: Teller literally didn't know the legacy he was trying to live up to.
Boxoffice sat down with Teller to talk about Willard, the slow-witted sidekick originally played by the late Chris Penn in the '84 film. In addition to discussing his approach to the loveable dimwit, Teller talked about how he became a movie actor without liking movies.
Talk about the challenge of playing a lovable doofus. What sort of work, if any, do you have to do to make a dumb guy likable?
Nobody wants to feel like somebody's playing dumb. They say you've got to be smart to play dumb. But I wouldn't necessarily say Willard is as dumb as he is just underexposed to the world. He's grown up his whole life in this small town, and this is the only life that he's ever known. And I grew up in a small town in Florida for half of my life. That's where I went to middle school and high school, and my town was probably only 6,000 people. So I get it, man—it's a whole Christopher Columbus thing: the world must be flat because that's as far as I can see. And a lot of the stuff that's coming out of Willard's mouth is funny, so that just comes from a good text, and Craig [Brewer, the director] let me change something things around, this and that, to add my own comedic flair to it. But when they put you in a cowboy hat and overalls and you're saying lines like, "boner killer," it's easy to laugh at somebody like that.
How well-defined was Willard in the script, and how much work did you do to flesh him out further?
Well, the lines are there, and Craig and I would kind of change around some stuff just for the comedic timing of it, like "Maybe I say this word instead of that word." But for the most part, it was pretty much in the script and it was just a matter of making those words your own, and make them land. So in terms of that, most of it was locked in the script, but Craig and I would work on the ad-libs. And then all of the external stuff was just, like I said, I grew up in a small town. I went to high school with 200 guys that could have been Willard, but it was just making him the most polished version. Because most of the rednecks I went to high school with were jerks, and not good guys.
How familiar with the original movie were you, and how faithful did you want to be to it?
I actually have never seen the original in its entirety. And that wasn't a conscious decision on my part. I just don't watch a lot of movies in general, so I had seen some scenes on TV—it's impossible not to because it's on VH1 all of the time. But I inherited this story mostly from when I did the play in high school. I played Willard when I did Footloose when I was 16. So from that is where I kind of took most of the story.
If you don't watch a lot of movies, what prompted you to want to be a movie actor?
Yeah, I don't act because I enjoy watching movies, because I don't watch that many movies. Actually, when I was a kid used to watch The Wizard of Oz twice a day and I remember that having a very powerful impact on me. But I did the first play that I did in high school because we got a new, young drama teacher in and my buddy was like, "Hey, let's audition for this musical." And then I went to college for it, and then film just kind of happened to be my first introduction really to professional acting. I got a guest spot on a TV show, but then after that it was Rabbit Hole, and since then I've only worked on films. I'm grateful for it, for getting to do a complete, two-hour story. So, I don't know what clicked. I like acting because I like to feel, and I just think when you get to play characters in these movie moments, it's really exciting.
Is it tough when you may not be familiar with the filmmakers who are either hot or interesting—or even wrong—to work with?
If there's a project that I have a direct offer on, or something that I'm really close on, I'll try and watch one of that director's movies to get a sense of it. But other than that, I read every script. There's very few auditions that I pass on—I pretty much go up for everything, and then we see how it works. But for me it's just the story. I don't need to watch movies to know that when I read a script and I feel so much for this character, it's something that I'll really enjoy playing. So a lot of it is intuition and hunches, and then absolutely I have a great team of people around me that sort of help me, assist me with that professional perspective on projects.
Is moviemaking still a huge learning process, or have you worked enough that things are pretty familiar?
You learn so much on set that you can only learn on-set, so it is a constant learning curve. I just wrapped this movie 21 and Over yesterday, and even throughout that process, it was like the second week in and I was still kind of getting comfortable. Because you forget that if you feel good after every take and every day of filming, something's wrong, because most of the time you do bad takes and it's just this constant feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty. But yeah, you can always learn new stuff: on this next one, I was learning camera lenses, like when somebody says, "Give me a 50," "Give me a 75," and seeing how that frames you.
How do you prepare?
It's not super formalized. I do kind of use the same mindset going into characters, but I keep it loose. A lot of it is that you need to convince yourself that these things you're saying and this world that you're living in is real. So however I can do that, I will. Because I'm not in classes any more, and to stay fresh I'll be sitting in my room and I'll just try to think freely as my character for an hour or 30 minutes. But every character is different. Some are more physical, like for Willard—a lot of it was getting the voice down and getting his mannerisms and things.
Do you like transforming yourself as an actor?
Well, I think that the actors that I admire are the actors that can kind of transform, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis and even Tom Hanks. I just feel like I don't want anybody to go to a movie that I'm in knowing exactly what they're going to see, like "It's still Miles, he's just wearing overalls. He's just being Miles wearing a cowboy hat." So I think that just comes from preparation-the more layers that you give yourself, the better. I mean, no one person is single-dimensional; everybody is so complex. So it just comes down to how much work you want to put in. And depending on the piece and the nature of the character, you can go as deep as you want.
As a guy who can convincingly play teenage and early-20s roles, what's best for your career right now?
I want to show that I have a lot of range. I think that's just kind of the pride that you take in as an actor, that you want to feel like you can play all of these different parts. And obviously there are some things that people do better than you, and they'll get those parts over you, but I'm not necessarily looking for something completely different every time as much as I'm looking for the best script at the time. Because there's not a lot movies that get made with leads that are necessarily my age—it's a very small portion of the market. Most of the main guys are 30, or whatever it is. So it's just a matter of working on something I think is going to be rewarding in the end.