Miles Teller Marches to the Beat of His Own Drum in ‘Whiplash’
Miles Teller as Andrew in "Whiplash." ©Sony Pictures Classics. CR: Daniel McFadden.

Miles Teller as Andrew in “Whiplash.” ©Sony Pictures Classics. CR: Daniel McFadden.

Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Miles Teller likens “Whiplash,” the drama in which he plays a jazz drummer student who engages in a battle of wills with his hypercritical teacher, played by J.K. Simmons, to a boxing movie.

“There are just these two guys going head to head with each other,” explains the 27-year-old native Pennsylvanian.

Indeed, like many boxing movies, there is an underdog, a lot of male bravado and trash talking and, oh yeah, blood. Who’d have thought jazz drumming was such a physically dangerous gig?

As a student at a competitive New York music conservatory, Andrew Neiman (Teller) hopes to be good enough to be selected for the school’s prestigious jazz orchestra. He practices and practices, and finally catches the ear of the instructor Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Fletcher’s style of teaching is what some might call unorthodox (others would call it brutal or possibly criminal). The old guy demeans his young musicians with foul language, plays them off each other and knocks them down at every turn. But Andrew is determined to earn his seat. He practices and practices and practices until he is a sweaty mess and his hands bleed, and then he practices some more.

So determined is this young musician to make it in the orchestra that he forgoes whatever happy future he might have with a lovely co-ed (“Glee’s” Melissa Benoist), who attends a different school. Even when Fletcher dismisses Andrew (after he gets in a car accident that makes him late for a performance), the kid just doesn’t give up and crashes an important performance that will get him noticed, dishing up a remarkable film finale that is as intense as any showdown in the ring ever depicted on film.

Teller, best known for his roles in the “Footloose” remake and the sci-fi adventure “Divergent,” fortunately, came into the project with a music background.

“Whiplash,” a reference to the classic Don Ellis jazz track that Andrew attempts to master, is written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who based the story on his own life.

Q: Can you talk about putting your blood, sweat and tears into this film? And was what we heard in the film all you or was it sweetened?

Teller: I hope it was sweetened a little bit because at the end of the day, because Andrew becomes a much better drummer than Miles is, although I have a pretty good skill set with it and it’s something that through hours of practice I got to a pretty good place with it. I started getting blisters. It’s funny because when I read the script there’s all this talk of, “And the blood splatters on the cymbals,” and all this stuff. I would come onto set sometimes and I would look at the drum kit and there’s all this blood there. And I would say to Damien, “That’s too much. No way. Let’s get that off. It’s too much blood.” And he goes, “No, man. When I was playing, all my drumsticks were covered in blood. This is real. This is truthful.” So yeah, I started getting some bloody blisters and I was bandaging them up and stuff. Just the nature of filming a movie like this in 19 days with very intense drumming sequences, a lot of that sweat is real. That’s great because you don’t have to act when you’re actually kind of playing to exhaustion. I remember J.K. told me to hold back a little bit. He’s like, “Man, we’re going to have a couple takes of this. You should save some.” And then I was like, “Yeah, you’re right. Damien, what are you doing, man? I need to save some.” So a lot of it was kind of like life imitating art.

Q: Is there someone—a coach, director, teacher—that drove you in your career like Fletcher drives Andrew?

Teller: I started piano when I was like six and my two older sisters both played instruments. My sister, Danielle, is about 18 months older than me. Anything I would do, she would do and vise versa. I mean she was the only girl playing in boys little league baseball and she played on my team. She was really good. She was better at piano than I was. She played the clarinet and I played the saxophone. She was better at woodwind player than I was. Then, I started moving away from that stuff into guitar and drumming and playing in some bands and stuff. Everywhere I went my drums went with me. I went to NYU and I was in a very small dorm and I had my drum kit. And now, in my house, three miles from here, I have my drum kit. But I never really had a music teacher like (Fletcher). There is a piano teacher that tried to push me, but I was 11 and I said, “It’s not worth it,” so I quit taking lessons and just started listening to music. And then, with sports, I had a baseball coach that yelled just for the sake of yelling. That did nothing because we did not respect him. We just did not know where he was coming from. I (also) had a driving school teacher that had severe issues with anger, as if it was going to make (his students) a better driver. I was like “Dude, we are, like, 15. We’re just trying to get our license.” With J.K., you can understand where he is coming from. He is not just a guy yelling kind of very funny vulgar statements at people all day.

Q: What sort of pressure have you faced in the competitive world of acting?

Teller: What’s tough for an actor, especially a young actor, is you just want to work. Very few actors are truly steering their career, because it’s tough. If all you want to do was independent films, they give you the most control over a character, and a lot of times they have the most integrity. You don’t make any kind of money really from that, though. I remember (actor) Joe Pantoliano came to my class when I was in college and people were asking his advice on how you do movies, and he said, “My advice for you guys is do three movies a year. Do one for the money. Do one for the art. And do one for the location,” and he said, “You’ll be happy.” So, hopefully, you can balance it out or can do different things. Maybe you want to go on vacation. Maybe you want to live in a bigger apartment, so you can, hopefully, do something to make yourself happy, but at the end of the day, we picked art as a job and as an income, so the line gets a little blurry there sometimes.

Q: You and Melissa Benoist have that break-up scene where your character chooses his drumming over her. Have you had to deal with that in real life?

Teller: (deadpan) Yes, I dumped my girlfriend (Keleigh Sperry) right before the press tour for this because I just knew I just had to trim the fat. (He laughs.) No, I’m just kidding. We’re still together and very happy.

Q: What do you hope this role may do for your career?

Teller: When I read the script, I was very thankful for this opportunity. I had not read (a script) that demanded so much of a character my age, let alone one that I would get to play the drums in. So I was happy that Damien wrote something like this and did have me in mind for it. We really didn’t have that much prep time at all. It was about three weeks going into it. You never have as much time to prepare for (a role) as you want to. Yeah, there’s vulnerability but, for me, this is a movie about drive and grit, and it’s almost shot like a boxing movie. I thought it was cool, man. It’s got everything in a movie that I would want to be a part of. When I was in college this would have been a movie that I said I would hope to do. It’s a movie with integrity. It’s a movie that’s unapologetic. It’s a movie that is kind of pushing the boundaries. And it’s a movie that should leave you really talking about it and creating a discourse and having people excited to explore some of the themes in it. It’s everything that I could have asked for in a project at this point in my career.

Q: Andrew totals the car because he is rushing to that big performance. Is there anything you wanted so badly that you’d risk your neck for?

Teller: J.K. and I both had injuries on set, and when I was filming “The Fantastic Four” (due out next year), I took a big chunk out of my finger and had to go to base camp and get nine stitches in and go back to it.