By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Miles Teller, whose memorable turn as a budding drummer who suffers under a cruel and demanding instructor in 2014’s “Whiplash,” stars in two new films in which he plays unsung everyday heroes risking their lives in service to their community— “Only the Brave” and “Thank You for Your Service.”
In “Only the Brave,” in which he co-stars with Josh Brolin, he plays a member of an elite firefighting crew known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. All but one member of the firefighting crew was killed in 2013 during an Arizona wildfire. Teller plays real life former firefighter Brendan McDonough, who finds a brotherhood among these brave men who risk their lives to save people and their homes.
In “Thank You for Your Service,” Teller plays an Army sergeant who returns home from combat deployment in Iraq a changed man. The character also is based on a real person. Though physically fine, Sgt. Adam Schumann fights the inner demons that haunt him from the brutalities of war. Based on war journalist David Finkel’s book of the same name, the drama delves into Schumann’s readjustment into civilian life, and his struggle to secure psychological counseling for himself and fellow soldiers that are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Amy Schumer, in a rare dramatic turn, plays a war widow that Schumann has difficulty facing. The film is written and directed by Jason Hall, who previously wrote the acclaimed Clint Eastwood-directed “American Sniper.”
Thirty-year-old Teller has come a long way since he appeared in his first feature film, 2010’s “Rabbit Hole,” opposite Oscar winner Nicole Kidman. Aside from a few departures into fantasy fare (the “Divergent” series, “Fantastic Four”), Teller is more often drawn to roles in which he plays ordinary, working-class guys. Newly engaged to model Keleigh Sperry, the workhorse actor spoke about his two new films, both of which required him to go through “boot camp” training to help make his characters seem authentic, getting feedback from vets to the post-war film and what’s ahead.
Q: You have two films coming out in which you play extraordinary everyday heroes: “Thank You For Your Service” and “Only the Brave.” Which did you shoot first?
Teller: I did (“Thank You For Your Service”) first. Once I finished “Thank You For Your Service,” I had about five weeks before I was on set for this.
Q: Were you researching for this while on that shoot?
Teller: No, and that was the tricky thing because it was about two weeks before I was going down for “Thank You For Your Service,” and that’s when I met with Jason (Hall, the writer/director) and I read the script. I said, “Aw man, this is really good. When are you guys starting?” And he said, “This day,” and I was like, “That’s like a month after I finish.” I knew what “Thank You for Your Service” was going to take out of me. That was a really intense experience. There’s just a lot in there. You’re playing a sergeant. You have all the emotional internal stuff, but also physically and externally representing somebody, a ranking officer in the military is something I knew it would be very heavily scrutinizing. Rightfully so, because I know the amount of pride these guys have for that job.
Q: Do you know guys who have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan?
Teller: Yeah, a lot of my friends. I grew up in a pretty small town in Florida and it was a fairly heavily recruited military town, so yeah a lot of my friends are active in the military.
Q: Did you have the ROTC on campus while you were in school?
Teller: Oh, yeah. But a lot of my buddies weren’t even in ROTC, but they ended up joining the military.
Q: Obviously, this film is about the guys that come home and they’re damaged, whether the wounds are physical or mental. Did you go to a VA hospital for research? You said you know some of these guys, but was there additional research material that you looked at to help you with this role?
Teller: I read both of David Finkel’s books. I read another book called “The Evil Hours” (by David Morris), which is more of a clinical study on post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury. I watched a lot of videos on guys doing interviews after they got back from war. I watched a lot of documentaries, (the 1989 post-Vietnam drama) “In Country.” Specifically, this one was (the Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger documentary) “Restrepo,” is just harrowing in terms of how immersed that camera is in a battle. Yeah, Jason (Hall, the director) and I met with the VA out here and then we met with Adam (Schumann). We hung out with a couple of guys who had fought during the surge (in Iraq). I actually didn’t go to the VA’s until after (production wrapped. I went to (Walter Reed Hospital in) Bethesda (Maryland), and I went to Fort Belvoir (Virginia). It’s something I continued with after the movie, actually.
Q: Both being a firefighter, where you’re putting your life not the line every day when you go out and fight fires and also as a soldier where you could be over there and IED can explode when you’re driving down the street—these are guys that don’t know if they’re going to come home to their families. In “Thank You for Your Service, not only is Adam’s marriage strained when he comes home, but he has difficulty bonding with his baby son.
Teller: Yeah, Jackson was born while he was deployed. I was thinking about that recently. There’s three different versions of Adam. The guy he was before he was deployed, the guy he was while he was in country and he’s a different person after the first and second deployments. And, obviously, in his third deployment, when you see him (onscreen), he’s different. These guy—their brains—are biologically different when they come home. After war, they’re a different person. I can only imagine that feeling of feeling like a failure as a father or as a husband.
It’s got to be extremely frustrating and these guys really just trying to get back to themselves and it’s tough on the wives too, because they’re doing everything, keeping the house running and raising their kids. And then the guys come back and these guys need years of really intensive treatment to be able to deal with it. They’re dealing with extreme trauma. In Adam’s case, he loses a guy. They do the roll call for him, which is what we show at the beginning of the movie. We’ve had vets tell us it’s the only time they can even remember seeing roll call, let alone get it right.
These are young guys. Many of these guys are much younger than I am when I played the part. For some, it’s their first deployment and they just lost their brother. And it’s not like they’re sitting around talking about how they feel. They’re certainly not seeing a therapist and talking about it. They’re just dealing with that and they’re grieving as they’re loading up their guns and having to go right back out. That’s war. And to be in that mindset for 12-15 months, every minute of the day having to be ready for battle, I can only imagine what that does to you.
Q: Hollywood has made films about soldiers coming home from war. What do you think sets this film apart from the others that have dealt with soldiers trying to readjust to civilian life?
Teller: We’ve talked to a moderator who’s a film professor who said throughout the history of film, there’s only been seven films that have truly dealt with the transition home, and I think this film shines a spotlight on what other films haven’t. We put the VA (Veterans Administration) on screen. We’re doing these screenings for vets and they’re just like, “Dude, did you like live at the VA, because you guys nailed it?” I think this film and from the responses that we’re getting, because military films, war films, are so heavily scrutinized by veterans. Literally, you couldn’t be more criticized by a larger audience than you are when you make a military film. I’m sure some guys are putting in their two cents, and that’s valid. They lived through it. It might not be their specific story on screen, but the response we’ve been getting has been overwhelmingly positive, and by the fact at how accurate they feel it is. That’s what we wanted to do.
We were going for authenticity and accuracy first, and making a film second. Adam (Schumann), (Sgt. Mark Wachter) our military advisor—these guys had authority on set, to a large extent. If we’re doing something that didn’t really make sense, Jason and myself and the other actors were like, “Well, how do we get it right?” That was extremely important to us.
Q: Last year, you played boxer Vinny Pazienza in “Bleed for This,” who also had to go through a recovery, although his was more a physical road to recovery.
Teller: Yeah, the “Tasmanian Devil.” I was just texting him, because this guy tweeted me. There’s this line in the toward the end of the film, “Show me how you fight. Show me how you live. Show me who the **** you are!” And this kid got a tattoo on his ribs with flowers because his grandmother just passed away with cancer, but she fought it until the end and he was just really moved by it. I sent the photo to Ben (Younger, film’s director) and Vinny.
Q: So, you still stay in touch with him?
Teller: Yeah, for sure.
Q: You play a lot of these blue-collar, regular guys who find themselves in extraordinary situations. What is it about the kind of roles that draw you to them?
Teller: I don’t know. I think those are my guys. I think that’s how I was raised. I don’t work on any kind of social or economic hierarchy. I was raised middle class and lived in as many different environments as you could get. I guess those are the kinds of stories I’m attracted to. I enjoy when I can bring those stories to life, because those are the ones that are being lived every day, and they are relatable to me. I’m excited when Hollywood makes movies about the Everyman.
Q: As opposed to fantasy superheroes?
Teller: Yeah, I’ve been a part of that world too (with “Fantastic Four”).
Q: How was it preparing for the action scenes alongside your co-stars Joe Cole, Scott Haze and Beulah Koale?
Teller: We did a boot camp together to bond like a cast. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like that. I mean, I ended up having a somewhat similar experience for “Only the Brave.” We went through a boot camp where there were 20 guys on set. I’ve never had an experience like that where we bonded a cast as much as we did, and because we had that tangible experience to work off of to where it was all about teamwork. Every exercise we did was about teamwork and it was physically exhausting and mentally draining and yeah, we held on to that throughout the entire film.
Q: Have you watched this film with actual vets?
Teller: I have. I haven’t sat through (the film) because I don’t like to watch myself, but we’ve had a lot of vets at these (advance) screenings. And I’m starting to get that with “Only the Brave” too, when we show it to firefighters and first responders. But to have this experience with “Thank You For Your Service,” the movie is affecting this community in such a personal way. We’re having guys come up, like this one Vietnam vet, he really sticks out to me. He sent this message to Adam, which I posted on Facebook. That generation didn’t talk about this **** and this guy had tears in his eyes, holding a tissue. He couldn’t even say anything. He just kind of pointed at the screen and him and Adam just hugged for a long time. That was incredible.
Q: Do you have military people in your family?
Teller: Yeah. My uncle ended up passing away from MS, but he was a Silver Star recipient in the Vietnam War. He didn’t talk about it or anything. I got to talk to him about it before he passed away, but he felt like MS was almost his penance for what he had to do in war. What these guys live with is just so much. I just really feel for those guys and so I’m proud of this film.
Q: You’re working on a TV series next called “Too Old to Die Young?”
Teller: Yeah, although Nic Refn (the series’ co-creator) wouldn’t call it a TV series. He sees TV as more of episodic thing like “CSI.” Whatever it is, Nic will tell you we’re making a 10-hour long movie. I start in about a month.
Q: You get to spend more time with a character than you usually do in a film. Does that aspect of it appeal to you?
Teller: Yeah, the whole thing appealed to me. When Nic presented it to me, he said, “Look, we’re shooting chronological order. It’s going to be about seven months.” Content-wise, it’s about four movies worth of pages in seven months. That’s a lot. I’ve never dealt with anything in that kind of long form, especially not in Nic Refn’s world, which can be pretty intense. I see this as a very massive undertaking for himself and for me and for everybody who’s going to be involved in it. I knew it was going to be a challenge and I’m a huge fan of Nic’s, so I was like, “Alright, boss. Whatever you need, let’s do it.”