Miles Teller blacked out shortly after the car crash that, on another day, would have killed him. It was the summer of 2007 and the 20-year-old New York drama student was heading back to his family home in Florida. The car was doing 80mph when the friend driving lost control of the wheel. They crossed three lanes of traffic and flipped eight times.
“All I knew was that I had been thrown through the window, I was covered in blood and I couldn’t feel my legs,” Teller says. “Then I woke up in the hospital. It’s how the brain copes. The people it was most traumatising for was my parents, getting the phone call. And my friend. I do remember him saying, ‘Please don’t die.’”
Now 29, Teller is one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising young movie stars. He’s a little like Elvis in the face, and his sleek leather jacket looks dizzyingly expensive. He makes good company. There have been times in his career when remarks about his plans for acting greatness have seen him on the brink of a bad reputation. Today, he’s nothing but courtesy and wisecracks.
The only evidence of the crash now is a couple of light scars striped across his chin, and if you look closely, more on his throat. Discussing the accident doesn’t faze him. He has, after all, had to relive it on screen – and more than once.
In the most successful role of his career so far, as a gifted young jazz drummer in the Oscar-winning Whiplash, his character is made late for a show by a viscerally rendered road accident. Putting Teller’s drummer under the guidance of a bullying music teacher, the director of Whiplash, Damien Chazelle, said he wanted the film to feel like a boxing movie.
Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash
Now Teller is starring in the real thing – Bleed for This, a biopic of Vinny Pazienza, the Rhode Island brawler who won world titles in the 80s and 90s. But Bleed for This isn’t really about the ring. Remarkably, the film involves another car crash, as horrific as Teller’s own. Pazienza was left with a broken neck. Doctors told him he should, with time, be able to walk again – but his boxing career was over. He insisted on ignoring their advice, choosing the hugely risky path of recovering with a metal head brace called a “halo” screwed into his skull, before making one of the most unlikely comebacks in sports history.
Was it tough having to re-stage another car crash on camera? Teller insists that it didn’t trouble him. After all, he says, it’s not like he recalls much about his own. What he remembers is the recovery. After the accident, Teller never lost sight of how lucky he was to be alive. “The doctor told me when someone is ejected from the car going as fast as we were, literally 99.9% of the time, they’re dead or paralysed.” But there was a catch. “A lot of scars, all across my face. Very red… raw… prominent.”
The adjustment would be difficult for anyone. But Teller was an actor ambitious enough to have planned what his breakthrough role was going to be: an indie drama opposite big names. Now though, casting directors were telling his agent that, while he had talent, the scars were a problem. “I assumed you could cover them up with make-up. Turns out you couldn’t.”
Instead, every couple of months for the next three years, he had the kind of laser treatment used for tattoo removal to reduce his scarring. “It’s extremely painful,” he says casually.
Bleed for This
Back in small-town Florida, he hung out with the same friends he made in school (even now, he says the group are inseparable). But mostly he stayed indoors. The sun was bad for his scars. “I would just sit in the house and ask myself whether this was going to stop me having the career I always thought I was going to have.”
Then came a turn of events you might suspect to be the work of a scriptwriter. With the scars finally reduced, he went for a part in just the kind of indie drama he had always planned for. The film was Rabbit Hole; the role, a man who had – by now this will not surprise you – killed a boy in a car accident. The boy’s mother was to be played by Nicole Kidman. When he auditioned with her, being around a real movie star made him blush. Noticing, she decided this unaffected kid should get the role.
The effect was instant. Although Rabbit Hole was only a moderate success, Teller was singled out as a gleaming prospect, his scars now an advantage. As the film’s director John Cameron Mitchell told him, “they suggest a mystery”.
Suddenly, Teller pulls back his T-shirt to show me a dark welt across his collarbone. “I mean, there are others that aren’t so great,” he smiles. Strangely he says, the ones left on his face may actually have helped him get the career he craved. “Until the accident, the actor I used to get compared to was Shia LaBeouf, who got pulled into the Transformers movies.”
After a handful of comedies and action movies came another professional lightning strike – Whiplash. Teller says he was paid less than $10,000 to make the film, but the reward was a critical hit that won three Oscars and ensured he rose to the status of a leading man.
Yet he’s still the strategist who mapped out his career at acting school. While Bleed for This is another scrappy contender, he makes no apologies about wanting to be in the biggest movies in Hollywood.
In interviews now, he admits, he has learned to measure what he says while still being honest. “I love acting, but I also do this as a job. I’ve been able to pay off my parents’ mortgage, and that wasn’t going to happen just doing independent films.”
Bleed for This is in cinemas from Friday 2 December