Miles Teller Discusses ‘The Spectacular Now’ and ‘Divergent’

Miles Teller Spectacular Now Interview
Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in 'The Spectacular Now' (Photo © A24)

The Spectacular Now is a touching coming of age story and one of the early contenders for awards recognition. Directed by James Ponsoldt and starring Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now follows high school senior/budding alcoholic Sutter Keely (Teller) as he gets dumped by his long-time girlfriend, falls for someone completely outside of his social circle, and tries to connect with his estranged father. And in our exclusive interview, Teller talks about what sets this coming of age tale apart as well as one of his next big projects: Divergent.

Did you expect the critical response The Spectacular Now has been receiving?

Miles Teller: “No. Well, I don’t know. I think, yes, part of me did although I’ve done a lot movies to where you can’t really tell how the critics are going to respond. I’ve done everything because I’ve been passionate about it. I know for a fact I haven’t done anything for money or any kind of fame purposes. Everything I feel like would be a good movie and not all of them have turned out that way.”

How do you know when you’re reading a script that it’s for you?

Miles Teller: “I think you just connect to it. I think as a person, there’s so many different things that interest you and for me, I don’t necessarily have to have parents that are divorced to imagine what that does to a kid. I was lucky enough to always have a supporting father and by always having that, I can imagine what it would be like to not have it. For me, the characters just have to make sense. If I’m doing a comedy, I have to think it’s funny and it’s got to connect to my sense of humor. Then if I’m doing a drama, it’s got to be intelligent. You don’t want to do anything that you feel is dumbed down or watered down or has been done before.”

How many times do you go through a script before you decide that it interests you? Is it usually just that initial reading?

Miles Teller: “There’s a lot of movies out there and so I’m constantly getting stuff to audition for, but my agent would tell you she can hear in my voice when I’m really passionate about something. I’ve been lucky enough to where the things I’m really passionate about I’ve been able to get. Sometimes if it’s really good, you read it once and you know that you want to do. If you’re unsure, you know you’re going to go back through it a couple times. The first time your focus is on just the overall story, and then from there I think you really just focus on your character and say, ‘Am I going to be able to do all this stuff that they’re asking me to do?'”

How easy was it for you to put yourself back in that mindset of a high school student?

Miles Teller: “When I filmed the movie I was 25 – a decent amount of time after high school. Now I can look back on things and have some reflection and say maybe I should have done this, that, whatever, and you have more of a sense of yourself. But in high school everything is brand new. You’re not bitter, you’re not jaded, you’re not judging anything. You’re just taking it as it comes and high school is your world. There’s nothing other than that really. I was a little nervous about it, but then they put a backpack on you and you’re at your locker and you instantly feel like you’re back. It just comes flooding over you.”

Do you have happy high school memories?

Miles Teller: “Yes, I loved high school. I had a great time in high school.”

Were you anything like Sutter?

Miles Teller: “If Sutter had parents that were together and he had two older sisters that he was very close with and he had ambition, if Sutter knew he was going to go to college and knew that he was going to be successful, I guess then I would have been that guy because I was like the homecoming king, but also me and my buddies threw all the parties. Then I was also in drama club and National Honors Society.”

So you were that guy?

Miles Teller: [Laughing] “Yes. I was very well-rounded. I was in jazz band and I was friends with all different types of people.”

And you weren’t a bully.

Miles Teller: “No, not at all. I was too small to bully anyone. When I was in high school, I was like 5’2″.”

Really? When did you grow?

Miles Teller: “I was the smallest one out of my friends. My junior year I was like 5’6″ and then to my senior year I grew to like 5’11”, 5’10”. Then I grew like two or three inches after high school. I had a late growth spurt. All my buddies think it’s so wild that I’m the tallest one now because I was the little dude.”

Do you hang out with the same people you used to?

Miles Teller: “My two roommates now I went to high school with. I have a buddy from high school who’s sleeping on my couch right now. My best friend from high school lives in San Diego and we do a trip every year. There’s like eight of us and we’re still really close.”

I would imagine after this and then after Divergent people are going to be recognizing you everywhere, if they don’t already. Do you think it’s going to be come increasingly difficult to just hang out with friends?

Miles Teller: “I think Divergent, that’s a different animal. I think when you get to that kind of fan fiction for people, it’s really this elevated kind of response that you’re getting. I don’t mind the attention from a movie like this because people just really enjoy the movie and it has really impacted them. I love meeting people, because the movie affected me. The script affected me and that’s why I did it. I enjoy that. I think when it gets to the point where people just want a picture, all they want is an autograph or they just want a piece of your hair, I think that’s weird. But I’m 26, I don’t really find myself in many circles where there’s a plethora of high school kids. If I see people at bars usually it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re the guy from 21 and Over, let me buy you a drink. [Laughing] Which I don’t mind that.”

Can you pinpoint what affected you about this script? It’s got a different feel than most teen coming of age movies and feels like a throwback to the ’70s.

Miles Teller: “Yes, like you said, it was so different than anything because I wasn’t really looking to play somebody in high school. That wasn’t necessary. Right before that, I filmed a movie called Get a Job where I was post-college and I was getting a job. I just really felt for the character in this. I like that sort of sad clown study to where you see in the first 20 minutes of the movie and think it’s something you feel like you’ve seen before. ‘Oh, I know this kid,’ and then it goes a lot deeper than that. The relationship with Shailene Woodley’s character I just thought was pretty special. Half the people are like, ‘Get out, girl! Get away from him!’ And other people are like ‘You can change him.’ But I don’t think that he does change.”

You and Shailene Woodley have an incredible connection in this that comes across on screen. Did you know that was there right when you started working on this?

Miles Teller: “Not really, I guess. We met for a lunch beforehand and we talked for like an hour, something like that. I absolutely thought she was a very nice girl, but we kind of found our relationship through production. I guess after our first scene we kind of looked at each other and we both really didn’t feel good about what we did, but when you film these small movies it’s just go, go, go. You’re with that person all the time. We found it on set and then, yes, once we started getting into the scenes I realized everything I do she was reacting to and vice versa. When you have somebody who’s really listening to you, it’s nice to work with that.”

Is it easier for you as an actor to do it when it’s just go, go, go or when you have a big project and you’re allowed all this extra time to think about it?

Miles Teller: “I like to go. Spectacular Now, we filmed it in like 24 days. Divergent was like 75 days. You’re filming maybe a little over a page and a half a day and that’s very micro-managed. There’s just so many shots because you have to create this huge world, so it’s pretty slow. You’re never going to get to do three pages at once and I like doing entire scenes. There’s one take in the movie that’s like five and a half minutes long that’s one camera shot the whole time – when we kissed for the first time. That’s one steady cam shot that’s just backing out. There were no cuts. That’s very rare.”

How collaborative was director James Ponsoldt?

Miles Teller: “James was very collaborative. James is a pretty young guy and if we didn’t want to wear a wardrobe, we didn’t have to wear it. If we didn’t want to say a line, we didn’t have to say it. He was collaborative.”

Is much of the dialogue in it your own?

Miles Teller: “Most of it’s on the page, but there’s certain things that Shailene and I are adding that just come off. But it’s very well written dialogue. Michael Weber and Scott Neustader wrote a really good script.”

Were they on the set?

Miles Teller: “Michael Weber was, yes. He was on set every day. He and Scott were producers on it. Scott would have been there, but he was having a baby.”

Was he precious at all with his words?

Miles Teller: “No. I think once they understand that you’re really serving the piece and that you’re telling this story and this character and you’re not making it a selfish, self-indulgent project, then they want you to. Because if I were to say a line that doesn’t sound right, that reflects on them and it reflects on me. You don’t want to fight it. You want to make it your own.”

At what point do you think you’re going to say I can’t go back to playing a high school student anymore?

Miles Teller: “I would say now. Last year I did four films. I did Get a Job before Spectacular Now which I’m post-college, getting a job, then I went to high school. After that I did this movie Two Night Stand, where I’m 22 and after that I did Are We Officially Dating? which in that we’re like young 20s.

It’s just hard. It’s how they dress you and how they do your hair. They put a bunch of 18, 19 year olds around you, you’re going to feel like you’re in high school. But I can’t imagine doing anything in high school again.”

What’s really interesting to me about Sutter is he’s always shown with that cup and the straw, and we get the fact that he’s drinking alcohol and shouldn’t be. But the audiences isn’t getting beat over the head with that message. We just know that’s his problem. Did you find that really interesting in the script?

Miles Teller: “I know that was a little worried because in all the scenes I always have it. James would always have me taking a drink from it so I was a little worried that maybe it was too much. But I think it does a good job of not being its own character in the movie. It’s just something you always see this guy with and then you make up your own judgment on it, I guess. Where I grew up which is a similar town to where we shot, it was like 7,000 people in Florida, small town, people started drinking at 12, 13.”

The cup and straw just seem like an extension of his character.

Miles Teller: “Yes, that keeps him fluid. Obviously his mom’s not checking the cup…maybe she is. I’m filling it up with water, but it’s not like I’m getting grounded.”

Can you talk about working with Kyle Chandler playing your dad?

Miles Teller: “He’s awesome in this movie. A lot of actors wanted that part, but they wanted the dad to have this very introspective, redeeming kind of monologue where they’re like, ‘I messed up and this and that.’ But Kyle went in and he played a guy that’s not likable. There’s no really redeeming qualities about it. You understand that he wasn’t really ready for kids and he left. That happens. A lot of kids grow up without a dad, but at the same time I know he was very nervous about the part because Kyle as a person is just such this All-American guy. He really is that guy you root for all the time, so for him to go against the grain was great. As an actor, he just gives you a lot to work off of.”

And you two look alike.

Miles Teller: “Yes, we do kind of.”

Were you familiar with the book before shooting this?

Miles Teller: “I had no idea about it until I got cast.”

Have you read it?

Miles Teller: “Yes. It’s a great book. It’s really great. It’s in first person so the whole time Sutter’s talking to you directly. I thought it was really good. Sutter in the book is a little different than how I play him. Sutter in the book always calls himself the ‘Sutterman’ and he says things like, ‘Oh, fabuloso,’ and he’s like a bit more cartoonish. I tried to call myself the Sutterman and I tried to say fabuloso, but I just couldn’t. It just didn’t work.”

There’s already awards buzz attached to this movie. How are you handling that?

Miles Teller: “Oh, I don’t know. You take it as it comes. When I was in high school, I got awards for everything and then you realize that once you get into a business like this that there’s just an incredible depth of talent. It’s all very humbling. I think you take it as it comes, but Shailene and I got that acting award at Sundance and that was pretty cool.”

Is Sundance when you pretty much figured out that this movie was something a little more special to audiences and not just to all of you involved in it?

Miles Teller: “Yes. At Sundance it was pretty special the reaction we were getting from people, just walking down the street and people coming up to you. And when you do a small film like this, you just feel so precious to it and so then when it kind of leaves you and goes out in the world and people just feel so strongly about… Oprah tweeted about it the other day. Hugh Hefner hosted a screening at the Playboy Mansion the other day. I was not invited though.”

[Laughing] You should have been.

Miles Teller: “Yes.”

What can we expect from Divergent?

Miles Teller: “You can expect a big movie. It’s big. I’m waiting to see what happens to me in the third book. We were down at Comic Con and people were pretty excited about that. I’ve never done anything where there’s a built-in audience already.”

Do you think it follows the books pretty faithfully, as far as you can tell?

Miles Teller: “Yes.”

Is there a lot of violence?

Miles Teller: “There’s a good amount of violence, yes. Shailene and I actually have a pretty big fight in the first book which is in there, and I got to beat her up.”

That’s a big shift in dynamics coming off this. Did it help that you knew her?

Miles Teller: “Yes, for sure. Yes, it did help. Shailene and I have a really good friendship at this point and we would make little Sutter and Aimee jokes in the middle of shooting people in Divergent. It was pretty funny.”

Do you think teenagers who haven’t read the books will get into the story? It’s a very difficult world the characters exist in in that story.

Miles Teller: “Yes, I think so, as far as it’s not as abstract as Twilight. It’s not as abstract as Harry Potter. At the end of the day these are teenagers who are living in this futuristic world but other than that, I think the characters are all very relatable. I think they’ll gravitate towards it, especially for Shailene’s character. She plays this girl who doesn’t fit in anywhere. She has to make her own path.”

And you’re a bad guy.

Miles Teller: “Yes.”

Is this your first bad guy?

Miles Teller: “Yes, in a film. I played Applegate in Damn Yankees and he’s the devil. I’ve played a bad guy before.”

By Rebecca Murray

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