Teller drums up serious-actor film credits

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"I feel like a lot of actors of my generation are not proper actors," Miles Teller said flatly at a media conference at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. "I want to break out of that group of actors in their early 20s and start to put stuff down that lets you know I take this seriously."

Teller, 27, added that he wanted to earn a reputation "as an actor of their generation".

Those who have seen his frisky bro comedy 21 & Over (2013) or his bawdy rom-com Two Night Stand (2014) might be surprised by his bravado.

As he showed last year in the moving indie The Spectacular Now, he is capable of much more than the wisecracking, laid-back charm he exudes. That audacious desire to be recognised as one of the greats is the single-minded subject and the hammering rhythm of his ferocious performance in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, opening on Friday in the United States.

In the tense drama, which won the grand jury and audience awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, he plays Andrew, a student at a jazz academy who wants"to be the greatest drummer who ever lived". To get there, the impressionable Andrew practises until his hands bleed. He is hazed, manipulated, insulted and relentlessly driven by his perfectionist instructor.

Like Andrew, Teller has never been content with being just another face. "When this all started, my agent told me the feedback was always: 'Good actor. Not right for the lead.' They said, 'Oh, he's the funny friend'." He laughed and added: "I mean, when I say, 'When all this started' - it's like four years."

Since graduating from New York University in 2009, he has appeared in nine films. At first, there were supporting parts, including the goofy buddy in Footloose (2011). But in four of his next five films, he will play a lead, including Mr Fantastic in a new Fantastic Four origin-story reboot.

"I'm pretty hot now," he said. "I guess I was lacking sex appeal at the time. I don't know if I found it. Maybe what I lack in abs, I make up in... weight?"

Born in Pennsylvania, raised in New Jersey and Florida, he grew up in a stable family and, he said, was never the kid who needed "acting as therapy".

"My parents are still together," he said. "I have two older sisters that love me."

In 2007, he was a 20-year-old Grateful Dead fan and acting student on his way to the jam-band festival Gathering of the Tribes, when the car he was travelling in at 128kmh flipped several times. He has said he woke up on the ground, covered in blood. His face is still laced with scars, particularly on his chin and cheeks, which are clearly visible on film.

He said the accident focused his ambition, but, for a long time, he worried that the scars would crash his career. "I'm not super-vain," he said. "I was never going to be a model. But it was getting to the point where casting directors were like, 'It doesn't make sense for the character to have scars'."

Then film-maker John Cameron Mitchell cast him as the teenage driver who kills Nicole Kidman's son in Rabbit Hole (2010), saying at the time that the scars "gave him this incredible emotional weight". Scarred or not, Teller's wide-open, trembling performance won him a battery of roles.

Director of Whiplash, Chazelle, also 27, said Teller's face drew him in, reminding him of a young Humphrey Bogart or Tom Hanks - men who could play dashing heroes, romantic charmers or troubled everyman. Chazelle said: "There's something very malleable about his face. In terms of how you shoot it or light it, he can have this tough, battered boxer physique. Other times, he looks like a child - vulnerable. The great actors' faces are these muscles of emotion."

Particularly because of his performance as a lovable, good-times alcoholic teenager in The Spectacular Now and his ease with romantic comedy, Teller is compared with John Cusack so much that it appears to have gotten under his skin.

"I guess we look alike," Teller said. "We did some similar movies. He was a leading man who wasn't traditionally good-looking, but was offbeat and... confident. I get it. But I don't want his career."

Just as his Whiplash character Andrew yearns to move from ensemble jazz class to Lincoln Center, Teller has broken out and is hungry for more. Next year, he and Chazelle will reunite for La La Land, a musical love story, in which Teller will sing and dance with Emma Watson.

Before that, he will play the middleweight boxer Vinny Pazienza who, like Teller, suffered an awful car accident.

In Pazienza's case, it broke his neck but did not end his career. It will be the fifth of Teller's films to involve a serious car crash, including Whiplash.

Teller said: "Whiplash was great. "But even then, there's an attachment to youth, the loss of innocence, all that stuff. And it's time to play some grown men."

 
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