For “Whiplash,” Miles Teller learned to play the drums. That, debatably, is nothing compared to what he did for “Bleed for This.” The tale of Vinny Pazienza, a former boxer from Rhode Island who trained himself back to into a world champion after breaking his neck, it required the actor to not only become a believable pugilist but also spend half the movie with a heavy “halo” propping up his head. He must really love pushing himself: Up next he’s playing a soldier in “Thank You For Your Service” and a firefighter in “Granite Mountain.”
Teller, 29, talks to us about his (short) stint as a high school kickboxer, having to act with a massive thing on his head and (briefly) Philadelphia sports fans.
Were you already a boxing fan?
I’ve always liked it. I’ve always loved certain boxers: Tyson during his heyday, Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Sugar Ray. Boxing was at its peak when I was younger. It’s a little softer now. MFA has taken over, and I’m a huge MFA fan.
Still, it must be difficult to box.
I was excited about it. The footwork was something that took a long time to get. I’ve done dance training, I’ve always been pretty good with choreography. But boxing’s a tough skill to learn, let alone master, in only a couple weeks.
You really only had a couple weeks?
I’d say about five weeks. I had to film two movies in between getting cast and when we shot it. Once I got back to L.A. I had five weeks with my guy. I did it four hours a day, then another two hours of weight training, then work on the accent. I’d say nine or 10 hours a day were committed to prep.
And you’d never boxed before?
Never, though I did a bit of kickboxing in high school. I played sports growing up. A lot of the values sports teach you — never give up, keeping fighting, keep fighting and go forward — I relate to.
Did you kickbox for long?
I just did it for a year and a half. I grew up in a small town, so it was just something to do.
Why did you pick kickboxing?
I just felt it would be a good contact sport, and my buddy who drove me home every day from school was doing it.
On this film, you have double duty on physical strains: you’re not just boxing but spending half the movie with a crazy thing on your head called a “halo.”
The halo was something I knew was going to happen, but I didn’t know what it was going to be until I put it on. When I first put it on, we noticed it would move around a little bit. You can’t have that, because if it moves people realize it’s not screwed into your head and the whole thing falls apart. We had to really press these screws with rubber pieces up against my head and keep it in there like a vise — keep a lot of pressure on it so it didn’t move. It was very painful. You’re in that thing for 12 hours a day, your spine’s compacted and you have a lack of mobility and range of motion. It was pretty uncomfortable. You were thankful when you get to take it off. I was always happy when it was lunch.
With this, “Thank You for Your Service” and “Granite Mountain,” you’re really moving into more blue collar roles than you’ve done before.
Those are just the guys I can relate to. I grew up in a middle class home and a lot of my best friends to this day do construction or are in the military.
What kinds of things did you learn exploring this particular working class community, in Cranston, Rhode Island?
I learned how important he was to the community. They don’t have any sports franchises, so Vinny really put them and Providence on the map in terms of a national audience. You’re walking around and everyone still calls him “champ.”
Sports is huge in this country. Were you really into sports as a kid?
Before I was in Florida I was living in South Jersey. That’s why I’m such a big Philly sports fan. Sports in the northeast just has a different energy. It’s everything. You go to a bar and any random person you talk to, they’re going to talk about sports.
Philadelphia sports fans are quite passionate, to put it mildly. They’ve thrown batteries at players during games. Do you have any crazy Philly sports fan memories?
I mean, I never saw anyone get arrested, but I’ve certainly seen fans of the other team not get treated well. [Laughs]