NYFF: Miles Teller On Playing a Tormented Drummer in ‘Whiplash’

Whiplash Red Carpet Miles Teller
Miles Teller | Paula Schwartz Photo

Miles Teller, the 27-year-old actor who stars as a 19-year-old jazz drummer pushed and tormented by his sadistic music instructor (J.K. Simmons) in “Whiplash,” Damien Chazelle’s Sundance Award-winning film, made a short appearance on the red carpet Sunday night for the New York Film Festival screening.

He arrived with the director and his co-star 15 minutes before the screening, but stayed for a Q&A with the audience following the film, which got a rousing reception from the usually tough Lincoln Center crowd.

The movie is an audience favorite. The woman who sat next to me gripped her armrest and yelled at J.K.’s character during the more abusive scenes, “You f…ing asshole.” Afterwards she told me she couldn’t help relating; she’s a student at Juilliard, the music school around the corner.

Teller’s breakthrough role was in “Rabbit Hole,” which he followed up with an impressive performance as an alcoholic teenager in “The Spectacular Now,” co-starring Shailene Woodley. He made the transition to movie star with “Divergent,” also co-starring Woodley, in a part, which admittedly didn’t give him much to do.

He will reappear in “Insurgent” due out next year. Now he’s a bona fide action star with “The Fantastic Four” – he plays Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic in “The Fantastic Four 2,” in theaters in 2017.

More exciting for fans of “Whiplash,” which critics already predict could nab Teller an Oscar nomination, Chazelle has cast him in his next movie, a musical in which he plays a jazz pianist who falls for an actress (Emma Watson).

Last night on the carpet, I jokingly asked J.K. how hard it was to yell at the good-natured actor all during the shoot. “Easy,” he scoffed. “Look at that face!”

Here are edited quotes from Miles Teller during the audience Q&A following Sunday’s public screening:

On the actor’s musical background and preparation for the role:

“It really was kind of fortunate that I did have about 10 years experience drumming before this movie. But with jazz music, you might as well be starting from scratch. At least that’s how I felt. From the very fundamental aspect of how you hold the stick, it’s completely different … it’s more of a flick. The rhythm and everything is completely different.

“Damien was my first teacher. He brought over his drum set and set it up in my basement. He gave me my first jazz lesson, and I just felt like I was never going to get it. I didn’t have that kind of dexterity with my left hand. It was just not something I’d never ever messed with, even though I played the drums for a long time. And, yeah, I was pretty nervous, especially when Damien told me, when he really introduced me to the music … and then I’d ask him who’s going to be playing this stuff? He goes, ‘Oh, you.’ Wait a second, I only have three weeks to learn. This thing’s going to burn … But it just all organically kind of came about. I was doing like four hours a couple days a week for like three weeks.”

Chazelle said he sent Teller an audio of his character’s final drum solo in the film, which is extended and impressive, and the director said Teller sent back a two-word e-mail from the usually loquacious actor that said only, “holy f…. !”

On the intense shooting schedule:

“We shot the movie in 19 days. The more that I could be behind the (drum) kit, and the more that I could actually be playing that stuff, it just bought us so much, and that’s why for that first shot (where’s he seen playing the drums in the school basement), hopefully you can tell that I can actually move around the kit. I think if you buy that first shot, that allows you that suspension of belief even further.”

On whether playing the drums for real presents an additional acting problem since he also has to be in the moment as the character:

“It’s a beautiful thing because usually, acting presents like an acting problem. (audiences laughs). But for this particular thing because you’re playing the drums, I’m not worried about my face. I’m obviously not worried about my face, ever. Ever.” (He laughed. He distorts and strains his face while he’s playing the drums.)

“J.K. and I talked about it. I didn’t even know that I was in a close up, at all. I really was so unaware of Damien ever shooting a close up. He did a beautiful job of stopping for lighting and all this stuff that it was really just play the drums and getting going and kind of go into another space when you’re playing stuff and you become even more unaware of the camera and really focus on charts. It was very difficult. And all the musicians are real musicians, so I was nervous even just to be playing with those guys in these scenes because it looks like I didn’t want to mess up.”

About the scenes where J.K. Simmons yells in his face face and throws a chair at his head, was Miles ever frightened of J.K.?

“Never, not for a second! I’m not scared. In real life, I kind of tower over J.K. I’m 6’1”, 175, in good shape! But no, honestly, if J.K. was in character the whole time, it would’ve been miserable, but there was a scene where he slapped me, a real serious scene, he could slap me and I’d start laughing … There’s nothing to be scared of … I got to know his face so well because it was just right here! I got to know every wrinkle, every crease … He gets like a neck muscle popping out right on cue. He’s a great actor.”

On how he got the part:

“[My agent] gave me the script after I had done a bunch of movies back-to-back, and I had three weeks off in between … I’m very grateful to be working, I’m happy for the work. [laughs] A lot of it is, I don’t want some other kid to do this. Even if you’re tired, I don’t want somebody else to get this opportunity.”

All photos taken by and used with permission of Paula Schwartz. 



2 responses to “NYFF: Miles Teller On Playing a Tormented Drummer in ‘Whiplash’”

  1. The New Drummer Avatar

    Miles Teller did a fantastic job acting as the student, but also with his drumming. The jazz drumming world is not an easy one to get into, so kudos to him for being willing to take it on.

  2. Matt Avatar

    My students told me about this movie, It’s very intense!

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