AUSTIN, Texas — It was a typically chaotic day at the SXSW festival, with tech-heads and cineasts literally bumping shoulders with over-it Austin locals, harried publicists, overdressed executives, and the occasional weary journalist. And the Four Seasons Hotel was where they all converged in a din of unending activity.
Into that whirlwind stepped actor Miles Teller, who, in his powder-blue muscle tank and ripped jeans, looked not unlike many other twentysomethings who have poured into the Texas capital. The only difference was that he's potentially on the precipice of major stardom.
It's been just over a year since Teller's breakout performance as an ambitious jazz percussionist in the indie movie Whiplash ignited the Sundance Film Festival. Since then, he's been navigating the biggest year of his career so far, including the increased media scrutiny such attention brings — like the time he said he did Divergent "for business reasons" and felt "dead inside" while making it. (The actor later said those quotes were "taken out of context.") And 2015 only promises to be bigger, with the Divergent sequel Insurgent opening Friday, Teller's role as Mr. Fantastic in the reboot of Fantastic Four hitting theaters in August, and the debut of the boxing biopic Bleed for This (which is already generating headlines thanks to Teller's ripped physique for the role) later this fall.
After the backlash over his Divergent comments, the 28-year-old actor is being more careful while promoting Insurgent. The last thing he needs is to look like he’s grousing about being an actor people recognize. When responding to a question about a fan who ran up to him the moment he stepped into the Four Seasons hallway, one can almost see the quick calculation in his eyes, as he attempts a positive-sounding sound bite.
"You want to make a film that's, like, inspiring or affects somebody. You want to have that connection," he told BuzzFeed News. "Absolutely, it's nice to have people come up, especially if it's a film that you're really kind of proud of."
That Teller's role in Insurgent — as the morally dubious Peter, a begrudging compatriot of Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James), on the run after being exposed as Divergents in the first film — is more playful and dynamic than the brutal, one-note sociopath he was in the first film certainly helps the actor, both in terms of fans' response and his own outlook on the franchise. "It's nice, man — you can see people are a little relaxed and comfortable in the world," he said.
The first scenes Teller shot on Insurgent — in which Peter, Four, Tris, and Tris' brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) hide out within the peaceful farming community of Amity — proved to be a interesting test of that newfound comfort for the simple reason that all three male actors had played Woodley's love interest: James in the Divergent movies, Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars (which filmed after Divergent), and Teller in 2013's The Spectacular Now.
"Ghosts of boyfriends past," Teller said with a laugh. "It's the Venn diagram, and Shailene's in the middle."
So, was that awkward? Teller grinned. "Well, I took her on-screen virginity, so you will only have one first," he said, seemingly unaware of her five seasons on the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which centered on Woodley's character's teen pregnancy. "That's probably weird for the other guys because they know that I had it first." He laughed before adding, "I mean, it's fun. Honestly, Shai has a good time. … We do have fun with that. And, yeah, she's a wonderful girl, and you know, I'm sure we're all happy to have our little moments with her, our films with her."
But with Insurgent, Teller didn't have that many moments with Woodley, or anyone else for that matter, as he was shooting Fantastic Four at the same time. And if the more languorous pace of big-budget filmmaking was weighing Teller down while shooting Divergent (hence the W magazine comments), he's learned how to express his appreciation for the process with two more likely blockbusters now under his belt. "Coming off of Whiplash, you're just used to doing scenes back to back-to-back," Teller said. "On these bigger ones, you can actually take a break in the middle of the scene, if it's not working, to talk about it, have a conversation with the director and the actor, and you can really kind of workshop through it. You're allowed that time."
Big-budget, effects-driven movies also take a lot of time to complete after filming has wrapped. And with Fantastic Four, the period before any footage was released led to idle speculation and downright anxiety on the part of fans, concerned that director Josh Trank (Chronicle) was screwing up the thing that they love — including casting Teller as Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic). Many Marvel diehards thought Teller was far too young to play a character who is often drawn with graying temples.
"People just need stuff to bitch about too, you know what I mean?" the actor said. "Like, if they don't have a comment, then what are they doing?" By the same token, Teller understands where all that concern is coming from. "If Fantastic Four was my favorite comic, and I felt like they casted, whatever they want to say, like, too young, or I felt like it wasn't my version of it, then I would be kind of worried too," he admitted.
The release of the first Fantastic Four trailer in late January did help to alleviate some of those fan concerns. "I think people saw that it wasn't just a flipping franchise for us, that Fox was [not] just trying to quickly make before they lost the rights and this and that," he said. Now Teller is eager for fans to see more. "We definitely put our stamp on it," he said. "We didn't put something up there that was just a generic representation or generic interpretation of this comic book. We really tried to do something with these characters — not original, we took it all from the [comic's] history, but I'm just excited to get it out there and let people kind of say what they want."
But Teller — who's basically worked nonstop for three years, shooting nine films since 2012 — doesn't have much of an opportunity to worry, seeing as he has already moved on to his next project. He's in the middle of filming the Todd Phillips comedy Arms and the Dudes in Romania with Jonah Hill, after which he'll segue right into shooting Allegiant, the two-part conclusion to the Divergent franchise. "In my head, I'm like, I'm taking this time off, trust me. I will. And I get a script that I just can't not do. It speaks to me," he said. "Also for me, I just don't want somebody else to do it. I would hate to turn it down and then watch kind of another actor — probably be even a friend of mine — get to do it."
Teller's latest must-do project is The Life and Times of the Stopwatch Gang, adapted from the Atavist story by Josh Dean about the notorious trio of bank robbers who learned how to pull off a heist in roughly 90 seconds. "It's just like everything I'd want a movie," a suddenly animated Teller said of the film, which doesn't even have a script yet. "It's a heist movie. It's crime-action-adventure. I mean, the life that these guys lived was crazy. ... It's like the most unbelievable true story. I'm pumped."
So pumped, in fact, that this will be the first time Teller will serve as a producer as well, with Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad) attached to direct. It's the next evolution in a career in which Teller has managed to avoid the pitfalls of the handsome-but-bland young leading man — at least, on camera. While he's clearly learning from past mistakes off-camera, sometimes he just cannot help himself.
"I think my face helps with that, because I'm attractive enough, but I'm not too attractive to where, you know, I'm not accessible," he said with a smile. "I want to thank my parents for that, for my face."