Interview: Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons

Considering how much tension they have together on screen, it’s great to see that actors J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are constantly comfortable joking around. During an interview with them during the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about their leading roles in Damien Chazelle’s drama Whiplash (opening in select cities tomorrow and expanding over the coming weeks), it’s clear that the two share a similar sense of humour despite their age gap. Both have a penchant for quick barbs, witty put-downs, and a good natured ribbing that you would expect from them as people, but not necessarily the characters they just finished playing.

Teller stars as Andrew Neyman, a young man in his late teens intent on being one of the greatest drummers to ever live. After travelling to New York City to study at one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world, he catches the eye of Fletcher (Simmons), a hard-assed instructor who rules over the school’s heavily lauded concert band with a sharp tongue, an iron fist, and no regard for the personal feelings of any of his students. Fletcher wants to create the next Buddy Rich, and Andrew certainly wants to be the next great legend of the skins, but can Andrew physically and mentally survive the never-ending stream of abuse being hurled in his direction?

The film has been garnering considerable attention since its debut at Sundance earlier this year, and Oscar buzz has been steadily building for the pair of actors with every festival the film plays at and up to its current release, but neither seem phased by it. Simmons and Teller together have an enormous amount of personal and professional respect for each other and the business when you put them in a room together.

We talked to Simmons and Teller about their past experiences with honing their own craft, the physicality of their characters, and why they never knew what to expect from the film while they were making it. And there were jokes. Lots of jokes.

JK Simmons: (deadpan) I just want to go on record right now by saying that I don’t think this is a good idea, but here we go.

(laughs) So you’re still bullying Miles around, I see?

JKS: Training him! (laughs)

Miles Teller: (laughs) It never stops.

JKS: See, now that the movie’s job is done, now it’s my job to screw YOU up, so let’s see how that goes.

(laughs) It’s good to see the relationship between you two is still psychotic. So have you guys lived through this kind of negative reinforcement that takes place between your characters in the film? Have you ever had teachers in your life or people that you worked with that have stripped everything down to such an extent that they can only be negative with their feedback?

JKS: (to Miles): Did he just call me psychotic?

(laughs) No!

MT: Ahhhhh no, you know what you said, buddy! (laughs)

JKS: But no, I really didn’t have that. I think the closest I ever had to someone like that was a positon coach in high school football who was that relentless. And frankly, that’s probably a more appropriate environment for that level of enthusiasm. Either that or the Navy Seals. (laughs) No one was ever throwing big pieces of furniture at me.

MT: I had a baseball coach that was kind of a dick, but, I mean, not necessarily because our team was terrible, and he was just fucking weird, man. He thought we were a professional team or something. I don’t know how he ever thought that.

But when I was in New York, I did feel that from the teachers that I had in theatre school there. They were much tougher than…

JKS: (deadpan) You went to theatre school? Wow. How did that work out for you?

MT: Well, you know, I think you look at the poster for our movie…

JKS: (laughs)

MT: But those kinds of people would strip you down in front of the whole class. You got critiqued in front of everybody. It was the same group of about 15 kids all through school, and I had one teacher that was pretty tough. I did want to please him, which was weird. He was the kind of person who would break you down and then you’d want to say to yourself, “Okay, fine, I want to make you happy because I want to actually enjoy what it is that I’m doing.”

Did you think what your teacher was doing was right?

MT: I mean, no, but I think that’s what the movie is talking about. At the time I don’t think I was dreaming of being the Charlie Parker of acting, you know? And you just have to learn fast how to deal with that kind of thing. There are people who will think, “You know, maybe I am bad and this isn’t for me.” I was never like that. I just always told myself that I would get better and that I just had to keep remembering that.

There’s the old expression “those who can’t do, teach,” so do you think this is a case where Fletcher has fallen into that category?

MT: I mean, did you see him in the movie trying to play the piano with those sausage fingers of his? MY GOD.

JKS: (laughs) Yeah, I think that’s definitely part of the fire that fuels Fletcher. I think there was more of a reference to it in that scene in the club after I play the piano and the two of us sit down. As is usually the case, that scene is now about half as long as it was on the page, but yeah. That’s part of where his frustration stems from. As a young man he wanted to be the next big thing, either on the piano or as a bandleader. He just didn’t have that extra thing that Charlie Parker and Stachmo and all the greats had. When he made the transition to teaching, his single-minded goal becomes trying to be the guy who pulls that out of his students, or at least one of them. He doesn’t care anymore if he’s pulling out internal organs at the same time or not. He’s going to pull that out.

Considering that you guys have to stay distant in your characters, did you guys keep a distance off set?

JKS: (deadpan) I didn’t allow Miles to come near me. He was not allowed to speak to me or make direct eye contact between shots.

MT: And that’s why I cracked two of his ribs when we had our fight scene.

(laughs) But did you guys talk about that aspect of your characters and maybe not tell each other what you were going to do in each scene?

MT: (laughs) He didn’t even remember the table read!

JKS: (laughs) Seriously, no idea, man.

MT: But seriously, we didn’t have time to rehearse any of this stuff. We really just had a situation where two characters would come into a scene with very clear objectives. I think that was what made it work. They both had this clear passionate streak, and although they come from complete opposite ends of the spectrum, there’s something in the middle that brings them to the same place every time. J.K.’s a great actor and he did something different every time…

JKS: You got that down, right?

MT: (laughs) But you just always try to be in the moment. I don’t think this is the kind of movie that you want to rehearse too much. You’ll lose some of that.

The film is really a two hander between the two of you…

MT: That’s funny because J.K. refers to himself as a two hander, too.

JKS: (deadpan) I started out in a different part of the industry.

(laughs) But really, how do you guys get the film and these characters to this level without rehearsing to some degree?

JKS: That’s the beauty of working with Miles and Damien. Damien’s script was genius. It was brilliant, and it was all there. But Damien also was completely open to whatever we bring to it in the moment in terms of improv, or playing with it, or making it our own. And to work with a young actor like Miles, who’s trained, and knows what he’s doing, and has confidence, and can just throw the ball back and forth, and listen, is great. I mean, I’ve said this a lot about the ability of an actor, especially a young actor to really listen like we used to do in the theatre, that’s an undervalued and under-present thing in a lot of young actors. Miles has really takes in whatever you’re throwing at him – in some cases, literally – and throw it back.

But we got to add a lot of our own stuff in there in the moment. The scenes where I’m basically calling everybody names was just on the spot.

MT: Yeah, all of that was just off the top of the head for everyone.

JKS: There’s one in the film that Damien keeps pointing out, because it’s one of the lines that always gets a laugh…

MT: Oh yeah! (laughs) I know already what one you’re talking about.

JKS: During the run-throughs when we’re doing the drum-off and I’m forcing these three guys to work their butts off, and Connolly gets back on the kit and starts changing the height of the stool and I say, “That was the problem the whole time?!? The stool height?” That was one of my favourites.

MT: There was another, too, that I’m thinking of. The line was supposed to be, “I will gut you like a pig,” and that’s in the trailer, but when we filmed it, he said, “I will FUCK you like a pig.” (laughs) And Damien just started cracking up and said, “Oh yeah, that’s better. Just go with that!” (laughs)

JKS: The total reality of that is when I did Damien’s original short film version of this same kind of story, I misspoke and said “fuck you like a pig.” Damien STOLE that, and he put it in the short, and I just said, “Dude! Why did you do that! That was a mistake!” He thought it was great and that it was awesome. So when we were doing this, he was trying SO hard to get me to say it. He just kept saying to me, “I want you to say ‘fuck you like a pig.’” And I was, like, “What am I? Fucking Ned Beatty?” (laughs) So he just stole that one line from the short where I screwed up instead of saying “gut you like a fucking pig,” which was what the line was originally supposed to be.


How far did you ever go in terms of training for your own craft?

JKS: Well, aside from the reference to the earlier part of my career… (laughs) I mean, my career has obviously been very different from Miles’. When I was Miles’ age, I think I might have just gotten my equity card in Seattle with the Seattle Rep doing theatre. I had no idea if this was what I wanted to do. I just kind of woke up in my early 20s and just saw myself doing it as I kept doing theatre. For me, it was just a question of just sticking with it, hanging in there, and learning by doing a lot, and having the opportunity to work with a lot of good directors who were once actors in their younger, formative years.

The only thing I think I had to do that was hard was just hanging in there. When I was living in New York, I was starving and looking all over the neighbourhood where for jobs. I couldn’t even find a job waiting tables. Then a buddy of mine came over to visit and he just left twenty bucks under my answering machine when he left because he knew I couldn’t pay my rent. In those times, if I had any other talent or saleable commodity, I probably would have gone to something else.

MT: Well, you could have done modelling…

JKS: Well, aside from the modelling. (laughs)

J.K., your character in the film is someone who even looks like they rigidly control their life and how they look. Your physique in the movie is…

JKS: AWESOME, isn’t it? (laughs)

MT: It’s GONE now. (laughs)

So how much consideration did you give to the physicality of the character?

JKS: It just seemed to me like the right thing. It was a happy coincidence for me because a few years before this, I had put on weight for a movie, and I was just a fat piece of crap. (Teller starts laughing so hard he nearly falls out of his chair.) I was just really glad that I decided to be healthy and get fit again.

Damien also had a very specific wardrobe written into the script, too, and it was all along those same lines of being meticulous and well put together. But I came up with the idea of what we do in the film and Damien was really receptive of it. This is the kind of guy where part of his intimidation has always been physical. It kind of makes the point of taking care of itself.

We shot a half a day of scenes in Fletcher’s apartment – again, most of which aren’t in the movie – where we see just how Spartan his existence is. It’s a nice apartment, but the one time we see him, he’s drinking a glass of red wine with a frozen microwave dinner eating by himself. He’s a sad guy, and the ONLY thing he has in his life is the music. At the end of that sequence we showed me exercising and being obsessive about things around the house. The last thing is me putting on an old jazz record from 1938 and letting that wash over me and absorb me. (pauses and laughs) God, I’m tired of hearing myself talk.

MT: (laughs) Yeah, that was like a ten minute sequence of J.K. doing push ups and curls in front of a mirror. (laughs) For whatever reason, Damien didn’t think that was right for the story. And the look of my character right was kind of the exact opposite of that.

JKS: Although, right now, he looks a lot like Vinny Pazienza, doesn’t he? He’s actually training to play a boxer now!

MT: Yeah, but getting to look like this character was kind of hard for me, too. I had just gotten done making the first Divergent, and for that we had to go to a boot camp and all of the guys and girls there had to be in great shape for all of the fighting we have to do. When I met Damien for the film, it was the exact opposite. He told me, “Don’t go outside. Don’t touch a weight outside of maybe doing some forearm stuff. Just put on some larger shirts than you would normally wear and just let that carry over into how the character carries himself.” But now I have to get ready to play a boxer in November.

JKS: I was just remarking upon it was I was following him down the hall because I only got to work with him for about 19 days, and back then he was Andrew Neyman, and his physicality was just shot, and now to see him getting ready to play a famous boxer. He’s been training his ass off in the gym and instead of the drums, and it was just now that it hit me the physicality that he was bringing to Andrew as a character.

It was like when I was going to audition for the play of A Few Good Men in New York, and I got off the subway at Times Square and I went three or four blocks to the theatre, and I had just finished this movie and I’m walking and someone sees me and literally says “Damn, guy, I’m gettin’ out of your way!” And he just walks the other way. That was how I felt seeing Miles again just now.

Miles, you really had to push your talents in every physical way in this movie, though.

MT: Yeah, it was  pretty exhausting movie a lot of the time. There were some takes where I’m playing the drums for what feels like forever and Damien just won’t yell cut. That’s where the life is imitating the art. You want to see this kid get to this level of exhaustion in the film, and it’s often harder to try and act it than to just do it sometimes. In a lot of those sequences, I am really burnt out from just going after it, man. The last week of filming we had nothing but sixteen and seventeen hour days, and I think one of those days we had about 140 camera set ups, which is pretty insane.

But my favourite drummers have this kind of “animal style.” That’s one of my favourite things because I’m comfortable around a drum kit. I can play for real. I didn’t have to censor my movements because I was just in there doing it and not trying to act it. I think Damien captured that perfectly.

I mean, those last ten minutes of the movie there’s hardly any dialogue, and I think Damien shot listed maybe 90 shots, which is about ten percent of the shot list of the movie in total.

But, I mean, I had a kit at home, and Damien brought me another one, and I was always playing on set, but even then it’s rare for any drummer to be told to take a ten minute drum solo, but we had to do it over and over again every day for different scenes where I would just stay drumming. For me, I get really into it.

What’s it like getting this script and learning that it’s not going to have a standard climax? Because even though the relationship between these characters is what people will talk about, it’s the ending that’s going to stick out in the minds of people.

JKS: The first version of the script that I saw, there was actually a lot more dialogue. There was a lot more specific stuff because originally it was still supposed to be about my character still delivering instruction. Part of how it was originally conceived was because it was thought to be more dramatic and because if this kid’s going to start going to town, logically I would be screaming in his ear. But that quickly went away and became a different thing. Once I hone in on what’s going on in the scene, it’s all about getting in sync with the other character.

MT: And I was just talking to Sharone Meir, our DP, about this last night: everyone wants to start their movie with ten minutes of story with no dialogue, but we’re ending with that. It’s two of us really just staring each other down, sure, but the way Damien shoots it keeps you enthralled. You can see in some spots J.K. just a ways off and you can see his smile forming. You don’t need to be right on his face to see the smile. It’s just so well done.

JKS: We were talking about this a couple of days ago because we had really no idea or thought about it very much, but it’s kind of something that becomes a Sergio Leone film. (laughs) We had no idea whenever he was in an extreme close-up, or that the movie would be living so much in close-ups. Not just us, but even the whole scene where it’s just Miles and Melissa (Benoist) at the movie theatre counter. That was kind of French in a way. It was very static in terms of the look, but they had a lot of room to improvise. He would juxtapose moments like that with close-ups and we never knew.

MT: Yeah, any time there was a close-up, I never knew we were in a close-up. On most movies when you do close-ups, there are flags, and lighting, and all this equipment that gets flown in. Close-ups are usually the most artificial, inorganic things you can do in a film, but it’s not like that here.