Miles Teller: 'I could relate to what Vinny went through in recovering from a car crash as I survived an 80mph smash'
In Bleed For This, Miles Teller plays boxer Vinny Pazienza, who bravely fought his way back to the ring after a near-fatal car crash. The star talks to Kate Whiting about getting fit for the role, his own car crash and donning a posing pouch
There's a scene at the start of Miles Teller's new boxing film, Bleed For This, where he makes an entrance at a weigh-in, pulling off a satin dressing gown to reveal his sculpted physique - in nothing but a leopard print posing pouch.
"What did you call it? I've heard it's called a banana hammock," says Teller, cocking his head with a grin.
The 29-year-old, who was nominated for a Bafta Rising Star Award after his intense student drummer turn in 2014's Oscar-winning Whiplash, wasn't daunted by the idea of exposing so much flesh on screen.
"Well, look, I knew that for that scene, my character Vinny's at his lightest weight in the movie. I knew I was going to be at my lowest body fat, I knew theoretically that's when I should look my best, so if you've done the work, you're excited, you're pumped," he says, laughing.
"And I think, in that moment, Vinny did that exact same thing at a weigh-in - you get a pretty good idea of this character."
Teller plays real-life boxing hero Vinny Pazmanian Devil Pazienza, who, incredibly, came back from breaking his neck in a car crash to fight for the World Super Middleweight title.
For six months, Pazienza had to wear a metal halo brace screwed into his skull to stabilise his spine. But against doctors' orders, he started training again in his parents' basement with the help of his coach Kevin Rooney, played by Aaron Eckhart.
Done with playing "students and people's sons", Teller, who today is funny and gracious (showing no sign of the arrogance that has made previous interviewers label him a 'd***'), says he was "looking for a more challenging type of adult role".
"I really wanted to explore what it was like to be a 27-year-old Italian-American champion boxer in the Eighties. To me, that's a cool guy to play," he says of the script's appeal.
"But the thing that really made me want to do this project is the fact it's such an incredible story about one of the greatest comebacks ever - forget sports - I mean, just in general."
To look the part, Teller spent eight months training in Los Angeles with Darrell Foster, whose celebrity clients include Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, Antonio Banderas and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
"He didn't want to teach me movie boxing or show me how to throw fake punches. Darrell's like, 'By the end of this movie you'll be able to mess some dude up if he's talking to your girl'."
Pizza and sandwiches were strictly off the menu, as Teller had to shift body fat.
"I weighed 188 pounds and was 19% body fat when I got the movie," says the actor, who's been dating model Keleigh Sperry for three years. "From there, I went to 168 pounds and got my body fat down to six per cent. It's not about wanting to take my shirt off and look cool or anything. These boxing scenes last all day. The first boxing match you see in the movie we filmed for 13 hours pretty much non-stop." On screen, it's Eckhart's trainer Rooney who's tasked with getting Vinny into shape. He and Teller had worked together once before, on 2010's Rabbit Hole (about a couple whose son dies in a car accident), and they had a memorable first meeting.
"Aaron will always have a certain place in my heart because I met him on, 'Action,' in the very first scene I ever shot. I'd just graduated college, there was no rehearsal and I was very nervous. In the scene, I come in to give Nicole Kidman's character a comic book, we're both kind of looking for closure. Aaron's the father, I killed his son in a car accident. The director had told Aaron, 'Look, this is Miles' very first scene, I really want you to go off-book, just make this guy feel uncomfortable and bad and scared.
"And boom. 'Action.' Aaron walks in and he's just giving it to me and I'm like, 'Oh man.' But in the back of my head I'm just smiling 'cos it's Aaron Eckhart. This guy is so good.
"For this movie it was great to explore the fighter-trainer relationship - it's so sincere, two guys that want the same thing so passionately, and intrinsically need each other to accomplish it.
"I think we got that right on this movie, the fighter-trainer relationship, because it is so sacred."
Born in Pennsylvania to an estate agent mum and nuclear power plant engineer dad, Teller grew up in Florida and studied acting at New York University's Tisch School.
In August 2007, he was travelling back to Florida after a festival with two friends, when their car, going at 80mph, skidded and flipped eight times. Teller was thrown 30ft from it and miraculously escaped with a broken wrist and cuts that have required laser surgery to heal - you can still see the scars on his chin.
Did the car crash scene in Bleed For This bring those memories back?
"Not really, I mean, my car accident was nine years ago and I think it's tougher for the people around you, you know?" he says matter-of-factly.
"I could relate to the recovery process. I had to go through my own amount of hospital visits and surgeries and stuff."
Having starred in a string of fantasies, including the Divergent franchise and as Reed Richards in Fantastic Four, Teller clearly enjoyed getting his teeth into a real person for a change, but admits it comes with a certain sense of responsibility.
"Vinny's alive, Vinny still has to walk around, and this movie is just another representation of him and who he was. So man, I felt so indebted. I was very nervous about not making this man proud because I respected what he was able to accomplish, I held what he did in the highest regard.
"You know those guys with that warrior mentality - to be able to face those odds and still want to overcome? That's something I was very nervous about getting wrong."
Bleed For This is in cinemas now