Miles Teller on Teaming with Todd Phillips & Jonah Hill in War Dogs

Whiplash actor Miles Teller talks with us about his comedy based on real events, War Dogs, and his boxing movie Bleed Like This.

At 29-years-old, actor Miles Teller has spent the last six years becoming a respected actor due to the diversity of projects he’s signed onto with some real highs and lows like Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (the former) and last year’s Fantastic Four reboot (the latter).

His latest role is appearing opposite Jonah Hill in Todd Phillips’ War Dogs, which is less of a comedy than what we’ve come to expect from the director of The Hangover and its sequels, and more like The Wolf of Wall Street and last year’s The Big Short.

Based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson, Teller plays David Packouz, a Miami salesman trying to make ends meet when he runs into his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Hill), who convinces David to join him in his plan to cash in on government bids to get weapons to the Iraq War. David soon learns that Efraim doesn’t mind cutting some corners to fulfill these bids, and things get out of hand when they get a $300 million deal to supply 100 million AK-47 bullets to the army, which puts them into dangerous territory with the Albanians with whom they’re dealing.

Den of Geek sat down with Teller at the New York junket for the movie for a short interview where one of the bigger revelations was learning he was up for the Dave Franco role in 21 Jump Street, and we also talked briefly about his upcoming boxing movie, Bleed Like This, which will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.

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Den of Geek: How long have you been in New York doing press?

Miles Teller: I got up here Wednesday, so it’s day five. I really find my stride on day five.

You worked with Todd Phillips before on Project X, so did this fall into place more organically? Did he contact you directly or tell you anything about it beforehand?

Originally, when Todd first called me into this office to talk about this movie, I had a scheduling conflict—there was another movie I was attached to, so I told Todd I couldn’t do it. Unfortunately, because I always wanted to work with Todd, and it kind of killed me to say I couldn’t. But I was being loyal to another project that ended up not happening, so it worked out, and I became available and yeah, I was excited, man. Like I’ve said, I always wanted to work with Todd.

Todd spoke earlier at the press conference about all the different locations. So as an actor, how hard was it going between these locations and obviously shooting out of order too? Is that fairly easy to do at this point?

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That movie does stick out for me. I remember I was at the Oscars for Whiplash and I flew out to Romania that next morning, and we were shooting the next day. I had just finished doing all this press for Whiplash, and yeah, you’re in Romania and you come back, and then you’re in Miami and then you’re in Vegas and then in LA, and then in El Centro and then Morocco, and we did all that in 10 weeks. There is a certain amount of chaos. I think it does add something to the performances.

I agree with Todd when he said that it gives you something that you can’t act and while you’re just out of your element and you’re working with local Romanian actors, it just felt very authentic, and I think just as an actor, any time there’s something you don’t have to create—because it’s an imagination-based medium… any time you can just look at something and just respond to it, that’s only going to help.

Did you know Jonah before doing this, even in passing?

I auditioned for 21 Jump Street—I was vying for the Dave Franco part. I don’t know how close I got on it, but I got to the point where I was able to read with Channing [Tatum] and Jonah. You don’t really meet somebody in that situation and for this movie, since I had a couple things going on, I wasn’t able to rehearse so much for this. I think we met once at Todd’s office. I went to Jonah’s house once, and then you’re in Romania and you’re kind of meeting each other all the way across the world.

As actors, did you find that you had very similar methods of working? For a movie like this, do you just have to jump into it and figure it out since most of the movie is just the two of you?

It’s always interesting with acting. Sometimes you’re meeting the person who is playing your wife or the mother of your child, and you’re meeting them on that day. You have this huge history in the movie and you’re not really getting that much time to create that. Usually, if the script is good enough, there’s not many gaps that you need to fill in, and for this movie, it was interesting because these guys were best friends growing up and then his character leaves for a while and then comes back.

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Even though they knew each other, they’re kind of rediscovering that person, and for me, once Jonah became Efraim and he was doing that thing—because David works in association with Efraim—if they’re going to be best friends, I have to figure out what about Efraim does David admire. And I think I found that to be his confidence. David at the beginning of the movie is really lacking at confidence in any kind of direction. He doesn’t really have much of a plan. Efraim was always that guy with a plan and how to execute it, and the confidence and the cockiness, and the bravado to get it done. That was really what it was, figuring out what’s the counterpoint to what Jonah was doing.

At what point did you meet the real David and what were some of the questions you had for him? Did you meet him early enough in the process that you could use some of what he told you or were you already into the script and the character?

I met him into the process. We were already a week into filming. I didn’t talk to him beforehand. I didn’t feel like there was much that I needed to do necessarily beforehand, and I don’t mean… obviously, you need to know what’s going on in all the scenes, but I’m just talking about personal history, I didn’t think there was a ton I needed to do there. I was more interested, when I met David, by what was going on at this point, because our movie ends. But in real life, Efraim was serving jail time and David went on probation, and there was still some unpacking that was going on. I was just curious to see “what’s your relationship with Efraim like now?”

This movie is sort of a comedy with a smaller “c” because there are things that are intentionally comedic but it’s not jokey…

Nah, it’s not bits.

What was it like working with Todd on that and finding the right level of humor? Was it really obvious what was working while you were doing your scenes with Jonah?

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Todd, because he had been sitting with this material for so long, a couple years before we got involved with it, he knew the story inside and out, and he was a co-writer on the script. That’s always a benefit when the guy who knows the source material that much, any question you have you can ask Todd, who was involved from the very beginning. He was there for all the wardrobe fittings. He was very involved in what was going on, and absolutely, the tone of a film is a director’s greatest strength, and he was able to really capture that.

I wanted to ask about the actress who played your wife, Ana. She was amazing in Eli Roth’s Knock Knock, which was a very different role, but what was it like working with her and getting into the mindset of being a husband and father?

It was my first time playing a dad in anything, so I got to work with small children for the first time. That’s difficult.

And real babies.

Yeah, real babies. I won’t work with babies or animals for a while, but yeah, she’s great, man. I read with a couple “Iz” characters and after her audition, it was pretty clear she was the person for it. I thought she brought a warmth and I really thought she grounded it, because the movie is not just about these two guys. You see how it affects the girl and you see how it affects the family, so I thought that was something that gave it didn’t go too far into this…  it’s a true story. We don’t lose the fact that these are real people, and they have real lives and what effect your career choices, what effect you’re doing these things, how that’s going to affect her.

I’m really impressed with the movie since I’ve known Todd’s work for a long time, and he’s really gotten better technically as a director. Watching a movie like this and the different pieces involved, it’s impressive how it’s all put together. When you’re an actor on a movie like this, are you able to tell how it’s going to turn out? So much happens after you leave the set.

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I mean, you get an idea of set-pieces. As an actor, you walk on, and you just know what it reads like on the script. Usually you’re not seeing that set until you walk on that day, and all these sets were great. There are absolutely moments in this movie where you feel like you’re on a big action movie. We’re riding on a Humvee, and there’s an Apache helicopter flying over us, and you got these guys chasing us, shooting their AK-47s, whatever it is.

But nah, you don’t really know what it looks like or how they’re shooting it. You don’t know the pace of it until you watch it. Once I saw it, I felt like Todd’s just really nailed that stuff. I thought the movie, visually, was pretty incredible and I loved the soundtrack. I thought the soundtrack was really great.

He got some great songs on there but I’m bummed he didn’t use “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath. Maybe that was too obvious.  You’ve been working pretty steadily over the last few years. So with movies like Fantastic Four, did you know how it would come out while making it? Do you worry about that stuff?

So when you’re looking at a movie, I do think film is really a director’s medium, so a director is super-important. I guess if you look at a Whiplash, that was that guy’s first feature really with any kind of a budget, and that was a low budget. The script was great. J.K. [Simmons] is a great actor, but wasn’t a real big name at the time by any means. Fantastic Four, you look at… “What was this director’s last film? Okay. Solid cast. Wow, great cast. Who are the producers? Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker… guys who have done a lot.”

A lot of the time, you want to take into account as many things as you can, but yeah, I will say that on the really big budget films, you seem like you have less of an influence on the final product at times. A lot of times with independent films, if you’re the lead actor in it, you’re really getting a lot of responsibility… in a good way, for me.

So when you get involved with a project, do you always want it to be more collaborative?

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Yeah, I always want to be more involved. There’s two projects I’m a producer on that we’re kind of in the beginning stages of, but I think are great projects, and I always want to be involved more. I think if you can shape the project a little bit, not just be the actor in it, but if you can actually have an influence on the entire film, to me, why would you not want that?

I’m really looking forward to Bleed for This. I heard that you were doing a boxing movie and I feel that you’re already getting beaten up a lot in your movies. How was that process preparing for a boxing movie?

That movie is probably the most rewarding one that I’ve worked on just because of how much work went into it, also how much respect I had for Vinny (Pazienza). I knew that I was not the first… if it was a studio film, I guarantee I would not have even been on their top 20 of people that they thought of. I was just finishing a movie called That Awkward Moment where I was a pale, funny sidekick kind of a guy and I don’t think anybody thought that I was going to play an Italian-American, five-time world champion boxer, myself included.

So, I really credit… even though you might feel you can play something, you might physically not be right for it, or even age-wise you might not be right for it. I was very honored and proud to be picked to play Vinny, because I got so much respect for what that guy accomplished.

War Dogs opens theatrically on Friday, Aug. 19 with previews on Thursday night.