Miles Teller delivers the second of two outstanding performances this month (his first was in the excellent firefighter drama Only the Brave) in Thank You for Your Service, an understated yet nevertheless hard-hitting look at the struggles faced by soldiers returning to normal life after tours of duty in combat zones. The movie is partially based on the book of the same name by David Finkel, who spent months with members of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion both in Iraq and back home, chronicling their return to civilian life and the multitude of issues they confronted, including life-changing injuries, PTSD and a government that seemed to lose sight of these men once they left the field of battle.
The movie focuses primarily on two returning veterans, Adam Schumann (Teller) and Tausolo Aieti (Samoan actor Beulah Koale), as they come home to Topeka and deal with all those problems and more, including Schumann’s inescapable guilt over the death of battalion sergeant James Doster (Brad Beyer), his relationship with his wife (Haley Bennett) and Aieti’s increasingly desperate attempts to live with an overwhelming head injury. The movie, written and directed by Jason Hall (who wrote American Sniper) largely keeps politics out of the equation and simply allows us to see what our service members have to grapple with in a world that often has no idea what they’ve experienced.
Teller, as we mentioned above, is superb as Schumann in the latest of a string of terrific performances from this always interesting actor. Den of Geek spoke with him recently via phone about Thank You for Your Service, how it affected him, the similarities with Only the Brave and, because this is Den of Geek after all, a bit on Fantastic Four.
Den of Geek: What was the first thing that struck you about this when you got the script and read it?
Miles Teller: I was really intimidated by it. I knew that this was something that I couldn’t just show up in a week and do or show up in a month and do. I just figured there was a lot of experience that I would have to try and replicate. It was a daunting task. I just have so much respect for the military and you know with Adam’s story, to play a sergeant finishing up his third deployment and putting his life on screen, I was very nervous about doing it and almost didn’t want to pretend. That’s what we’re doing as actors and I felt like even like just acting like I had been through it would be kind of disrespectful. But that thought didn’t really last long and then I just felt a real responsibility in that I wanted to be the guy to help tell Adam’s story.
You had the chance to meet with him. Were you nervous about meeting him at first in any way?
I was, yeah. I can still remember when the plane landed in North Dakota. I flew up there with Jason, and I can still remember just being very nervous riding over there. Just him knowing the fact that some guy from Hollywood was going to put his life on screen, I just felt kind of vulnerable in that scenario, but Adam is such a great guy. He really put me at ease. I didn’t feel like there was any question I could ask that would be off limits. We were just able to settle into it, and yeah man, just kind of started with some food and a drink. We went out in the woods in the middle of winter, and you know I felt like we were able to really connect.
Was it easy for him to open up? Part of the thing about this story is that a lot of these guys have trouble talking about this stuff or getting it out of their systems.
Adam kind of went through it even in a more invasive way when David Finkel wrote the book Thank You for Your Service. He basically lived with Adam for nine months and was there for the toughest times in Adam’s life. I think it’s understood that Adam needed to work through some stuff and he felt like all of this would be helpful for him regardless of how uncomfortable it was. Was it easy? I don’t know but I would say by the time that Jason and I met him, he had given himself to David Finkel to write about him and he was very open with me.
You have friends who are in the military yourself.
Yes. Some of my closest friends are military.
Were you able to talk to them too, use them sort of as a sounding board and gain insight in prepping for the role?
A little bit, but my one buddy, he’s a Navy SEAL, but the difference between something like American Sniper and this, they’re almost fighting too different wars, you know, just the way those guys are trained up and how they go about missions and then the age that they’re at when they’re deployed as opposed to these infantry guys. It was a completely different experience. Even though we’re just doing a movie about these guys in the 2-16 and this platoon, they will be representing the entire military and I know how my buddies carry themselves, so I was able to grab a little bit from them, but for the most part I had to make it specific to Adam.
Did you meet with anyone else in the 2-16?
I met all the guys in the movie that were portrayed at one point. They would come on set and stuff, but during the initial prep process, it was just with Adam.
I know you guys went through some boot camp to prepare. Have you ever done anything like that before for a movie?
This was military boot camp and then right after this movie I did Only the Brave where I had to do a firefighting boot camp. I feel like the first movie where I really went through a boot camp was — even with Whiplash, like learning jazz, I was a drummer but I never played jazz so I had some training there, but Bleed For This, doing all that boxing training, that was tough and that was months and months. I’ve certainly done something physical to where I needed to get trained, but the military, just tactically there’s a lot that needs to be there and we tried to condense it into a week and I felt like we did a pretty good job of understanding it even if it was just a kind of surface level.
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How accurate was the gear that you were wearing for the scenes in country in terms of the weight and what you are carrying on your person. Did they try and recreate that exactly?
Yeah, absolutely. I think Jason, when he was picking his crew for the movie, he really wanted to hire people that had some kind of military experience. Some of the people served but just even having a family member or friend or something, we tried to make it just an authentic experience and for sure get the authenticity with the uniforms and the weapons training and everything. That’s something that right off the bat a veteran can tell if this movie is bullshit or not. It was very important to us to make it authentic first and then to make a movie second.
You said something earlier about what you do, acting, is pretending. But when you do that, does it change you as a person, especially a job like this where you see through the eyes of people like Adam Schumann who have been through this kind of experience?
I don’t know how you could go through this experience and let it not leave a kind of imprint on you. I mean honestly that’s how I feel — any person is the sum of their experiences and I think for me, even just the reason why I was attracted to this script, I think I experienced some things in my own life that drew me to this character. It was a very immersive experience for us and I think everyone took something away from this. It didn’t matter if you were just like, if you were the boom guy or whatever — I think everybody was really moved by this experience.
I want to touch on Only the Brave for a second too because I saw both of these films a day apart from each other. Did you get to meet with Brendan McDonough and what are the similarities in terms of these groups of guys — soldiers and firefighters — who really have to have each other’s backs at all times?
I actually did draw a lot of comparisons to how these guys go about their job and their reliance on each other and that bond and that brotherhood. I mean they refer to each other as their brothers, you know, the same way that the military does and you know these guys would lay down their life to the person to the left and the right of them and they work together. You know there’s no individualism. Individualism will get you killed, I think, in both those jobs. It’s all about the clear objective you have as a group. Yeah I did meet Brendan. He’s a little younger than me. That incident only happened like four years prior, so he’s dealing with post-traumatic stress.
There were some similarities there but the last 20 minutes or so of Only the Brave show the tragedy, but before that you’re just kind of enjoying each other’s company and for that movie, there was like 20 guys in that squad, we’re all wearing the same uniform and we’re all stuck in the same remote location with no cell service and in between takes or in between scenes you know we’re out there playing horse shoes and there was no vanity in that one. That was a movie that really meant a lot to that community and those guys, so we put everything we had into it.
After doing these back to back, maybe a little romantic comedy next or some slapstick?
You would think so, but actually I’m working with Nicholas Winding Refn next, so if there’s no romantic comedy elements in there (laughs). I just want to work on a quality project and I don’t really to jump genres necessarily although after doing those movies last year back to back I needed to take a break, and I’ve enjoyed that break and now I’m about to get into it again.
Before we go, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you a little bit about Fantastic Four. It’s been a couple years now and they’ve kind of put the idea of a sequel on ice. Do you feel like you have closure on that or would you have wanted to get a second shot at it?
It wasn’t like a traumatic experience to where I felt like I needed closure from it, you know, or anything. I know that the entire cast, we absolutely went into it thinking that we would make a couple of them, and we just all really enjoyed working together. That was a really incredible cast. I think we wanted that opportunity and then obviously once that kind of faded away… that’s show business, kid (laughs). I don’t know what to say, but we still had a great experience of making that film.
Thank You for Your Service is out in theaters this Friday (October 29).