‘Whiplash’ director, stars march to a friendly beat — off-screen
There were bongos and congas, pristine Ludwig kits, dusty vintage sets that used to belong to famous people. Miles Teller eyed his options inside the Professional Drum Shop in Hollywood and settled on a Jamaican steel pan, picking up some mallets and toying with the bouncy sound.
It seemed the right instrument for him — light, goofy, kind of offbeat. Nothing like the blood-splattered cymbals and snares he hammers away at in his new movie, “Whiplash,” trying to prove something.
In the intense film, out Friday, Teller plays a college conservatory student who aspires to be the next Buddy Rich. That jazz dream is tested to the limits and beyond by his inexorable band leader (J.K. Simmons), who believes that to bring out his pupils’ true talent, physical and mental abuse are required — imagine Bobby Knight as a music teacher.
On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Teller, Simmons and their director, Damien Chazelle, were gathered at the Vine Street shop to talk about the film. Seated on some drum thrones, they used the setting to riff on the themes of the movie — creativity, how to fuel artistic genius, the line between criticism and cruelty.
The men continually ribbed one another — about masculinity and looks, mostly — though their teasing was nowhere near as ruthless as it is in “Whiplash.”
Since the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, both actors have generated award chatter for their deeply committed performances. The praise seems particularly meaningful to Teller, 27, who has been eager to establish himself as a serious actor since graduating from the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute at New York University in 2009. Though his first part out of college came opposite Nicole Kidman in the dramatic “Rabbit Hole,” Teller has since been cast numerous times as a boisterous party bro — the sarcastic guy teeming with so much cocky swagger that you almost hate him.
It’s clear, however, that — like his character in the movie — he wants more. He recently put his foot in his mouth after bad-mouthing his turn in the young adult franchise “Divergent,” saying he took the Lionsgate project for “business reasons.” And to prepare for a coming boxing film, he shed 20 pounds this year. He still proudly wears the scars he got in a bad car wreck a few years back, but he looks more like a movie star now — angular, tanner, less boyish.
“I’m going to get a colonic,” he said. “I feel like you should to get everything cleaned out. All those boxing guys do it.”
Simmons, meanwhile — so tightly wound and severe in “Whiplash” — appears to have fully eased into himself at age 59. Last weekend at the drum store, he sauntered around, picking up a couple of the shop’s T-shirts for his kids. He had grown a light gray beard and looked approachable, more like the empathetic father he played in “Juno” or the helpful advisor in those Farmers Insurance commercials.
“Whiplash,” the first feature from 29-year-old Chazelle, was inspired by the writer-director’s own experience at New Jersey’s Princeton High School. There, his orchestra leader constantly berated him; the teacher died a decade ago, Chazelle said.
“I was terrified of him. I would go home and cry,” he admitted. “It was very hard, emotionally.”
Teller rested his hand on Chazelle’s knee, offering faux sympathy, then asked: “But did it make you a better director? Did the work ethic bleed over?”
“I think so,” the filmmaker mused. “I started practicing six hours a day. I became utterly consumed by that drive.”
Teller grew up in Florida, where his musical influence was more laid back. His mom used to play “Puff, the Magic Dragon” around the house on the guitar, the instrument most of his friends also had. He figured that if he got a drum kit, he could secure a spot in a local band.
So yes, he knew the basics, but he’d never played jazz before. With only three weeks to prepare before the 19-day shoot, Teller took four-hour lessons three days a week — first with Chazelle, and then with his costar Nate Lang, who is also a professional musician. When he finally started to develop blisters on his fingers, he felt a surge of pride.
Though he was part of the prestigious Strasberg acting program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Teller said he never had ultra-strict instructors. There was a ballet teacher who frequently corrected his posture, and a Strasberg protegee who’d yell at him in the middle of his scene work, but nothing traumatic.
“At Strasberg, half the class was crying at any given time,” he joked. “We’re just trying to feel a coffee mug. Trying to tap into an emotional memory.”
Simmons, as it turns out, actually studied music at the University of Montana.
“Which isn’t to say I play worth a damn,” he confided.
“The irony is that J.K. had to work really hard on that two-bar piano piece he has in the film,” Chazelle interjected.
“Two-bar?” Simmons fired back. “Come on, man, give me a little credit.”
“16-bar,” the director countered.
Simmons maintained a playful vibe with the filmmaker, even though he was nearly three decades his senior. The actor recalled meeting Chazelle for the first time and the director “looking right through him.”
“Then this curly haired kid from Jersey stands up, and I’m like, ‘This is the kid who’s gonna be running this set?’” he said. “A lot of time, young directors feel like they have to say a lot on set to make it clear they’re doing something. It was great when I found out that Damien was not one of those guys.”
Because of the nature of the story, Chazelle was conscious of how he behaved on set — he was especially complimentary and relatively calm, Teller said. Chazelle is not of the school of thought — as his late teacher was — that fear incites greatness.
“I’ve been around directors who yell a lot, and that’s not something I tend to respond well to,” added Simmons.
“How did your kids feel seeing you like that — on the big screen, being terrifying?” Chazelle asked.
“They were like, ‘Nothing new to me!’” Teller said with a smile.
“My daughter,” Simmons lamented, “didn’t say much, other than she was excited to meet Miles.”
Follow me on Twitter: @AmyKinLA
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