In the fact-based film, Bleed For This, cocky Rhode Island boxer Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) takes a brutal beating from Junior Welterweight Champion Roger Mayweather in 1988. After his humiliating loss, fight promoter Lou Duva (Ted Levine) urges him to retire. Instead, Pazienza moves up two weight classes under the guidance of his new trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart). Rooney’s radical strategy pays off when Pazienza, 14 pounds heavier, takes down French boxer Gilbert Delé in front of a hometown crowd to become Super Middleweight champion of the world.
Pazienza doesn’t have much time to relish the victory, however. Shortly after the bout, a head-on car crash leaves him with a broken neck. Initially told he may never walk again, doctors recommend spinal fusion surgery that would guarantee mobility but effectively end his boxing career. Pazienza chooses the far riskier “halo” spine-stabilization treatment, requiring him to wear a circular metal brace screwed directly into his skull for six months.
Recovering in the modest home he shares with his fiercely devoted father Angelo (Ciarán Hinds) and anxious mother Louise (Katey Sagal), Pazienza secretly starts weight training in the basement with the help of a reluctant Rooney and begins to recover both emotionally and physically. 13 months after the accident, the man fondly known as “The Pazmanian Devil” returns to the ring to do battle with Super Middleweight Champion Roberto Duran (Edwin Rodriguez) in the biggest fight of his life.
Miles Teller is one of the hottest 20-something actors working today due to his deft navigation of the blockbuster film world (the Divergent series) and the indie film world (Whiplash). After his starring role as David Packouz in the terrific, and also fact-based, War Dogs, he’s playing his second real life character in row. Teller and Aaron Eckhart are the anchors of the film and both had physical challenges. Teller had to buff up while Eckhart had to fatten up.
“Both roles are pretty brutal, but at the end, I have a six pack. It’s not the worst thing in the world. As a young actor, you’re not going to get asked too much to put on weight for a role, but I had a couple of older actors tell me that if a director ever wants you to out on eight for a role, don’t do it. You have to lose it afterwards and it’s rough.”
The physical transformation, however, was a challenged that Teller gladly chose to accept.
“I’ve always liked it when I watched an actor I had seen in something else and he was doing an accent or he had a prosthetic or he did something with his body. I felt it was time for me to challenge myself in that way. I did a lot of things that were more in my comfort zone. With this, I was very, very nervous. It was around two years ago and I was in fun friend shape, which is what I like to call it. I had been the funny friend in some movies. This was before Whiplash had come out. I didn’t have a ton of traction yet, so I knew this was an incredible opportunity.”
Whenever we challenge ourselves to step outside our comfort zones, we always learn something about ourselves in the process. Though he didn’t get specific, the fact this Teller’s uncle also had to wear a halo after a spinal injury had to have an effect on him.
“Vinny was risking paralysis from the neck down. They said if [this vertebra] moves at all, your body’s not going to heal and you’re going to be paralyzed. For him to have that risk and to still say, ‘well I know me better than anyone here. I’m going to come back from this.’ To be able to explore that, you’re going to learn some things about yourself. Though it wasn’t actually screwed into my head, it had to be tight enough so it wouldn’t move. It didn’t matter what you did in the take, if it moved a quarter inch, you can use it. They put little rubber pieces on the end and got it as tight as we could. With Vinny, he’s not just sitting around. He’s moving. He’s going to casinos. He’s going to strip clubs. He’s working out. It’s frustrating because you’re so stiff and you’re in it for 12 hours a day.”
There’s always an added pressure when an actor portrays a real person. There’s an even greater pressure when that person is still alive. Teller wasn’t immune to the pressure. Though he did most of his homework by researching YouTube videos, it’s another thing entirely to meet your character in person.
“By the time I met Vinny, he wasn’t the same person was he was then. He’s 25 years older now. He talks differently. I remember thinking at first that I wouldn’t want him on set because that would be weird and I would be so intimidated. I’m just an actor pretending to be this bad ass that you really are. One we got on set and I saw Aaron and Katey and Ciaran and the sets and the costumes, it all just felt so real that I wanted him on set. In a weird way, I wanted him to see his life from 25 years ago. Having seen Vinny’s reaction after having seen the film, I know we captured his life.”
Any actor worth his or her salt doesn’t want to be typecast. Teller mentioned that he had some roles as the “fun friend,” however, he didn’t want to play the fun friend forever and, thanks to director Ben Younger’s keen eye, Teller was able to break away from the fun friend mold in a big way.
“I want to play a ton of different characters, but it takes someone having the foresight and taking a leap of faith with you. When Ben cast me, he cast me based off The Spectacular Now. I played a high school kid in that movie. For him to see that and say, ‘he can play Vinny Paz.’ I can guarantee if a studio was making this film, I would not have been on their top ten list. I’m very thankful for Ben. I knew it would be a challenge. And I knew people would say,’oh really? Miles Teller was cast?’ Maybe they’ll still say that. I knew it was a time to grow. I was also looking at other actors had done at age 27. Sean Penn comes to mind. Leo was doing some interesting stuff. It was time to take the training wheels off.”
And take off the training wheels he has. His upcoming roles will leave his fun friend big screen persona even further in the rear view mirror.
“Two I did earlier this year weren’t exactly romantic comedies. One is called Thank You for Your Service. It’s based on the follow-up book to Good Soldiers. It follows soldiers coming back from the search in Iraq in 2007. Out movie takes place after they get off the plane and the transition they make. We showcase PTSD. We don’t tiptoe around it. We show these guys at the VA. 22 vets a day commit suicide. It needs to be talked about more. I also did this firefighting movie [Granite Mountain] that takes place three years ago, the Yarnell Hill tragedy [in Prescott, Arizona] where 19 of the 20 firefighters passed away. It’s the first movie that puts wildlife firefighters on the screen. They’re called Hot Shots. I got to know that community. I embraced them and they embraced me. I got to know these guys. They’re incredible, real unsung heroes.”
Bleed For This opens in theaters November 18th.