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In Bleed for This, Miles Teller plays real-life Rhode Island boxer Vinny Pazienza, who after breaking his neck in a car accident begins a long recuperation that includes wearing a “halo” metal brace around his head and ultimately fights to return to the ring.
The film, written and directed by Ben Younger (Boiler Room), has received a number of rave reviews, including from The Hollywood Reporter‘s chief film critic Todd McCarthy, who called it “a gritty, pungently Rhode Island working class-set boxing drama that connects with most of its punches.”
Bleed for This, which opens in theaters today, reunites Teller with Aaron Eckhart, who plays Pazienza’s trainer Kevin Rooney and previously starred in Teller’s first film Rabbit Hole. The movie also finds Teller working in the same fight genre as his That Awkward Moment and Fantastic Four co-star Michael B. Jordan, who starred in last year’s critically acclaimed awards contender Creed.
THR talked to Teller about how both friendships affected Bleed for This, the research he did to prepare to play Pazienza and the challenges he went through on set, the types of roles he wants to play going forward and whether he’s still bothered by that August 2015 Esquire cover story that characterized him as a “dick.”
What attracted you to this project?
I started learning about [Vinny Pazienza], just his determination and how much heart he had. But I think the part of the story, and the reason why the movie’s being made about Vinny, is him coming back from this injury. I’m a sucker for a good comeback story. With Vinny, the fact that he was faced with never being able to walk again to do this thing that no one was telling him he could do. That sense of self and the relationship between him and his dad and him and Kevin Rooney. With him and Rooney, at the point in their lives when they meet each other, they’re both on the way out and for them to achieve it together, I was really looking forward to exploring those facets of his life.
You previously worked with Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole. What was it like working with him again and having that familiarity to start off with?
It was nice. A lot of times when you’re filming a movie, it takes a couple of weeks before you kind of have that relationship or you have that comfort level with another actor to where if you want to put your hand on him or get close to him or get into it with him, there’s no barriers. Aaron and I kind of started off knowing each other a little bit and we also share the same agent, so I’ve seen Aaron around at various things over the last few years. I think it was really important, especially, as I said, this fighter-trainer relationship can get incredibly intimate and in real life Rooney moved in with Vinny. It’s a special bond, so it absolutely helped that Aaron and I had a little bit of a rapport beforehand.
To play Vinny, you’ve talked about a lot of the physical preparation you did, in terms of your diet and learning to box. What sort of research and work did you do with the real Vinny to try to capture his personality?
Vinny now, he’s 25 years older than the point in his life where we’re portraying him. He talks a little differently now and he carries himself a little differently; he’s just a much older man. But with YouTube and the internet, there’s just such a wealth of material. I felt like I was able to collect enough material to where I felt like I wouldn’t have to fill in any gaps by meeting him personally, although I wanted to [meet him]. I didn’t want to meet him until I had a pretty good handle on things. To be honest with you, I thought he would have been pretty disappointed if he heard me talk when I was learning the [Providence] accent or he saw me box early on. If he saw me box that first week, he would have decided to stop the movie from happening. It takes a long time to try and imitate this man and try and carry the torch for him. Once we got on set and everything just felt so lived in and felt so real and all of the actors were just so committed, then, yeah, I wanted Vinny on set. That’s such a moment if someone’s making a movie about your life. That rarely happens. Especially for you to only be in your early 50s and somebody to already be making a movie about your life, geez. We were just all very proud of the work that we were doing, so we tried to get him on set, but he was bored with filmmaking. It was not as intense or energizing as Vinny would have liked, so he would usually dip out early.
Was there a scene that you found particularly challenging?
I mean, the bench press stuff [as Vinny starts secretly weight training in the basement as he’s still recovering and wearing the “halo” brace] was tough. I talked to Vinny, and you’re just trying to create an injury that you have no point of reference for. You have no idea what that’s like to break your neck. So I would talk to Vinny about what that pain was like. Honestly, all the stuff with the “halo” on sticks out to me because we got this “halo” from a hospital just the week before, and there was no comfort level about it; we just had to get these little plastic screws to be pressed against my head so much that the halo never moved. And you’re in it for 12 hours a day. It’s not like Vinny’s just sitting watching TV. He remained pretty active. So all of those scenes kind of stick out.
You and Michael B. Jordan both did boxing movies around the same time. Did you compare notes on boxing and training?
We were filming Fantastic Four when we both knew we were going to be doing our boxing movies, right after Fantastic Four. His ended up getting pushed, actually. So I ended Bleed for This in December and I saw Mike in February and he was just about to start his. So it was that thing of we’d both been doing the training. But I was just done and he was about to start. He knew what he was getting into, so I didn’t have to say too much. But he was gaining weight, he was really putting on muscle, and I had to cut so much weight, so I remember that when we were filming Fantastic Four.
In the beginning of this movie, we see Vinny watching one of his fights on TV and taking notes. Do you watch your own movies or do you try to avoid seeing yourself onscreen?
I certainly don’t watch them and take notes. I’m so glad I never had that assignment in school where I had to do a scene and then watch myself and take notes. That would be an excruciating experience. I don’t know. I’ve seen this one more than I’ve seen other ones, actually. This movie makes me feel so good at the end — what Vinny was able to accomplish and how he really achieved it with his family and with Kevin. I just felt really good at the end of it and I’m just really proud of the movie we made in that short period of time with that budget. Normally I’ll watch a movie once the first time with my agent, my girlfriend, my publicist, we’ll watch it and no matter what the movie is I think, “Everyone else is great in it and you’re terrible.” And that’s not like, “Oh, I stink” but in your head you think, “You’re really just doing bad acting.” And then I’ll watch it at the premiere and that’s it. I’ll never watch it again.
You’ve done a lot of different types of roles over your career. Is there a particular type of role or genre that you want to focus on now?
I don’t know. If you had asked me in college, I would’ve said, “Yeah I really want to play a soldier.” I’ve always dug Vietnam movies. I think they’re capturing the times that were going on and just how young those guys were getting drafted out of high school. You always felt like there were interesting stories there. (Teller recently wrapped the PTSD drama Thank You for Your Service, which follows U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq as they struggle to integrate back into civilian life.) And I would’ve told you, “I wanted to play a boxer.” I just played a wildland firefighter. If you’d told me that was an opportunity, I would have said, “Yes, please.” So I don’t know, but at this point, there’s not something I’m desperate to play. I’m taking a little bit of time to just take a breath, but I’m doing an animated film (in which he plays an aardvark) and honestly that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. There’s a lot of actors that are really great at that, and that’s another part of the craft that I haven’t gotten to explore. I’ve done some voiceover commercials, but I’m actually really excited to do this animated film that I’m doing in a couple of months.
Do you have moments that stand out as a best or worst moment in your career?
Rabbit Hole sticks out to me because I remember I’d just graduated college three weeks before and I’d never done a scene with anybody older than me. In college, you’re just doing scenes with your peers and in class. I’d never been on a film set before other than doing short films, but I remember, honestly, the first scene that I did. And there was no rehearsal for anything; all the actors were pretty much in character the whole time. So the first scene — I haven’t even met Aaron [Eckhart] yet — and I’m about to have a scene with him. The director yells “Action!,” I walk onto the set and in walks Aaron and I remember I’d just seen The Dark Knight and several of Aaron’s films. It was my first time being in the same room as a famous actor and I just remember him acting and in the scene he gets pretty intense and he was going off book and really yelling at me and stuff and it was really intimidating, but I remember in the back of my mind, just thinking how cool this is. And I hope that I get the opportunity to keep doing this because it was just a very surreal moment.
Does the Esquire profile that came out a little over a year ago that portrayed you in an unflattering light still affect you or how you conduct yourself in interviews?
Not at all. I mean, look, people are going to write what they’re going to write, and there are so many things out there that are out of your control. I’ll be concerned when I start losing friends or people don’t want to work with me — these are things that actually matter: Your personal relationships with people. I know the kind of person that I am. It didn’t really affect me too much. I was kind of pissed off for a little bit, but it’s just something that’s out of my control.
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