In Whiplash Miles Teller plays jazz drummer Andrew Neiman, a conservatory student tormented and pushed into near madness by his professor (J.K. Simmons). The indie film — which premiered at Sundance in January and won the top audience and jury awards — was shot in just 19 days. And Teller (best known for playing Shailene Woodley’s smug antagonist in Divergent) had a mere three weeks to prepare. His intense role culminates in a punishing, nearly five-minute drum solo during Duke Ellington’s classic tune ”Caravan.” Here, the actor tells us how he learned to do it.
A Beat of One’s Own
”I was nervous because when I signed on to the part, I didn’t know that I’d actually be, you know, playing this stuff,” Teller, 27, says with a laugh. He’d had some experience drumming in a rock band as a teen, but he was more familiar with Metallica than Miles Davis. For inspiration he watched footage of such jazz greats as Jo Jones and Buddy Rich, paying close attention to the set of the musicians’ shoulders and the way they handled their sticks. ”If I was playing an ’80s rock drummer, I’d be whipping my hair around,” he says. ”But jazz guys have a certain posture — even the way they sit over the drum kit is different.”
When Teller read in the script that Andrew drums so passionately that his hands bleed, he was dubious. But then he started practicing with director Damien Chazelle and castmate Nate Lang three days a week for four hours a day — and he kept on banging in lengthy sessions by himself. Cue the sweat, exhaustion, and battle scars. ”I remember when I got my first bloody blister. It was like a badge of honor,” says Teller. ”I was so excited to show Damien because it proves I was practicing! You just cannot argue with calluses.”
Andrew’s climactic solo was shot over two days toward the end of production. ”It was a lot of fun, but that solo…well, come on, it’s just crazy! I remember thinking that nobody does a drumroll like Buddy Rich. He slows it down to single hits and then builds it back up so it’s like this train is coming and there’s no stopping it, it’s just ferocious force. That’s what I was trying to do.”
Face the Music
Fully concentrating on his instrument allowed Teller to let go of his vanity. ”If you had to think about acting while drumming? Forget it,” he says. ”That’s something I was really proud of: When Andrew gets behind the drum kit, he transforms and slips into an alternate world and shuts everything else out.” So all those pained, sweaty grimaces he makes on camera were unintentional? Teller laughs. ”I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone who sees the movie that I am not thinking about what my face looks like.”
Here’s one way to know you played drums well: Lars Ulrich, drummer for Metallica, is a fan. After seeing Whiplash at Sundance, Ulrich sought out Teller to congratulate him and to ask if there was anything he could do to help the movie. ”We’ve become friends,” says Teller, sounding (appropriately) a little awestruck. At press time, Ulrich was set to present Whiplash at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 7. Callused fingers crossed for a drum-off.