Miles Teller wasn't born to play a Southern good ol' boy in a reboot of Footloose, but he was raised for it, in rural Florida where trucker hats are fashion statements.
Teller, now 24, was a sixth-grade Yankee transplant to Citrus County, after his father took a job at the nearby Crystal River nuclear power plant. Culture shock wore off by the time Teller graduated from Lecanto High School in 2005, but inspiration stuck for playing Willard Hewitt, the big lug with two left feet in Footloose.
"I went to high school with probably 150 Willards," Teller said in a telephone interview. "Me and my buddies, when I go back to the state, we'll end up gathering around a bonfire with an acoustic guitar and a bunch of cheap beer. It was very familiar, playing that rural, country, you know, hillbilly."
Teller laughed at his loss for flattering words to describe the type: "There's no polite way to put that: hillbilly, redneck, Appalachian-American."
Aside from picking up character cues, Teller's time spent in Lecanto added a bit of serendipity to this latest step in his career. It turns out that he had already played Willard Hewitt, as a sophomore drama student in a school production of Footloose.
"I was excited to get another crack at it," Teller said, although he auditioned for writer-director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) with the lead role of Ren McCormick in mind — the part that made Kevin Bacon a star in 1984.
"Craig saw my (audition) tape, I guess, and said: 'He's not a Ren, but I don't have to see anybody else for Willard,' " Teller said.
It didn't hurt Teller's chances that his only previous screen role, playing an emotionally disturbed teenager opposite Nicole Kidman in last year's Rabbit Hole, made him one of Hollywood's most intriguing young actors.
"Absolutely Rabbit Hole gave me a nice first introduction into film acting," Teller said. "Two Academy Award winners (Kidman and Dianne Wiest), then Aaron (Eckhart), and John (Cameron Mitchell) is such a sensitive director. It gave me confidence, a sort of comfort on the set of Footloose that I wouldn't have had if that was my first project."
Not too comfortable though, since that isn't Willard's style. When Ren (played in the remake by newcomer Kenny Wormald) rattles a tiny Georgia town's uptight culture with plans for a senior dance, his best friend Willard is jittery for two reasons: Dancing is banned, and Willard can't dance a lick. The twist is that the actor playing him can.
After graduating from Lecanto, Teller enrolled at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where his curriculum involved a year each of ballet and jazz dance training and a semester of tap instruction. Teller considers himself more of a "groove dancer," usually to classic rock 'n' roll. But Willard shouldn't even have that much ability.
"It was tough, at least for me, because I always think on beat," Teller said. "It's actually harder to dance off beat to make it believable.
"So, for the dancing stuff I just took it more as a movement exercise, just tried to make myself feel very uncomfortable in my own skin. I tried to get to that place of dancing like I didn't want anyone to see me or I'd be embarrassed. I actually did it kind of like an evolution. I'd start out as this primate or animal and by the end I'd be walking on two feet."
Like the late Chris Penn did in the original Footloose, Teller nimbly channels Willard's insecurity into a sense of vulnerability.
"That's contrasted with Willard's personality of getting into fights and defending his girl, not being afraid to mix it up a little. If you play him right, he's supposed to be that guy who is the universal best friend. He reminded me not so much of the guys who would come to the party and beat you up over a keg but the good ol' boy vibe I was going for."
If only all Footloose devotees were as affable as Willard. Teller admits to trolling fan websites and being shocked by some of the vitriol he reads.
"I had no idea that people were so protective of Footloose as they are," he said. "I was reading some stuff on YouTube where people were like: 'We should set Craig Brewer's house on fire' and 'Nobody's better than Bacon' and 'Bacon forever.' All these crazy things."
Still, Teller has no trepidation about Brewer's ability to remake this iconic movie.
"He knows every screen shot in the original, every line of dialogue word for word. So for him, it's more of a celebration of the original," he says. "Footloose is a fun movie. If you do it right, people should leave wanting to dance. Craig does that."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.