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Actor Miles Teller looks for a seat at the serious table

Miles Teller attends the premiere of “The November Man” in 2014 in Deauville, France.

Getty Images (2014)

Miles Teller attends the premiere of “The November Man” in 2014 in Deauville, France.

If success can be measured by the company one keeps, Miles Teller is doing quite well, thank you.

A day after Teller's boxing biopic Bleed for This premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September, the Lecanto High School graduate joined a distinguished panel discussing actors portraying heroism.

Joining Teller on stage were two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, Emmy and Tony honoree Bryan Cranston and Bleed for This co-star Aaron Eckhart.

That's esteemed company, which wasn't lost on Teller.

"I just want to thank whoever dropped out so I could be on this panel," he said, glancing at Hanks and glad he was laughing. Big was "kind of like a coming-of-age film" for the rising star of Whiplash. Hanks was Teller's answer when asked in college whose career he'd like to emulate. "Really?" asked Hanks, visibly flattered to hear it.

Two months later, Teller, 29, recalled that Colorado summit while promoting Bleed for This, opening Nov. 18 nationwide.

"That was the first time I'd met Tom, the night before," Teller said by telephone from California. "He just seems like you could go to a shoe store and see him. On the surface he seems like such an average guy but with such extraordinary technique, acting ability and emotional depth. Cranston, too. Those guys are just master storytellers.

"To be included with them, I mean, anybody who's going to give me a microphone to sit down next to those guys? That's an honor for sure."

The opportunity was among the first honors Bleed for This is bringing Teller for playing three-time world boxing champion Vinny "Paz" Pazienza, who won two of those titles after recovering from a broken neck suffered in a head-on car crash.

Teller is garnering longshot awards buzz, but he'll settle for a compliment that his performance hints at the actor he'll be in 20 years. Good, he thinks. Bleed for This announces his time to grow up on screen, beyond the brash students, stoners and hustlers dotting his early filmography, admirably in indies like Whiplash and The Spectacular Now; less so in studio misfires like Fantastic Four and the Divergent series.

"Look, it's tough when you're a young actor," Teller said. "People aren't really seeing the career that you're going to carve out. You're just trying to get work, some screen time. Just do anything. ...

"But it was a time when I said, I don't want to play a kid or somebody's son. I wanted to play my own man. I knew it was time for me to kind of evolve. Look, nobody tells you that. You just have to say now's the time. For me, it was absolutely a pivotal point in my career, time to step up and challenge myself. Playing Vinny Paz was that opportunity."

Yet when the offer came to play Pazienza, Teller didn't exactly leap at the chance.

"I thought this would be a really great part for someone else," Teller said at Telluride. "I wasn't really playing parts with that kind of responsibility. When I met Ben (Younger, the film's writer-director) I just thought he was being nice, thought my agent had some pull.

"I'd just finished playing the funny, somewhat out-of-shape sidekick in this bad movie, so I really didn't think I was on that list."

Well, not until a training and diet regimen knocked off 20 pounds, trimming Teller to 6 percent body fat. ("Ooooh," Hanks ribbed Teller, knowing a little about weight loss for roles. "Yeah, 6 percent, Tom," the kid shot back.) Then because Pazienza won titles in three different weight classes, Teller gained 15 pounds of muscle in nine days to appear convincing at each level.

Pazienza appreciated the actor's dedication, and he offered a ribald suggestion.

"He sent me a picture saying, 'Miles, don't mess up my reputation,' " Teller said. " 'Put a banana in your pants if you have to. I'm kidding but seriously, don't (mess) it up.' "

Funny line, but Teller is serious about the "responsibility" of playing a real person like Pazienza or wildland firefighter Brendan McDonough in Granite Mountain, lone survivor of a 2013 Arizona blaze that killed 19 colleagues.

"This was a tough movie to get made," Teller said. "We really got embedded in the community and they embraced us. They lost their brothers, just three years ago, so this movie was a healing process, in a way. ... It was really a tough experience but I'd rather (have) me go through that than watch somebody else do it."

Another step in Teller's screen maturation is Thank You for Your Service, a drama focused on Iraq War veterans coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder, based on a nonfiction book by David Finkel. Like Granite Mountain, Thank You for Your Service is slated for release in 2017.

"That was the one I was most nervous about saying yes to," Teller said. "That's really sacred territory, guys coming back with PTSD. Nobody, unless you've been to war, can relate to that. If you get into that club, you've given so much of yourself. The movie absolutely means a ton to a lot of people. It meant a lot to me."

By the time that Telluride panel ended, nobody doubted that Teller belonged, at one point pitching himself to co-star someday with his idol. Kidding but not entirely.

Hanks played along, mimicking a casting agent's brushoff: "We'll get back to you. Thanks for coming in, dude."

Teller grinned, feeling a bit more confirmed as a member of the club.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

Actor Miles Teller looks for a seat at the serious table 11/09/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2016 3:54pm]
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