He survived a car crash, lost two friends then found fame in the Oscar-winning Whiplash. Tim Lewis meets Miles Teller, whose success is shadowed by reports of dickishness

There are a few ways you might know Miles Teller, a 29-year-old actor who is pretty universally thought to be the future of Hollywood. For chin-stroking cineastes, he is the Whiplash kid. That film, which tells the story of a virtuoso jazz drummer and his sadistic orchestra leader, was so out-of-the-blue brilliant that, after seeing it, it was hard not to become its personal publicist, imploring friends, even strangers to see it. Made in 19 days, for just $3 million, it won three Oscars, though not for Teller.

For teenage readers, Teller is Peter, the much-needed comic relief in the wildly successful Divergent series, or Mr Fantastic in the much less successful 2015 reboot of the Fantastic Four.

And then, for cruisers of the Mail Onlines Sidebar of Shame, Teller is clickbait notorious as a dick. This suggestion came from an American Esquire cover story that went viral last August. The article mocked his swaggering confidence and the way he talked about the actors he had in his sights: Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Joaquin Phoenix. It was a savage, career-jarring take-down and the modern world for you was forwarded around to many more people than have ever seen Whiplash.

The question is: is Miles Teller the new Ryan Gosling or even the next De Niro or Pacino? Or is he, excuse the bluntness, a dick? On a Saturday afternoon in August, Teller strides into a swanky hotel suite on the 39th floor thats just about eye level with the clouds. He is in town to promote his new movie, War Dogs, directed by The Hangovers Todd Phillips, but he has shazzy blond hair from a film hes currently shooting with Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly, about firefighters tackling a wildfire that raged through Arizona in 2013.

The Teller story really begins in the summer of 2007, when, as a 20-year-old Grateful Dead fan, he was travelling home to Florida from a Deadhead festival called Gathering of the Vibes. His friend was behind the wheel, another was in the back seat, every inch of space was jammed with camping equipment. Then, at 80mph, the car skidded, jumped three lanes of traffic and flipped eight times. Teller was knocked unconscious and woke up 30ft from the vehicle, his face covered in blood.

The guy driving, he was fine, my buddy he was sleeping in the back, Teller recalls. I even had a bag of tomatoes that were fine. Everything was fine except for my face.

He laughs, though not with much enthusiasm. At the hospital he was told he was actually pretty lucky: 99.9% of people ejected from a car at that speed would be dead. They fixed his broken wrist and put 20 staples in his shoulder; his face would require numerous laser surgeries, the kind also used for removing tattoos, to make the cuts, he says, mitigated in a certain way. The scars on his throat and chin still catch the eye and two rocks remain in his face, embedded deep in scar tissue.

When Teller first went to acting school, he used to joke that if his dog died, that would be the most emotionally wrenching experience hed had to endure in his life. He comes from a stable, well-to-do family: his father was an engineer on a nuclear-power plant; his mother sold real estate. He grew up mostly in a small town in Florida with a modest claim to fame as the manatee capital of the world. He was effortlessly strong academically, and excelled at sports, especially baseball. He started acting because his drama teacher was pretty hot, and landed a place at New York Universitys prestigious Tisch School. Then the crash.

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Growing up on screen: with Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, his first big break. Photograph: Blossom Films/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

I got in my car accident at 20, that was in August, says Teller, sucking on an e-cigarette. Then February that next year, I turned 21 and seven of my best friends from Florida flew up for my birthday. Then in June, one of those guys, Nick, passed away in a motorcycle accident: a car ran a stop sign and T-boned him. I was at the hospital, he was on life support, they pulled the plug the next day. A month after that, one my closest friends, my buddy Beau, passed away, again a car accident. And I was actually sitting next to Beau at Nicks funeral. So at my 21st birthday, seven of my buddies are there, five months later, two of them are gone.

Teller recounts these experiences without histrionics, but the really incongruous part is that car crashes have subsequently been pivotal in five movies in his short career, perhaps most chillingly in Whiplash, where he is sideswiped, arrives late for a key rehearsal and then bleeds all over his drum kit. The run started with his break, 2010s Rabbit Hole, where he played a teenager who accidentally runs over and kills the son of a couple played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.

When I was first auditioning for projects, theyd say, Miles is a good actor but it doesnt make sense for this character to have scars, says Teller. But John Cameron Mitchell, the Rabbit Hole director, he loved it. He was like, Its your characters secret! I remember him being like, Miles, I really need you to think about your buddy Beau right now. And this is in the middle of a take, and youre already as nervous as shit because youre working with Nicole Kidman and its your first movie and shes not talking to you because shes in character.

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With girlfriend Keleigh Sperry. Photograph: Gary Gershoff/WireImage

Isnt it traumatic to relive these experiences on camera? Itll definitely impact on me for the rest of my life for sure, Teller replies. Ive dealt with that shit. If Im in a movie and the guys dealing with the death of his buddy when they were overseas at war, or Im dealing with a guy now who lost 19 of his friends all at once in this firefighter movie, it does give you a certain level of truth that, if you hadnt gone through it, you would have to imagine what it would be like. But obviously if you went through it, you are closer to it than somebody who hasnt.

Tellers early career, Rabbit Hole excepted, did not obviously herald future greatness. He tended to be cast as a friend of the lead character; the offbeat, cocky, fast-talking foil in mostly silly films like 21 & Over and Two Night Stand. But he showed uncommon depth in the superior 2013 romantic comedy, The Spectacular Now, sharing the Special Jury Award for Acting at Sundance with his co-star, Shailene Woodley. Then came Whiplash. Teller had done some drumming at school, in a church choir and a band called the Mutes, but for once, no one could accuse him of playing a version of himself. Andrew, his character, was tortured and self-destructive, mercilessly hazed by a bullying teacher (JK Simmons, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor).

Im a pretty light-hearted person, says Teller. So how Andrew carried himself physically, how he related to people, his temperament, all those things couldnt be further from me. But what I liked about that kid was the fact that he was an underdog, youd look right past him, but hes got the heart and the perseverance as big as anyone.

Tellers favourite scene was when Andrew charges from behind the drums to flatten his tormentor. JK cracked a rib, he laughs. Im not proud of it, but after a guys slapping you and yelling at you for three weeks straight, its nice to finally as a character, Im speaking! I always dug that scene because he just finally snaps.

And at least Simmons can take comfort from his Academy Award. Teller exhales a plume of smoke, He owes me one, for sure.

The sense that Teller gets by on charm and wisecracks still pervades. Todd Phillips, his director in War Dogs, says, I think Miles is a world-class actor. Its almost as if he doesnt have to try. I dont mean that in a negative way; hes just naturally gifted. Its amazing to watch.

When I read this compliment back to him, Teller squirms at the doesnt have to try part. Thats frustrating! he says. Its frustrating when people say that because an actors greatest tool is his preparation and Ive always felt like I do as much prep as anybody.

Miles
His award-winning performance in The Spectacular Now, with Brie Larson. Photograph: Allstar/A24

War Dogs, though, is something of a departure for Teller. The film tells the jaw-dropping true story of two stoner 20-somethings from Florida who become arms suppliers for the US government. It is set in 2007, and as conflicts rumble on in Iraq and Afghanistan, the friends one a high-school dropout, the other who not long before had been a massage therapist win a $300m contract to kit out the Afghan National Army. The deal does not exactly go to plan, which makes it rich comic territory for Phillips, whose Hangover trilogy grossed more than $1.4 billion globally.

Jonah Hill hogs most of the best lines as Efraim, the charismatic, larger-than-life dropout, while Teller is more understated and morally compromised as David, the masseur-turned-gunrunner.

David came from Miami, which could not be more different from where I grew up, like the sticks in Florida, out in the woods, says Teller. But in some ways we were in very similar circumstances at that age. Like he plays guitar, I play guitar. I smoked a ton of pot, as did David. I dont know if Id have been able to go into meetings like David did. I did not do that shit when I was high. That was not my entertainment.

With his languid delivery and sleepy eyes, its not hard to imagine Teller as a caner. I was smoking multiple times a day every day youre in theatre school in New York, do it! he exclaims. But I slowed down on it and really stopped for a while because my career started going and I didnt want to mess it up when I was high. If someone sent me an email, I didnt want to respond and obviously you cant do that shit.

But now things are going well, surely he can knock himself out? Yeah, he smiles, Im kind of easing back into it.

If Teller could have been forgiven for being crotchety with journalists, post-Esquire, he isnt at least not today. He is engaged, wry and opinionated, especially on gun control in the States and the mental health of soldiers returning from war. Weve known how to send guys to war forever, but we really dont know how to bring them back yet, he says, citing a statistic that there are 22 veterans committing suicide every day in the US. Hes clearly self-confident about his work, which could be interpreted as dickishness, but then he is an ambitious and versatile performer, as gifted as anyone in his age range. Id also note that quotes that can read a little bald in print are often more archly and winningly expressed in person.

Miles
Playing a jazz drummer in Whiplash. Photograph: Moviestore/REX

Teller might act bulletproof, but its obvious that the Esquire story really stung him. Oh, I felt frickin helpless, I felt extremely misrepresented, I felt a little angry, he says, his voice almost cracking. For the average person, they are reading this article, they havent met you, theyre like, Oh Miles is an asshole. You didnt hear it? You didnt read that Esquire? Yeah, she said he was an asshole he must be!

Id say that you get a little more guarded but Im actually not, he goes on. Certain times Ill choose my words very carefully and maybe come off a little more boring. But I also think thats why people certain people do relate to me: because there is no agenda, honestly. I was raised middle-class in a small town. I have all my same friends from high school. Im close with my family. Im dating a normal girl. So I want to feel people think Im a man of the people. Because I feel that way.

The normal girl is a bit of a stretch Keleigh Sperry, his girlfriend of three years, is a model but the point stands. Teller is compared to a lot of great actors; the one whom he calls to mind for me is Tom Hanks.

Hanks, too, started in lightweight comedies, before growing into more mature everyman-ish parts and advocacy: both men are outspoken on the debt they owe to the US military. Tellers forthcoming roles a boxer who recovered from a broken neck suffered in yes, a car crash; a soldier with PTSD; a hero firefighter; an Elvis Presley biopic down the line hint at the direction hes taking.

Times up; Teller has wildfires to put out. He smiles warmly, clasps my hand and goes to leave the room. At the door he stops and turns back: If I read this and you call me an asshole, Im going to be so pissed off.

War Dogs is out on 26 August

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