Entertainment

'Divergent' star Miles Teller packs a punch as boxer Vinny Pazienza in 'Bleed for This'

By Jim Slotek, Special to Postmedia Network

LOS ANGELES – So, what’s harder? Losing 20 pounds of fat and replacing it with pure muscle, or quickly putting on 40 pounds?

Miles Teller (Whiplash, Divergent) had to do the former for the movie Bleed for This, the incredible story of Rhode Island boxer Vinny Pazienza, who won titles in three weight classes – one of them after suffering a broken neck in a car accident and being told he might never walk again.

The weight gain? That job went to the normally obsessively-fit Aaron Eckhart, who was called upon to let himself go as Vinnie’s hard-drinking manager Kevin Rooney.

“They’re both pretty brutal, I think,” says Teller. “But at the end of mine, I have a six-pack. So it’s not the worst thing in the world.

“Very rarely as a young actor are you going to be asked to put on weight for something. But I had a lot of older actors tell me, ‘If a director ever tells you to put on weight for a movie, don’t do it.’ Because it’s, like, the worst thing. You’ve got to get it off afterwards and it’s rough.”

For his part, Teller remains amazed that he was cast – especially given that Bleed for This director Ben Younger was inspired by his performance in the acclaimed indie romantic-comedy The Spectacular Now. “I was playing a high school kid in that movie. I’m not sure I would have cast me. I guarantee you, if a studio was making this film, I would not have been on their top-10 list.

“I’m sure he got, ‘Oh really? Miles Teller?’ I mean, some people will still say that. But I felt like it was a time to grow and I was looking at what other actors had done at age 27 and it was time to take the training wheels off in a sense.”

You might expect a certain intensity from Teller based on his recent choices, from youthful super-soldier in the Divergent series, to a young drummer who literally bled for jazz in Whiplash, to “Vinnie Paz,” a fighter so determined, he carried on an intense comeback program at a point where his spine was still a hairsbreadth from paralysis.

“I think I save it for the movies, because in my personal life I try to be as chill as possible,” Tellers says. “Like, I’m a big Grateful Dead fan.

“But I also just really respect drive and passion and focus. And some of these guys I’ve been playing, it’s obsessive and really interesting.”

The real Vinnie Paz spent some time on the set. Teller says he had mixed feelings about that. “I felt like there was so much material on YouTube. By the time I met Vinnie I was not going to take anything from him because he’s not the same person now. He’s older now, he talks differently. He’s not this 27-year-old kid anymore.

“At first I didn’t want him on set, because that would be intimidating and weird. ‘I’m just a frickin’ actor, pretending to be the badass that you were.’

“But once we got on set, and I saw Aaron and Katey and Ciaran (Sagal and Hinds, who play Vinnie’s mom and dad), I actually wanted him there, because I wanted him to see his life. And having seen Vinnie’s reaction to the film, I know we got that. The fights you can capture on video, but to know we captured his home life, it kind of keeps the spirit alive.”

The experience, including fight camp with actual boxers, deepened Teller’s understanding. “We (actors) get to play it and get the glory and all that stuff. But I just have such a respect for fighters. Some of my buddies are MMA (mixed martial arts) guys. I’ve always known if I’m going to go through a fight camp, it would be the toughest challenge I’ve ever had.

“And those guys, they’re fighters. All they know how to do is fight. And that’s what they tell you, ‘If you can do anything else in your life, do it. It’s so hard, why wouldn’t you want to do anything else for a living?’”

Bleed for This opens Friday, Nov. 18.

Twitter: @jimslotek

JSlotek@postmedia.com