In his new film, Bleed for This, Miles Teller is all heart as he brings the story of boxer Vinny Pazienza to life on the big screen.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Miles Teller says in a deadpan voice that quickly gives way to an easy grin. I have, in fact, been waiting for him for a stretch of time as he has taken meeting after meeting throughout most of the afternoon and into the early evening. He reclines in a leather boardroom chair in an intimate conference room off of the hotel lobby. He wears a sky blue Grateful Dead T-shirt and ink-colored denim. It is 4:50 p.m.
The black and white tile floor that stretches across the lobby of the Marshall House hotel in downtown Savannah, Georgia is filled with publicists and film industry people who have arrived from Los Angeles and New York for the eight-day Savannah Film Festival that is now in its 19th year. On this fourth night, the gala film to be screened is “Bleed for This” starring Miles Teller.
Teller, a Florida native, plays the lead role of Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza. Vinny Paz, a local boxing star from Providence, Rhode Island rose to fame in the 1980s during a career in which he won 50 pro fights and five world titles.
The story of Vinny Paz takes a miraculous turn when it is reworked as a comeback story. In the midst of his career, a near-fatal car accident left him with a broken neck. His injuries were set with a medical contraption called a halo, a head and neck brace held into place with metal screws that were drilled into his skull. He was told, unequivocally, that he would never fight again.
A mere five days after his release from the hospital, Vinny Paz resumed his training in secret, in the basement of his parent’s house. Teller explains, “There is this thing that you love and then that door is closed and you have to figure out something else. Vinny just refused to believe that. That’s inspiring.”
Teller underwent a rigorous training schedule over eight months to complete the physical transformation to get him into fighting shape. He dropped twenty pounds, going from 188 pounds and 18 percent body fat to 168 pounds and 6 percent body fat. He laughs as he admits, “There was nowhere to hide in this role. I am in a cheetah-print thong five minutes into the film.”
Boxers are known for using extreme means to cut weight. Teller trained with boxing coach Darryl Foster who trained Sugar Ray Leonard for 18 years, and he explains the mentality. “The way they see it is this: I’m killing myself in camp, I’m not seeing my girl, I’m not eating anything I want, I’m just in the gym sweating it out . . . and then I’m going to take that out on you when I get in the ring.” He goes on to say, “That’s the way that Vinny operated. Vinny didn’t do anything cautiously. He’s a legend.”
Without pause, Teller admits: “Vinny is crazy. I’m sure this will never be done again.” He acknowledges the fine line between drive and insanity, but there is a lining of respect in the acknowledgement. “Vinny broke his neck in the middle of his career. He’s missing a few qualities of things like caution and calculating risk.”
Beyond the physical component, the intensity of commitment to the role pushed Teller to new lengths. “I have never had a character that required this much of me,” he explains. “The Italian community of Rhode Island is so proud. They think, ‘We are not New York, we are not Boston; we are Rhode Island.’ So you feel an obligation to them and if you want to get that accent right it’s going to require a lot of time.”
"I was afforded an opportunity. It takes someone taking a chance on you. Ben took a chance on me. I had done nothing like this."
Teller says, “This guy is just an animal. The things that he held to such a high standard in his life are things that I really value: courage, pride and determination. And focus. And dedication. In the boxing community, Vinny had this reputation of being a warrior in the ring and having so much heart. He risked paralysis to do this thing that he loved. I knew it was going to be a very tall order to try to imitate this man, but I knew it would be the most gratifying experience of my life.”
At 5:20 p.m. a publicist comes to collect Miles Teller. He crosses the lobby and enters a quaint hotel bar with dark wood paneling where Vinny Paz is currently holding court. The Pazmanian Devil is dressed in grey sweatpants, a grey long-sleeved T-shirt with a skull and crossbones, a backwards camouflage print cap and a thumb ring studded with diamonds.
Twenty minutes later, Teller exits the bar with a beer and heads upstairs. He is scheduled to walk the red carpet at 6:30 p.m. and accept the 2016 Vanguard Award from SCAD President Paula Wallace at 7 p.m. before the screening of “Bleed for This.”
On the doorstep of 30, Teller has boyish good looks. He is playful and laid back. He is a physical comedian. He refers to his usual roles (and physique) as that of the “funny friend.” Vinny Paz refers to him as “stud boy.” His off-camera persona is a testament to the intensity of his acting ability on camera.
When asked what type of interaction the two men had during the preparation for the film, Teller offers a story. “Vinny sent me something in the mail when he learned that I was going to play him, a signed photo of himself in his underwear with a note that read, ‘Miles, stuff a banana in your undies if you have to make it look bigger. Do not f*** up my reputation. No joke, bro, seriously. Much love, Paz.’”
The film was a “Hail Mary” of sorts for everyone involved. Ben Younger, the 44-year-old writer, producer and director of the film explains exactly how much he had at stake with this project. In a conversation with actor Aaron Eckhart, who plays Vinny Paz’s trainer, Younger recalls, “I had come off of twelve years of dormancy. Sitting in a restaurant, I knew that this was my last shot and if I didn’t make good on this movie, I wasn’t going to get to make another one. You can’t take ten years off in Hollywood and not make a movie and then come back with something mediocre. And I just said, ‘Dude, I need this. Do you want to be great?’ He said ‘I do.’ Then he said, ‘Do you want to be great?’ I said, ‘I absolutely do.’”
On being cast as Vinny, Teller says, “I was afforded an opportunity. It takes someone taking a chance on you. Ben took a chance on me. I had done nothing like this.” He admits, “I have never felt more intimidated to get something right than I did when I got cast as him. It’s the most fulfilling role I have ever done in this business.”
Younger concedes, “I like that he came from that place. I think if you are slightly unsure, slightly wondering, I think you do a better job. You have got to be a little hungry, you have got to be a little scared, you have got to be a little nervous.”
Younger says that it was always his plan to add some of the archival footage into the movie. He aimed to use it as research material and then stick it in at the end, as is often done in films of this nature. Yet in his preparation, Teller got so close to a physical resemblance of Pazienza that in the editing room, Younger was able to interchange footage of Teller and Vinny Paz and the audience couldn’t tell. Younger says, “I thought, ‘This is breaking the fourth wall, but I think we can pull it off.’”
Vinny Paz, a self-proclaimed “pretty tough guy,” wipes tears from his face during the screening. Younger says, “We had to make a very authentic film, because we were making it about an authentic person.”
The film had its world premiere at the 43rd Annual Telluride Film Festival followed by a screening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. But Teller says that being back at the Savannah Film Festival is a special place for him. He received the Discovery Award at the Savannah Film Festival in 2010 for his debut performance in “Rabbit Hole” (also starring Aaron Eckhart). At the time, he said, “This is my first film award—my very first one.”
His grandparents have been regulars at the Savannah Film Festival over the past few years. Tonight is a family event for him as his parents, sister, nephew, girlfriend and grandparents were all present to share the experience with him. “Bleed for This,” made over just 24 days, could prove to be a pivotal point in Miles Teller’s work and come to be known as a career-defining performance. We do not doubt it.