DOWN BUT NOT OUT
Miles Teller comes out fighting in Bleed For This
MILES TELLER HAS a letter from Martin Scorsese framed on his wall. An executive producer on boxing drama Bleed For This, the director of Raging Bull wrote to the actor just before shooting started.
“It was on his letterhead and typed on an old typewriter,” says Teller. “It said, ‘To play the part of Vinny you are going to have to show hard work and perseverance, and I know that you are the right guy for this job.’ For him to reach out to me was something.” Scorsese’s note wasn’t lost on Teller.
Empire’s gala film at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Bleed For This tells the true story of Vinny Pazienza, a junior middleweight champion boxer whose career ended after he broke his neck in a car crash. Only it didn’t. Refusing fusion surgery that would have fixed his injuries but ended his career, he wore a halo, a medical brace screwed into his skull, and began retraining against all medical advice.
“It was by far the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” says Teller. “If I am super nervous about doing something, as I was with Vinny, I would rather me have the opportunity to mess it up than somebody else.”
Part of the challenge was making fighting weight. Following a no-booze, no-carbs diet, Teller got down to six per cent body fat. Equally challenging was mastering the art of pugilism — and in particular Pazienza’s fighting style — in between shooting Fantastic Four and Allegiant.
“I did a bit of kickboxing in high school, but boxing is super hard, man,” says Teller. “The work, the timing, the distance control. It’s all very exposing. It’s just you. I only had maybe a month with my boxing trainer. You don’t become a professional anything in a month if you’ve never done it before. It was a lot of trust and practice, motivated by fear.”
The film has personal parallels for Teller, too. In 2007 he was involved in a near-fatal accident that saw him ejected out of a car window going 80mph as it flipped and rolled eight times. He woke up 30 feet from the vehicle.
“I needed a lot of surgery on my face,” he says. “I knew that the scars were never going away. This was as all the cameras were going to HD, so you could see everything. I had a lot of people tell me it was going to affect my career... You just show them they don’t need to cast a guy that looks like a fucking Abercrombie model.”
Pazienza faced a similar chorus of naysayers when he decided to get back in the ring. Key to his rehabilitation was trainer Kevin Rooney, played by a virtually unrecognisable Aaron Eckhart.
“I found the look in a whole bunch of pizzas,” says Eckhart. “I would send Miles pictures of me eating doughnuts while he was eating lettuce. It
was probably hardest for my girlfriend. She had to sit there and pretend that a fat bald guy was hot.”
Delivering a powerful supporting turn, Eckhart still knows his place. “This is Miles’ movie,” he says. “I just didn’t want to fuck it up.” For Teller’s part, he is promising Bleed For This will deliver emotional uplift.
“I think it’s going to be a beacon of hope,” he says. “If you are not moved by it, something is wrong with you.” That’s fighting talk.
Miles Teller, after a strict diet and a month of intense boxing training, squares up to Aaron Eckhart. Below: Teller as Vinny Pazienza.