‘Only the Brave’ Interview Series Part 1: Miles Teller

As a part of the experience of previewing Only the Brave, arts editors Austin and Stephanie had the chance to sit down with several of the actors in the movie to ask them about their experiences and takeaways. The duo participated in roundtable interviews that included Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and James Badge Dale in conjunction with other publications. In part one of the interview series, the duo talked to Miles Teller. 

Miles Teller is known for his roles as Andrew in the award-winning Whiplash (2014), David Packouz in War Dogs (2016) and Peter in the Divergent series. In Only the Brave, Teller plays Brenand McDonough, a young hotshot and the lone survivor of the tragedy. The following transcription has been edited for length and clarity. 

Interviewer: You did a great job portraying this character through an arc. Did you talk to the character’s family or the character himself?

Miles: I talked to Brendan. I met Brendan’s mom for the first time last night.

Interviewer: Was there anything that you gained from talking to him for the role?

Miles: He told me how important becoming a father was, so that was something that I really wanted to get across. And we talked about some things. I also read his book. There’s a lot of information there. When I went down there to meet him, I didn’t have any sort of agenda or anything. We just sat and had some food and talked about his guys.

Interviewer: What was it about Brendan that resonated with you that really made you think that you could portray him authentically?

Teller: I just kind of enjoyed where he was at in his life when he got this opportunity. I believe in second chances and he made that decision to turn his life around. He went through hotshot boot camp while detoxing from heroin. That’s not something he’s proud of, but it’s something that’s a part of his story. In films like this, decently-sized budget, studio films, it’s rare to see that kind of character behavior on screen, especially for something that was rated PG-13. I thought it would be a challenge and I enjoyed his transformation.

Interviewer: What attracted you to this film?

Teller: I thought it was a great story. Hopefully, when you’re attaching yourself to a movie, you’re not attaching yourself to your part — you’re attaching yourself to the entire movie because there’s a lot of stuff that needs to work to make a great movie. It’s not just how many lines you have. I read this and thought it was a really great story and I wanted to be a part of it.

If you look at the cast that we assembled it’s a pretty incredible cast and everyone is sitting on a smaller role than they’re used to. It was great. I knew it was a story that needed to be told and I was really proud to represent these guys and what they stood for and what kind of people they were. I was excited that we were going to do it.

Interviewer: So speaking of the cast, something that the film did well was showing the chemistry of the hotshots. How did you guys build that connection?

Teller: I got along with everybody except Taylor Kitsch. He’s just a terrible person. *Laughs.* We had a lot of fun. The boot camp right off the bat helped establish the rapport and bonds. It was a pretty tough boot camp. Just the nature of the job — you have to rely on each other. Individual effort is needed, but individual accomplishment doesn’t mean shit. There’s no such thing. You share everything as a group.

We were all in Santa Fe and there was like, 20 of us. Twenty guys that just didn’t have anything to do. We just hung out all the time. On the weekends we played basketball. We’d go out and have fun. It was cool. It was a unique experience.

Interviewer: How extensive was the training?

Teller: It was more mental almost. Physically it was tough. It was a lot of hiking and Santa Fe’s 7500 [feet] above sea level, and you’re constantly moving with this 60-pound pack. You’re going up steep inclines. I could teach you how to use the tool I used in the movie. It’s not that hard to learn. It’s the matter of can you do this for 12 or 16 hours when it’s really freaking hot? When you’ve just hiked how many miles up this hill? These guys have a specific set of skills that I think is unique to wild-land firefighting.

Interviewer: In what ways do you think there might have been more pressure on you to authentically portray Brendan because he’s still alive whereas the other actors didn’t have that?

Miles: I would almost go the other way, right? Like I could talk with Brendan. Just by understanding him I felt like I was doing him service, whereas these guys in the movie to meet the parents of the guy they’re playing and that’s tough. You want to do it for the parents to keep their kid alive.

I was never too worried about it. He was a really great resource for all of us. He was a really open book and he really wanted us to honor his brothers with this story. That’s what we were doing. I felt like I knew what was important and that I could get that across.

Interviewer: So I’d like to ask you about a quote from a previous interview…

Teller: No, *laughs* I’m joking.

Interviewer: It’s a good one! To paraphrase, you said you weren’t really familiar with this and how you hear about a Hollywood divorce and it’s big news, and you hear about all this stuff that isn’t important, but then you found out that this is the worst firefighting tragedy since 9/11. We’ve got a sense of what your takeaways are from the film, but what is your hope for what the audience takes away from this film?

Teller: Well I think it can be informative. I think you can watch this and feel like you can get a sense of what kind of man — or woman — what type of person that is. I think people have an idea of what a cop is or what a structure firefighter is. Even an idea of what a lawyer is. All of these jobs we can kind of associate a personality to it in a way that’s not like stereotyping but you can tell what kind of person might want to become a lawyer and what draws them to it. And for something like this — these are guys who come from, like in this case they come from a small town and represent their town. These guys like to hang out with each other too. They’re the best men and women that we have, you know, first responders don’t get enough credit on the big screen. I’m hoping that people learn something and that they have a little more compassion when they see these wildfires going on and appreciate these guys who are going out there and saving homes, saving lives.

Interviewer: In light of all you learned in this experience — what a hotshot is and what all goes into that — what would you say to a friend or loved one who wants to become a hotshot?

Teller: I think it’s great. I think the guys who go into that work are very — if they’re not initially will become — very selfless. It’s a high-character job. These guys carry a lot of integrity. They represent the community extremely well. They leave the place nicer than when they found it.

I think for forming a bond, like the guys in the movie, they formed a bond to the point where when that fire was coming nobody ran. Everyone got under their shelter. Historically when that’s happened, there have always been a couple people who have ran, like they didn’t trust. The people who ran always died. At least if you did what they did then you have a chance at surviving.

When you look at the bonds these guys are forming, they refer to it as a brotherhood. Brendan refers to these guys as his brothers, not his co-workers or his friends. I think if my kid wanted to get into it then I would say absolutely.

Interviewer: In the movie War Dogs — and in other movies — you also play a character that was based on a real person. How was getting in the mindset for Only the Bravedifferent from those experiences?

Teller: I’ve played a few real-life guys. In War DogsBleed for This, Thank You for your Service and Mr. Fantastic. It’s different because Brendan’s different. When I met Brendan this had only happened four years prior. He’s dealing with post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, all these things and when all these things happened he was 21 years old. He was only 25 when I went down there. He’s only 26 now. Having gone through all that is tough, so this material was pretty sensitive compared to some of the other ones. That’s how I approached it.

Interviewer: What is your overall takeaway from this film?

Teller: Well the experience — I don’t sign up for the finished product of a movie because you have no idea. You can read the script and then the movie can be bad. You have no control over how the movie turns out. But the experience of it you absolutely can control. This movie could be the worst movie ever and I would still have a smile on my face every time I talked about it.

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