Divergent's Miles Teller on getting physical and being the bad guy

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Mar 21, 2014, 8:53 AM EDT (Updated)

Divergent, the latest buzzed-about YA adaptation, hits theaters this month, and it's giving actor Miles Teller his first taste of franchise mania. Having gained critical acclaim for last year's The Spectacular Now and this year's Sundance Grand Jury winner, Whiplash, Teller hasn't starred in a mainstream blockbuster yet, but author Veronica Roth's bestselling trilogy has him poised for major exposure.

We spoke to Teller recently about his upcoming role as Reed Richards in Josh Trank's Fantastic Four reboot, and his departure role of Peter, the poster boy for violent tendencies, in Divergent.

If you haven't read the books, a quick synopsis: Divergent takes place in Chicago about 150 years after a decimating apocalypse. What's left of humanity now live in separate factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. Heroine Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) decides to switch from selfless Abnegation to brave Dauntless, and there she runs up against Teller's Peter, who thinks she's soft and needs to be obliterated as competition. He's a real prince.

To start, what was your attraction to playing such a low-life?

The attraction for me was that it was something different. It was more action and physical-based, which is something in my other works I haven't had the opportunity to do. I grew up playing sports and did a little bit of Muay Thai, so I've never shied away from physical contact. It's nice to get in shape and wear a cut-off shirt and have some fun [laughs].

In the book, Peter is just mean and competitive. Is that how you played him in the film?

In the book, I think he's pretty one-dimensional. When I read it, he's always calling [Tris] a "stiff" and is a bit one-notish. Obviously, Veronica [Roth] further explores him in the second and third book, where he comes full circle. But for me, nobody wakes up every day and goes, "I'm going to be evil." So it was about figuring out where this conflict comes from. In general, people who are mean or aggressive, it comes from a point of them not liking themselves, which is what you find out about Peter at the end of this thing.

How did you and director Neil Burger round him out more onscreen?

Neil let me explore what I wanted to do with Peter. I saw Peter as a roving politician. He doesn't care too much about how the world is. A lot of [new recruit] first instincts in Dauntless are to team up and make friends and go through it all together. Peter realizes it's every man for himself. For me, he's a plotting, roaming kid who just hasn't matured. He hasn't found out who he is.

[Spoilers for the book and film follow]

You were shooting the film before the last book came out, but were you told how Peter's arc would play out, or did you not want to know?

I kept asking Veronica and she kept not telling me, which was a bit frustrating. But it was fun to know that my gut instinct with Peter was true. I think he's got a strong attachment to Tris, in whatever way it manifests itself; you can't deny his interest in her.

You worked with Woodley in The Spectacular Now playing lovers. Did that help so you could terrorize her in Divergent?

Yeah, it did. There was a level of comfort there, especially in our fight scene. If [it] was a different girl or someone I didn't know very well, I would have been more timid with it. But as we were doing it, Shailene would be taunting me, saying, 'Come on, bring it! I'm a tough chick,' so it was nice. It's always good to work with people you have worked with before and, in Shailene's case, I've had such positive experiences with.

How tied to the indie world do you want to remain as your career continues to break out?

It's very important. I finished That Awkward Moment, and then I had a month off. Then I was off in Chicago doing Divergent. When I finished Divergent, I thought maybe I would do something in the winter, but as soon as I came back my agent said, 'I have a great script called Whiplash, and you're going to do it.' Divergent was a long movie, and we were in sets that were in old abandoned buildings that are cold, and it's snowing in Chicago. It wasn't glamorous, but I did Whiplash and it went to Sundance and won the Grand Jury. It's one of the most proud things I've accomplished. I think it's incredible, so I have wide interests and there are a lot of things I want to do. With every movie I do, I'm trying to show something different. But I think independent movie-making world is extremely important, because the studios aren't making them, so you have to have people who are truly in love with a story to get them made.

Divergent opens March 21, and The Fantastic Four will hit theaters in 2015.