Miles Teller is one of the brightest rising stars in Hollywood. And this fall he’s gracing screens as two real-life American heroes. In Only the Brave, he plays Brendan McDonough, a wet-behind-the-ears firefighter affectionately known as “Donut” by his teammates on the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew. In Thank You For Your Service, he plays Adam Schumann, a newly-returned-home staff sergeant struggling with PTSD.
He joined his Only the Brave co-stars at a press event, but was happy to compare and contrast the physical and mental preparations each role required of him.
“Scott Hayes was in both films with me. So we did both boot camps. He thought this one [Only the Brave] was harder, but, they’re both unique challenges. This one isn’t as dynamic. You know, you’re doing a lot of the same stuff. ‘Okay, you’re going to hike this mountain and you’re going to carry this tool and you’re going to cut line,'” he explained. “And that stuff was tough.”
“For the military boot, the skillset was more complex — I was playing a staff sergeant in the Army. So that was tough.” But, Teller explained, the psychological impact was a much bigger factor for Thank You For Your Service.
“And that one was more the instructors that we had were a lot meaner, you know? Remember that show Scared Straight? Where they take kids on a wayward path and they bring them into jail and they’re scared and then [they find out] they’re never going to jail? That’s what these dudes were doing to us.”
But Only the Brave wasn’t without its unexpected challenges.
“The worst part was where the boots… I’ll have to show you guys, actually, I have some photos on my phone, but to call them blisters I think would be kind of unfair to blisters ,” Teller said of the most trying Only the Brave boot camp.
“Or the altitude, actually, because we were filming 7,500 feet above sea level, 10,000 feet above sea level. Were doing a lot of hiking with 45 pound packs and these boots, obviously, that sucked and … but yeah, you can’t slack off, man,” he said.
“But that was also the best part because I just felt like right off the bat, we got to really kind of know each other in a way other than just ‘Hey, let’s get a drink or let’s go out to dinner,'” he added.
Teller, a self-described East Coast kid, confesses that prior to this film he thought fighting wildfires consisted solely of someone dumping water on the blaze. (He probably won’t be alone in finding the picture educational.) But, having had his own life saved by first responders following a serious car accident when he was 20, Teller was able to draw on some insights of the impact of those experiences.
But, his links to the Hotshots story and the real-life McDonough don’t end there.
“A year after that [accident], two of my best friends died in car accidents five weeks from each other. So I can relate to Brendan on that level. I wasn’t 19, but close to that age, that exact loss,” Teller explained. “I went through that, and when I met Brendan it was only four years after some of his closest friends had passed away — his brothers.”
Teller noted that loss is universal. And in that, Only the Brave becomes a story to which anyone can relate.
“I think if you’ve been through grieving, then you know it, and if you haven’t, you’re fortunate, but you will experience it at some point.”
For McDonough, Teller believes, grief has been a driving force behind sharing the story and using it to help others. “I think when I met him, he was still coping with it. I think helping other people helps him.”
One small part of that effort on McDonough’s part was to make himself available to the filmmaking team.
“Where he was really helpful to me was at the end of the movie, specifically that scene where Brendan goes into the gymnasium because that really happened to him. I had a hard time figuring out what he’d be feeling in that moment, so being able to talk to Brendan about what that experience was like [was incredibly helpful].
And yes, Teller has considered how much weight his performance can carry for McDonough.
“I mean, I think hopefully you prepare for a character no matter what it is, either fictional or nonfictional. I think when you’re playing a real person, especially if they’re alive, for me, anyway, there has been an added kind of sense of responsibility to it because you know that this movie is going to affect them for the rest of their life,” Teller said.
“I’m representing Brendan on-screen and people will look to that and feel like ‘oh, this must be who he is.’ Which, you know, look, I’m not doing an imitation. So it’s not like this is — it’s not a documentary of who Brendan is, it’s my interpretation of him.”
But as careful as Teller is to acknowledge that he’s not telling McDonough’s entire life story here, he also noted how important maintaining authenticity was for everyone involved.
“I think that’s the great thing about this and about this movie is that, you know, you had some guys it was their very first movie, you know? Some guys got cast literally from a selfie because they just so happen to look like the [real-life] guy,” he said.
But there was no sense that newcomers had to remain in the shadows.
“And then you’ve got Josh who’s done 50 movies. He was in The Goonies! But, he had such an open-door policy that now it doesn’t matter [how many movies anyone has done]. I like the fact that it’s … because in the movie everybody is wearing the same uniform. You know, we’re all hotshots now.”
Only the Brave is now playing in theaters everywhere.