Miles Teller almost died a few years ago.
After spending a few days at a Connecticut music festival, he and two buddies were road tripping home to Florida. Cruising down the highway at 75 mph, Teller's friend tried to switch lanes and nearly hit another vehicle. He jerked the steering wheel back but lost control of the car, which went across three lanes of traffic, into a grass median, and flipped seven times.
Teller was thrown 25 feet and awoke covered in blood.
"I still have two rocks in my face," the boyish 23-year-old actor said, showing off scars on his chin, neck and shoulder. "Do you want to feel? Some people get really excited by that."
Teller plays off the gravity of the crash now. But the incident threw his world temporarily out of whack, especially when it was compounded by an eerie turn of events: Two of his best friends were killed in a car accident a year later. Still, he managed to return to classes at New York University's selective Tisch School of the Arts, where he was studying acting.
In his final semester, he casually began going on some auditions and landed his first major movie role opposite Nicole Kidman in a screen adaptation of the popular stage production "Rabbit Hole." The film has been in limited release for about two weeks.
The part? A high school student who accidentally kills a 4-year-old boy with his car, sending the child's parents into a tailspin of depression.
Teller was jarred by the bizarre happenstance of it all — but wasn't about to give up his first big break.
"I was so afraid to even get close to the emotion I had to portray in the movie at first, because it just — it would go into something else. It would end up being emotional masturbation," he said, hiding out from the rain earlier this month at a Sunset Strip bar he frequents.
But that vulnerability helped Teller get the part: During his audition, he blushed. Kidman, who produced the film and ultimately made the decision to cast Teller, thought his red cheeks signaled a lack of pretense.
"Nicole said she voted for him because that was just so real," said John Cameron Mitchell, the film's director. "The accident he had experienced just gave him this incredible emotional weight."
Not everything came naturally to the newcomer, however. On his first day of filming, Teller had to shoot a scene with Aaron Eckhart in which the two have a heated argument. The novice had a bad case of nerves and was almost paralyzed by terror.
"The first couple of takes, I could see he was outside the character — he was basically going, 'This is the guy from "The Dark Knight," ' " Cameron Mitchell recalled, referring to Eckhart's role in the Batman film.
Teller knew things weren't going well.
"I found myself just watching them act, but I wasn't actually participating, and I was like, 'This is not good. This is terribly bad, actually,' " he said, laughing. "I went over to John and said, 'Is this going as bad as I think it is? Am I bombing right now?' They were taking a big risk on me, and I was betraying everything I'd been trained in."
After all, Teller had barely had any real-world acting experience.
As a kid, he'd moved a lot. His dad worked as an employee at nuclear power plants, and his job took the family from Delaware to New Jersey to Florida — where they settled in Lecanto, a town of fewer than 8,000 people whose highlights included a Wal-Mart and an Applebee's.
"When I first moved there, it was huge culture shock. I had never seen real-life rednecks," said the actor, whose soft, unassuming face somewhat resembles John Cusack's. "People wore Wranglers and cowboy hats and gold chains.... I had no idea what was going on."
In an effort to find his niche during his sophomore year of high school, he decided on a whim to join the drama club — populated by "social outcasts who wore 'Nightmare Before Christmas' T-shirts" — because he thought the blond teacher who ran it was hot. He was good at acting, he found, and began competing in the Florida State Thespian Program for audiences of thousands.
He applied to a number of competitive college acting programs, including Juilliard, but ultimately ended up at Tisch. That was where he found his manager, who took the beginner on as a client after sitting in on one of his classes.
After graduating in 2009 and filming "Rabbit Hole" in New York that summer, Teller moved to Los Angeles and now shares an apartment in Valley Village with two "jam buddies" — he sings, plays guitar, piano and drums. He's already wrapped up filming on talked-about movies out next year: the hush-hush Todd Phillips-produced high school comedy "Project X" and Paramount's remake of "Footloose."
Cameron Mitchell said Teller's early tribulations will likely serve him well as he pursues a career in Hollywood.
"He's so unobtrusive. He's not someone you would necessarily look twice at on the street, but he's got these incredibly powerful, deep-pooled eyes that have definitely seen things before his time," said the director. "Oftentimes, experiencing tragedy very young can strangely give you a kind of equilibrium. He's less impressed by say, celebrities, or things that don't have that much weight — because he knows where he's been, and he knows what he's lost."