RESILIENCE UNDER FIRE: MILES TELLER TALKS ONLY THE BRAVE
The actor tells inSing about making the fact-based firefighting drama
By Jedd Jong
Only the Brave tells the harrowing true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite crew of firefighters within the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. In June 2013, the Hotshots battled the fearsome Yarnell Hill fire, resulting in a staggering loss of life. When then-Vice President Joe Biden attended the memorial service for the firefighters killed in the incident, he said “all men are created equal. But then, a few became firefighters.”
In the film, Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now, War Dogs) plays Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a young ne’er-do-well slacker who decides to pull his life together and become a firefighter after his ex-girlfriend gives birth to their daughter. The film also stars Josh Brolin as the team’s leader Eric “Supe” Marsh, Jeff Bridges as Eric’s mentor Duane Steinbrink, and Jennifer Connelly as Eric’s wife Amanda. James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze and Ben Hardy are among the actors who play fellow firefighters. Joseph Kosinki (Tron Legacy, Oblivion) directs from a screenplay by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down, Transformers: The Last Knight) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle, The International).
Teller spoke exclusively to inSing over the phone from Los Angeles about making the film. He discussed meeting the real-life Brendan McDonough, working with Josh Brolin, the physical preparation he undertook to play the role and working with the stunt team to film the realistic firefighting scenes.
INSING: The character you play, Brendan McDonough, starts out as irresponsible and aimless and embarks on a journey towards heroism. Tell us more about that journey.
MILES TELLER: Brendan, he was a little, I guess ‘aimless’ is a good word. I think he was lacking some kind of mentorship or some kind of guidance, something that at that age is really helpful in terms of helping you to become the person you’ll become later. I think at that age; a lot of people are battling with immaturity and irresponsibility. Brendan, he was into drugs and committing some small crimes. He ends up going to jail, and when he goes back home, his mum throws him out of the house. That was an ultimatum. For him, he realised it’s time to stop being so selfish and get his life together. That’s when he decided to try out for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and he met Eric Marsh, who became such a strong fatherly figure for him, up until the day of the tragedy.
Leading on from that, I think that after enduring JK Simmons yelling at you, nothing would faze you, but was it intimidating having someone like Josh Brolin play your boss?
No, it’s actually kind of the opposite of intimidating. I was really grateful, and I think we all benefitted from Josh’s leadership on the film. He got rid of any kind of divide or any kind of ego that could’ve been there, just because he’s done 50 movies and there were certain guys on the movie that it was their very first film. He was the best, man. He was having guys come to his house to work out and his trailer door was always open. He was really such a leader, not even just in the physical portion of the film. He would always be the first guy in the line, whether we were doing running, racing, cardio workouts. He’s in great shape and we really benefitted in the cast by having Josh as #1 on the call sheet.
What about the story of Brendan McDonough and of the Granite Mountain Hotshots resonated with you the most?
I have so much respect for anybody who’s in the position to be a first responder. The town that these guys came from, kind of a Southwest small town, I grew up in the south in a pretty small town. Especially after going to their hometown, I felt like I would’ve been friends with those guys, those were my kind of guys. Then obviously the tragedy that happened, and to get the opportunity to put a story like that of real-life heroism on screen and to do the story justice and celebrate their lives, then you’re lucky, because not every story has that kind of integrity to it.
With Brendan, I like any character who goes on a journey, a big arc or any character who goes through a big transition. And Brendan, starting out on the drugs and committing crimes to where he ends up being such a high-contributing member of society, that was interesting to me.
What was it like meeting the real-life Brendan McDonough?
I flew down to Prescott, Arizona, where the story takes place. I met Brendan, and it was uh, I’ve played a few real-life people at this point, and the first interaction is always…I was going down there basically to show face, and to show him that I was taking this very seriously. I just kind of allowed him to talk, and say what he wanted to say, and get any weird feelings about making a movie about his life out of the way, and then after that, we just hung out. We just got along and hung out for a couple of days. Apart of the work, it was fun, but it was also beneficial in playing the character.
What was it like working with director Joseph Kosinski?
Joe was great. Joe is everything that you want in a director: he’s extremely prepared, he’s extremely intelligent and thoughtful, and he absolutely wanted to maintain the integrity for these guys, he wanted the authenticity to play. That’s something that, for a movie of this budget, you don’t always get that. He was our captain on this thing, and he was also open-minded. He was open to ideas from the guys as to what they wanted to do with the character, and he’s a master behind the camera, but also in front of, in terms of talking with the actors. I couldn’t have asked for a better director.
In meeting with real-life currently active Hotshots and firefighters, what was the most surprising thing that struck you about these guys?
The actual people, like not too much. The work that they do is extremely tough. It is difficult. I have no idea what these guys go through to be able to fight these wildfires. I guess what surprised me about the guys is that they’re guys, they’re Hotshots and you feel “I’m sure I could lift more weights”, but the work they’re doing is extremely tough. And the guys that make it through, some of them surprise you because on the surface they don’t look like it, but really it’s an inner courage and strength that these guys have, that keeps them going week after week, month after month during fire season.
How does the physical work you had to do for this film compare to the preparation for a movie like Bleed for This?
It was different. For this one, we have like a two-week boot camp, where everybody got their butts kicked and got into shape. It’s a lot of physical labour, whereas boxing is such a different kind of training. Boxers are training to go 12 three-minute rounds in a fight, whereas these guys it’s more cardio, endurance, longevity. So the training was a little different, but both are tough.
What was the camaraderie like between the crew when you were training and filming, and out of all your castmates, who do you think you bonded with the strongest?
We had a great camaraderie, and I think it was very smart of the producers and the director to have that be the first introduction to everybody. To me, that brought us closer than any kind of rehearsing the scenes would have done, because you’re all links in a chain. When you’re doing these workouts, it’s not about the individual at all, it’s all about the group. I felt that was a really smart way to get everybody all in. They brought in some real Hotshots to do the training so we knew it was authentic, and everybody just bonded from the beginning.
It wasn’t necessarily one individual. We all got close. There were 20 guys including Brolin, and we were all hanging out. We were in Santa Fe, fairly small town, and we were all just hanging out.
With any film that’s based on a real-life disaster, there’s a balance between how respectful the film has to be while delivering the spectacle it has to, without being exploitative. How do you feel Only the Brave pulls that balance off?
It’s tough, because I don’t know how many people who are going to see the movie necessarily know what happened with the true story; people can look it up. I think a lot of people are going to see it based on the actors that are involved, the occupation that it is, firefighting, Joe the director, and these different elements, but I think what Joe and our screenwriter Eric Singer did is not rushing to the tragedy, not building this movie on the last catastrophe. They really do a good job of showing these guys and what they stood for, and not exploiting them for their deaths. They did a good job of not skipping through the first two-thirds of the movie just to get to that ending, which you know is going to be emotional and tragic and all those things. They did a really good job, and that is difficult to do – and there is nothing cliché about this movie at all.
What was it like working with the stunt team and the special effects crew, learning how to work with the practical fire elements?
The stunt team did a really great job. I had a stunt double for a few things, really not that much, but the entire stunt team and production too, they were able to construct this fake area of wild lands so that they could control the fire. There were times, absolutely, when the fire was really, really hot, but that’s how it goes. In real life, these guys, that’s what they’re feeling and they still have to focus and do their job. It added a sense of realism for the actor, which is always helpful.
It gives you something to interact with and act off against.
Yeah. The fire, there actually will be some CGI fire just to show the scope of it, but when you see the actors feeling the heat of the fire, that’s real fire.
I’m a big comic book movie geek, and in this movie, there are so many actors who’ve been in comic book movies. Were there any moments when anyone on set went “there’s Mr. Fantastic, there’s Gambit, there’s Thanos, there’s Obadiah Stane” and was geeking out over there?
No…I think when we were filming, Josh had [just] been cast as Thanos, so we would chat with him a little bit about that. This story was so important to everybody, everyone was kind of focused on that and wanted to do these real guys justice.
Finally, do blondes have more fun Miles?
Um, they do. When I dyed my hair blonde, I felt just very free and liberated. I just felt better about myself than when I was a brunette.
That really holds true?