by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN Contributing Writer
Miles Teller is a star on the rise - just look at his heartfelt, poignant, lived-in performance as the teenage driver who accidentally kills Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart's child in Rabbit Hole. The young actor dominated the role in a way that was transformative and inspiring, holding his own against actors lauded in many circles as two of the best working today.
Refusing to allow himself to be typecast, Teller leapt at the opportunity to portray Willard in a remake of the 1984 favorite Footloose, and even if he knew Chris Penn's shoes were going to be difficult to fill, he had more than enough confidence to believe he could make the role his own. 'Rabbit Hole was very exciting because that was [my] first project,' said the actor. 'It was exciting and that was its own special deal. But for Footloose, I didn't actually feel the pressure, didn't think transitioning from one project to the other would be such a big deal. I did the play in high school. It was the first play I ever did, so the part of Willard was one I was already familiar with and one that holds a lot of nostalgia for me.'
'But when I first auditioned I auditioned for the part of Ren, and it was the casting director who commented I'd make a good Willard. It was like the stars had aligned. It was perfect, and even though I'd played the part in the musical version I had confidence I could nail it in this remake, and I was so excited that [director Craig Brewer] felt that way, too.'
Still, one has to wonder if the actor felt any trepidation taking on the part. For all its flaws, and as silly as it can sometimes be, the original Kevin Bacon drama has become something of a minor classic over the decades, playing just as well for today's kids and young adults as it did for the ones who made it a hit back in '84.
'I wasn't scared,' said Teller with a straight face. 'I honestly have never seen the original. I've seen clips, of course, and I know the music, but because I first played the character at 16 I never wanted to become distracted by what Chris Penn did in the role. He's a phenomenal actor and I know he did a tremendous job in it, so I didn't want to find myself accidentally emulating him. I knew I'd be compared to him, which was fine - an honor, even - but I also knew I could hold my own as the character, so that trepidation or fear you were talking about never really hit me until after we were done filming.'
And why was that? 'That movie launched a lot of careers,' he said with a slightly hesitant chuckle, 'and I never quite realized just how devoted and passionate the fanbase for it is until after the first trailer for this one [debuted]. People have, like, pitchforks, man. It's almost like the Salem witch trials. But I'm hoping that people are able to open their hearts and their minds to a remake. I think we've done a good job making something that will resonate for this generation while at the same time paying just respect to the original. Craig had his eye on the ball the whole time. He knew what he was doing, let me tell you.'
It was working with the man behind Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan that made Teller most excited about the project. He knew right away he was in good hands, that this was the man who could lead them and help them assemble a Footloose the naysayers would potentially respect.
'Craig's passionate about the original,' proclaimed the actor proudly. 'He's written and made this new version with a love and devotion to the original. He didn't want to take it and run it through the grinder where people could no longer recognize it. He made sure it was still Footloose - a modern take, sure, but still the Footloose that people know and love.'
'When you talk to Craig, his passion for a project can become infectious. He's an incredible filmmaker bringing artistic credibility to bigger studio films. He's the coolest dude on the set, even in his baggy shirt and Skechers Shape-Ups. You just want to give your best for him. In all honesty, I doubt I'd have been interested in doing the [movie] had he not been the one making it.'
But at what point does a movie pay so much respect to the version that came before it that it becomes nothing more than a carbon copy? Where is the line in the sand that allows one to pay just respect but also make the material uniquely its own?
'That's a tough question,' admitted Teller with candor, 'but I think when people see the movie for themselves they'll realize Craig did a pretty amazing balancing act. We shot it in Atlanta, and those rural corners of the state really become their own living, breathing environs that give the movie its juice. In the original, there's not a single person of color. Here, Rusty is Hispanic. Ren makes friends with many of the [African American] locals. There's a rugged urban element to some of the dancing you'd never find in the '84 version. You really feel this Southern culture throughout the picture, and I think Craig just infused that sort of vitality and drive throughout.'
And what about the dancing element? Is it still believable in this day and age that an entire town would, or could, outlaw dancing? Will modern audiences still buy that as a major plot point?
'If you've ever been down into the Bible belt, there are a lot of things that don't make sense,' he responded. 'A church can and sometimes does indoctrinate a town into their way of thinking. They can run the show. I mean, while we were filming, a small-town production of The Rocky Horror Show was shut down because their mayor obtained videos of the rehearsals and found it too alternative, not the lifestyle they were preaching to their citizens. So these things can happen, and why can't they happen when spawned from a car accident and inside a small community that becomes obsessed with protecting their children? Crazier things have happened.'
All this serious stuff aside, you can't talk about Footloose without talking about the dancing itself. More importantly, one can't talk about Willard without talking about his dance training montage which, next to Bacon's 'angry dance' in a warehouse, is arguably the film's signature and most indelible sequence.
'That was so much fun,' laughed Teller. 'I was thinking about it the other night. I get a movie montage - check. I get a movie dance montage - double check. I get to kiss the hot girl right before kicking my character's senior prom into high gear - check, check, and check. It was awesome. I had so much fun with it. As a person, I love dancing. I mean, I seriously love it, so being able to perform like this was such a joy. I couldn't get enough of it.'
'And that montage? I mean, I'm such a dinosaur, right? It's so insane and hysterical. I just tried to make my body as uncomfortable as I could, like I was such a behemoth I didn't know where to step, and that was how I got there. But, I mean, you're out there in this beautiful outdoor setting, and you're dancing with these incredibly cute little girls singing 'Let's Hear it for the Boy' and it becomes so hard to maintain your composure. It's just so much fun, and I think the end result is that the montage works because it is both grounded in the characters but at the same time the enthusiasm and happiness we felt shooting the sequence can be seen and felt by the audience.'
Teller is aware that this film could go a number of ways - that the backlash by those who think remaking the '84 film is blasphemous could end up derailing others from deciding to see it for themselves. But he hopes that isn't the case, and for those who do make the choice to buy a ticket, whether they be fans of the original or not, he's fairly positive they're going to end up having a good time.
'Like I said,' he reiterated, 'I haven't seen the original, but not because I don't have the desire to, but because I didn't want to influence my interpretation of the character. I can't wait to see it, and I'm sure at some point I'll sit down and watch it for myself. But when all is said and done, I think audiences are going to be happy with what we accomplished. This movie speaks for itself. People are going to have a good time. It's a movie to laugh, to cry, and to enjoy yourself at. I want people to take the movie for what it is and hopefully everyone can walk out and not feel like they were ripped off or anything. It doesn't belittle the original; it honors it, while also making the story its own. I loved making it. We all did, and I think that love shows.'
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