Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller have a lot in common. Both are up-and-coming actors in Hollywood, both are interested in challenging, offbeat roles, and both of them bombed their first auditions for the parts they coveted in the film adaptation of Tim Tharp’s bestselling novel “The Spectacular Now.”
But the chance to play authentic versions of teenagers, ones grappling with the challenges of pending adulthood without strong support systems easing the bruises, was too good of an opportunity to give up on. Teller begged for a second audition. Woodley lucked into one, yet neither landed the part. It wasn’t until the project switched directors and landed in the hands of James Ponsoldt that the two were able to nab the roles they so desperately desired.
“I wanted this movie so bad,” said Teller, 26, during a joint interview with Woodley, a few days before the film’s Friday opening. “But then once it’s given to you, you think, ‘Am I going to be able to accomplish it? Can I go back to high school? Can I pretend to be drunk in front of a bunch of people with a camera on me?’ I never wanted to feel like I was playing that up.”
In “The Spectacular Now,” Teller plays Sutter Keely, the popular life-of-the party high-school senior whose clownish image serves as a mask hiding deeper, and darker, issues including incipient alcoholism. As his image wanes he falls into an unlikely romance with the quiet, shy good girl Aimee Finicky (Woodley), who doesn’t quite fit the mold he’s used to.
“I just wanted to make sure that I portrayed her as someone special: not a geek or a nerd or any stereotype,” said Woodley, 21, of the character she views as strong, smart and wise. “For me it was the struggle to be truthfully reserved.”
The R-rated film, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, is one of a few coming-of-age movies to hit the big screen this summer that treats adolescence seriously, relying heavily on the intimate performances of its leads to bring poignancy, heart and humor to their roles. There are no superheroes nor dystopian worlds to frame the protagonists’ journeys. Rather, Ponsoldt and his actors aimed for realism in chronicling his characters’ quest to grow up.
“It’s particularly hard to be alive as a teenager because you haven’t had as much experience and you don’t know if you are going to make it out,” said Ponsoldt, who directed the script written by the screenwriting duo behind “(500) Days of Summer,” Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber. “Everything seems larger than life and you’re drunk on hormones.”
Glowing early reviews for the film suggest Ponsoldt succeeded in his vision. New York magazine said the film was “best at its most un-transcendent, when it most evokes that period when we never knew what we were supposed to do with the pain.” Yet it might be Ponsoldt’s very quest for authenticity that could make it a harder sell at the box office.
A real rapport
Woodley, best known for her turn as George Clooney’s stubborn teenage daughter in “The Descendants,” and Teller, who has demonstrated a surprising range in a slew of roles, including the disparate films “Rabbit Hole” and “Footloose,” share a similar earnestness toward their careers. And their comfort level on screen is echoed in their real-world interactions.
“We knew L.A. was out there but our resources were limited to a Regal movie theater and a cheap shopping mall,” recalled Woodley, relating her hometown of Simi Valley to Ponsoldt’s home of Athens, Ga. — the setting for the film. Ponsoldt chose to set the movie in the college locale to evoke the feeling many teenagers have who grow up outside of metropolitan areas — the sense that you aren’t totally isolated from the outside world, yet finding a life larger than high school is still a challenge.
“There was something about that in this story where these people know there is more but they don’t quite know what it is so they are constantly grasping,” Woodley says.
Adds Teller: “They don’t necessarily know how to get there.”
“Your character doesn’t know how to get there,” nudges Woodley.
“Don’t judge my character,” quips Teller.
“I’m not judging,” said Woodley, emphatically. “My character fell in love with your character.”
The palpable on-screen chemistry between the two leads stemmed from the packed days on the set and a shared first experience — both actors’ first on-screen sex scene, one that would maintain the movie’s realistic tone and reflect the duo’s own rookie anxiety.
Woodley is hyper-articulate about all they were trying to achieve in the scene shot in a girl’s high school bedroom. Ponsoldt focused primarily on the leads’ facial expressions.
“You watch it and it’s slightly voyeuristic and slightly uncomfortable. At the same time it’s sort of an adorable, intimate scene. It’s sweet and it makes you feel warm. I love it. I love it.”
Teller is more interested in joking around, “Should we take our shirts off now,” he says repeatedly, mocking Woodley’s line from the scene.
Yet it was Ponsoldt’s take on that particular moment in the film that Woodley was most excited about conquering when she signed on for the part — a vision he articulated in a separate interview.
“I wanted to make a movie that is not so obsessed with the newness of 2013 or thinks that anything is different, because I don’t. I want my grandmother to relate to it,” said Ponsoldt. “When these kids actually have sex for the first time, I want my grandma to not be offended or to think that it’s strange or new — but to actually have it be honest, and real, and fumbling and awkward. And full of anxiety and hope — the way it is for everybody at the point.”
Big things await both actors next year, including major roles for both in the highly anticipated adaptation of Veronica Roth’s “Divergent.” But right now Teller is primarily concerned that enough people show up to see “The Spectacular Now” in its initial limited run so that the distributor A24 will release it in towns outside the major markets, towns more representative of the world “The Spectacular Now” inhabits.
“There are great movies all the time that just nobody ever sees, especially a movie like this,” said Teller. “It’s the most proud of any film I’ve ever done. I just want people to see it.”