Last week, we had a series of interviews for Only the Brave, which is a film that told the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of men who gave their lives in horrific wildfire. If you’re interested in checking out some of the other interviews, you can check them out below!
Of the 20 Hotshots, only one of them survived the Yarnell Hill Fire, and that man was Brendan McDonough, who had actually separated from the group during the actual fire. Immediately following the deaths of his brothers in the fire, McDonough went to the gymnasium, where all the families were awaiting their husbands/brothers/fathers to return from the fire. He had hoped to go there to grieve with them, but the moment he entered, he realized that everyone in the room was instantly angry at the fact that he wasn’t who they wanted to come back.
In the film, he is portrayed by Miles Teller (Whiplash), and in our roundtable interview with him, Teller discusses everything from that very moment in McDonough’s life, to the difficulties in boot camp, to the art of acting.
So you’re part of the boot camp, as far as this film goes, sort of getting training, and camaraderie, it sounded awful, it sounded hard. What was the worst part and what was the best part?
Teller: The worst part was the boots. I’ll show you guys. I have some photos of them, all these guys had them. To call them blisters would be kind of unfair to the amount of pain and suffering you’re all in, but yeah it was extremely… [Shows us pictures of some gross foot blisters]
I know a lawyer if you want.
Teller: [Laughs] Yeah exactly, cruel and unusual punishment. So yeah, the worst part was the endurance, or the altitude actually, because we were filming 7,500 feet above sea level, 10,000 feet above sea level. We were doing a lot of hiking with 45-pound packs, and these boots, obviously that sucked. You can’t slack off, man. That wasn’t an environment for it. If you are, someone else will have to pick up your slack. So the collective suffering was very tough, but that was also the best part. I just felt like right off the bat we were able to get to really know each other in a way that wasn’t, “Hey, let’s go get a drink or let’s get dinner.” To me that’s very surface level, but when you’re sitting there and you’re uncomfortable and you’re hurt, and all this stuff, you know the guy to the left of you is doing it, but you just keep putting 1 foot in front of the other. The spirit of the Granite Mountain Hotshots I think was really running through all us. We wanted to tell these guy’s stories.
Were the green deploy bags just as hard to get on as they looked, and did you have to try a ton of different times?
Teller: We probably did, over, I don’t know, over 30 times practicing that thing, and yeah it is, because you have to velcro it out, and then shake it. Getting in is not that hard, folding them back was biggest pain in the ass. Because then you have to fold it back, and it’s like this thing that barely fits in this little kind of square casing for it. It even gives you instructions on how to fold it. So you’re just sitting there, there’s this one guy, he was always like the best, he’s like [says it in a dumb voice], “I’m done. I’m done sir.” I was looking around at this thing. I have no idea how to do it, so that was frustrating. There was this — I know his character’s name…I know a lot of these guys by their character’s name. We only refer each other as the character on set.
What was it like bleaching your hair?
Teller: Yeah I have a lot of sympathy for women who do it. I’m sitting there and they’re dying my hair blond. I was like, this is excruciating. It really hurt because they had to put so much bleach, and your hair is just itchy and all that stuff. Then it took a really long time to dye it back. I remember I had to make some appearance while my hair was blonde, and everyone thought that I was like, “Oh, look at Eminem.” They thought I was my dying my hair blonde for personal use. I was like man, I hate the internet. The internet is a terrible place.
You also have, “Thank You for Your Service,” (interview with writer/director of that film coming later this week) is about to hit theaters. I assume the preparation and training for that was also grueling, how did it compare from one to other?
Teller: Yeah, and one of the guys in this movie, Scott Hayes, he was in both films, we were in both films together, so we did both boot camps. He thought this one was harder. They’re both unique challenges, this one is a lot of…it’s not as dynamic. You’re doing a lot of the same stuff. You’re going to hike this mountain. You’re going to carry this tool, and you’re going to cut line. That stuff was tough. For military, I just had to learn a lot of, the skill set was more complex. I was also playing a staff sergeant in the United States, or in the Army, so that was tough. That one was more the instructors that we had were a lot meaner, like, you remember that show Scared Straight where they take kids on a wayward path, and bring them into jail to scare them to never going to jail. That’s what these dudes we’re doing. It was like, as soon as we got there, they were like, “Stand against the wall, and drop down!” and all that stuff. It was pretty intense, but they were both really good boot camps in terms of in a week getting us ready to do that job on screen.
In the film, your character, Brendan McDonough is the only survivor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots during the Yarnell Hill fire. The movie kind of shows the beginnings of the character dealing with survivor’s guilt. Did did the real Brendan actually talk with you about how he coped with that, being the only survivor of this tragedy?
Teller: Well I think when I met him he still coping with it, and we didn’t get into too much specifics about things that he does. I know for him giving back to a lot of these nonprofits, and being active in the wildfire community and to bring awareness to his brothers, writing the book, helping in the movie, all these things I think that’s all therapeutic for him. So yeah, he’ll do motivational speaking kind of things, there’s not too many people in life that will experience what he did. The fact he’s been able to come out the other side, and give kind of perspective on it. I think helping other people helps him.
I heard you were at an event once, and Robert Duvall kind of summoned you, and wanted to talk to you, and for any actor, that’s the ultimate, is there anything he shared with him, was it advice?
Teller: Yeah, that was pretty cool. I was at this party, and this guy came up to me, he was like, “Mister Duvall wants to speak to you.” I was like absolutely. So yeah, we sat and talked. We talked about he’s a big fan of beef, he really loves, like steaks. We talked about beef for a while and dancing. He really likes dancing. We just talked…career, longevity, and all that stuff, and then on this movie, having bridges. Just being able to talk to that guy. He’s been doing it for so long he’s one of my favorite actors. I guess you realized with actors, these guys that do it, and Duvall still doing it, there’s always something that you want to do, and there’s still a part you haven’t played. There’s still something you want to feel, and get across. I had a buddy do a play with Al Pacino, and he went and met him, and Al had all these books on acting spread across the table, like Al Pacino still feels like he has to learn. That’s what you realize, man. Nobody has it figured it out everybody’s nervous for that first day they show up on a movie, they feel like, “Do I still know how to do this?” I still feel like that all the time. There’s a real sense, a real fear of failure, that I think drives people to do this thing.
Was Brendan on set with you a lot, kind of helping you talk through the character, giving you pointers, notes, telling other actors what their guys were was like?
Teller: Yeah. With Brendan, certain things he was telling about himself, a lot of the time people aren’t necessarily the best source about themselves. Everyone has a certain image of who they are. Who they think they are. When you talk to their friends or family, and then they can give you another perspective on it. But yeah, Brendan, he was great for me. Just being able to ask him anything. Where he was really helpful to me was like at the end of the movie, specifically that scene when I come to the gymnasium, and Brendan goes into the gymnasium, because that really happened to him. Just talking about what that experience was like, because that is something that I had a hard time figuring out what he would be feeling at that moment. The feeling he had was that he wanted to just disappear. He went to the gym to grieve with the families, and as soon as he walked in, he felt like that was the biggest mistake of his life, because all the family members were looking at him, and they’re sad, and they’re pissed off that it’s not their husband, not their brother. I can totally relate to that, but for him, it was a really tough day. And yeah like you said, for all the other guys on set, it was great for them, too. He was our guy. Pat McCarty, he was a hotshot, Granite Mountain Hotshot, he worked really closely with Marsh, and a lot of these guys, and he was our technical advisor. We really cared more about authenticity than we did Hollywooding it up, Hollywoodizing it. From top to bottom, everybody wanted to get it right. Brendon helped us do that.
Does it change how you build your characters when you’re dealing with a real person versus someone who is a purely fictional character?
Teller: Yeah I think that hopefully you prepare for a character no matter what it is, 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 sense of responsibility to it, because you know that this movie is going to affect them for the rest of their life. It will. I’m representing Brendan on screen and people will look to that and feel like this must be who he is. Now, I’m not doing imitations, so it’s not like this is, everything that, it’s not a documentary of who Brendan is, it’s my interpretation of him. But yeah, I think there is a higher sense of responsibility to the people, and their families, and everything .
What do you look for when choosing your roles, you seem to have a very specially curated filmography.
Teller: Hair color. I haven’t played a blonde before, I really wanted to do that. I don’t know. Certain guys are easier to relate to. Then certain characters maybe represent something that you wish you were. I think that for all the characters I’ve played, I’ve been able to try and understand them. I don’t judge any of my characters, I like when they’re flawed. With Brendan, I think his story in this is completely unique. I felt like who he is at the beginning at the movie is just as important as who is at the end because it shows a transition, it shows a transformation. I like that. I like people that are complex and dynamic, and that all comes from good writing too. Brendon is Brendon, but if in the script he was written poorly, I wouldn’t have been attracted to it. You know what I mean? You need to get a sense of it from the page first. From there, it’s like director obviously is very important to me.
Have you been able to talk with any of the first responders or firefighters who’ve seen this movie and gotten their reactions?
Teller: Yeah. A lot of them at our premiere in LA, there was a lot of firefighters and 1st responders, and that was cool. I know that we got it right in terms of the bond, the camaraderie, the dialogue, how the guys talk, teamwork and all that stuff. I really feel like we got it right. The families, after the movie, I was talking to a couple of the guy’s dads, and a lot of tears, but also shaking our hand for keeping their spirits alive.
I mentioned before the Robert Duvall moment, if you met a younger actor, and you’re a young man whose got a pretty big body of work behind you, what would you tell them. A 17, 18-year-old guy or gal who is just entering the business?
Teller: I do get to talk to some of them. I did one talk at my high school, and whenever I’m in New York, I go back to NYU and make sure I sit in with the college kids, because I think when I was in school, if there was a guy who’s just a couple years older than me, who’s having success in the business, I would love to hear what he had to say. I think you have to love it. I think that if you’re trying to get in this business to be famous, there’s no blueprint for that. a), I don’t know to be famous, and I don’t know how to teach someone how to accomplish that, that’s bullshit. What’s real is you need to make it as personal as possible. For me that is what I really enjoy about it, is just the kind of personal journey I get, that I go on through these characters. It can really be a wonderful profession in terms of you getting to get a first person kind of view on some many different people and so many different walks of life. I think it’s great. For me, I think the two things that will drive me with acting, and will continue to, is empathy and curiosity, I’ve always been a curious person, I ask a lot of questions, and also, I feel a lot for this person or that person. You know, so yeah.
How familiar with you with these types of firefighters before the film, and what kind of things did you learn that kind shaped your perspective on that?
Teller: Yeah I knew nothing about it. I grew up. I was an East Coast kid. northeast, southeast. It really wasn’t an issue. I never lived in a state or county where we worried about wildfires, and I hadn’t really seen them on the news. So yeah, like I said, it gave an appreciation and understanding for a job of a first responder that I knew nothing about. I thought for a wildfire a plane flew overhead, dropped water overhead and that’s it. And that’s not true. I mean the one that kicked off in California, I think has already burned two times the size of DC in California. That’s scary. For mother nature, to fight mother nature…an iPhone is not going to help you, man. An app is not going to help you. Even machinery is not going to help you. It’s just all by foot, and so to think that it’s just men and women, just these little worker ants cutting line for miles, and miles, and miles to defend the fire, it’s cool to see in this movie, but it’s also really like, when I meet these guys now, I’m like, “I know you work your butt off because there’s no other way to do this job.”
Would you ever be a firefighter?
Teller: The town of Prescott reminded me of my town. I grew up in a pretty small town in Florida. I use to paint houses and do landscaping over the summer, and I think that if this job lent itself to my area, I think me and my buddies would have signed up for it during the summer. We like being outside, we don’t mind physical labor. It would have been fun.
Josh [Brolin] mentioned you have a pretty sweet text chain going on, who’s the MVP that keeps it fun in there?
Teller: Well, [Taylor] Kitsch keeps it weird. I think that’s the great thing about this and about this movie. You had some guys it was there very first movie, you know. Some guys got literally cast from a selfie, because they just so happened to look like the guy. Like I said, authenticity was really important to us. Then you’ve got Josh [Brolin] who’s done 50 movies. He was in The Goonies. He would tell us everyday, “I was in The Goonies.” We joke about that, but we would definitely bust his balls about that. He had such a open door policy that now in this group chat. Now in this group chat, there’s guys, like I said, never did a movie, they’re super confident in the text chain. That’s cool, man. I liked the fact that, because in the movie, everybody is wearing the same uniforms. It doesn’t matter how many movies you’ve done, we’re all Hotshots now.
Only the Brave is out in theaters now!