In "Whiplash," Teller plays a jazz drummer determined to succeed. He forgoes friends and romantic relationships, opting instead to practice until his hands bleed. As a student at the nation's leading music conservatory, he fights for a spot in the competition band, led by an unforgiving, intimidating and often abusive instructor (played by J.K. Simmons at his scariest).
Writer-director Damien Chazelle introduced "Whiplash" as a short film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival to gain funding for his debut feature that opened the festival this year. And from the start, he wanted Teller for the role.
"I saw 'Rabbit Hole,' his first movie when it came out, and it was right around the time I was writing the first draft of this script," Chazelle said. "I was just immediately like, 'Who the hell is this kid? I've got to work with this kid.' "
"Even though you were only two years older than me at the time," Teller added.
The young actor is in nearly every frame of the film, and he took four-hour drum lessons three times a week to prepare for the part. Like his character's, Teller's hands blistered and bled as he thrashed at the drum kit.
"I remember [he] was really proud when [he] showed me the first drop of blood [after] doing the drum solo," Chazelle said. "[He] was like, 'Look, it actually happened! It's not makeup!' "
"Whiplash" will be distributed in North America by Sony Pictures Classics, though no release date has been announced.
Teller has two other films slated for release in 2014: the comedies "Two Night Stand" and "Get a Job." He also earned accolades for his Sundance debut in 2013, playing opposite Shailene Woodley in the coming-of-age drama "The Spectacular Now." (He and Woodley reunite in "Divergent.")
"As a young actor, you just know about Sundance and all the great film festivals, and you think about what it would be like to get up there," he said. "And last year it completely lived up to that. It was a really special moment in my career. And now to come back with this film and have it open up and have the response that we're getting, it's very rewarding. It feels good."