The movie Only the Brave—which documents the true story of an Arizona wildfire that tragically killed 19 wildland firefighters in June 2013—opens in theaters this weekend. And I recently had a chance to sit down with one of the movie’s stars, Miles Teller (Allegiant, Fantastic Four, Footloose), to talk about his role in the film.
Teller portrays the tragedy’s lone surviving firefighter, Brendan McDonough. He’s a young man trying to leave his addictions behind and become a good father to his little girl, all while dealing with the unique pressures of his demanding and dangerous new career.
Adam Holz: Thanks for taking time to talk about your movie with us today, Miles. What was it about the story of Only the Brave that attracted you to working on it?
Miles Teller: I thought it was a really well-written script. I think that’s the first thing that was attractive to me. I look at the story first, and look at my character second. As far as playing Brendan goes, the guy has such a unique trajectory. He’s got a really interesting dynamic to him in terms of where he was at before he became a Hotshot [an elite wildland firefighter] and then who he is at the end of the move. I felt like in this hour and 45 minutes, the biggest transitions in his life were made. So I was excited to be a part of it and to help tell this story. It’s a story that should be given a Hollywood movie. It was a big loss to the firefighting community, and I was proud to represent him.
Holz: Yeah, there’s so much we can choose to be cynical about today, and this is a movie that I feel like in many ways is worth attention because of its characters’ heroic efforts. Did you have a chance to meet Brendan McDonough and learn about his experiences firsthand?
Teller: I did, yeah. I read his book first, and then I flew down to Prescott [Ariz.] to meet him and hang out with him. I didn’t have an agenda. … We did hike to the Juniper Tree [a monument to the fallen firefighters near Prescott]. Spending three days with him, we got to have a lot of nice conversation about these guys and what he hoped we’d be able to accomplish [with the film].
Holz: I was surprised how physical this movie seemed while watching it. Did you do real-life training with firefighters?
Teller: It’s a unique skillset that these wildland firefighters have. I had no idea what they did. And you realize, yeah, they’re cutting line a lot of the time, which is really tough. You’re basically just hunched over with a 60-pound pack on, digging at the ground for 12 hours a day, 16 hours a day. And then you sleep outside, you wake up, you eat MREs, you do it again. And you do that for nine months, only going home four days a month sometimes.
Holz: What would you say are some of the biggest themes in the film, especially for someone who’s not familiar with the story?
Teller: Brotherhood. Sacrifice. Family. There’s a lot of laughs in this movie. I think it’s one of those rare movies that you’ll laugh and cry at. And that’s an accomplishment for the filmmakers. I know at this point that it’s a really honest representation of what these firefighters do. The authenticity is there. The families, the guys who do this for a living, many of them have come up and said, “Thank you,” and, “You know, you got it right.”
Holz: Speaking of that, in every adaptation of a true story, there are core things that are right, and usually, there are places where the story takes some dramatic license. Would you say this is a pretty accurate story?
Teller: It’s very accurate.
Holz: How would you say playing a real-life person is maybe different than portraying a fictional character?
Teller: Well, you know when you make a movie and you present them onscreen, you’re going to affect them for the rest of their life. You get a lot of leeway with fictional characters. But if you’re playing someone who’s alive—it’s not like I needed to imitate Brendan in any way. But I wanted to make sure he felt kind of the spirit of him was onscreen. And so, yeah, that is important. You have a responsibility to them.
Holz: In one of the last scenes, Brendan goes into where the families are. Is that what really happened in real life?
Teller: Yeah. So, the fire’s happened, and some other firefighters are gonna take Brendan back to his house. And he says, “No, take me to where all the families are.” I think he felt like he wanted to grieve with them, ’cause he had just lost all of his guys. That’s why he went. He told me that when he showed up, that he immediately regretted it because everyone was looking at him, because they didn’t know who was alive. They knew there was one survivor. And so everybody was just looking at him, like, angry and p-ssed off and sad that it wasn’t their husband, their brother, their son, whatever it was. Yeah, that was a tough scene to film.
Holz: You know, another thing it’s difficult to tell while watching a film is how much you’re actually in fire scenes and how much of that is special effects, but it seemed pretty realistic.
Teller: Yeah, it was.
Holz: I’d love to hear just a little bit more about the physicality of shooting some of those scenes. It sure seemed like it was not CGI fire.
Teller: Yeah, it was all real fire that we were dealing with. There’s some CGI fire in the movie, but we weren’t acting with CGI fire. They built, um, maybe it was about an acre where they built a fake forest, as it were, and all the trees had gas lines running through them to where they could raise the gas or lower the gas. And the trees were coated in this material so they wouldn’t catch on fire, where you’d be able to put them out. That kind of thing. Yeah, so we were always working with real fire. And I don’t know if you or your readers know this, but fire is hot.
Holz: It is. I think they do know that, but it’s good to have that reaffirmed. Another question for you: Obviously, it’s an all-star cast. What was it like working with Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly and Andi McDowell?
Teller: Yeah, well Andi I’ve worked before on Footloose. So that was cool. And with Josh, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d seen a lot of his movies, and I was really a big fan of his work as an actor. But as a person, he’s just the best, dude. There were guys in the movie, and it was their first movie. And they were cast because they looked like a certain guy. So we had the whole gamut of [acting] experience. And he just brought everybody in, man. Everybody was wearing the same uniform in this thing, and there was no ego at all. He would have us working out together on the weekends. He was always leading all the runs. He was in incredible shape, and he really had a personal attachment to this. He was really carrying that torch for us.
Holz: It seemed like there was real chemistry with the people onscreen. And, again, as viewers we don’t always know if that’s real or if it’s acting. But it felt like, This is a group of people who are really having fun making this movie together.
Teller: Yeah, we did. You know, we all went through a boot camp together. It was pretty tough. So I think you get bonded through collective suffering a lot of the time. And, it’s nice, you know? You don’t have to act it. We all had this same experience to go off of. And the experience of going through that boot camp together carried on through the rest of the filming.
Holz: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers about this film?
Teller: Just that it’s a great film. The reviews that are coming out are overwhelmingly positive. If you know the ending—or not—you’re going to feel such a range of emotions. And I think that it’s an important film. These are the types of films that need to get made, and I just hope people go out and see it. It’s going to make them feel something. It’s a really heartwarming story.