War Dogs is based on a true story about two Miami potheads who become arms dealers for the U.S. military. You grew up in Florida——
Not in Miami. Miami’s its own thing. I grew up on the Gulf of Mexico. Floating down rivers on air mattresses, bonfires in the woods, that sort of thing.
In the movie, David and Efraim have a giant Scarface photo in their office. Playing a 20-something gunrunner who makes a fortune in Miami, did you worry you might be glorifying your character, creating another Tony Montana?
I don’t idolize Tony Montana. I can relate to the hustle but not to the craving for power and money. But you root for the bad guy. In War Dogs, I think Efraim is a guy who is making terrible choices. So is my character, David, but Efraim is more brazen about everything. They’re fun characters to watch.
Your family moved around a lot before settling in Florida. How did you take to the Sunshine State?
I was born in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. We moved to Georgia when I was two and then to Delaware for a little bit. I lived in south Jersey from the ages of seven to 11—Cape May. I think Oprah is rumored to have a house there. Then we moved to Citrus County in Florida—the manatee capital of the world. When we first moved there I got a tour of the middle school, and this kid walked in with cowboy boots, Wranglers, a rebel-flag shirt and a cowboy hat. I was like, “Oh shit, they must be doing some kind of play.” Then I saw another kid wearing the same thing, and it hit me: That’s where I’m at right now. I took an agriculture class in the seventh grade where we had to clean pigs and pick up cow shit. It was a massive culture shock for me. But to this day, my best friends are from Citrus County.
You were involved in theater in high school. Was your motivation to meet girls?
It wasn’t really to meet girls. I was the class clown, and I played baseball year-round. When I was a sophomore, my buddy who was a senior used to drive me home, and he said he was auditioning for a play. The drama teacher was pretty hot. She was 28 years old. So that got me to audition, but entertaining wasn’t foreign to me. I knew I was good at telling jokes. I was a big smartass. When I was in school and the teacher said something and I had something funny to say, I couldn’t not say it. And my house was always controlled chaos. Everyone would be playing a musical instrument, and my oldest sister sang opera. My mom enjoyed the cacophony of creation. So I did that play. I remember doing something the first night and getting huge applause and laughs, and that was it.
What was the play?
Footloose. I played the same role in the movie, which was pretty cool.
You also played Mr. Fantastic in last year’s Fantastic Four. What was your take on superhero movies going into it?
I wasn’t starving to be a superhero. Although at the time—it was a couple of years ago—if you’re a young man in this business, a part of you is saying, “I need to get a Marvel project; I need to be a superhero,” because you see all these actors you respect being put in that world. I would not have wanted to be Spider-Man because I wouldn’t want the whole thing riding on my shoulders. I enjoyed the ensemble element of Fantastic Four. I wouldn’t wish what happened to us on another movie. It’s tough, because there are such high expectations. Comic books mean so much to a lot of people.
Would you be interested in doing a sequel?
If we do, I hope it comes together in a way that satisfies people. You want to make the fans happy, but you can’t please everyone. In our case, we pleased very few.
You’re wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hat. From what I gather, you’re a Lakers, Eagles and Phillies fan. If you could switch careers with any current athlete, who would it be?
Mike Trout. He’s a Jersey guy. I would switch places with Mike Trout, then I would demand a trade to the Phillies. Come back home, Mike.
With War Dogs and the upcoming PTSD drama Thank You for Your Service, you’ve got two war movies under your belt. If you were curating a film festival of war movies, what would you show?
I’d make Thank You for Your Service the headliner. That movie focuses on the transition: We know how to send guys to war, but we don’t know how to bring them home yet. Abraham Lincoln used the term soldier’s heart; he could tell that soldiers were coming back deeply affected by combat. I’d also show Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and Apocalypse Now.
You’re pretty well trained as an actor——
That’s exactly right: pretty well. Because I am a trained actor, but every time I start a movie I ask myself, Do I know how to do this?
So what aspects of your training do you fall back on when that happens?
I’ll tell myself, Okay, after lunch I have to do a scene where I’m pissed off or whatever. Now, no one’s going to tell you how to be pissed. “Hey, Miles, you gotta be pissed in 10 minutes!” You’ve got to force yourself to think of things that are going to piss you off, physicalizing it. Sometimes on set there are instances when you need to tap into an emotion but you can’t bring it up. So you end up doing something different, and that creates another moment that you didn’t plan.
An anonymous person can say my face looks like a foot or I’m Ted Cruz’s doppelgänger. That doesn’t affect me.
In your college days at New York University, what was a typical Saturday night out like in the Village?
I couldn’t tell you, because we didn’t go out. It would be me and my buddies smoking a lot of pot, playing video games, listening to music. I came from a small town, lived in the dorms. My closest friend was from Kolkata, just an awesome dude. A lot of NYU kids had trust funds or a lot of money. That wasn’t the case for me. My parents gave me money so I could eat, but I wasn’t loaded. We had two TVs in the dorm room. We just got high, played video games and listened to dope music. And we talked a lot.
What kind of music and what video games?
My buddy Bird played a lot of Manu Chao, especially that song “Bongo Bong.” The first time I heard that, I said, “What is that immaculate sound?” And video games? A lot of Pro Evolution: Winning Eleven. But now, for transparency’s sake, I’m a FIFA guy.
Do you keep a lot of musical instruments around the house?
I just scooped up a new drum set. I always have a drum set at my house. I started playing in bands when I was 15. I just like playing with other people. I’m not like my Whiplash character, Andrew, where I’m trying to be the best at drumming. For me it’s not about the isolated journey of music; it’s collaborative. But I like to have options for people to play. I have a piano, a couple of guitars, amps. I just got a lap steel guitar. I figure if I keep it around the house, I’ll eventually learn how to play it.
I thought you had a reputation as a guy who likes to party, but on Twitter you post photos of you and your girlfriend in which you seem pretty domesticated. Does the public have a warped perception of who you are?
It’s tough. You can’t get ahead of it. It started back in high school—I tried to do a serious scene in class, and I remember everybody laughing. They thought it was so funny, and it pissed me off that I’d lost my audience, that I was no longer steering them. It still frustrates me a little bit. You can read whatever or say whatever about me, but I care about doing interesting work. I’m not in this for fame. I don’t play the social media game. All I want to do is walk into a room with actors and collaborate. It also comes with the movies you’re making. I made 21 & Over and Project X in close proximity. Then when people see me at a party it’s like, “Miles is this bro.” It’s not that I’m not. People are complex human beings. I enjoy intelligent conversation. Most of the time, I’m just listening to the Dead, working on a role. But I also drink. I enjoy a bit of chaos too.
When you’re enjoying a bit of chaos, what are you doing?
It’s all about the group. I like hosting. If you have the right people and the right music, it’s all good. In New York, it’s a lot easier to go out to the bars. In Los Angeles, it’s more club-driven and VIP-driven. I don’t care about that. I’d much rather be sitting around a fire, just talking.
Last year, you were the subject of an Esquire cover story that you have said misrepresents you. Since that experience, are you more guarded with the media?
In a way, yes. There are not that many checks and balances with print. In that case, or in any case, they can paint you however they want to paint you. For an actor, if they’re looking at your work, they’re seeing it two years after you did it. But I’ve got these movies coming out that totally contradict your image of me. You don’t even know what I’m working on now.
Like, I don’t know why you have blond hair right now.
I’m sitting here with blond hair now, readers! If somebody wants to do a hit piece, they’ll do a hit piece. In that case, the Esquire reporter had her mind made up long before I showed up. What’s frustrating is that she calls me an asshole, and then because it’s in a magazine, people say, “Oh, he must be.” But I’ve had however many years of being myself, and I know the kind of person I am. I will defend the person I am through my actions. People can make of it what they want. But I think about so many actors I look up to and wonder what people were saying about them at the age of 27 or 28. I’m sure it’s not all flattering stuff. Who knows? You could be writing a hit piece. She was being just as nice as you are.
You said you’re not a social media guy, but you are on Twitter and you occasionally “favorite” tweets by fans. Isn’t it dangerous to read what anonymous people post about you?
An anonymous person, which is 99 percent of the people on Twitter, can say my face looks like a foot or I’m Ted Cruz’s doppelgänger. That doesn’t affect me. There have been times, absolutely, when I’ll read negative stuff. Sometimes it’s by a critic or a journalist, and you can use that as fuel. With Twitter, I like it because I can put things in my own words. I can write something, and boom, it goes out to however many people. It’s important to have your own voice. But I don’t do Instagram. People are on their phones too much. I’ve been told that having an Instagram account will help me book more roles, get more endorsement deals. It makes you more of a brand. But I’m not interested. I want to build my fan base through movies and movies alone.
What are the best words of advice you’ve received from a fellow actor?
I’ve never sought out a mentor, but I’ve learned a lot by working with great actors like Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, J.K. Simmons, Aaron Eckhart. You see how they carry themselves. I’ve been doing this for almost seven years. It makes me marvel at where they’re at. To reach their level, I’ve got to do this for 20 more years and always do something different. That’s hard to do. Longevity is the goal. But for advice, one time an actor told me, “When you’re on your own, live your life. But don’t mess up in front of your peers.” This guy did not grow up surrounded by camera phones, obviously. But your reputation is everything. Don’t mess that up.
Videography by Eric Longden
Styling by Mark Holmes for Jed Root
Grooming by Marissa Machado for Art Department