- Published: Sunday, 05 October 2014 14:44
- Written by coolshades
After a string of blockbusters, Jeremy Renner is getting back to smaller, serious films like 'Kill the Messenger' (FOCUS)
It can be a rare and wonderful thing to land a successful movie franchise, if you're smart. For struggling actors, it vaults you into another world. For serious thespians, it subsidizes all the other, darker films you really want to do. Just getting one gig like that can be a blessing.
And somehow regular-guy Jeremy Renner, 43 — who looks like that best friend you always got into trouble with — has grabbed three: The "Bourne" reboots, the new "Mission Impossible" series, and Marvel's amazing "The Avengers."
Not bad for a serious actor who, before "The Hurt Locker" happened in 2008, was considering quitting.
"I guess it's weird now that I openly ever doubted things," he says. "I mean, I'd always been encouraged along the way by some great people. But there were times... I remember being very frustrated back then (with the parts I was getting), thinking, I don't know, how many more times am I going to do this? I need some bigger challenges."
"The Hurt Locker" gave him one, and, for a solid actor who'd already been kicking around for more than a decade, a huge professional boost. Now, the franchises that followed have given him another chance — to go back to his roots, and give the sort of smaller pictures he started in their own jolt of energy and attention.
One result is the new "Kill the Messenger," opening Friday, the true story of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, who wrote a series linking the CIA to drug smugglers and crack. After the stories appeared, other papers attacked them for being overhyped and undersourced; Webb's bosses then backed off and left him dangling, convinced he'd been deliberately silenced.
"I was in the middle of shooting 'Avengers,' running around with bows and arrows and things, when I got the script," Renner says. "And I'm reading it, thinking, oh, this is amazing. I'm not really into conspiracies, but I just thought it was a great story, more than anything."
Renner committed to it as a star, and when things still seemed iffy ("It's not the sort of movie that studios generally throw a lot of money at — I mean, there aren't any superheroes in it") decided, for the first time, to come aboard as a producer, too.
"It represents a lot of who I am as an actor," he says of the film. "This is the kind of movie that I was known for, and these are the kinds of movies that we want to make as a company. You know, the big 'Avengers' movie came around, and 'Bourne' came around, and they're great. But character-driven dramas, that's what I cut my teeth on. And I'm not forgetting them."
A SMALL-TOWN BOYHOOD
Jeremy Renner was born and grew up in Modesto, California, where his dad ran a bowling alley and his mom worked hard to keep six kids fed and in clean clothes. His parents split when he was 10, and Renner remembers himself mostly as some mullet-headed teenager, running around and listening to music and not doing much else.
He finished high school. He went to the local junior college as a criminology major. It was only when he signed up for an elective that he discovered acting — and discovered he loved it.
"It was very therapeutic at the time," he says. "Coming from a small town — I mean, it was not OK for guys to cry. You know, `Suck it up!' 'Be a man!' But acting, I found I could hide in these characters and deal with rage and pain and sadness and all these sort of emotions in a very safe way. So, for the first couple of plays I did, it was therapy. And then it became the artistry of trying to understand the human condition, and figuring out how to convey it."
Still, when he declared this was going to be his career, "I surprised everybody," he says. "And I totally surprised myself."
The first few years were lean, even after he got his first movie, "National Lampoon's Senior Trip." He rehabbed houses and worked as a makeup artist to pay the bills, and played guitar to stay sane. But the same thing that made him stand out onscreen — a kind of genuine, working-class pugnacity — also kept him from the sort of big bland parts that other, carefully polished young actors were landing.
So, in 2002, he took a role they never would — playing the American killer cannibal in "Dahmer." The movie aimed for something more than trashy exploitation, however, and Renner's performance lifted it even higher, trying not to excuse the serial killer, but explore him.
"It's always about respecting the character, getting to the truth of the character, whether they're based on a real person or not," he says of his approach. "My job is to be truthful and make it as real as possible... If I'm playing a bad guy, I try to find something sympathetic, or relatable or at least human to him. If it's a good guy, he's got to be flawed, otherwise it's not really interesting."
It's a contradiction that would run through a lot of his later roles — the honest crook of "American Hustle," the self-destructive hero of "The Hurt Locker." And at the time, "Dahmer" won him some good reviews, and a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award.
But afterward, it was back to the same grind. The small serious pictures he made — either no-frills-indies ("The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," "12 and Holding,") or other actors' personal projects (Charlize Theron's "North Country," Brad Pitt's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") — were barely seen. The one big hit Renner had, "28 Weeks Later," was a horror-film sequel.
"It was just starting to get really uninteresting," he says. "I mean, I was grateful to be working. But the parts I was a getting — I felt I had more to offer. And I wasn't getting those opportunities."
Then, while casting "The Hurt Locker," director Kathryn Bigelow caught his performance in "Dahmer." She needed someone strong and edgy to play an honored Army bomb-disposal expert who's really a dangerous adrenaline junkie. Renner signed on, spent a week training in the Mojave Desert, then headed out to the set in Jordan.
"That was like a jump from the minors to the majors, and it's now the bottom of the ninth, and you gotta swing," he says of the pressure. Adding to it? The incredible heat, and dodgy meals that left many members of the cast running to the bathroom. (Renner, who got some kind of intestinal bug, reportedly dropped 15 pounds in three days.)
"That shoot — it was pretty hard," he says. "But I think it translated onto the screen. and I was happy about that. As an actor — the stress you're going through personally, lack of sleep, whatever it is, you use that. Those things are gifts."
Another reward, well-earned, was the best actor nomination he received that year. (He lost to Jeff Bridges, for "Crazy Heart.") Renner soon had another great part, as Ben Affleck's hot-headed best friend in "The Town" — and another Oscar nomination, this time for best supporting actor (Christian Bale won, though, for "The Fighter.")
And it was then, with two Academy Award nominations to his credit, that Renner was suddenly presented with the chance to make some blockbusters. He grabbed it, hard.
A cameo in "Thor" as the coolly efficient Hawkeye, and then a supporting part in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol." Then returning as Hawkeye in "The Avengers," and back-to-back leads in "The Bourne Legacy" and (definitely the oddest credit in his filmography) "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters."
And while he then took a break from special effects — with the fine "The Immigrant," fun "American Hustle," and now "Kill The Messenger" — he's returning to the blockbuster world soon with "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Mission: Impossible 5" (a sequel to "The Bourne Legacy" is in development, too).
"Going from a big studio film to something like 'The Immigrant' is definitely a shock," he admits. "And so is going back to a big studio movie after doing 'The Immigrant.' But I do them both because I want to do them, not because I need to. I enjoy both."
Besides, frankly, Renner — who is married, with a toddler daughter — isn't about to start limiting his options. It took 20 years to get to this point in his career, and he's going to keep it going on both tracks — big blockbusters and indie dramas.
So, although his "Bourne" series lost a little of its thunder when original star and director Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass revealed they were working on their own movie, Renner swears he's excited by that, "can't wait" to get to work on his installment, and "thinks the two series will probably blend at some point." The latest "Mission: Impossible" has already started shooting some of its "amazing" action sequences (although Renner reveals the script itself is still being tweaked).
And what about "Age of Ultron." Is there anything he can tell fans about what to expect there?
"I think we have to be a little vague on what fans can expect," he says carefully. "But what I liked and what made the first movie successful is exponentially increased — being not-so-serious when it can be, and then being dead serious when it needs to be. There's a lot more of the Avengers working together on this one. There's some good goodies and some good baddies — James Spader is awesome. I tell you, man, the Marvel Universe is expanding as we speak, and this film is the nucleus."
And after that?
Well, there's his family to enjoy. There's his new, additional career as a producer to explore. (His dream is a biopic of macho icon Steve McQueen.) And there's just continuing to successfully, good-naturedly navigate an industry which at first didn't want him, then grudgingly used him, now suddenly loves him — and, he fully knows, could change its mind overnight yet again.
"I know it's not a popular thing to be doing," he says of some of his plans, including his current passion project. "It's not a good business model, for shareholders. But I don't have any shareholders in me. And the criticism, or whatever, I keep the armor on. You know, as an actor, you've got to kind of be like a Tootsie Pop — keep that hard shell on the outside, and protect your soft chewy center."