Jeremy Renner has been in the movie business a long time—some 15 years. He has co-starred alongside Brad Pitt, Charlize Theron, and Samuel L. Jackson.
But Renner was always That Not Quite Famous Guy, more known among IMDb-crazed movie geeks than the public at large.
After losing out on a movie, “I’ll say every time: ‘It’s turned out to be shit.’ So I’m so glad I wasn’t a part of that,” he said.
This cloak of anonymity is lifting. Renner’s beguiling performance in The Hurt Locker, an adrenaline-charged sleeper hit about a special bomb unit in Iraq, is generating major awards-season buzz (on Sunday, it picked up best picture awards from LA Film Critics and AFI)—not to mention a career boost for the 38-year-old actor.
Since the Kathryn Bigelow-directed film was released last summer, Renner has received raves from critics Roger Ebert, Owen Gleiberman and Richard Corliss, who crowned him the next Russell Crowe. The breakout role is his nuanced portrayal of loose-cannon squad leader William James, who bonds with a young Iraqi boy one minute and the next horrifies his team by removing safety gear to dismantle a tricky bomb, bluntly remarking “If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable.”
Entertainment-industry pundits are throwing his name into the ring as a potential Oscar nominee—he’s a wild card, though, edged out by boldfaced near shoo-ins George Clooney ( Up in the Air), Daniel Day-Lewis ( Nine), and Morgan Freeman ( Invictus).
• Caryn James: The Best Action Film and the Woman Who Directed It In the tradition of humble thespians, Renner downplays this chatter.
“That’s a wonderful compliment,” he said on a recent December afternoon, a day after The Hurt Locker cast won “best ensemble” at New York’s Gotham Awards. “It doesn’t really mean anything to me right at this moment, but it’s better than a stick in the eye, I suppose. People talking about you—what does it really mean? There’s nothing concrete about it.”
In any case, a Hurt Locker campaign is under way. Renner’s friend Ben Affleck, who directed him in the upcoming crime drama The Town, recently stumped on his behalf with a glowing tribute in Variety. He wrote: “His performance is the result of a tremendous work ethic and commitment. … That part could have gone the way of archetype or, even worse, a kind of cliché of the crazy renegade guy who breaks the rules. Instead Jeremy’s character is probably the most honestly drawn of everyone in the movie.”
Renner said he hadn’t read Affleck’s homage so I asked him to read it on my BlackBerry. After scrolling through, he gushed, “He’s such a great, great dude. … And I remember they were asking if he would do something like that, you know, write about me in this article—I don’t know, I’m not sure exactly what it entailed but, yeah, that’s really lovely. It looks like he wrote that!”
Bigelow gambled on The Hurt Locker: She directed an Iraq War movie, usually box-office Kryptonite, and cast lesser-known stars in leading roles that might otherwise have gone to bankable heavyweights like Matt Damon.
She boldly snuffed Guy Pearce at the very beginning (cause of death: bomb explosion) and focused on big-screen soldiers Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. The movie was a critical smash, raising the actors’ profiles in the process.
“When you kill off Guy Pearce [in a cameo] and then you throw in my face, you’re like, ‘Oh wow, anyone can die at any moment,’” Renner said. “So if I was Tom Cruise—and nothing against him—he just doesn’t die in movies.”
Renner is not a conventional leading man. His features are round and boyish, almost generic, save for his large and intense blue eyes (he could be Elijah Wood’s older, taller brother). His gaze could turn unsettling when you consider his disturbing portrayal of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the 2002 biopic, which Renner considers his breakthrough role for attracting Hollywood’s attention (and subsequent parts in S.W.A.T., 28 Weeks Later and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).
As it happened, Bigelow saw Dahmer and was convinced Renner was the right man for her live-wire bomb impresario based on how he approached the part, he said.
“All I knew of him was Dahmer and S.W.A.T.,” said Mackie. “When I saw Dahmer, I thought he was the sickest actor! … I expected him to be a really, like, oddball kind of guy, just somebody who wouldn’t be fun to be around.”
When Mackie finally met Renner, he was surprised the serious actor was both a collaborative non-diva and a relatable guy who gave everyone nicknames and could have a couple of drinks and not go wild.
“Usually when you get on set with a really prepared actor, they usually throw their stuff at you—and he’s not like that,” Mackie said.
In order to channel Dahmer’s gruesome history, Renner had jumped right in and became rattled. Not surprising, he had a hard time finding a good woman during this period.
“It sort of freaked me out and I had to go to really dark places to play him and so, you know, it took a while to shake off,” he recalled. “I couldn’t go into a bar alone. I’d totally flip out, freak out … walk out. And who wants to go hang out in a bar alone anyway? But if you’re trying to meet somebody, I couldn’t do it. Now, I can kinda get away with it. But years back, I couldn’t do it.”
Renner grew up the oldest of five children of divorced parents in Modesto, Calif. He fell in love (with acting) at community college. “It was 19 years of emotional repression, I suppose,” he explained. “I was always a happy kid. I needed another outlet but didn’t know that.”
Cut to late 2009, and things are lining up: He dates aspiring actress Jes Macallan (“She’s like me with boobs,” he joked) and is building a new home north of Hollywood. He’s talking to Marvel Studios about playing Hawkeye in the movie adaptation of The Avengers comic-book series, and might take on a romance in the future.
“It’s really important in this business to be unpredictable,” he said. “It’s so easy to be boxed, to be cornered, pigeonholed. And I like to keep myself guessing, keep growing.”
He tried on a regular TV gig with the short-lived ABC detective series The Unusuals, which was canceled this year (he calls this “bittersweet” since he loved the cast but would rather focus on movies). One movie project he campaigned hard for and eventually lost was an update of Mad Max. The film is slated for release in 2011 with actor Jim Hardy and Theron, who befriended Renner on 2005’s North Country.
“I was really, really bummed out because I wanted to work with Charlize again, [and] she came in later in the game. So, like, awww, that woulda been cool to work with Charlize for eight months in the desert. But am I completely destroyed or heartbroken by it? No. You have to be really invested into something. And I move on to the next job.”
As a struggling actor in Los Angeles, he forced himself to stay in the game. He took grunt work and wrote plays to keep busy. He dodged cinematic duds. After losing out on a movie, “I’ll say every time: ‘It’s turned out to be shit.’ So I’m so glad I wasn’t a part of that,” he said.
Renner’s philosophy has much in common with his rugged Hurt Locker alter ego, who gets the job done–and keeps moving.
“You have to go out and grab it,” he said. “There’s sort of a ripple effect. You have to do something. Do an action. You have to be actionable otherwise it’s not gonna fall in your motherf—ing lap. That’s my outlook on anything in life, especially in this business.”
He talked about manifesting energy into the universe, sounding a lot like The Secret.
“There’s no accountability or responsibility to The Secret from my understanding,” he argued. “And some girl’s staring at a diamond ring in a window: ‘If you will that ring on your finger, you will have it.’ Well, go f— yourself man, you gotta do something about it.”
Erin Carlson is a longtime entertainment writer. She previously covered that beat at The Associated Press.