IN ANY gathering, Jeremy Renner stands out like a swordfish in a pondful of koi carp, but especially in a crowd of actors.
For a start, he’s older than most rising male stars – his Bourne contemporary Matt Damon had been in the public eye for 15 years before Renner got his break in The Hurt Locker. His rugged, puggy features may be compelling, but he’s no Johnny Depp pretty boy. And even amongst thespians, he’s not physically intimidating at a shade under 5ft 10in.
However, he does have an unnervingly ferocious gaze. “This is just my resting face,” he protests, and demonstrates this by reprising a look that could pierce granite.
A few years ago, you may not have been able to put any sort of face to the name Jeremy Renner, but this summer you can barely move without hitting a Renner movie or DVD release. The big comicbook hit of the summer is The Avengers, with Renner as Hawkeye, whose bow and arrow can bring down alien spacecraft. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is available to rent, with a storyline that implies that if Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt finds the superspy life impossible, Renner’s Brandt is ready to step up as a replacement. And this August he’s filling another set of shoes with The Bourne Legacy. “I feel like the luckiest guy around,” says Renner, who has two decades of film and television experience under his belt, most of which passed under the radar. “Of course it’s nice to work, but it’s even nicer when people see your work.”
Thoughtful and quietly spoken, Renner looks pretty much like the guy he is: a man who makes sure he stays in touch with his folks back home in Modesto, California, who is passionate about skiing and, after a few beers, will get up on karaoke nights to belt out favourite numbers by Journey and Queen. Every so often, however, you glimpse the drive that has powered him from a Pink video to becoming this season’s must-have.
How many of your friends draw up a life awareness chart? Renner does one every year, totting up how he spends his time and then setting out targets for what he should do more of and what skills he needs to acquire. This sounds alarmingly intense, but when you’ve been exposed to the Tom Cruise work ethic, it probably sounds like slacking.
While they were making Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Cruise’s first piece of advice was “don’t get injured”, before climbing the side of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. “He pushes so you do it too,” says Renner, who briefly hung out of the building. “It’s always better for actors to do the stunts.”
That seems to conflict with the “don’t get injured” directive, and indeed since Mission: Impossible, Renner has made three more action films and admits, “I was injured on all of them.”
He seems to have inherited a particularly large batch of bangs and dents from his new film, The Bourne Legacy, including a hand that is still healing and can’t quite grip, and an overextended leg that required an MRI scan. “Every day on Bourne there was bleeding,” he says, cheerily. “But the most memorable thing was being in the water at negative temperatures. That was pretty intense. There’s nothing you can do to prepare for it. You just go in and freeze and hope your heart doesn’t stop.”
The first three chapters of the wildly successful Bourne universe, based on the Robert Ludlum novels, focused on Damon’s amnesiac Jason Bourne battling an armed array of government agency operatives to regain his memories and take revenge.
In the fourth, Renner plays Aaron Cross, another double-crossed CIA agent, whose first mystery is arguably why ‘Bourne’ is in the title if he isn’t in the movie. More spin-off than sequel, this first film without Damon still has chases, much punching out of lights, the same government puppetmasters and a comely sidekick (Rachel Weisz). “The script came to me in a very Bourne-like way,” chuckles Renner. “They flew it out to Germany, where I was shooting another film. Someone knocked on my door, and when I answered they said, ‘When you’re finished reading this script, call this number.’ It was very spy-like.
“The only qualm would have been if I was being asked to play Jason Bourne, but Cross is completely the opposite. Bourne was constantly looking for his own identity, who he was. Aaron joined to be part of something. So I read it, loved it and thought I would be an idiot not to do it.”
For this peak in an unusually late-flowering career, Renner is being paid an estimated $5 million for Legacy, which goes up to $10 million if he’s called back to play Cross again. Already Paramount have pushed back a project of his from March 2012 to January 2013, guessing that Renner will be an even bigger action star after the Bourne film and will punch up the profile of the riotously Grimm Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, where Renner and Gemma Arterton star as storybook siblings who deal with their witch-based childhood trauma by becoming bounty hunters. Also on his dance card is an untitled James Gray drama, in which he’ll star with Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, and a biopic about Steve McQueen that his own production company is developing.
Hands-on development is important to Renner. He’s grateful to the blockbusters but is also keen to maintain a distance. When another journalist praises Renner’s fighting technique and asks if it gives him confidence in real-life situations, he smiles thinly. “I haven’t been in a fight since second grade. I’d like to keep it that way.”
Renner is a lot like his character in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker, in the sense that he releases information on a need-to-know basis. Unless, of course, you ask him about interior design, because for the past ten years Renner and his best friend, actor Kristoffer Winters, have had a sideline in renovating houses, which at one point was more profitable than his acting work. Renner estimates he has turned around about 20 homes in Hollywood, sometimes living in them during the construction period, without electricity and indoor plumbing. During the awards campaign for Hurt Locker, he sometimes slept under plastic sheeting and brushed his teeth in a nearby Starbucks. Recently he sold on a property for more than $4 million, having bought it for half that sum in 2008.
This gave him “f*** you” money, so he didn’t have to take every job going to make ends meet. Presumably now, though, movies like Bourne mean he never has to leaf through a grouting catalogue again. “I’m doing a house now,” he says immediately. “I don’t plan on giving it up because I really, really enjoy doing it.”
Putting a house together is apparently rather like making a movie; a time-consuming construct that requires flexibility and creative problem-solving to stay within budget. “It’s one of the few things I do that will still exist after the movies are gone. I’m creating homes and lifestyles for people, and I love doing it.”
It’s easy for an armchair psychologist to speculate that his preoccupation with solidity is only natural if your parents divorced at ten, and remarried twice each. Renner has four siblings, ranging from 38 to one year old. As a child, his mother says he was so quiet and unassuming that he would instinctively head for the spot furthest from the camera during school photos. But at 18 he took an acting class and knew he had found something he loved. His first paid acting job came when he was doing a criminology course for a possible career in the police. “They wanted to train cadets to deal with domestic violence calls, so for $50 I was told to fight back and resist arrest. I spat, cursed and kicked one of them in the balls.”
As you might expect, he soon drew up a plan for himself, which included moving to Los Angeles with three goals – “One: to be in a film. Two: to be in a film that would play in my hometown. Three: to get a part where people could recognise me.”
Renner says it took him a year to find the confidence to endure auditions, and for months he lived by candlelight because he couldn’t pay his electricity bills. The lifestyle didn’t strike many romantic sparks either. “I couldn’t afford to date,” he has recalled. “I didn’t even have electricity.” His diet wasn’t particularly alluring either: at one point he was buying 14 doughnuts for 99 cents and spinning them out to last a week.
Then a casting director asked him to help her out by reading lines to other auditioning actors. “I learnt a lot from that; mainly that you may not get a part for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with talent. I was fired from a set once because the director wanted a dark-haired guy, not a blond.”
He appeared in TV movies, small independent films, was a vampire in TV’s Angel and even got a part in a Pink video. He turned down other work, such as joining a boy band (he won’t say who they were) and made ends meet with a skill not often found in a future action star. “I was a make-up artist,” he admits. His foundations in cosmetics were built at the Lancôme counter in Modesto, and he built up his role from there. “I’d spend a couple of days putting make-up on hot girls, which kept my whole week free to audition, and then the weekends.”
Finally he got a lead role in a broad comedy, National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, but the movie that opened doors for him was Dahmer in 2002, in which he brought surprising pathos to necrophiliac serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The budget was £180,000 and the film didn’t make its money back, but amongst those who saw Renner and remembered his name was Kathryn Bigelow, who was looking for someone to play a swaggering explosives expert who had become addicted to the adrenaline of the most dangerous job in the world.
Renner was in London filming the undead horror 28 Weeks Later when he took delivery of the script for The Hurt Locker. “Once I got it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
As you might expect from a man who draws up a life chart, he arrived for his first meeting with three pages of questions for Bigelow. Before filming began, he spent weeks with a bomb disposal unit, where one of the exercises involved painstakingly transferring paperclips from one place to another, an exercise in patient endurance. Then they shot for three months, mainly in Jordan in 125°F heat.
A year later, the tiny low-budget film was named best picture over Avatar, brought Renner his first Oscar nomination and catapulted him into the movie mainstream. A second Best Actor nomination followed in 2010 for Ben Affleck’s The Town.
This could be head-turning stuff, but although Renner has spent years in the background, his friends include A-listers and he has clearly absorbed lessons from their experiences. For instance, from Colin Farrell he learnt to treat everyone as an equal – and the perils of saying too much to the press.
But it’s especially revealing to watch him around Scarlett Johansson, who brings out his goofier side, when she isn’t beating him up in The Avengers. Paired up for the UK press, he happily submitted to her bossing him about and teased her in return about comicbook lore. When Johansson received her Walk of Fame star, she requested Renner for the presentation. “We first met ten years ago, at a Young Hollywood party, and she was all put together – like she is now – with her hair done up and her make-up glistening,” began Renner. “But she was also wearing these dirty Converse sneakers, and that represents what she is to me...”
“A dirty old shoe,” enquired Johansson innocently, and Renner broke up on the podium.
For such a guy’s guy, he has a lot of time for smart, strong women. Charlize Theron has been another pal since they worked together on North Country, and while playing the bad guy in The Town he chummed up with the British actress Rebecca Hall, found a piano and held impromptu karaoke singalongs and dances with Hall and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm in his Boston hotel room.
Of course, all this raises the question of who is currently partnering Renner offscreen, and the answer is that Renner is besotted with two relationships at the moment: a couple of miniature French bulldog puppies, bought to replace an older dog, Franklin, who died in March.
His last serious human relationship was more than three years ago, in the aftermath of The Hurt Locker, and ended when she decided she would like to try acting too. “That was part of the issue,” Renner said at the time. “I was going through the Hurt Locker campaign and she’s like, ‘Where do I get headshots?’”
Isn’t bachelorhood a little lonely at times? It is, he agrees. That’s why he has dogs. But owning a dog isn’t really the same thing, is it? Suddenly, he ignites again. “You don’t own the dog,” he protests heatedly. “You can provide a nice lifestyle for them, but you don’t own them. It’s the same thing with a house or anything else. You don’t own anything. You’re just lucky enough to share experiences together.”
Spoken like a true free-swimmer. n
The Bourne Legacy is released 13 August