When Jeremy Renner was a struggling young actor in Hollywood, he used to spend his spare time singing karaoke in a dumpy little bar called Barney’s Beanery. Coincidentally, when Amy Adams was a struggling young actress in Hollywood, she also used to spend her spare time there singing karaoke. “That’s where we met, in like, 1999,” recalls Renner, sitting in a hotel room ahead of the London Film Festival premiere of Arrival, his second collaboration with Adams after 2013’s blistering American Hustle.
Though history doesn’t record – and Renner doesn’t remember – if they ever did a duet (“I don’t think I ever sang with her... I might have when I was a few deep”) – they formed a firm friendship, bonding over their willingness to bash out pop hits in front of complete strangers. “That’s all we did. We were broke actors and it didn’t cost any money to go in there and sing and have fun.”
Renner reckons they did this for the best part of a decade. Indeed, their careers progressed in similarly slow-burn fashion, with well-regarded supporting and lead roles in indies and studio films garnering them good notices, before both hit the big time proper around 2009/2010. That was when their respective Oscar-nominated performances in Doubt (Adams) and The Hurt Locker (Renner) propelled them to the top of the A-list for both prestige pictures (they have seven Oscar nods between them) and franchises (Renner is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Adams is Lois Lane in the rival DC films). “We’ve had a lot of shared experiences together,” nods Renner. “We both hit later in life and got a lot of success and recognition. And now we’re both parents and our kids sort of take precedence in terms of where our minds and our hearts go.”
As such Arrival was a bit of a no-brainer for Renner. Not only did it offer him the chance to work with Adams again, it allowed him to film in North America, enabling him to remain close to his baby daughter Ava. Yet it also provided him with an opportunity to finally work with maverick filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, the Oscar-winning French-Canadian director of Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049. “I almost worked with him on Prisoners and I knew all of his movies, so all the ingredients to make a nice cake were there.”
Arrival itself is a big sci-fi drama about an alien invasion. Full of provocative ideas and stunning visuals, it casts Renner a brain-box mathematician and physicist brought in to help Adams’ linguist decipher the alien language and figure out if these visitors are friends or foes. Though there’s no denying it’s a star vehicle for the top-billed Adams (expect her to be the favourite to pick up the Oscar for best actress come February), Renner’s character actually becomes more significant in retrospect thanks to a deftly constructed script that – to paraphrase a character in the film – forces you to rewire your brain in terms of what you expect from a movie like this.
“That’s what I ultimately didn’t grab until I saw the movie,” says Renner, taking care to talk around any potential spoilers. “As written there wasn’t a lot on the page for me to grab onto or do. But it became a much bigger thing and I just trusted Denis because he’s an amazing filmmaker. I was doing a lot more than I realised at the time, but every day I’d go home feeling like, ‘I’m not sure what I’m doing in this movie’.”
What he was clear about was how he wanted to make his character, Ian Donnelly, accessible to audiences. “When I spoke to Denis I was like, ‘We’re dealing with a guy who does math, deals with numbers and looks up at the sky all the time – how do we make this guy interesting?’ So I said, ‘Let’s do it through humour.’ So I used the idea of Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws. He’s a guy who just loves sharks. Most people are scared of them, but he loves them. So it was the same idea here. When I see the aliens and the vessel, the whole time my character is like, ‘Oh my God! It’s amazing!’ And you look at everyone else and they’re sort of terrified.”
Like all good sci-fi films, Arrival can be viewed as a reflection of the times. It certainly seems appropriate that a movie about the value of communication and cooperation in the face of fear should be coming out in the midst of the most divisive American election in history. “Yeah, because it’s so prominent right now – especially for people in America – you can draw similarities,” says Renner of the Trump/Clinton showdown. “It’s about language and because that’s something that unites us, but also divides us, I think that’s what ultimately resonated with me about it.”
Up next for Renner is Wind River, the directorial debut from Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Beyond that, he’s not sure. “I know that Avengers 3 and 4 are happening next year and maybe another Mission: Impossible, so the executives can get busy for me.” As for the rumoured sequel to The Bourne Legacy, which was set up to continue the Bourne franchise after Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass prematurely announced they weren’t going to make any more, he says he doesn’t know whether that will still happen in the wake of this summer’s Jason Bourne. “We were going to do one. There was an idea for a script, but it was stalling for a minute and then Greengrass and Damon wanted to go do one, so I was like, ‘Of course, let them go do one.’ So now I’ve no idea where that’s at; it’s above my pay-grade. If they want me to do another one I’d be happy to do it. If the fans want to see it, I’m happy to do it. If not, amen, I’m cool. I’ll stay home with my baby.” n
Arrival is in cinemas from Friday