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Holiday preview: Jeremy Renner

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Back in 2001, things couldn’t get any worse for Jeremy Renner. Or so he thought. The out-of-work actor had just turned 30 and was living with his French bulldog, Simon, in a tiny Hollywood apartment with no power. To this day, he says, ”every time I see a candle it’s a reminder that it was the only form of light I had for eight months.”

Renner had moved to L.A. from blue-collar Modesto, Calif., in the early ’90s. And despite some early success — landing the lead in 1995’s National Lampoon’s Senior Trip and a handful of TV guest spots — his luck was running cold. Each time he auditioned for a movie role, it seemed to go to Leonardo DiCaprio or Mark Wahlberg. ”I ate on $5 a week,” says Renner, now 40. ”Top Ramen, McDonald’s two-for-Tuesday cheeseburgers, and Yum Yum doughnuts, which had 14 doughnut holes for 99 cents.” During the worst of it, Renner recalls looking at Simon and saying, ”We’re gonna look back on this one day, and it’ll be awesome!”

Before things would get awesome, however, they would become more bleak. Prior to nabbing the role of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in 2002’s indie Dahmer — a role that earned him an Independent Spirit nomination, but not enough money to turn his power back on — Renner decided to suck up what was left of his pride and start waiting tables. ”That was hard,” he says. ”It was the first time where I felt like, ‘Okay, you’re not a working actor anymore.’ It was tough, but it gave me iron balls.”

Needless to say, Jeremy Renner has come a long way in the last decade. His last two major film roles — in 2009’s The Hurt Locker and 2010’s The Town — have earned him Oscar nominations. Next month, he will costar with Tom Cruise in one of the biggest movies of the holiday season, Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol (rated PG-13). After that, Renner will star in the spooky adult fairy tale Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (March 2, 2012), pick up a bow and arrow to play Hawkeye in Marvel’s superhero extravaganza The Avengers (May 4, 2012), and step in for Matt Damon in The Bourne Legacy (Aug. 3, 2012). In other words, Yum Yum doughnuts will have to make do without one of its best customers for a while.

On a chilly October night, Renner slumps back in a chair in the dark bar of a hip New York City hotel and orders a large pot of coffee. His voice is raspy and his eyes are bloodshot. He says he’s still beat from the previous night, when he was belting out James Brown’s ”Living in America” with Damon at John Krasinski’s karaoke birthday party downtown. He’s also still recovering from a long week of night shoots on Bourne. (Yes, he and Damon discussed their torch-passing on the series. And no, he won’t spill any details of what was said.) Listening to Renner describe his nonstop schedule, you get the sense that it’s taken him so long to finally land on Hollywood’s radar that he’s busting those iron cojones on as many projects as he can before the suits in Hollywood realize he’s the same guy who used to serve their omelets.

Dressed in jeans, a gray sweatshirt, and a black San Francisco 49ers cap, Renner says he wasn’t originally supposed to be in Ghost Protocol. A year and a half ago, he was talking to director J.J. Abrams about playing the widowed father in last summer’s Super 8 (a part that went to Kyle Chandler). Renner didn’t think he was right for the role, so he went back to Abrams’ office to say thanks, but no thanks. Before he could, Abrams asked if he’d be interested in Ghost Protocol instead. Abrams, who directed the last Mission: Impossible flick in 2006, is a producer on the new one. He asked Renner if he’d meet with Tom Cruise right away. Before Renner knew it, Cruise and the film’s director, Brad Bird (The Incredibles), were pleading with him to join the Impossible Mission Force and pitching him the movie, beat by beat. When they were finally out of breath, Renner told them he loved it. But he had a question: Why him? They said they needed an actor who had three qualities: someone who could be intimidating without looking like he’s intimidating, someone who could hold secrets in his eyes, and someone who wouldn’t be overpowered by Cruise. ”I went from turning down one movie to getting Mission: Impossible in three hours,” says Renner, laughing at his dumb luck.

When asked why he was so eager to snag Renner for the film, Bird says, ”You’re always trying to find the truth of the moment. And when you’re doing a film that is more of a popcorn, crazy action movie, you have to find reality in some unreal situations and make them real. Jeremy’s one of the few people I can think of who can do that.” Cruise says he was impressed by something else — Renner’s never-say-die tenacity. ”You look at his career and it’s a lesson: Don’t give up! Talent always wins and passion always wins. This business, you have to deal with a level of validation and evaluation, and he’s someone who just kept going.”

In Ghost Protocol, Renner plays William Brandt, an IMF analyst who gets thrown in with Cruise’s team after a bombing in the Kremlin forces them underground. (Simon Pegg returns as Benji and Paula Patton plays Jane.) Everyone involved in the film is twitchy about revealing more than that, other than to say that Brandt is a wild card whose allegiance may not be what it seems. One thing they will say, though, is that rumors about Cruise’s Ethan exiting the franchise and Renner grabbing the reins are dead wrong. ”I signed on for three movies,” says Renner. “If Tom wants to do another one, we do another one. It’s not about taking over a franchise.”

In a way, you can understand the speculation, particularly since Renner is now headlining The Bourne Legacy (although he’s not playing Jason Bourne). It’s a tricky career move for a star as freshly minted as he is. Not only does he risk being compared to, gulp, Roger Moore, but he’s also about to lose his anonymity. ”I had to have a serious talk with my agent because this offer wasn’t about a movie, this was about a life choice,” says Renner. ”In Mission, it’s a Tom Cruise movie. The Avengers is ensemble-y, but [Bourne] is a game changer. I thought, This is going to affect how I walk down the street. It’s going to affect what happens when I go into a restaurant. I can’t even believe I’m saying this, but is this going to affect the next 20 years of my life? As an artist, am I putting a nail in the coffin of my artistic sensibility?”

Renner knows that this is a nice predicament to be in. But he also admits that being suddenly in demand after so many years of struggle is surreal. The craziness began after The Hurt Locker started gobbling up critics’ awards and he found himself on the handshaking circuit. Suddenly, heroes like Morgan Freeman and Robert Duvall were slapping him on the back, while Sean Penn invited him out drinking. ”I guess it’s like a club,” Renner says.

Some who’ve worked with Renner say he’s benefited from the fact that his sudden fame came so late. ”Someone told me that your growth is completely arrested at the day you become famous,” says Ben Affleck, Renner’s director and costar in The Town. ”It’s a joke, but it’s partly true. Jeremy came into his success with a lot of wisdom and a lot of work under his belt. He’d seen things come and go. It’s hard if you’re young to have the perspective on how lucky you are and how fleeting it is and how difficult this business is.”

Still, Renner says that he wasn’t prepared for the tabloid scrutiny that came with the territory. For example, last January he threw himself a rollicking 40th-birthday bash at his home in L.A., where it was reported that Christina Aguilera passed out drunk on Renner’s bed. ”She was there,” he admits. ”But she wasn’t passed out on my bed. Everyone was splayed out all over my house. There were 400 people there! During the Hurt Locker campaign, anyone I had my arm around or talked to I was f—ing, apparently. The gossip people are sick.”

Renner laughs at this, not just because those stories are so wildly inaccurate, but also because he can’t believe that anyone’s interested in the guy who was living on $5 a week not too long ago. So when he’s asked if there’s anyone in his life now, he can’t help but crack up. ”No. Would it be nice to be with a gal? Yes. But how would I even do that? I’ve done five movies in a row! I’ve been traveling all over the world! I realize it’s a high-class problem to have, but seriously, where would I find the motherf—ing time?”

From the script
INTERIOR Burj Khalifa Hotel — Room 119-D — Day

Benji: Wow. We’re gonna have to get to the server from the outside.
Ethan: What?
Benji: The firewalls on the building’s server is military grade. This’d be a cinch if I could call Dave back at headquarters. But Dave doesn’t exist any more. And neither do we—I could hack through. But it’d take hours.
Ethan: Then we hard—wire in…?
Benji: And there’s at least four layers of next—gen security. I’m telling you, there’s no getting to it from inside the building—
Ethan: What floor is it on?
Benji: 130th.
Brandt: If we can’t get to that server and take control of the elevators and security cameras, this whole operation is over before it began.
Benji: We have to get to it from the outside.

Ethan knows what Benji is suggesting. As Benji and Brandt stare at Ethan…

Ethan: We…?
Benji: (deflecting) I’m behind the computer. Ethan looks to Brandt—
Brandt: I’m the helper.

Ethan considers. Looking for any other options…
Ethan: Elevator shaft?
Benji: (shaking his head “no”) Infrared sensors.
Ethan: Vent duct access?
Benji: Pressure sensitive.
Ethan: How am I supposed to do this?

Benji flings something across the room, sticking it to the window. It’s the Gecko Glove. Ethan stares at the Glove, then turns to Benji.

EXTERIOR Burj Khalifa Hotel — 119th Floor — DAY

A window panel is removed, and pulled inside the room by Brandt and Benji. Ethan picks up the gloves.

INTERIOR Burj Khalifa Hotel — Room 119-D — Day

Ethan is now in his climbing gear, wearing the Gecko Gloves.

Benji: (re: the Gecko Gloves) Remember, it’s a rolling off motion that disengages the bond. Blue is glue.
Ethan: And red?
Benji: Dead. But don’t worry about that.

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