Jeremy Renner on Becoming Box Office’s Go-To Ass Kicker!

When we spoke to Jeremy Renner over the phone last week, he was in a London hotel room eating sirloinmore and mushroom soup. The 43-year-old actor was decompressing after a day of filming opposite Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible 5, Renner’s second blockbuster sequel in a row. Over the summer, the Bay Area native reprised his role as the sharpshooting super agent Hawkeye in Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of the most hotly anticipated movies of next year. Kicking serious ass in studio tentpoles is part of Renner’s job description, a sea change for an actor who burst onto the scene by anchoring an unbearably tense thriller that cost $15 million to make. By the time that movie, The Hurt Locker, won Best Picture at the 2010 Oscars, Renner was a newly minted movie star, and Hollywood was dreaming up possibilities for the rugged California native, who, in movies like The Bourne Legacy, another of Renner’s franchises, deftly balanced vulnerability with the brute force of a pitbull.

In Renner’s latest, the true-life thriller Kill the Messenger, the actor plays journalist Gary Webb, who in 1996 uncovered a link between the CIA, Nicaraguan rebels, and Los Angeles’ crack epidemic. The closer an obsessive Webb got to exposing the CIA’s complicity in drug smuggling, the more the government--and rival news organizations--tried o destroy his life. We spoke to Renner about sacrificing for your career, protecting his new daughter from the perils of technology, and what we can expect from that Avengers movie we’ve been hearing so much about.

You often hear that Hollywood doesn’t make movies like Kill the Messenger anymore, these kind of mid-level thrillers for adults. But here you are in one.

I know! It’s a lot of headwind, but I think it’s important to do it.

How do you do it? How do you get a movie like this made?

That’s a good question. It’s a lot of things, I suppose. We shot it for a tenth of what they shot a similar movie for a studio, and they lost a lot of money so that’s why they don’t make them anymore. It’s a passion project. No one really makes any money. You do it because you just want to do it. You aggregate the right people that want to be on a team and help you push the rock up the hill.

That’s what’s impressive about it. You didn’t make it with box office in mind. You made it because you wanted to tell this story, which is really what moviemaking should be about.

Right. Should be. (Laughs) There is a movie business though, you know?

In this movie, you get to act opposite such a long string of great character actors like Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, and on and on. How fun was that?

I’ve never seen a cast so big and so tremendous. It’s crazy, isn’t it?

Have you ever been obsessed with anything on the same level that your character, Gary Webb, was obsessed with this story?

I don’t think so. Maybe my daughter now. I’m really passionate about what I do for a living, but--there’s a similar thing between journalism and acting in a way. As an actor you dig for the truth--the emotional truth--in human behavior. So my doggedness and tenacity to find that, and always learn and grow. But that’s about me and make-believe and shit. He’s doing something important. He’s talking about things that inform the public. Acting can be selfish, and his is completely the opposite, where it’s selfless. It’s an apple and an orange, so the short answer is no.

You mentioned recently having a daughter, and I know you just got married. Your character sacrifices his family life for his career. As an actor who is always traveling, is that something you can relate to?

That’s something I related to for sure. I don’t know if every guy is this way, but for a man, what we do for a living sort of defines who we are. Genetically we’re hunters and gatherers, and we provide and bring back to the cave. That mentality is sort of my belief system, and my work is something that really defines a huge amount of who I am. I know Gary was the same.

In another interview, you lamented the current state of media and the information age we live in. You said that “information needs to be earned.” As a reporter without the luxury of Google, that’s exactly what Gary Webb does. He earns the information he gets. Is that old school journalism world what appealed to you about this story? 

Philosophically, that’s just how I grew up. Every dollar I made, I earned it. There’s just more value to something if you earn it. I’m doing well right now, but how am I going to serve my daughter if I give her everything? She needs to struggle, and goddammit, I’m going to make her struggle! Maybe not as hard as I did, but she’s going to earn shit! Now things are just offered to us, they come at us.

Are you going to monitor how your daughter interacts with technology?

Certainly I’ll monitor it, but I’m not going to be a dinosaur and be like, You don’t get to touch that stuff. It’s going to be like, You get to go play an instrument for an hour, and play with the iPad for an hour.

You’re in three of the biggest franchises in Hollywood right now. Is this what you envisioned when you decided to become an actor?

(Laughs) No man! There’s not very many people in that position. It’s nothing I ever envisioned, especially how it happened.

This kind of success came later in your career. Did it take you by surprise?

I felt prepared enough to ultimately be able to take on franchises back to back to back to back, on four big movies in a row, without a day off. They tested my physical limits, my creative limits, my spiritual limits, but I was ready to do it. When I was 23, even though I was stronger and had more energy, I wasn’t spiritually or mentally prepared. I think all this happening happening to me later in life prepared me to really enjoy it, and to be present in every moment. If things happened to me when I was younger, I would have been a haze of punch drunk and drunk, and a whole lot of things.

What’s the biggest difference between the first Avengers and the second Avengers that might surprise audiences?

I definitely can’t say anything that will surprise you, but my takeaway is that everything that was great about the first Avengers, Age of Ultron will have exponentially. There’s more sense of humor and winking at itself. The camaraderie amongst the Avengers is a lot more together. A lot of secrets are posted up, more secrets are revealed, and there are great new baddies and great new goodies. I get to do a lot more in this one, Ruffalo got to do a lot more, we’re much more central characters.

When you shot the first one it was a pretty big risk, but when you shot the second one, you’re trying to follow up the second biggest film of all time. How does that change the vibe on set?

It’s hard to tell. I feel like you didn’t have to work as hard. We could take shortcuts, and by shortcuts I mean what we learned from doing it last time. At that point we all had experience in the Marvel world. All the other players had done two or three movies already, so they’d been in that world and character enough. The energy wasn’t as intense and little more relaxed.

How do you see Hawkeye? Technically he’s not a superhero. He’s just really good with a bow and arrow.He’s like Widow, technically they’re not superheroes, they just have a high skillset. But that’s why I like the character, it’s a real-deal thing. I know what my limitations are, I have to obey the law of physics.

You got married fairly secretly. How do you manage to keep your name out of the tabloids?

It’s just who I am. The only reason why people know is becomes someone asked. I don’t go out and talk about my private life to anyone. That’s why it’s called a private life. I’ve been very conscious about not talking about things that affect others.

One last question. How badly do you want the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl?

(Laughs) Well come on, of course I want them to win, man! It’s going to happen. This year is starting off a little slow, a little rough but of course! They blacked out the damn games here, so my mom put me on Facetime and I got to watch the game, which was awesome.

Interview By: Ben Barna