'Roles like this don't go to people like me.'
For Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner, his casting and his part in ‘The Hurt Locker’ were all about risk and reward
CAMBRIDGE - Jeremy Renner is a blue-collar face in the crowd. He’s neither ugly nor particularly handsome. He could be a good old boy driving a pickup with a beer in his hand, an air-conditioner repairman, a cop. What he could not be is a teacher of the Victorian novel.
Physically, he is not imposing: 5 feet 10 inches, 160 pounds by his own count. He talks thoughtfully and quietly. Yet when he squints, his eyes bring a pugnacious quality to his looks. One senses a roughness lurking, an acceptance of trouble. It is no surprise that he has played bad guys in most of his films.
“I died in 99 percent of the movies,’’ he says. “I’m tired of dying.’’
At 39 Renner came out of nowhere to cop an Oscar best actor nomination for his lead role in “The Hurt Locker,’’ a movie festooned with nine nods, including best picture. Until then, he was a journeyman actor with promise. His first movie break was in “Senior Trip’’ in 1995. Then among other films came a small part in the big-budget “S.W.A.T.,’’ followed in 2007 by a larger one in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’’ with Brad Pitt.
In “The Hurt Locker,’’ Renner plays Staff Sergeant Will James, the leader of an Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad in Baghdad. These are the soldiers who must deactivate live bombs and, more often, the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that have become the signature weapon of the enemy, causing traumatic brain and other injuries to troops. The stress involved is brutal.
James is superb at his job. What’s most notable, though, are the huge risks he takes, through cockiness and plumb curiosity, that terrify his colleagues. Each IED is another puzzle for him to solve. He carries no fear. There are demons we can only guess at.
Renner never read for the part, which is rare for a non-name actor. More than three years ago, Kathryn Bigelow, the movie’s director, called Renner, who was in London.
He had never met her but they talked about her movie idea for ages.
“I wrote out three pages of questions and answers,’’ he recalls. They were all addressed, she asked and he accepted, then and there.
Why did Bigelow want Renner? For starters, she had seen a low budget 2002 movie called “Dahmer,’’ in which he starred as Jeffrey Dahmer, the nightmare serial killer and occasional cannibal. His performance became the catapult to his movie career.
“That was the first time I got recognized in the industry, ’’ Renner recalls.
When the deal was done, he says, “I could smell her smile on the phone.’’ Renner soon flew to LA for dinner with screenwriter Mark Boal, and winged it back to London the next morning.
“I knew when I read it it was the role of a lifetime,’’ he says. “For an actor, roles like this don’t go to people like me.’’
“There’s a strength to his character beyond his talent as an actor,’’ says Greg Shapiro, a “Hurt Locker’’ producer. “He’s in the mold of Mitchum and Cagney. A lot of the actors today feel like boys. He feels like a man.’’
So who is Will James, this swaggering soldier?
“He’s a complicated dude,’’ says Renner. “You do him a disservice to paint him with a broad brushstroke as simply a redneck. He really loves his job. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He wanted to be the best at one thing. That happens to save lives. This is all he knows.’’
Renner had a year to prepare for the part. Before shooting, he spent a couple of weeks at Fort Irwin, Calif., home to an Army ordnance disposal company, learning how they do their work. One of the exercises he did there sorely taxed his patience and finesse.
“Start with a pile of paper clips,’’ he says. “You pick one up and walk 10 feet and then carefully put it down. Don’t just drop it. Then you return and start on another. Think of 50 paper clips.’’
“By the time he came [to the set] he had more knowledge how to design a bomb than our military,’’ claims Shapiro.
But it wasn’t all tedium. “It was like Santa’s workshop: We’re taking apart switches and making bombs,’’ Renner says. “Then it’s like, let’s go blow stuff up.’’
Still, for many of Renner’s scenes he was encased inside huge and unwieldy armor. “The protective suit I wear is about 100 pounds, and that’s in 120 degree heat,’’ says Renner about the filming in Jordan. “Half an hour was my limit. There’s a dumbing down in IQ points when you wear one. It’s not physical, it’s mental. It tests your mental capacity.’’
It gets worse. “The air conditioning unit in the protective suit was disabled so that we could hear him speak,’’ Shapiro recalls. “We put cold compresses on his head after each take. Jordanian and Palestinian crew members were passing out.’’
Renner grew up in Modesto, Calif. Nothing against the place (George Lucas is from there) but if you’re an actor, your future is limited, and Renner always thought large. While he began acting at community theaters and Modesto Junior College, which he attended, he realized his future wasn’t on stage.
“It’s a tough gig,’’ he says. “It won’t work if you want to buy a house and support a family.’’
Not that Renner has any interest in a family at the moment. He is as focused on his career as Will James is on IEDs.
Yet he says he turned down a lot of scripts along the way, and has nothing planned now. After the Oscars ceremony, he’ll see what’s out there. In the meantime, he stars with Ben Affleck in “The Town,’’ a crime story shot in Boston that opens later this year.
He’d like to work with Bigelow again, and there’s a story she’s brewing involving drugs in South America.
There’s also a military movie about Afghanistan floating around that interests him not a whit.
“Putting on fatigues again,’’ he says, “is so not what I’m going to do.’’
Sam Allis can be reached at email@example.com.