"Puppy woke me up at the crack of ass," says Jeremy Renner, apologizing for his midday grogginess. It's a gray, wet Saturday in New York City, and we're looking for coffee. He and his dog are holed up at a downtown hotel as he shoots The Bourne Legacy, the rogue-agent tetralogy's latest (and notably Matt Damon-less) installment. "Judo throws," he answers when I ask about his raw, busted-up fingers, which look like melted wax. He's been training hard to get his 40-year-old body ready for the action sequences. This is his first day off in weeks, and despite the combat fatigue and apparent hangover, he's eager to get going. "What else would I be doing?" he says, grinning. "Sleeping, probably."
Renner grew up with a pygmy goat named Sugar. He's the oldest kid, with four siblings who range in age from 37 years to 4 months. He and his best friend (the actor Kristoffer Winters, whom he also confusingly refers to as "my brother") run a successful side business renovating houses. Sometimes he lives in the houses during construction, often without such bourgie comforts as electricity and indoor plumbing. Disciplines he's studied include but are not limited to: world religion, sociology, criminology, Filipino stick fighting, and Muay Thai martial arts. Previous professions: ski instructor, professional makeup artist. He has taught himself to be unafraid of sharks. He has dined with Colin Powell and has regularly basked in the praise of such luminaries as Sean Penn—but about the only time he's found himself starstruck was when he met Cesar Millan, TV's Dog Whisperer. He is, by turns, cut-the-bullshit intense and just-fucking-with-you funny. He's religiously unsentimental ("I don't give a shit about the past") and unabashedly devoted to his cream-colored miniature French bulldog, Franklin.
These are some of the facts that you may collect in your net while standing in the riptide current that is a casual conversation with Jeremy Renner. There are many others that swim by too quickly to catch (what was that about playing with C-4 explosives?).
I'm not saying the dude is weird. I'm saying he contains multitudes. I'm saying he is interesting. Complex. Resolutely present when he talks. Willing to go wherever the conversation takes him. Fearless and frank. When he gets going on the psychology of pygmy goats ("They're all of 12 pounds, but they believe they're a 2,000-pound bull—they'll head-butt you and stare you down like, 'What's up, motherfucker?!'"), you are roped in and down for going halfsies on a herd of the nubbly runts.
There's something compellingly unusual about a guy who's been a working actor for two decades—working but struggling—and then rather suddenly finds himself a leading man with his pick of major franchises. Here he is jumping off buildings opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Next he's leathered up as the arrow-slinging Hawkeye in the Joss Whedon–helmed superhero supergroup The Avengers, alongside Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury). Then he's out for vengeance in the just-wrapped action comedy Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. "That was a blast," Renner says. "It's 15 years later and they're pissed off. They're bounty hunters killing witches for a living!"
As we settle into a dark booth at Pete's Tavern, an agreeably ancient and grotty bar near Union Square, some girls at the bar shout at Renner: "Hey, you, I like your stuff!" Really, that's what they say. Renner gives a friendly wave.
He has been nominated for Academy Awards twice—earlier this year as the murderous mad-dog townie Jem in 2010's The Town and last year for his breakout role as Sergeant First Class William James of the Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit in The Hurt Locker. And before that . . . well, before that he was on an ABC detective show called "The Unusuals." It lasted half a season. And even if you'd admired his portrayal of the tortured, torturing killer in 2002's Dahmer, you wouldn't have predicted this for him. You wouldn't have predicted that at 40 years old his dance card would suddenly fill up. You wouldn't have predicted that he'd be playing the lead in the next incarnation of the Jason Bourne films even though his name isn't Matt Damon and a couple of years ago nobody would have recognized his name at all.
It's not supposed to happen this way.
"It is not normal," he says, chewing on each word, an actor fine-tuning a line. "It's not normal," he says again, trying to find the right cadence. "It is...not normal."
With that sorted, he orders eggs Benedict and a third coffee. Last night he'd been on stage with the Black Eyed Peas, speaking to a 60,000-strong Central Park audience on behalf of the Robin Hood Foundation. Afterward, he'd run into former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis ("A monster of a man! That was pretty cool"), then stayed up into the morning at the hotel bar. The "Hey, you" girls shuffle up to the booth and ask if Renner will pose for a picture. He will. They went to Boston College and are, they drunkenly explain, plotting a new kind of social-networking website that's going to change the world. They ask Renner if he's on Facebook. He is not.
"It's pretty interesting," he says of the whole serendipitous and charmed new non-normalcy of being Jeremy Renner. In the old days a Renner birthday party wouldn't have had the star power (and tabloid attention) that his 40th did. Scarlett Johansson was there at his rambling Hollywood Hills house, as was Leonardo DiCaprio, seen getting close with Blake Lively, and Christina Aguilera, who may or may not have fallen asleep drunk in Renner's bed. (The gossips said she did; he told Jimmy Kimmel she was just "hanging out...eating cookies and milk.")
"I feel blessed to be working these past 20 years in this business," Renner says. "But when The Hurt Locker came around, it became another thing. And all it was is opportunity. I've been waiting for a role like that for a long time." One of the reasons to cheer for a guy like Renner is his determination to wait it out, keep his head down, and do the work. Waiting for roles that would challenge and matter to him (while paying the bills by fixing houses and doing the odd TV spot for 7-Eleven ham-and-cheese Bakery Stix). Waiting even when there wasn't any reason to hope it might pay off. "I wasn't getting any sign that said, 'This is gonna turn out amazing for you,'" he says. "I wasn't super-happy being so poor. Eating on $10 a month—probably not very good for you. But I loved what I was doing. Not every actor gives their life to do this job. Some just do it as a job. Well, it's my life."
The hands-on physicality of rebuilding those houses always served as a hedge against the uncertainty of a career in the fickle movie business. "Me and my brother"—meaning Winters—"would tinker around, and then someone would pay us twice what we put into it. So when I walked into an audition, I could just think about: 'Can I contribute to this movie? If not, fuck it, I'll go build a house,'" he says. "Building a house is like producing a movie. There's no right way to do it but a lot of wrong ways. You have to be flexible and creative. You have to move fast, be prepared—or it quickly becomes costly. These sound like life lessons. It's certainly affected how I approach my life."
Since The Hurt Locker, he hasn't had much time for renovations. Life, he said, has splintered into five-minute chunks, with people lined up, each wanting a little bit of his time. "It's a wonderfully high-class problem to have," he says. "All these people want you to be in their movie. Or work with you. Or maybe they want to kick you in the balls. Half the time I don't know. But it's better than wondering if I have to write a play and direct it myself just to get that next job."
Now he's got work lined up into next year. Armchair casting directors are eager to place him in future Mission: Impossible films, hoping that his character, Brandt, rises from Cruise sidekick to inherit the franchise. [N.B. I guess that means he doesn't die! YAY!] Renner's not so sure. "Other people can think ahead all they want," he says. "I just focus on the task at hand and try to move on." Despite the physical fun (and hefty paydays) that comes with big action series, he wants to keep doing the smaller, more personal films he's always enjoyed. "I'm blessed to have cool roles in these big movies. Because nothing against Transformers, but thank God I don't have to do a monologue to a robot. I don't know how Shia, God bless him, does that."
Some life turns demand specialized advice: "I had to ask Charlize Theron, a very good friend, about going through an Academy Award campaign. She told me to take it moment by moment. Don't fucking freak out, just have fun."
From his pal Colin Farrell, he learned to look everyone in the eye, treat everyone as an equal, and try not to let the whole nuttiness overwhelm him. "Colin had an interesting trajectory," he says. "Not too dissimilar to what's been happening to me, but he was much younger. He had five movies come out in one year. He exploded, then sort of imploded. One night I was talking with him—mind you, with some drinks in us—and he said, 'I look at it this way: I could fucking always go back to Ireland and drink my fucking Guinness anytime.' I hold on to that."
What's fun for Renner, what's sustaining, are the gigs themselves: "This is the vacation. Work is trying to get a damned job. I skip to set every day."
While he is nimble and strong, it is pretty much impossible to imagine Renner skipping anywhere. There is a tenacious (non-miniature) bulldog quality about the man. His are not standard-issue movie-star looks. Instead he seems sturdily constructed out of familiar but disparate sources of American masculinity: There is the Eminem pout; a meaty, De Niro–esque bull-nostriled proboscis; the hooded, watery, fuck-or-fight eyes of Robert Mitchum. It's the veiled sparkle of the eyes that accounts for the disquieting directness. It can put you at ease or make you uncomfortable. Renner knows his unpredictability keeps audiences on their toes: "'Do I hate him? Do I like him? Do I want to fuck him or kill him? What the fuck is this guy?'" That essential uneasiness is, he says, a conscious part of his own brand, the key element he looks for in a character. The role of Jem, in The Town, was, he says, a perfect example: a bad guy who's all the more interesting for being disconcertingly likable.
Renner grew up in Modesto, California. His parents split when he was 8, both remarrying twice, the family growing every few years. He changed schools every year but says there was a lot of love, if not stability, in his home life. "I was a pretty happy kid," he says. "Fairly shy and happy, but underneath there were some other things going on." At 18, he took an acting class at Modesto Junior College and knew he'd found his outlet. "It became this very therapeutic thing because I got to express feelings I couldn't have otherwise. I got into the artistry of it, then studied psychology and human behavior. I really dug being an observer."
When he moved to Los Angeles in 1993 and got his first break in movies (Senior Trip), he fell in love with the closeness of the medium, telling stories through controlled gestures. "The smallest little thing or the fucking stillest nothing can reveal a whole lot. For whatever reason, I have a scary resting face," he admits with a pursed grin. "Stillness can be pretty interesting."
Tom Cruise is unrestrained in his praise for the interestingness of the latest addition to the Mission: Impossible team: "Here he is, he's a musician, he's interested in design, he's got a curiosity about life, and he's just, in every way, an incredible dramatic actor." For good measure, Cruise adds, Renner is "dynamic and an amazing athlete and very graceful with his action."
Still, it's hard to picture him skipping. "A funny thing happened when we were shooting in Dubai," Cruise says. He discovered that Renner has a little jig he does when he gets nervous, a spazzy little dance to loosen himself up. "I can't even describe the Renner Stretch. He's got a copyright on the Renner Stretch. I laughed so hard when he did it for me. I said this has gotta go in this movie. I said you gotta show [director Brad] Bird. You gotta show Bird! It's gotta go in right before this tunnel sequence we do. So it's in the movie. I don't think I could do the Renner Stretch justice, but he's an actor who's not afraid to do that and go there."
When Renner says he's given up his life for his job, this is what he means: "I never dated, because I couldn't afford to date. I didn't even have electricity. You try to put a positive spin on it, like, 'Hey, this is so sexy—look at all these candles!' But I loved what I was doing. The sacrifices I made in personal relationships had the biggest effect on my life. Even now, any woman would take a No. 2 seat to my job."
His longest relationship lasted five and a half years. That was in his twenties. Marriage was off the table because he couldn't see himself as a solid provider. Or, as he puts it, "'What the hell are you doing next week, motherfucker, let alone 40 years from now? And are you willing to wipe my ass when we get old?'"
We've moved from coffees to Guinness and Bloody Marys and from Pete's Tavern to the bar at Renner's hotel, where he checks on Franklin.
He's not seeing anyone now: "There've been a handful of girls over the last years. But it's been very difficult. How does it go any further?
"I have a wonderful life, but it means nothing if it cannot be shared. That's all I'm missing right now. It's a little unbalanced for me. Right now the only thing consistent in my life is that little dog. That's why I got it. I was getting really lonely. I needed somebody or something to be there with me through the whole journey."
It's not surprising that in Renner's dating vacuum, the worst bottom-feeding websites have suggested there's something more to his relationship with his pal and sometime housemate Winters. The unwanted attention nauseates him, even as he understands its causes. "I don't pay attention to that horseshit. Build 'em up to bring 'em down?" he says of celebrity culture. "I'm not going on that train, my son. I'm not going on that train. I'll walk. I'll take a bike." He lets out a laugh that sounds like a lawn mower starting up. "I'd rather just not be popular."
The Renner Frankness is like the Renner Stretch: He's not afraid to go there, do that. One reason is he's spent two decades outside the glare of public attention, shining an unforgiving light on himself: Every year he draws a Life Awareness Chart. An actual, written annual reckoning of how he's spent his time (work, family, friends, singing in bars, skin-diving with tiger sharks, whatever), annotated with notes about what needs to be cut out or improved. "I love it, and it's fucking hard," he says of his brutally honest self-evaluation. "Being conscious in life is hard. It's easy to be unconscious, to be drunk and a lot of things. I want to be those things! But I've been cursed with the desire to get aware...Goddammit!"
Kathryn Bigelow, who won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for The Hurt Locker, told me she's always impressed by the choices Renner makes: "It says a lot about what drives him as an actor. He's taken some extremely challenging roles and confronted them head-on. That takes a kind of fearlessness that translates on screen, and the results are astonishing."
Brad Bird, the Mission: Impossible director (and Oscar-winning writer and director of the animated blockbusters Ratatouille and The Incredibles), tells a story about the tension during shooting: "There's a scene where several team members are in each other's faces. It was exhausting. Jeremy was getting really pissed off because it was hard to stay at that pitch. He screwed a line up and went, 'Yearrggggghhhhh!' and let out a bunch of expletives and just said, 'Let's go, let's just go!' And he was fantastic because all of his frustration came through. I said, 'I know you hate me right now, but that's probably going to wind up in the film.' And it did."
Harnessing the tension, pushing through the setbacks, keeping things interesting to keep himself engaged—this is the Jeremy Renner Story. It was what he did before his mid-career ascension to the major leagues. And you get the feeling it's what he'll do long after the star-making machine has anointed someone new.
"The thing I feel very, very blessed about is that what makes me feel good about my job is also what audiences and directors seem to like. I'll do things that people don't like and that's fine. I just want to continue to work and, if I get the opportunity, swing for the fences." He pokes me in the arm. "I'm not gonna go for a single. I'm not gonna go for a layup," says Renner, cocking a smile, looking like he's going to either hug me or slug me. "I'm gonna slam-dunk that motherfucker—that is the intent."
Oh man, I adore him so. He is delightful. And The Unusuals was actually pretty good!