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Q&A: Jeremy Renner on His Long Path to Stardom, Defusing Bar Fights, and His New Movie ‘Kill the Messenger’

“I lived by candlelight for a good year. I looked at it like, ‘Let’s be romantic,’ but it got old. You don’t feel very good as a man where you can barely feed your dog and you have no electricity.”

“All right,” Jeremy Renner says, looking up from his phone in the lobby of the Greenwich Hotel in downtown Manhattan. “What’s happening, brotha?” At this point, with all his various franchise-hoppings since The Hurt Locker — the Bournes, the Missions: Impossible, the, um, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunterses — Renner has murked so many people onscreen that this kind of chumminess is almost surprising. But in his latest movie, Kill the Messenger, he downshifts back to the kind of wearied charming-jerk Everyman he first broke through with.

In Messenger, out this week, Renner plays Gary Webb, an investigative reporter at the San Jose Mercury News and a tragic figure. Webb broke through to national prominence in the mid-’90s with his “Dark Alliance” series, which alleged that CIA-backed contras in Nicaragua were bankrolling their operations against the Sandinista government by selling crack cocaine in America. Explains the New York Times, “Mr. Webb … drew a line from [drug boss ‘Freeway’ Ricky] Ross to the C.I.A.-backed contras, writing, ‘The cash Ross paid for the cocaine, court records show, was then used to buy weapons and equipment for a guerrilla army named the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense,’ or the FDN, one of several contra groups.” While elements of the story had been previously reported, this was the most definitive account to date of this blatant U.S. government betrayal. And it blew up.

By the late ’90s, the U.S. government would admit that the underlying implications of Webb’s reporting were correct. But by then, Webb’s reputation was in tatters. In the movie, we see him go from the rush of a huge story to the anguish of disgrace, as major institutions from the Times to the Washington Post pillory his work. The story ultimately ends in tragedy: In 2004, Webb — who was unable to find work after the “Dark Alliance” controversy — committed suicide.

It’s a small, strong movie that, at the very least, reminds us how good it is to see Renner not necessarily murdering everything moving. At the Greenwich Hotel, we spoke with him about Kill the Messenger and his long, strange career.

You discovered acting at a community college in your hometown of Modesto, California. But were you ambitious before you even had that career as an end goal?

I’ve been ambitious since [I was] a kid. Ever since I was 9 or 10, I had a job. I didn’t play sports because I was always working. I knew that my parents didn’t have a lot of money, and if I wanted something, I had to go out and earn it.

What kind of jobs?

I started with a newspaper route and then earned enough money to buy a bike, and then got a bigger paper route, then got that bike up to the scooter, got that paper route up to a bigger paper route, kept earning. … Once I got that scooter, now I can get a job anywhere. I knew that if I wanted something, I had to manifest it. Essentially, that was ingrained in my body.

So you take the acting class, and you’re immediately sucked in?

It was like funneling [toward] what I really wanted to do with my life. At the time I was studying computer languages — Pascal, BASIC, and DOS were the popular ones at that time. But I realized my personality didn’t fit behind a computer. I took an elective, and it kind of really changed my life. The Wizard of Oz was my first play, and playing the Scarecrow to all these kids was such an invigorating exchange of emotions. I thought, Wow, this is addicting. This is beautiful. Then I started doing really heavy parts after that, like Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People, Philip in Orphans … and from there I started digging into psychology and human behavior, and that became really important, personally, as how I sort of viewed my place in the planet. Acting was a beautiful outlet.

So you’d explore your own thoughts through the characters you were playing?

My limited perspective is ultimately what I have to cast on some character, who might be well read or not. It was a safe place for me to hide and explore all these emotions that I was having as a young man in a small town, where, for instance, it’s not cool to cry as a guy. In that small town, it was very hick at the time. I had all these feelings that I didn’t know I had. It felt great because it was a great way to purge all these feelings I had. And then it became about the artistry of manipulating and controlling those emotions.

Then you move to L.A. …

In ’92, ’93 … I needed to do it. I did quite a few plays, enough plays.

And then you land a lead role, in National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. Which, if I recall correctly, is actually pretty hilarious.

It was my first job in Los Angeles. It was a huge get for me. It was a silly movie, [but] I don’t ever talk negatively about [it]. Even though I’m not proud of the movie, it means a lot in my life. All my goals were satisfied in that one movie.

What were the goals?

When I moved down, I gave myself 11 years to be in a movie. Eleven years, for whatever reason. I said, “I need to be in a movie that would be big enough that [it] would play in Modesto.” Because it doesn’t get all the movies, right? And I need to be in a role in that movie that I didn’t have to tell my parents I was in. Not “I’m the guy at the end in the red shirt! With no pants on!” Or whatever. So I get the lead. OK, so now I have to recalibrate my goals.

What was next?

After that I wanted to call myself an actor — meaning I didn’t have to do any other jobs but acting. And then hopefully get to a point where I can provide for a family. And then — ups and downs and ups and downs. I think that’s still my goal. To provide for my family.

You’ve talked a lot in interviews about the many day jobs you had over the years while trying to make the acting dream come true — working at a makeup counter, flipping houses. It seems like you took pride in these jobs. That they weren’t just throwaway things for you.

Makeup was a thing I fell into because of working onstage. It ended up being a fun gig — putting makeup on girls all day long? This is kind of awesome. And I didn’t have to sling drinks or work late hours. And I was able to take that job from Modesto to L.A. It was a bit terrifying, moving from a small town to a big city, going down with a bunch of crap in a U-Haul. But I knew I had the skill set to put makeup on people. That was one job I was really proud of and I was happy to be able to do, for about five or six years in L.A.

And then the house flipping didn’t really start until I got a little bit of money. Well, I barely had any money. But I ultimately got a loan, ’cause I got this movie S.W.A.T. I had some money coming in, but I had to go [to the bank] and be like, “Look, here’s my contract!”

Around this time you did a bunch of one-off TV episodes. (Note: It’s a particularly colorful list, including Angel, the Party of Five spinoff Time of Your Life, and an adaptation of The Net.) Are there any of these you’re particularly proud of? Something you’d tell the Jeremy Renner completist to seek out?

Oh, man, I don’t know. I always just sort of bopped in and out of those things. I kind of liked it because they were [usually] flashy characters.

Then in 2002 you play Jeffrey Dahmer in Dahmer and in 2003 you do S.W.A.T.

Dahmer was the biggest milestone. I remember in 2001, when we shot it, it was one of the lowest, most broke times for me. I had to get a job waiting tables, and I realized how difficult it was getting a job waiting tables. Like, they needed references! I’m like, “Look, man, I’m just serving up some food.”

I remember working in Santa Monica, and by the time I drove all the way to Santa Monica, and paid for parking, and trained for the first couple of weeks — it was costing me money to go to work! Literally, I wanted to put a gun in my mouth. Like, “Oh my god, everything sucks. I’m paying to go to work, this is [shrieking] fucking awful!” My personal hell.

And then Dahmer came. And I was being paid less than I was already not making. But it was a great opportunity, and it became a great milestone in my career. That gave me a lot of confidence in being able to carry a film and to flesh out a character to where it’s interesting for two hours. And then that took off within the industry. And then S.W.A.T. came around and was the first studio movie I got involved in, and then I got into the studio world a little bit.

I know for the most part it’s just a matter of waiting for the breaks. But do you feel at all like you got better over the years and that that’s, in some small part, why the breaks came when they did?

I get better every day as an actor when I work. I felt like I was good when I moved to L.A. If I was or not, I don’t know for sure. I think I learned a lot over my time in L.A., from like ’93 to ’98. I felt very bullish and confident in what I wanted and what I needed and what I was able to offer. And then I finally got opportunities that supported that belief system, in Dahmer. And not to discredit all the movies that came in between, they were fine and dandy, but I wasn’t really offered the opportunity to do something again until Hurt Locker. I was really able to swing for the fences in Hurt Locker.

Did you ever consider going home?

It was pretty rough, but I never considered leaving. I lived by candlelight for a good year. I looked at it like, “Let’s be romantic,” but it got old. You don’t feel very good as a man where you can barely feed your dog and you have no electricity. I used music as an outlet. I could just play guitar or piano; I didn’t need anybody. But I never wanted to go home and quit and give up. I just needed opportunities.

You’ve played a lot of swaggering guys with guns. And there have been one or two reported incidents of you in bar fights and things like that. So I wonder, with you, does the onscreen physicality come from a real place?

No, man, I haven’t gotten in a fight since the second grade. And I think I got slapped and I didn’t do anything. I don’t think I’ve ever struck anybody. I don’t know why I would. I don’t believe in fighting. I believe in disarming situations. I’ve choked a lot of people out! Just to disarm the situation. Like, if they’re drunk, if they’re causing problems, I put them to sleep real quick. That’s fine. That’s not gonna leave any marks on them. They can’t sue me. There you go, just go night-night. I don’t wanna hurt the guy! I don’t wanna get hurt, either. Either I avoid the situation, or I take out the threat as fast and as easily as I can. The only time I’ve done it is to protect my family. If my sister got pushed around or some girl got hit …

There was this one particularly insane-sounding story about you in Thailand (“One of the men in Jeremy’s party … was seriously wounded after getting slashed in the neck with a rotor axe”) …

I just happened to be there. One of the guys I was with got in that fight. It was … not nice. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life. I had to go to the hospital with that guy. Crazy, dude. I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like that transpiring [otherwise].

Moving on: With The Hurt Locker, was there a particular, exact moment where you thought, “We might really have something here”?

Reading [the script], I knew it was going to be a wonderful challenge. Shooting, I didn’t know what was [going on]. It’s the Middle East, it’s quite chaotic, it’s being done very subjectively with long-lens-y stuff. And I’m like, “What are we doing?” The direction’s like, “OK, there’s a bomb at the end of the street, go do your job.” I’m like, “OK?” And then we’d stop after 15 minutes, come back, just move it along further down the road. It felt way too real.

And at the end, I didn’t know what the fuck we got! I thought, “Maybe we have a miniseries? A nine-part miniseries?” I knew we turned in honest performances. But it was really, really rough on us. After they put it all together, we were like, “Wow, [director] Kathryn [Bigelow], she was there with me. Even though I never saw her! She was there with me.” It was pretty amazing. But you never know anything. You never quite know.

My absolute favorite performance of yours was in The Town. You were truly terrifying. What was the prep like to pull off “Boston hood” so well?

Ben [Affleck, who directed], ultimately, he wasn’t gonna tell me how to act. But he took us all out to Boston and said, “Look, there’s gonna be no dialect coaches.” I’m like, “Dude, what?!” I’ve never been to Boston in my life. I can barely do a New York accent. I’m a California kid. Come on! He’s like, just come out.

So I came out, spent a week, maybe two weeks, in Boston before we started shooting. He’s like, “Meet this guy, talk with this guy.” These are all prisoners, ex-cons … one guy’s still in jail! And then I never saw Ben again. I hung out in bars, and I came back with it, like, locked in. Ben tells me, “Oh, you came back as Jem.” It was pretty fun.

I think you nailed that kind of mumbly quality in your accent. Everyone always wants to go big with it.

It’s the same if it’s a ’70s movie or if it’s an accent in a movie — if you do it over the top, it becomes just about that. Do it more subtle. We get the flavor. OK, it’s a ’70s movie, they got the fucking long hair and mustaches — you had to put the disco music in on top?! Paint the picture, don’t force it down their throats. I got the highest compliments from people from Boston, saying, “You have a better accent than Ben, and he’s from there!” [Laughs.]

That’s awesome. Have you talked to him about Batman? You guys are kind of rivals now, DC versus Marvel.

I haven’t really talked to him in a little while. I wanna work with him again, but he’s gotta get out of his Batsuit! But good on him, he’s gonna do his thing.

You were also great in American Hustle. That’s such a pedigreed cast. With something like that, do you ever get intimidated? Or does that just not happen anymore?

I don’t know if it’s intimidation. There’s a wow factor. Afterward, you’re like, “Wait a minute, I just did a scene with De Niro. That’s just random and awesome and cool as shiiiit!” But I don’t know. I never feel intimidated when it comes to acting.

In 2010, you were all set to make The Master with Paul Thomas Anderson.

Yeah, before Mission and all that happened, I was with Paul for a good 10, 11 months. Reading it, working on it. We were gonna go shoot that summer with Phil[ip Seymour Hoffman], and Paul wasn’t really quite settled on the script. I think he had a baby coming at the time. And Phil had a movie he was directing that he had to go promote, so the window got very tight. And PTA wasn’t really quite convinced he had the third act wrapped in. So we started rehearsing, and he just pulled [the] shoot and said, “Ah, let’s do it later.” And that’s when all these other movies came around, and “later” became “never.”

Was the finished product similar to what you were working on?

It was very, very, very close.

Was it difficult for you to watch?

It was actually fun to see it come to life. [Joaquin Phoenix is] a good friend of mine, and those are all artists that I love and wanna work with. I finally got to work with Joaq on The Immigrant. We’ve been wanting to work together for a long time. Same with PTA. I’d love to do something with him again.

There’s been news on some of your franchises. There’s apparently a draft for the Hansel & Gretel sequel

I don’t know a whole lot about it. They have a time they wanna release it by, but I don’t know if I got time! But they wanna make another one for sure, because it did well internationally and did OK here at home. I don’t have control. Beyond my pay grade, there are a lot of spinning plates. I know I had a lot of fun making it.

Also, Matt Damon is coming back to Bourne, it looks like?

This has been talked about for a long time. It’s only now for whatever reason become a reality. We found a way to do a spinoff, and if they can continue [the main story], I think that’s really exciting for cinema. I love Matt and Paul [Greengrass]. And so they’re moving forward with both, both with another Aaron Cross [spinoff movie] and with Bourne returning.

Finally, with Kill the Messenger — I bet you’re getting a lot of questions about journalism, because journalists love talking about themselves …

Yeah! I realize that now. “The way you portray journalists … it’s great …”

At one point in the movie, as you sit down to actually write the story, the Clash kicks in, and there’s the montage of information. But you don’t overdo it. You’re not, like, punching the air, screaming, while typing.

Well, we didn’t wanna sensationalize it — but also, who wants to sit and watch Gary Webb research shit? That’s boring. [The montage] was a device to tell the audience what “Dark Alliance” was really all about. We spend so much time discrediting him, crushing him, we had to spend a little time on what he was actually saying. To me, that’s the real tragedy, the real frustration, the real fucking angst about the situation. “That’s not what I said. That’s not what I fucking said!”

You watched home videos of Gary Webb as prep.

Some of them were him working or things where he’d been interviewed. There’s a little documentary that they had done just before he had passed, just before he killed himself. And then the more important ones are, he’s playing hockey or he’s coaching the kids. Really mundane stuff. Sitting around a dinner table eating cake after a birthday party.

In the movie, you leave his death just a tiny bit open-ended with a title card that reads that his death was “ruled a suicide.”

We don’t wanna show the morgue pictures. But we know a little more information than we let on. There were notes left to the kids. It was a clever way to state the truth and still have it be leading into a conspiracy sort of thing. I can have my own thoughts. But what we know the truth to be or not to be, it’s what the people walk away with, ultimately, that matters.

There must be some special pleasure in knowing that this will most likely be the definitive document of Gary Webb’s life.

His story made a loud splash initially, and then that went away very quickly. And then the noise was only white noise from media crushing him. And that all kind of went away, and then any apology that came up, any vindication, was really a limp [response]. Hopefully, this will be the loudest voice that Gary has had. I hope it to be.