Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Film Intuition Interview: Jeremy Renner -- The Hurt Locker

The Film Intuition Interview
Jeremy Renner: The Hurt Locker

By Jen Johans

Jeremy Renner is one of those character actors who is so good at what he does that honestly, when I first heard his name in conjunction with Kathryn Bigelow’s Venice Film Festival SIGNIS Grand Prize Winner The Hurt Locker, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen him perform before.

However, I was quickly proven wrong and after being mesmerized by his turn in The Hurt Locker, something tells me that he’ll be unable to stay incognito for long. Moreover, I predict that Jeremy Renner will soon be on the short-list of Oscar contenders for his turn in what is so far the best film of 2009.

Yet, he’s been turning in solid performances one after another for several years. Given one initial glance at his list of credits, I found myself in awe of not only just how many films he’s made but also the way he’s been able to disappear completely into each role, moving easily from high profile movies to low budget indies from my personal favorite 12 and Holding to popcorn pictures like S.W.A.T.opposite Colin Farrell, Lords of Dogtown for Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later.

Although it was his startling award-nominated titular turn in Dahmer that brought Renner both into the forefront and onto the radar of Kathryn Bigelow, it wouldn’t be the last time he’d venture into dark terrain. Though he recently starred in the sadly canceled fan favorite TV show The Unusuals —bringing the former theatre actor full circle by giving him experience in all venues — given the amount of acclaim surrounding the pieces, Renner particularly works especially well in passion driven projects.

Moreover, his resume is as equally filled with an abundance of female directors (from Bigelow to Asia Argento and more), which makes him especially heroic as an actor in this female critic’s eyes, as it is with his willingness to play the most daring of roles. And these can be found in Niki Caro’s North Country alongside Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Charlize Theron and working as part of the acclaimed ensemble headed up by Brad Pitt and Oscar nominee Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or in lower profile yet lauded indies like A Little Trip to Heaven, Neo Ned, Lightbulb, Take,The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and Love Comes to the Executioner.

Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what to expect from an actor I’d only remembered as the handsome fireman in 12 and Holding  off the top of my head and furthermore one whose most discussed performance was for his portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer. Yet, I’d left The Hurt Locker riveted and anxious to dissect what I’d seen and realized that the fact that I wasn’t a Renner expert worked to my advantage.

Simply put, he really does look like his head shot and I immediately understood why his character in The Hurt Locker reminded me a bit of Paul Newman’s in Cool Hand Luke.

Since we were in a time crunch, I barreled right on over to flick my recorder on and go into pro-mode, only to be greeted with an amused and mischievous, “How you doin’, babe?!” as he graciously tried to squeeze in the press corp one at a time as well as his breakfast.

Sensitive and straightforward when it came to addressing his work in a way that pulls you right in, Renner nonetheless seasoned the start and finish of our conversation with a healthy dose of "baby" and "babe" remarks. Yet somehow, he managed that delicate balance of making each "baby" seem sweet and genuine instead of making it feel like Vegas cocktail hour and over the course of the morning, his laid back manner put me and everyone around him at ease.

Furthermore, I admired his unparalleled passion for artistic expression — either through music or acting — and felt that he lives to break down the psychology of the roles he plays the way that his Hurt Locker character does with bombs. As soon as Renner starts talking in a quiet, thoughtful tone with a twinkle in his eye, you realize exactly why Bigelow and so many other directors (female and male alike) intuitively understood that he possesses the ability to bring such unexpected warmth to his portrayal of antiheroes.

Essentially, it's because, as he says, he never forgets that every person he plays is human and therefore flawed. Likewise, while he digs superheroes, the great thing about Renner is that he'll choose to play an antihero any day of the week. And by approaching each and every one by initially questioning what makes them tick, he manages to inject a little bit of himself into every single character and, especially after reading his thoughts below, I think you’ll agree that they’re all the better for it.

Jen Johans: Was acting always something you were interested in?

Jeremy Renner: Not always, no. No one in my family pushed me in that direction; no one in my family was really even an artist, singer, anything. So I just kind of fell into it in college randomly and it ended up sticking as something I really, really enjoyed.

Jen Johans: What were you studying in college?

Jeremy Renner: First it was computer science. I really enjoyed computers—learning the languages and all that sort of stuff—DOS and all that. But then like my personality was [adopts nerdy tone], "Okay…"
[Renner shrugs; goes back to own voice]

Even though I was good at it and I was getting good grades, it’s just not something I want to do [laughs]. So then I’m like, "I’m gonna be a detective."

Jen Johans: Wow, that’s cool.

Jeremy Renner: So I switched to criminology and, "I’m gonna be a detective." And then I realized I had to do all this other stuff and was like "ahh, maybe," so I took this elective, this acting class. And it ended up being this amazing playground for me to purge all these emotions I was having…To hide in this character and be able to have these feelings and feel safe exposing these feelings because before growing up in a small town, as a boy there’s no room for your emotions, right?

Jen Johans: Yeah, you can’t do that.

Jeremy Renner: So it became a very safe place for me to explore that and then it became about the psychology and the sociology about people. So that’s when I started studying psychology and the world’s theatre and all that and it went on and on.

Jen Johans: Yeah, I would assume that the detective background or the interest in that would kind of lend itself —

Jeremy Renner: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Jen Johans: And this [the role of Staff Sergeant James in The Hurt Locker] is a great part because too many war films — you know the character only by the name on the helmet.

Jeremy Renner: Right, right.

Jen Johans: So I liked that this was more of a docudrama. What was the audition process like and how did you become attached to it?

Jeremy Renner: Kathryn sent me the script and we chatted about it and we were pretty much on the same page; we both wanted to work together and we wanted to do this. And the casting process from there was — you know, we’re trying to cast an Iraq war drama — so it was very hard to get going. It took about a year from that point from reading the script initially to getting into principal photography.

And the casting process — that actually I was so fortunate to be a part of — sitting down and reading with a lot of really great actors that came in. They were looking all across the board for the actors. Anthony [Mackie] was busy, I remember he was shooting this movie and it was taking longer than it should’ve. And we always wanted him; I was a big fan of his.

And then Brian [Geraghty] came in; I read with him. I was like, "this guy brings a great sense of humor to that," and he was fantastic, just fantastic. It was real fun to be a part of that process. Normally, I’m never on a movie that long before we start shooting and then to be a part of the casting process was really great to see who we all connect with.

Jen Johans: That’s true; that’s important.

Jeremy Renner: Yeah.

Jen Johans: What were your first impressions of Kathryn Bigelow?

Jeremy Renner: She’s tall.

Jen Johans: She’s tall.

Jeremy Renner: Whoa. Because I’d talked to her on phone; I was living in London at the time shooting 28 Weeks Later when this was all going on so I’m like, whoa, "she’s tall." And gorgeous! Unbelievable! And then she really surprised me, you know. She’s so imposing from her size and her beauty but she’s so soft-spoken and so sweet and so—like—docile, so introspective and thoughtful. A lot of things, you know? And then she’ll just like spark up and bounce around like a little schoolgirl. It’s really, really fantastic. And again, I was always a fan of her work.

Jen Johans: I really liked the different layers you brought to it. To me, I thought it [Staff Sgt. James] was sort of like a Kubrick character.

Jeremy Renner: Mmm hmm.

[Realizing that Renner’s breakfast has gone cold, I decided to ramble my way into the next question in the hopes that he can eat a little.]

Jen Johans: Well, I mean I can’t give away the ending but you kind of have that face that Kubrick face, and I loved your introduction where you’re just going down at it like a Wild West cowboy with the bombs. I mean, you were introduced before but that was your big moment and it’s so psychologically revealing.

Jeremy Renner: Yeah!

Jen Johans: So what was your take on James and how did you get into that role?

Jeremy Renner: Oh man… that’s a long complicated one. Let me try to simplify it.

[I kick myself for choosing the wrong time to ask a long question but Renner’s conversational tempo has slowed and grown increasingly serious. For, although he’s very thoughtful and considerate throughout and this question must get asked dozens of times (possibly without the Kubrick meets Wild West lead in), the previously conversational voice has evolved into something even quieter, much more reflective, and personal.]

Jeremy Renner: I had so many questions. Again, most of it was done in the first fifteen minutes after I read the script. It was something I connected with so quickly and that I was so confused by so that I had a lot of questions written down and a lot of answers written down and that’s when I talked to Kathryn about two hours on the phone.

[Suddenly the pace begins to quicken once again as he grows excited relaying the process amidst the noisy din of the restaurant.]

Jeremy Renner: I had all these ideas, maybe some of them or half of them or most of them made it to the film or made it to the character. But that’s when most of the work happens — it’s an instinctual sort of thing that just happens. [Pause] My first question to Kathryn was, "How do you want people to feel when they walk away from this movie as James [PLOT SPOILER] is walking back? How do you want people to feel?" That would be very informative for me as to why this guy does what he does. Just some of my first obvious questions of why for James was is he a thrill junkie? Is he suicidal? Is there something else hidden in there? I kept digging deeper like why someone does what they do and then the more I explored that with this character and this script and with Mark Boal who wrote it and with Kathryn, we just dug out and tried to flesh out as much as we can.

And then a lot of the stuff that happens during the filming that's very telling like the stuff with the boy [a subplot involving a young Iraqi kid who sells DVDs and forms a bond with Sgt. James]. If that didn’t happen in the movie, the character would be much less interesting to me.

Jen Johans: Exactly!

Jeremy Renner: And it was very important to me that that [subplot] was in it; there was talks of it maybe not being in it. But it was very important to me and I explained to him my take on why [unsure to whom he is referring—possibly one of the editors or possibly Mark Boal but had no chance to clarify]. But really there was no surprises in that I don’t think I was revealing anything to them [the filmmakers] that they weren’t already thinking but just the amount of importance that it was to me playing it.

Like bomb parts! It wasn’t really written as a big thing… It was just like, Mark says, "oh it’s just a thing you have under your bed. It’s just a bunch of stuff you collect." And to me, it’s just a massive telling key to one part of who he [James] is. He isn’t just some psycho guy going and disarming bombs. He respects the bomb maker. He sees it as an art form.

You know, it becomes almost his poetry of like, "put this thing on — the suit." And it becomes a whole ‘nother thing; it elevates him, to me, you know what I mean, instead of being just some thrill junkie which is so one-note, very shallow.

Jen Johans: Yeah, and I love the scene — and I wondered if it was improvised — when you put the helmet of the suit on in the movie after you had been with the guys…

Jeremy Renner: Oh yeah. No, Kathryn really — that was her thing. She really liked that. I was kinda sittin’ there with the helmet on…

Jen Johans: I thought maybe that was the only way your character felt really safe — that was a great scene.

Jeremy Renner: Yeah, yeah! We had one take where I was cleaning it as well; I was drunk.

Jen Johans: I was wondering about working with Kathryn. I know she uses a four camera process and I know you have a background in theatre; I didn’t know if maybe that was helpful with the longer takes and you didn’t know where the camera was or did you find it kind of imposing when there are that many cameras? What was that like working in that process?

Jeremy Renner: You never saw four cameras.

Jen Johans: You didn’t see ‘em?

Jeremy Renner: Never saw four cameras. You saw one camera maybe if they were getting something closer or when there were tight quarters, we knew there were cameras around. I called them ninja cameras, they were hiding out anywhere. I remember when we were doing that point-of-view on the car at the UN building sequence, it’s like I don’t know where they are, they’re everywhere. So we pull up, we get out to do this thing —

Jen Johans: And you don’t know what’s being —

Jeremy Renner: No idea what’s happening; you’re just constantly like "in it." All of a sudden I kick open the trunk and "ope" there’s a camera in there—it’s like [waves] "oh hey."

Jen Johans: Did that break the moment? Or you’re just in the character so much that seeing the camera didn’t —

Jeremy Renner: Yeah, ‘cause most of the time I don’t see them or have to experience them so it’s like, "oh, yeah, okay." But I mean, there’s so much footage that I mean —

Jen Johans: Yeah, yeah. One of the other movies you made a few years ago that really made a big impact on me was 12 and Holding 

Jeremy Renner: Oh yeah!

Jen Johans: Which you were brilliant in and I mean, the whole movie was great. I was wondering, were there any other works that you’re especially proud of that maybe didn’t find the audience you thought they deserved?

Jeremy Renner: You know what, I think that’s it. I really liked 12 and Holding. I thought the little kids were really amazing. The little girl I got to work with, Zoe [Weizenbaum] 

Jen Johans: Oh, she broke my heart —

Jeremy Renner: She’s so good, you know and she made my job so easy. And I thought, you know, it was a pretty fun character I got to play; he’s rich and complex which I love. And Neo Ned is another one — a film I did with Gabrielle Union — that was pretty interesting, you know, tough to find an audience for that one.

Jen Johans: Well, you’re sort of known for taking on the antiheroes or the edgier characters. So what is it about that material or those characters that draws you in?

Jeremy Renner: They’re realistic. People are flawed. Nobody’s close to even perfect and it’s just interesting to be able to expose those flaws because I think people can relate to them instead of some superhero. Which don’t get me wrong, those are fun — the fantasies—I dig ‘em. I really personally dig superhero movies but there’s nothing really realistic about it.

When it comes down to drama or comedy or any kind of film it is, as an audience member, I want to be able to relate to somebody’s journey so I can go along with them. So when I see an antihero — you know, they’re flawed and they’re trying to overcome those flaws like hopefully we all do… and sometimes not so that makes them very realistic to me and that’s why I dig ‘em so they’re rich and they’re complex.

[After discussing the length of time he was involved in The Hurt Locker from script to researching how to take on and off the 70-100 pound suit to a 3 month a.k.a. 44-day filming schedule in Jordan in a heat that made it "feel like forever" to the post-production, Renner notes how proud he was to have been a part of it every step of the way.]

Jen Johans: Is that something you might want to do in the future, like some sort of behind-the-scenes work as well as in front of the camera because you were able to be a part of that process?

Jeremy Renner: Yeah, I mean certainly, I like some producing aspects for sure and directing aspects. They’d have to be the right sort of circumstances for me to want to do them ... you know I’m pretty opinionated. I got a lot of ideas, some of them suck and some of them might be great but it’s certainly something that I feel educated enough in to dip my toe in and see how it goes. And I feel like I’ve learned a lot from Kathryn and some other really great people but I’m going to keep the acting thing in the forefront for now.

Jen Johans: Do you have any future projects? I haven’t seen The Unusuals but I was told that I’d be hurt if I didn’t ask if it’s coming back. Is the show returning?

Jeremy Renner: No, it’s done so that’s why I don’t really have anything lined up right now because I was tied to that show but I just got released from that so now I’m just gonna take a peek and see what’s out there. Who knows? Might do something fun — might do a comedy — might do something heavy… I don’t know.

Jen Johans:
What can you tell me about the music? Because I love it when creativity goes into other areas.

Jeremy Renner: I was a musician before I was an actor. I started drums when I was sixteen, then piano, guitar. I sort of like watched people, I didn’t want to become a piano player or a guitarist, I just learned instruments to write music. It was another form of expression for me especially as a broke actor. I didn’t have a telephone or need a lot of things with power, which sometimes I didn’t have. All I needed was a guitar and I could sing. I could always sing and that fulfilled me. It’s like painting might be for somebody else but writing a song —

Jen Johans: Was a good outlet?

Jeremy Renner: Yeah, it was a wonderful outlet, exactly, because I didn’t need cameras or all that other stuff.

Jen Johans: Something you could do yourself.

Jeremy Renner: Yeah, I can’t just do a monologue; that doesn’t fulfill me.

Jen Johans: [Laughs] Not in front of the mirror?

Jeremy Renner: Doing monologues to myself in front of the mirror does nothing for me.

Jen Johans: You can’t go to your friends and be [bows head], “and now…”

[Renner continues laughing]

Jen Johans: So is that something you think you might want to share like in an album?

Jeremy Renner: Yeah, yeah — takes a lot of time and it just takes so much effort and I feel like if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right so we’ll see, yeah, we’ll see what happens.

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