Jeremy Renner is one of the more unlikely marquee stars of the 21st century. The self-professed “quiet outsider” first gained indie recognition in the 2002 biopic Dahmer, lending pathos and vulnerability to the serial killer. After years of supporting work, most notably as one of the James gang in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Kathryn Bigelow saw Dahmer and spotted a live wire in Renner. The rest is history, as Renner’s work in Academy darling The Hurt Locker earned him an Oscar nod and an entrée into mainstream fare. The Town produced another Academy nod, and Renner was pegged as the next action “it boy,” taking on the Bourne franchise and Mission Impossible.
With Kill The Messenger, the biopic of Gary Webb, Renner portrays the flawed and dogged investigative journalist who exposes the CIA’s partnership with Nicaraguan rebels who assisted in the smuggling of cocaine into the U.S. that funded Contra militias. Along with Renner’s production company, The Combine, and films like Kill The Messenger, the actor hopes to remind the industry and the rest of the world he’s more than just an action star.
The A.V. Club: When did you first become aware of Gary Webb’s story?
Jeremy Renner: It came to me in the form of a script by Peter Landesman when I was shooting The Avengers. I then read the books and realized that this all happened in an area where I’m from, and I knew nothing about it. It turned from a movie that I wanted to do into a movie that I had to do. I thought it was too good and too important not to tell.
AVC: I must have been 16 when Webb’s story broke, but I had no knowledge that any of this happened.
JR: Right. Same here. I mean, “How do I not know anything about this?” I’m 70 miles from where all this is happened.
AVC: Was there any trouble bringing the story to the screen? Is anyone still trying to suppress the story?
JR: I don’t think so. The director, Michael Cuesta, may have run into a few things, but I personally didn’t, as an actor or producer. I knew we were probably going to get some headwind from people defending themselves for what they did. There’ve been public apologies and some of those even went by the wayside. But to my knowledge, there wasn’t any massive conspiracy. If I get audited this year—talk to me at the end of the year. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you get to spend time with Gary’s wife and children? His secret smoking habit, or the fact that he plays Social Distortion at a barbeque, seem like pretty personal insights.
JR: I know that Michael and Peter Landesman spent time talking with the family, and they were very gracious and giving with their time. I, however, did not want to go down that road. I didn’t want to pry anymore or ask them questions about their dead dad. I wanted to be respectful of that. I also didn’t want to be influenced by any sort of biased opinion. If I was lost or didn’t know what I was doing, then I would have gone down that road. They were generous. They gave me a lot of home videos of Gary and a lot of work that he’s written. I got a really good grasp on who he was and then had a great roadmap to start my journey into understanding Gary Webb.
AVC: How do you feel about him as a writer? Is he one of the great journalists of our time?
JR: I think he’s a great journalist. I think we need more Gary Webbs. I think some of his flaws as a human are also in his writing. Some of his writing can be hyperbolic, which can be led to misinterpretation. It can be a little leading, which is why his writing did get misinterpreted. What he’s stating he’s stating. What’s factual is factual. It’s all there in the articles, and what people did say—it’s all there. You can see why people misinterpreted it, but as a writer he’s tremendous. He’s extremely courageous to write about the things he’s written about in the past and what he did with [his three-part series of investigative reports] “Dark Alliance.”
AVC: Do you feel Gary did anything wrong? He did inadvertently put his family in jeopardy.
JR: I think his best qualities are his worst qualities, so I can’t fault the man for wanting to do what’s right. He was a great father and a great husband who loved his family. He would never do anything to jeopardize them or put them in harm’s way.
AVC: Did you personally relate to him? He’s an outsider digging into these elite circles and pissing people off.
JR: [Laughs.] Yeah I do! I always feel like an outsider.
AVC: How comfortable are you in your skin at industry parties or awards ceremonies?
JR: You have to be, otherwise you’re going to go bananas. I’d rather be in other places, but you can have fun.
AVC: Growing up, were you the outsider or were you popular?
JR: It’s hard to say how people perceive you. I felt like an outsider. I was always an observer. I was always quiet. I always just watched things. I was a big observer.
AVC: How much has music been a part of your life?
JR: Huge. That was always a big factor. I think there’s rhythm and music in everything, including sports, stunts, and how we move. It’s a really big part of my life. There’s a lot of emotion. I make a playlist for every character that I get to play.
AVC: Along with acting, was that your salvation?
JR: Always. As an actor and committing to that, I could always sit down at the piano or with a guitar, with no electricity, which I didn’t have, and sing a song and still have an outlet. That’s really quite beautiful and satisfying to me.
AVC: Almost 20 years later, why does Gary’s story need to be told? Is it more relevant now in our media-saturated world?
JR: I don’t know if it’s more relevant now than ever, but it’s certainly very relevant now, isn’t it? With the communication age and the media the way it is now—Gary was just sort of at the precipice of it all in ’95. It was just starting to happen on the Internet. We couldn’t be more lucky with this film—telling a story that’s constantly been overlooked. To have it come out now, I think it’s a great commentary on where we’re at in the media, what’s important and what’s getting recognized. Sadly, it’s a lot of crap. I used to think journalists were vampires, just trying to suck something out of me or somebody. Now I’m siding with them and realizing that any of the good work they’ve done gets overlooked, because somebody hacked somebody’s cell phone. Then that becomes a story. It’s sad to me. I think it’s a really interesting time for this movie to come out.
AVC: Also, journalists can’t make any money. No one can really get paid as a writer.
JR: Right! It’s crazy. It’s crazy to me.
AVC: Are you actively engaged politically? With The Hurt Locker and Kill The Messenger, you’ve tackled some major issues of the last two decades.
JR: No. I am not. [Laughs.]
AVC: So it’s more about character for you than any agenda?
JR: Yeah. You bring up something like The Hurt Locker, and Kill The Messenger obviously has more political undertones, but the biggest challenge for me doing Kill The Messenger was not making this political thriller seem political. We’re not trying to stand on a soapbox and preach here about our political stance. I have none personally. There’s too much gray area and red tape for anything to really get done for me. It’s way too frustrating. I don’t like to see that in cinema, either. The biggest challenge was to make this very subjective and personal story about Gary Webb, as a man, journalist, and husband, flawed and all of those. Have that be the story, and not anything political or something that has any sort of agenda or spin. We’re not trying to manipulate people’s thoughts into thinking something.
AVC: Are you an actor who favors the “one for them, one for me,” mentality? Or do you love doing tentpoles like The Avengers and Mission Impossible?
JR: I enjoy them all. I love being challenged. I like to go to work not knowing what I’m doing, and not knowing the answers. As soon as I feel like I know the answers then I’m going to do something else. If that’s in the form of a big one or a small one, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s that easily said. I know there’s that mentality out there in the acting world of “one for them, one for me,” but I say, “Two for me. How about all of them for me? Screw ‘them’.” [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you come to form your own production company, The Combine?
JR: From your last question, that’s kind of why it started. I was recognized for movies like The Hurt Locker and The Town, and those are not movies that studios are running down and making. People aren’t throwing money at movies like Kill The Messenger. I wanted to ensure quality control for work that I was going to be able to get. Some things I’m going to have to manifest. Nobody’s going to come banging down my door to go do Kill The Messenger, and I want to do those kinds of movies. It ended up being a great calling card for me and the company for the types of movies that I want to continue doing. People in Hollywood have a very short memory. You’re only remembered for your last movie. It’s like, “Let’s send Renner every action script that’s out there.” Hold on a second, guys. I feel like I have a little more of a skill set than running around and hurting people. I have to kindly remind people that I can do other things. [Laughs.] The company is a really great way to do that, and I get to do it with one of my best buds, which is also a wonderful thing. To share the success with other people is pretty lovely.
AVC: Did the news of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass coming back to Bourne come as a shock to you, or was it all stuff you knew about?
JR: Nah, it’s all stuff I knew about. It’s exciting. I know it’s news for people out in the world, but it’s always been rumbling around. News to me that they may have finally cracked an idea? That was a little bit more news. I think it’s all exciting nonetheless because I love Paul and Matt. I think it’s terrific.
AVC: Was there ever a moment when you considered abandoning acting for something more stable?
AVC: It never got too scary?
JR: It always got scary. [Laughs.] The struggle was always terrifying. I was pretty tenacious, stubborn, and self-righteous. I knew what I wanted. I got lucky.
AVC: How much did your world change after Dahmer? Was it a slow burn?
JR: It was a slow burn with an audience, but within the industry, it helped me out a lot. My business life changed a lot after that. The opportunities that came—it was actually what got me The Hurt Locker. Kathryn Bigelow saw that movie and was like, “That’s the guy that needs to play Will James.”
AVC: You’ve worked with some great directors. Is directing a burning ambition?
JR: Yeah, it is, actually. It requires a lot more time than it does as an actor or even a producer. I’d be pretty picky about it. I think at some point I’ll do it, but not any time soon, I don’t think.
AVC: Do you miss anonymity?
JR: Sure. Absolutely. I guess I could always try and find a place that has that for me, but I also love what I do. That’s the negative that comes with the love I have for my job. Fine—I’ll take it.