Jeremy Renner: 'I might just quit movies and be a stay-at-home dad'
'Hurt Locker' star Jeremy Renner tells our film critic about plans to scale back on his roles after five tough years - and why house renovation is his back-up plan
Full of beans, fizzing with energy, Jeremy Renner springs to his feet, shakes my hand and offers me a cup of coffee. Using a hotel machine, he expertly makes me a very serviceable Americano, pours himself a stiff espresso and settles down to enjoy it and a bag of bacon-flavoured crisps - the breakfast of champions.
It's early-ish, and Renner was up late last night, attending the première of his new movie Arrival at the London Film Festival. But he looks fresh, his eyes twinkle, and there's something nicely unrehearsed about the way he answers questions during our interview.
He's not tall - around 5ft 9in, I'd guess - and is slight apart from the pumped-up arms that are de rigueur these days for a Hollywood actor. Renner both looks his age (he's 45) and doesn't: when he smiles, he seems positively boyish, but at times his lived-in face and soulful eyes convince you he's mulling over some secret sorrow. His expressions change like the weather, are subtle and various and have served him well as an actor.
He's an extremely good one, but delivers a more restrained and enigmatic performance than usual in Arrival, for reasons that will become clear when you watch it. And you should, because Denis Villeneuve's drama is one of the films of the year, a visually splendid picture that skilfully weaves an alien invasion into a smaller human story of love, loss and sacrifice.
Renner is Ian Donnelly, one of a team of top scientists assembled by the US military to investigate the arrival of a fleet of alien spaceships. Giant, egg-shaped craft have appeared from nowhere to hover ominously in various locations across the globe, leading to panic and sabre-rattling in Russia and China.
Renner's character and a linguist played by Amy Adams are sent into the American one to find out what's going on, and end up trying to communicate with two extraterrestrials whose immense shadows appear behind a giant white screen. They make progress, but elsewhere in the world, trigger fingers are growing itchy.
"I loved the story from the start," Renner tells me, "it's one of the best scripts I've read, very clean and simple and precise and emotional, and I barely knew it was about aliens, because that's such a visual bit. It was this insular story, and when you were reading it, you were just so focused on these two people trying to have a conversation with these beings."
While full of admiration for the finished product, Renner did not always understand what was going on during the shoot. "To be honest, dude, I got home every day and I went, I don't know what the hell I'm doing, what am I doing in this thing? I knew why I was doing the movie, great script, fantastic director, and I love Amy, she's my friend. But the character I was playing was not like, oh I gotta go do this - it's not flashy, it's sort of like a nerdy thing, it's very understated.
"Day by day, I didn't know what the hell I was contributing, and you weren't going home thinking 'oh my God, we rocked that scene'.
"A lot of that stuff where we were trying to communicate with the aliens was not green screen, it was actually a beautiful set built of the alien pod, with a big white screen at the end, like a movie screen.
"And behind it were these guys in leotards holding a giant 40-foot stick with a lot of fuzzy balls on the end, and whenever the aliens were supposed to move, they would tap this fuzzy ball wherever they were going - it was an eyeline thing. It actually helped a lot, because it created a character in itself, and I mean a guy in a leotard behind a screen doing that was strange enough to make you think of aliens.
"But there was just like this sort of constant tension, and that was all Denis, man, all we had to do was get the words right, and shape the scene - he was the one driving that tension."
Jeremy's subtle, note-perfect performance in Arrival demonstrates perfectly why he emerged six or seven years back as one of Hollywood's most talented young character actors. His edgy presence and unconventional looks seemed set to confine him to an interesting career on the margins of stardom, but all that changed in 2011 when he was cast in quick succession in Avengers Assemble, Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol and The Bourne Legacy.
Suddenly, Renner was an out-and-out star, a situation he has the good grace not to moan about. "I'm not sure it was hard to deal with," he says, "the only thing that was hard was that long stretch of time being away from my family, and my friends and my wife, and my bed.
"Me and my toothbrush were on the road for four, almost five years. In four years I slept in my bed, what, two months? It's crazy. I was enjoying it all, enjoying what I was doing workwise, it was a great opportunity, but all the films were back-to-back-to-back, five of them, and by the end, it was like I need a break, you know, to try and find a bit of balance.
"It was an amazing experience I had, life-changing experiences personally, and career wise. But the personal toll was huge." Renner and his wife Sonni Pacheco separated in late 2014.
Born and raised in Modesto, California, Renner toyed with a career as a musician before drifting into acting. An inauspicious film debut in the 1995 comedy National Lampoon's Senior Trip led to steady but unremarkable TV work. But he had to double up as a make-up artist to make ends meet, and that might have been it if David Jacobson hadn't had the bright idea of casting Renner as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in his profoundly disturbing 2002 biopic.
"That was a strange time," Renner recalls, "and it all happened so quickly. I mean literally from me getting a script, being offered the part and finishing the movie, that whole period was two-and-a-half weeks. And I didn't know anything about this guy, so I had to find out fast. People have this idea about him as a monster, and his behaviour, my God, it's so terrible what he did, but I had to find a way of playing him where he's still human.
"So I talked to the director and we used this book called The Father's Story that his father, Lionel Dahmer, wrote, and that gave me more of a handle on him and kind of humanised this guy's dreadful behaviour. But playing him really messed me up for a while, and I had this weird hang up about being in a bar alone after that, because that's how he got his victims. Not that being in a bar alone is the greatest life choice anyway!"
Through the 2000s, Renner's career purred steadily rather than taking off, but in 2007 Jeffrey Dahmer did him one last favour. Writer and director Kathryn Bigelow was planning a film about bomb disposal teams working in war-torn Iraq when she came across a DVD of Dahmer. She was impressed with how Renner had managed to make a monster almost sympathetic. "Will James in The Hurt Locker was cocky, arrogant, difficult, but Kathryn wanted to make him more of an everyman, more accessible to people." And so Renner was cast in the role that would define his career.
He recently joked that there "wouldn't be enough money in the world" to persuade him to do The Hurt Locker again. The film was shot in the baking heat of Jordan's north-eastern deserts, just a few miles from the Iraqi border, on a huge and sometimes chaotic set. During the shoot, Renner got food poisoning, broke his ankle, and spent much of his time cooking inside a 40kg bomb disposal suit.
"The physical side of it was the easy part," he laughs. "I was so glad I did it, but the shooting of it was tough. Literally, I would never see Kathryn, because it was these giant sets, square-mile sets, that were kind of locked off, kind of not locked off, so you never knew who was in the movie and who wasn't. There were goats wandering around - it was crazy.
"And I'd be in the suit and thinking right, there's an IED 300 yards down the road, I'm gonna go do my job, and there'd be cameras around sometimes, very long lens. Half the time you just didn't know where they were, because there was no 'cut', no 'and action'.
"And it was hot as hell. I remember one time I was digging in the dirt and all of a sudden I came up and there was a needle stuck in my arm and I was like oh, let's just cut here for a sec, because I hope this is part of the movie. And it wasn't…"
His pain was rewarded, though, by rave reviews and a Best Actor Oscar nomination: suddenly Renner's services were in huge demand.
He was Oscar-nominated again for his chilling portrayal of a sociopathic bank robber in Ben Affleck's well-regarded 2010 thriller The Town, and then came The Avengers, Mission Impossible and Bourne Legacy, roles that would lift him into a different stratosphere of stardom.
Now, though, one suspects that Renner would like to return to the serious, character-driven roles and small-scale movies that got him noticed in the first place. He has a three-year-old daughter, Ava, and spending time with her has become his top priority.
"There are obligations from signing on to do big movie franchises, where there's two or three or whatever you've gotta do. I'll do those - but nothing else that I do will shoot outside the United States or North America, so that I'm close to my daughter. That's the new rule."
He has even contemplated stepping off the Hollywood merry-go-round altogether. For the past 15 years or so, Renner and a friend have been "flipping houses", buying properties, doing them up and selling them on.
"I mean that's sort of the pull-chute plan," he explains, "because doing that puts me home, gives me something I love to do, gets my hands dirty, which I love doing, and I can still go home, sleep in my own bed, take my daughter to school. I still have to contractually finish out some movies I really want to do, but that's sort of the idea down the line.
"It's about a balance," he concludes, "because now that the baby came into the equation, she's number one, so all these other things have gotta take a hit. So maybe I'll do one movie a year, or maybe a movie every other year.
"Maybe I'll just stop, and be a stay-at-home dad, I don't know." That would be a shame.