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‘The Hurt Locker’ Told Us Everything We Needed to Know About Jeremy Renner

The star-making turn in the Oscar-winning film played to his considerable strengths. But his subsequent choices have often revealed the challenges character actors face trying to be movie stars

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Jeremy Renner’s first film wasn’t The Hurt Locker, but when you saw him in that Oscar-winner, you felt like you’d never seen him before. He played Will James, a soldier in Iraq, who has a very unique and dangerous job. James disposes of explosive devices and — as we discover in the first scene of the movie when another man (who James is replacing) tries to do it — there’s absolutely no room for error with that gig. Any normal person would be terrified at the proposition of doing this work, but James gets a strange high from it. In fact, when he has downtime — like when he’s able to return to the States — he’s miserable. The film opens with a quote from journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The Hurt Locker is a portrait of a junkie.

You might have seen Renner’s face before The Hurt Locker. He’d been in several movies, like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and 28 Weeks Later. But The Hurt Locker made him a star, and that film’s qualities have imbued our impression of him ever since. Turning 50 early this year, Renner has earned two Oscar nominations and continues to be part of the biggest franchise in the world — pretty good for just a little over a decade in the limelight. 

And yet I think he suffers from a bit of a perception problem — an intangible sense of somehow disappointing us. (And let’s acknowledge everything that’s utterly subjective about that last sentence. Also, who’s “us”?) Sure, Renner’s career trajectory is one a lot of actors would envy, moving from acclaimed, era-defining dramas to blockbusters. But rather than growing into the role of an A-list star, he seems to have been overwhelmed by it. There are lots of big names who are in the Marvel Cinematic Universe… and then you pause a second and remember, oh right, Renner is in those as well.

Renner grew up in Modesto, California, a shy kid whose parents divorced when he was eight. He was good in sports and studied computer science, but somewhat on a whim, he decided to give acting a shot. “[L]ike throwing darts at something, I checked out an acting class,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘I like Michael J. Fox on Family Ties. He’s funny. That’s what acting is.’ … Acting gave me a community, a communion of people — a very exposing and vulnerable place but also a safe one because you’re hiding in a character when you’re onstage. Suddenly I went full-tilt boogie into it. I was like, ‘This is  what I want to be doing.’”

Eventually, he made his way to Hollywood, where he was also playing in a band. He did TV shows, a National Lampoon’s movie and S.W.A.T. But his first major role was as Jeffrey Dahmer in the 2002 drama Dahmer, which tried to present the serial killer’s humanity alongside his madness. Renner got good reviews, but the movie negatively affected him personally. “After I did the film, playing a guy who was basically a monster, things started getting creepy,” he said. “My cat was stolen. Then some girl bit me in a bar because I wasn’t paying attention to her anymore and I had to go to the hospital. It kept me single for a while, that’s for sure. Lot of people I wanted to date, but people I probably shouldn’t date.”

He possessed the gritty authenticity of a character actor, playing a sexist swine in Charlize Theron’s North Country and a lowlife in A Little Trip to Heaven. But 2007 was a real breakout year thanks to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, where he was James’ cousin and part of his crew, and 28 Weeks Later, where he got to play a hero safeguarding the main characters. At this stage of his career, Renner was still mostly known as the guy who did good work in smaller films. And he seemed pretty content staying in that world. “I’m very proud of most of the little indies I’ve done,” he said in 2007, “and I’m going to continue on doing them.”

When Kathryn Bigelow prepared to cast The Hurt Locker, she’d already worked with stars like Keanu Reeves, Ralph Fiennes and Harrison Ford. But she didn’t want a star for Will James. “I wanted to keep the faces unfamiliar so you wouldn’t have any anticipation or expectation on who’s going to live or die based on their [level of fame],” the director explained

To emphasize her point, one of The Hurt Locker’s biggest names, Guy Pearce, gets killed off in the opening scene. But neither Renner nor Anthony Mackie were household names at that point, so it wouldn’t have been a surprise if they didn’t make it to the end of the film. Just as crucially, though, Renner didn’t carry a lot of baggage based on previous roles. Most of us didn’t associate him with any other characters, so as far as we knew, he was just Will James, this hotshot who has a thing for disarming bombs. Renner hadn’t established a fixed onscreen persona, so James’ mystery — How did he get this way? Is he actually disturbed? — couldn’t be fleshed out by our preexisting feelings about the actor. Renner was an enigma, and so too was James.

When we think of cocky characters, maybe the mind goes to Tom Cruise in Top Gun, but James’ swagger was different — like he didn’t care what happened to him, like life was sort of a big joke, anyway, so why worry? But Renner also imbued the man with smarts and know-how: James wasn’t reckless, just inured to the life-and-death stakes of his daily life. Playing the role, Renner focused on the character’s core competence, training with actual Army bomb teams to understand their mindset. It’s a stripped-down performance, and he especially liked it that James wasn’t someone taken to long soliloquies. “Just as a human being, I’d rather say very few words,” Renner admitted around The Hurt Locker’s release. “I’m a simple, simple man. So there’s a lot of me in that aspect of him. … But to be able to convey conflict [without speaking], I guess that’s just part of acting. That’s why I love my job.”

What made The Hurt Locker work was Renner’s unflashy portrayal. If it had been a movie-star turn, it would have undercut the verisimilitude Bigelow was striving to achieve. The film pared away any of the trappings of a typical war movie. “It was 125 degrees, and there was no escaping the sun because there was no shade, but plenty of sandstorms,” Renner said later. “We had, like, one outdoor toilet for a whole cast and crew suffering from diarrhea. You don’t prepare for that; you just try to deal with it. It’s really an $80 million movie shot for like $11 million. So we were shoe-stringing it, but I think that added to the realism.” 

Renner plugged himself into Bigelow’s vision, just another soldier fighting in Iraq during a conflict that didn’t make any sense. James’ story was a tragedy, but it was also depressingly common. The way he walks off, bomb suit on, at The Hurt Locker’s end was both James’ happy ending — he’s back doing the one thing he loves — and a sad commentary about what happens to soldiers who go off to war. Like any good character actor, Renner served the story so much that you didn’t just think about his role in it.

He received a Best Actor nomination, but everyone knew he wouldn’t win — it was Jeff Bridges’ year — and, besides, The Hurt Locker elevated Renner to higher-profile roles. A year later, he was nominated again — this time for Best Supporting Actor — for The Town, playing Ben Affleck’s hair-trigger partner Jem. He’s described as being someone who only likes two things — Xbox and coke — and Renner gave the guy a dangerous overgrown-kid energy, invariably earning comparisons to what Robert De Niro did in Mean Streets. Renner lost that year to Christian Bale in The Fighter — his was the only nomination for The Town — but a path seemed cleared for him to have a pretty remarkable career, even though it had only started ramping up in his late 30s. 

“It was like you’re playing baseball your whole life and then you suddenly get on a team and go to the World Series,” Renner told the L.A. Times about the jet fuel his career received after The Hurt Locker. “All of a sudden I was ‘the new guy in town’ after being here 20 years. I was like, ‘That’s fine by me, I’ll be the new guy.’” 

What happens next is a tantalizing what-if. Before Joaquin Phoenix was cast in The Master, for which he got an Oscar nomination, Paul Thomas Anderson had been in discussion with Renner to play the character. How far did the talks go? Anderson later said, “Jeremy didn’t really audition. We were talking and there was even a moment three or four weeks into pre-production, but the script wasn’t ready and we had to call it off. By the time we got started again Jeremy was off doing other films — multiple films — and the script had taken a different path. You know, in the life of a film every one of them is different but what ends up happening is usually the right thing.” (“Paul only had a small window, and he was feeling it wasn’t quite ready,” Renner said in late 2010. “PTA doesn’t do anything until it’s ready.”)

In the meantime, Renner made his biggest move away from indies, first doing a cameo in 2011’s Thor, where he played some dude with a crossbow who worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. Of course, if you loved Marvel, you know what this meant — Holy shit, he’s Hawkeye — and he would get a more prominent part in the following year’s The Avengers. Before that, though, he also signed up to do Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, playing an analyst who reluctantly teams up with IMF, even though Cruise’s Ethan Hunt isn’t sure he can trust him. This is mostly forgotten now, but there was a thought that Ghost Protocol would be a way to transition the franchise away from Cruise, letting the younger Renner take over the reins while Cruise became the new IMF director. But if you saw Ghost Protocol, it was clear that, as good an actor as Renner is, he lacked an ineffable star quality — something that oozes out of Cruise’s every pore. Put another way, Renner was kind of a drag, with Cruise, Simon Pegg and Paula Patton delivering the sort of excitement one expects from those movies.

Renner had a lesser role in the follow-up, Rogue Nation, and he wasn’t even in Fallout. In a 2015 interview with Playboy while talking about Rogue Nation, he was pretty honest about the fact that those movies weren’t a great fit:

“This ‘Mission’ was like all the ‘Missions’ — great action set pieces with an idea of a story somewhere in there. There have been four successful versions before this one, so why would I fight the process? I just went and gave to the best of my ability in the scenario I was in. Now, was it the best scenario for me? The best at what I’m good at? Fuck, no. Not having any information about what the heck is going on doesn’t empower any artists to be at the best of their ability. I trusted Tom Cruise, [director] Chris McQuarrie and the studio, and I went with it.”

His unhappiness was compounded by the fact that they shot in London, far away from his young daughter. (“That was what caused any cantankerousness, agitation or negative feelings I had about the whole moviemaking experience,” he explained.) But in the same interview, he also complained that Hawkeye was little more than an afterthought in The Avengers and its sequel, Age of Ultron. “Not to be a dick, but I actually get to speak in this one,” he said sarcastically. “I have not seen the whole movie, but I just saw a scene the other day that I loved because all of a sudden it made me think, ‘Wow, that’s who Hawkeye is.’ Not that I want to go do a separate Hawkeye movie, but there’s a lot to explore there. It’s a near impossibility to be able to put that many huge characters in a movie and still have everyone be happy. There’s a lot more for me to do in this new one, among an even bigger cast with new baddies and new goodies. Everything that kind of worked in The Avengers is exponentially bigger in this one.”

This wasn’t the first time Renner had noted how underused he was in these Marvel films. When he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2013, he did a sketch where the whole conceit is that an archer isn’t exactly the most valuable superhero in the midst of a battle with powerful aliens. Being tied to not one but two franchises in which he’s pretty disposable — lacking the charisma or star power of his cohorts — Renner suddenly seemed a lot less compelling of an onscreen presence. On the one hand, it’s hard to fault the man when his characters aren’t that interesting — again, Hawkeye just shoots arrows — but on the other, these were movies that seemed to swallow him up. Even in his best roles, Renner has an interiority to him — he plays ordinary guys (whether they be soldiers, serial killers or Boston crooks) with a minimum of fuss. The big franchises were a waste of his talent, even if they surely made him far richer than The Assassination of Jesse James ever did. 

The frustration is that Renner has kept pursuing action movies and other studio films, and they’ve rarely been much better. He starred in The Bourne Legacy — you know, the one without Matt Damon — which mostly proved how much more interesting Damon was as an elite killing machine. If this is the first you’re hearing of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, consider yourself lucky. When he tried his hand at comedy, all he (and we) got out of it were the painfully unfunny The House and Tag. And he kept being a footnote in subsequent MCU films. (Fun fact: He apparently is in Avengers: Endgame but not Avengers: Infinity War. I didn’t know that, nor did I particularly care.) 

His track record with big-budget films isn’t entirely disastrous. He’s quite good in the muted, realistic sci-fi drama Arrival, starring alongside Amy Adams. In American Hustle, he brought a necessary grounding influence to a very entertaining, but also pretty hammy crime comedy-drama. (Be honest, though: You didn’t remember he was in it. Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper — all the flashier parts — are what came to mind first.) He’s quite good in Wind River, his taciturn demeanor perfect for that merciless thriller, although I found him to be the weak leg in the indie period romantic triangle The Immigrant. Renner certainly hadn’t turned his back on the arthouse, but his batting average hasn’t been as high as one would like. Not that long ago, he seemed destined for greatness, but of late he seems to be merely good-enough. 

A few years ago, one of his directors, Michael Cuesta — who helmed Kill the Messenger, a low-budget passion project that Renner produced — talked about the kind of role Renner really needed. “I’m not discounting any of his [franchise] work, because he’s a movie star, and that’s what movie stars need to do to finance these kinds of films,” Cuesta admitted. “But we haven’t seen him play a mature guy with a family and a passion for his calling in life, and he is perfect for that. His face communicates so much in the quiet moments, you don’t have to have any dialogue.”  

I think Cuesta is right — and that Renner would agree. The actor said as much when discussing The Hurt Locker and how it played to his strengths of not speaking all that much. There’s an irony there: For as much as we talk about Hollywood only pumping out loud, empty spectacle, even those films need empathetic, outgoing figures at their center. They need actors like Robert Downey Jr. or Tom Cruise — people who are so magnetic that they can convey inspiring ideas through their words. In The Hurt Locker or The Town or Arrival, Renner does more with less — he plays men who don’t want to chit-chat a lot. 

Renner once said of Modesto, “I grew up in a small town where it wasn’t okay to have emotions, apparently,” crediting his acting classes for giving him an outlet for “loads of emotions and things going on in my head and my heart.” But he’s not someone given to wild flourishes on screen — his characters often shield parts of themselves from us — and as of yet, he’s never really found a franchise that can serve that talent. Maybe that will be hard — maybe we want our big studio blockbusters to be so effusive and epic that Renner’s reserved style just doesn’t work there.

He’s only 50, and hopefully he’s got a long career ahead of him. But his new series, Mayor of Kingstown, has only gotten so-so reviews. And this Thanksgiving, Hawkeye will finally get his own Disney+ series, although the recent MCU series have suggested that those can sometimes be pretty underwhelming. A couple years ago when he tried to put some serious muscle behind his music career, it was mostly greeted with mocking. Did you forget about his app that crashed and burned? And that’s to say nothing of the disturbing allegations his ex-wife, Sonni Pacheco, leveled against him in 2019, claiming that Renner was abusive and even bit their daughter. 

Added all up, Renner seems to have lost some of the luster that came his way after the twin successes of The Hurt Locker and The Town. Maybe Hawkeye will turn things around for him. Maybe he’ll decide that being an A-lister is less interesting than returning to his roots as a character actor. Maybe he just needs the right part — maybe in a Western — to unlock what’s richest about his work. Will James walks away from the camera as The Hurt Locker cuts to black, his fate uncertain. Renner’s future is just as unknowable.