Last year at this time, Jeremy Renner was in the midst of his first awards season, a Best Actor nominee from the film that would go on to be Oscar night's big winner, "The Hurt Locker." At that point, he was dividing his time between promoting the film and going back to something he'd been doing in his spare time for years: buying and restoring old houses around Los Angeles, often for resale.
Renner's now back as a nominee, this time for playing a combustible thug in Ben Affleck's Boston-based crime drama "The Town." And he's living in the house that he was working on last year, a Hollywood Hills classic that once belonged to film director Preston Sturges.
When we spoke last year, I remember you talking about how you'd been working on fixing up the house, and your drywall guy came up and said, "Congratulations on winning the National Board of Review."
Yeah, right! That was the strangest thing. The guy barely spoke English. I said, "What are you doing knowing about the National Board of Review? I barely know about the National Board of Review!" He said, "I Google alert you." That was tremendous.
Has the awards season been very different your second time around?
It can't compare, really. Last year, my job was just promoting this little film that came out in the summer, going door-to-door and screen-to-screen doing Q&As all over the country. This year, I've been doing a movie. For me, it's been "Mission: Impossible," "Mission: Impossible," "Mission: Impossible."
But, I mean, I felt pretty blessed that "The Town" opened so well and found an audience, made money for Warner Bros. and Legendary, and then the critics seemed to embrace it. It's nice to have your movie seen, and then kind of liked, even.
Were you attracted to the part in "The Town" when you first read it?
The role was electrifying on the page. I thought it was pretty flashy, maybe that's a better word. And then digging into it, I realized there's a lot of potential to make it real, and not just this guy who shoots people every time he's onscreen. What drives him – that's the fun stuff.
So what do you do to find the human being underneath the scary guy?
Ask questions. Ask lots of questions. With every job, it's the same. What drives this human to do what he does? And Ben made it very specific. He put me in front of all the appropriate people to help me with the accent, with the attitude, with everything. And being in Boston was huge. The resources were abundant. If I had to talk to a bank robber, I looked to my left, to my right, and they were there. Which is kinda weird in itself, now that I think about it. But it's not like I was there with a lot of murderers. Just guys who took money from banks.
The Charlestown area where the film is set is known for bank robbers, but also for not talking to the police or to outsiders.
Yeah. The code of silence.
Are they so star-struck that they'll open up to a movie crew?
Well, those guys are retired now, or they wouldn’t be talking. And a few guys, you knew something was up when they'd speak in the third person. (laughs) You know, in case we were miked or something. There may have been some litigation still to be had, so they were protecting themselves.
You said you asked lots of questions. When did you feel like you had the answers?
The day we wrapped, maybe. It was an ongoing process. Initially it was all about the accent, because I think any moviegoer will attest that a terrible accent in a movie can really pull you out. So it was really important to me, and most of the preparation was just getting comfortable with that dialect. Then I could focus on the character stuff.
It feels as if there's a real history between your character and Ben's.
Did you work with him to figure out the details of that history?
Normally, I would have. But we worked very little on the backstory. If he wasn't so busy directing the movie, if he was just an actor, we probably would have gotten a beer together and hung out and chatted. But we connected as human beings and just hit it off straightaway. And we saw eye-to-eye in so many ways that we didn't really have to go into the details of that thing. We let the story kind of expose that.
That was the easy part, getting along with Ben and making it seem like we'd been friends for a long time.
Your character strikes me as a guy who, if it hadn’t ended for him the way it does in the movie, it would have ended in a similar way some other time. And he probably knew that for most of his life.
Exactly. There's something pretty interesting about that. That sense of self to be okay with knowing what your destiny is. There's something kind of comforting about that, I suppose.
Did your career change significantly after "Hurt Locker?"
I imagine so. It’s hard to truly understand that, because you're asking me to think what other people are thinking. But I do see more opportunities, for sure. I don’t want to say bigger opportunities, but bigger movies. I can certainly assume that it has made getting a job, or getting a better job, easier. But it doesn't change anything for me, because the decision process on wanting to do a movie is the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago.
Why "Mission: Impossible?"
That’s been one of those things where I think, slap my face, is this really happening? Tom Cruise calling you and saying, "You really gonna do this?" Well of course. I can't say no. This is an amazing franchise you got here, and I'd love to be a small part of it. I mean, come on, it's a no-brainer.
There are rumors floating around that the franchise is being groomed for you.
(laughs) People are bananas. I don’t know anything about that. There's nothing realistic about that to me. What's true is that I'm doing "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," and we have Brad Bird and this tremendous cast and crew. And then I go do "The Avengers" (left, at Comic-Con with Samuel L. Jackson and Mark Ruffalo). And hopefully I don’t get hit by a bus, because I'd really like to go see these movies. That's all I do know to be true. People can speculate that I'm gonna sprout wings out my back and fly around this room. Okay, sure.
What else is on the horizon for you?
I'm always looking, right? Actually, this is where I can answer your question about how things have changed: I have to look farther ahead. Prior to "Hurt Locker," I would do the next job, and then figure out what the job after that would be. Now I know that I'm booked up until the summer, which is a strange thing for me. That's definitely the biggest change, knowing what my next year will be like. It's awesome, but new and strange to know that if I don't get hit by a bus, I'll have two cool, big movies in the can by the end of the summer. And now I can go do a cool little independent if I want to.
It doesn't leave you much time to buy another house and fix that up.
Yeah, I don’t know if I'm gonna be doing that again anytime soon.
(Nominees Luncheon and Comic-Con photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)