Something happened to me this summer after I saw The Bourne Legacy: a fascination with Jeremy Renner took hold and wouldn’t let go. I had seen him in other movies (most notably The Hurt Locker) and was intrigued by his intense energy and expressiveness, but something about his starring role in this film pushed the rest of the buttons needed to fully engage my obsessionator. Not sure of all the factors, but I think the most important one was my realization that he could be funny. There is a moment early on when he exclaims in disbelief that the doctor who has been working with him for years doesn’t know his name and calls him “the number 5”. Something about his body language and vocal intonation in this scene conveyed a humorous level of exasperation in the midst of all the spy thriller seriousness. Not so much as to undercut the proceedings, but enough to expand the frame and loosen things up in a healthy way.
Anyway, I realized I wanted to see more, so after consulting IMDB and some knowledgeable sources (thanks, Ide Cyan!), I put a whole pile of Renner’s earlier movies in my queue. Though he’s come into the general consciousness only recently, he’s been making movies for over 15 years, so there were quite a few to choose from. It took me a couple months to get through them (the ones I wanted to watch, that is; I have no desire to see “National Lampoon’s Senior Trip“), and a very interesting couple of months it was.I also spent a fair amount of time searching the internet for information about him as a person. Why? Does someone’s personal life really have much bearing on their art? The answer is obviously “yes” to a certain extent. If you come to your job as a talented man of few words who’s left everything behind to pursue your calling, you might have more insight into, for example, playing the lead role in The Hurt Locker. But reasoning in reverse (you must have history X because you did a great job portraying Y) can be quite problematic; we’d all be in serious trouble if you needed to be a sociopathic murderer to convincingly play one. Whatever. I’m a curious critter, and I like a good research project. Intertubes, ahoy!
The most relevant facts about Renner’s life that I discovered are that he grew up in Modesto, a fairly conservative, economically depressed town in California’s Central Valley. His parents managed a bowling alley and divorced when he was 10, after which there was a lot of dislocation (he stayed with his mom, but also has a “Renner family crest” tattooed on his left shoulder). He was musical and started singing and drumming in his teens. No one else in his family or peer group was theatrically inclined, so he didn’t discover acting until he went to college. He describes it as being almost lifesaving in allowing him to explore and express feelings that had had no outlet before. He quit college and moved to LA to pursue a movie career in the early ’90s, and spent almost a decade in varying degrees of poverty while acting in independent productions with shoe-string budgets, one-off TV roles, and lowbrow fare like “Senior Trip”. In 2002, he made some waves in the industry with Dahmer. Things started to pick up after that, and with his Oscar-nominated lead performance in The Hurt Locker in 2009, he was officially a Big Deal. He’s since gotten a second Oscar nomination and starred in some very high-profile action moneymakers. Things are definitely happening for him now.
So: he grew up in an unsophisticated and somewhat troubled environment. Has had difficulty accessing and understanding his emotions in the past. Is used to pulling up stakes and moving on, but is also persistent and willing to make a lot of sacrifices to do something he’s passionate about. I think it’s safe to say that all of this visibly informs many of this roles. But there’s also an open, friendly, and goofy side to him that comes out a lot in real life, but only subtly onscreen. He is well known for busting out in ridiculous dance moves on set and for approximating Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks when making his way down the red carpet at awards shows. He also liberally curses and laughs, flips the bird, makes crazy faces, and sticks out his tongue a lot. Sometimes he seems like a bit of a wild man. (Though I’ve never heard any substantiated stories of a scandalous nature — no drugs, abusive behavior, or general assholery.) But when he is working, he is focused, precise, and whoever he needs to be for the job: the real thing — a natural actor. He is so good at playing his more serious and/or scary roles that even a seasoned movie critic like David Poland asked him in an interview if he was “a hard guy”. Renner’s response was: not really, he’s a pretty easygoing dude — maybe it’s just his “resting face” that makes people think that.
No, I think it’s that he’s great at pretending he’s someone he’s not. On screen, he is capable of transforming not just his mannerisms or appearance, but his fundamental energy. For a good overview of the range of characters he can inhabit convincingly, check out Dahmer, 12 and Holding, Neo Ned, and The Hurt Locker. While watching each, you might think he IS those guys. But they’re so different. It’s like he’s riffing on psychological versions of musical themes; once he’s got the vibe, he’s so assured that he can throw in grace notes and off-beats that make the performance seem more real and vibrant without being showy. I use that metaphor intentionally, because music has continued to be an important part of his life (his singing is pretty amazing!), but as far as I can tell, never a distraction from his acting. They seem more complementary — both reflections of a deep need to be in motion and expressing feelings in ways that connect with other people.
Creating a work of art for an audience is one kind of connection. He’s also really open and responsive to other actors, clearly keying his movements and dialogue to them in the moment. There’s a sensitivity and quickness to him that I find quite captivating. (I really wish he would do more romantic roles.) He also seems unusually comfortable stepping into other people’s spaces and getting close to them — perhaps an extension of his generally confident and direct physicality, which is not fussy, clumsy, or timid at all. Dan Bradley, 2nd unit director and stunt coordinator on The Bourne Legacy said Renner would be “a fantastic stunt man if he wasn’t already a fantastic actor.” I believe it. He seems like he really knows his own body and can play it like an instrument.
This physical control and precision makes his recent shift to action films work quite well. I am a big fan of action movies when done right, and the casting of honest to god actors who take the work seriously and aren’t just slumming it can make a huge difference. Not that I want Renner to keep doing them indefinitely; there is a sameness to many of these roles that can spell disaster for a formerly serious actor’s career. (Christian Bale, I’m concerned for you.) I want him to keep stretching himself and surprising me. I’m optimistic that he will, because he has often said that he can’t stand boredom and from what I’ve seen he doesn’t seem to be the kind to settle down. And I mean that literally as well as metaphorically. He and his friend Kristoffer Winters run a house-flipping business, and have often lived in the buildings only long enough to renovate and sell them. He hasn’t had a confirmed romantic relationship in ages. And to my knowledge, he’s never worked with the same director twice.
What’s going on? Is he just a loner? Does he have secrets? Or is he searching for something and not finding it? I don’t know, but whatever it is, it seems to be fuel for some great acting. It’s no accident that my favorites among his movies are the ones that left me urgently wondering, “What the hell is going on with this guy?” and “What are these strange emotions I’m feeling?” To me, the best art is about exploding your sense of normality, revealing a bigger and more complex universe, and leaving you with questions rather than answers. Jeremy Renner has done that for me, and for that, I salute him.
For those who are interested in exploring his filmography or just reading some mini movie reviews, I’ve written up my thoughts on almost all the films and TV I’ve seen him in. I’ve broken them out into five different posts that group by level of quality, at least as I see it. I am pretty critical when it comes to movies, so there are a fair number that I judged pretty harshly. Just to be clear, though, Renner’s acting is not the problem in any of these. He’s often one of the redeeming factors in otherwise underwhelming films.
I haven’t included Thor because he’s on screen for all of two minutes (if that), and I’ve also left out his one-off appearances on TV shows because, frankly, I thought they were too slight to be worth analyzing. One thing I’d love to watch, but does not seem to be available, is the 2nd season of Bravo’s reality TV show “The It Factor”. Anyone…? Anyone…?
WARNING: there may be spoilers in the following posts. I’ve tried to avoid revealing any major surprises, but I find it hard to talk about movies without discussing some plot details. If you are concerned about that, you should probably not continue on.
- The A List (Dahmer, The Hurt Locker)
- The B List (12 and Holding, The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy)
- The Flawed But Worth Watching (Neo Ned, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Unusuals, The Town)
- The Not So Good (North Country, 28 Weeks Later, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
- The Just Plain Bad (S.W.A.T., A Little Trip to Heaven)