August 1, 2012 -- Leaving a Legacy (American Way)

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At 41, Jeremy Renner is finally hitting the big time as he takes over one of the most vaunted film franchises in history. So why is he already talking retirement?

Jeremy Renner is running late, and it’s hard to fault him for it.

Just a few days before our afternoon meeting in New York City, Renner flew in from Manila, Philippines, surmounting a 12-hour time difference. Basically from the moment he hit terra firma, he has been shooting scenes for The Bourne Legacy (opening Aug. 10), working almost around the clock against a heavy curtain of jet lag. And then, amid managing fatigue, a grueling work schedule and pesky press interviews, his dog died. TMZ and other media outlets picked up on the story immediately.

So when he steps out of his hotel lobby some 30 minutes late, mumbling a “sorry about that” as he settles into a pub seat, it’s difficult to hold a grudge against the guy. It’s a lot to handle all at once.

“I don’t know how that happened,” Renner says of the TMZ leak, which disclosed that at the time of the dog’s death, he was in the care of Renner’s best friend, Kristoffer Winters. “I’m not a big fan of how all that gets out. I’m mourning the death of my dog and stuff blows up about my best friend, who I call my brother, and I feel bad for him because he’s got to deal with it. I told him it would blow over. Just don’t read it. It’s pretty simple.”


Jeremy Renner in S.W.A.T.

The truth is, Jeremy Renner maintains that attitude across everything he does. He’s a pretty simple guy, or at least he — and the weighty pack of press clippings his publicist sent over ahead of our interview — gives off that impression. All the stories written about him follow a similar arc: Renner grew up in Modesto, Calif., the son of divorced parents but nonetheless happy, with nary a dream of making it in Hollywood. He’s always been incredibly close with his mother, Valerie, even accompanying her to Lamaze classes when he was a teen. (Renner later used those skills to guide one of his sisters through her pregnancy, and he is now the godfather of her child.)

At the encouraging of his father, a college administrator, he forwent the four-year university track and instead went to a community college in town, where after taking courses in criminology and computer science, he stumbled upon an acting class that got him hooked. Long before fame struck, which didn’t happen until he was nearly 40 years old, Renner was renovating houses with Winters, something he still does in his downtime.


All of that consistency leads one to believe that Renner is either incredibly private and on message or that the art of interviewing has become a little unimaginative. As it turns out, it’s the former: Renner is skilled at appearing to reveal a lot while protecting his private life.

That’s not to say, however, that Renner’s personal life is totally off-limits, even if the glimpses behind the curtain haven’t always been his choice. He’s had dalliances with celebrity tabloidism — TMZ was on top of the death of his dog for a reason, after all. There have been reports of romances with starlets, including Jessica Simpson and his Avengers co-star Scarlett Johansson (all of which he’s denied). And there were the stories about his raucous, star-studded 40th-birthday party last year. But even in the midst of it all, Renner has stayed decidedly out of any real gossip maelstrom. He lets it all pass by while still maintaining a mysterious edge. And there’s something about him that makes you feel like he’s constantly weighing the import of what he’s about to reveal.

“I’m pretty candid about what people want to talk about, but if I find things to be too personal, I don’t talk about it,” he says.

What he will talk about is his family. Despite his closeness with his parents and four younger siblings, he admits that their relationship became strained after he’d decided to try acting but was struggling to break through. His family, who all still live in Modesto, 300 miles and a world away from Los Angeles, didn’t understand the journey he was on.

“The blinders of a small town — there’s safety in that,” he says. “They were in the safe zone in the Central Valley, going to 9-to-5 jobs. They didn’t know the artist’s plight, and I didn’t know how to explain it to them.”

He didn’t know how to explain to them that he was, for a time, so broke that he couldn’t afford to pay his electricity bills and was living by candlelight. (And he certainly didn’t know how to explain it to women: “You try to put a positive spin on it, like, ‘Hey, this is so sexy — look at all these candles!’ ” he recently joked to Details.)

In 1998, his father went to the set of Renner’s first pilot to watch him shoot. It was day three of filming, and Renner had been training extensively to play an Olympic gymnast. But before he could film his pivotal scene, producers decided he looked too young for the part, and his role was recast. He was once again out of work.

Rather than force the wedge even further between them, however, Renner says that was a turning point in their relationship.

“I remember being there and my dad not being quite sure of what was happening, but for him to be a part of that process and be around for that event was really kind of monumental,” he says. “I was being fired for something where I didn’t do anything wrong. That was sort of the big change where they started to understand how strange the business was and learned as I was learning. And then it became a lot easier to talk about what I do.”

Eventually, he began to find work, but that breakout role eluded him until 2002, when he landed the lead role in Dahmer, a biopic about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. It didn’t make him a marquee name, but he certainly made fans within the business with his gritty portrayal. “It was a tiny little movie, but it got me recognized within the industry,” he says. “No one really saw it, but it garnered some awards and nominations. That was the biggest springboard for me to date because it propelled me to a bunch of different movies.”

Indeed, the aughts were a prolific time for Renner. The 2003 action flick S.W.A.T., co-starring Colin Farrell and LL Cool J, was a box-office boon. North Country, which starred Renner as Charlize Theron’s harassing co-worker, garnered Academy Award nominations for Theron and Frances McDormand. The zombie hit 28 Weeks Later was one of the most talked-about films of 2007. The cumulative effect was enough to get him recognized but not enough to make him known.

“They don’t know your name, but they know you’re ‘that guy,’ ” he says. Then came 2008 and The Hurt Locker, the war picture that earned nine Oscar nominations (including a Best Actor nod for Renner) and won six, including Best Picture, beating stiff competition from films like James Cameron’s Avatar. Since then, Renner admits, people don’t just recognize his face. “They know I’m Jeremy Renner,” he says.

While it took him 39 years to get his first Oscar nomination, it only took him one more to earn a second, for 2010’s The Town, a Boston crime thriller directed by Ben Affleck. If any of his peers was unsure of his talent up until that point, all doubt was certainly removed afterward. Film critic Ben Mankiewicz remembers being wowed by the introduction Renner received at a Directors Guild screening of the movie.

“Ben Affleck was there, and he invited some of the producers and actors on the stage,” he recalls. “Chris Cooper is in the movie; Titus Welliver, the ‘Man in Black’ from Lost is also there, and Affleck says, ‘I now want to introduce the star of the movie, the person who everybody in this town will tell you is the best actor they’ve worked with.’ I’m thinking it’s going to be one of those guys, or Pete Postlethwaite. And he goes, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Jeremy Renner.’ ” It wasn’t mere flattery or a commendation to be taken lightly, according to Mankiewicz. “Listen, Affleck’s not saying that unless other actors are talking that way too.”

When Affleck cast Renner in The Town, he told GQ that Renner was “somebody who audiences aren’t so familiar with that they bring a set of expectations. He’s still really enigmatic and mysterious.” Despite his success of late, a good portion of that mystery remains, thanks to Renner’s chameleonlike ability on-screen and his sense of reservation off it — qualities that make him well suited to take over the Bourne film franchise previously helmed by Matt Damon.

But lest it seem like the indie darling is selling out by entering the franchise fray, film critics give the Bourne series, based on the beloved novels by Robert Ludlum, resounding high marks. Besides, Mankiewicz adds: Renner is the rare actor who can have the best of both worlds.

“He probably has the look and the skill set, and seemingly the temperament and outlook, to go and make four really successful Bourne movies and then go make a film like Winter’s Bone,” Mankiewicz says. “He can do it because of the respect he has of other actors.”

 For his part, Renner downplays the idea that the future of the franchise rests on his shoulders; he knows he hasn’t fully been given the keys to the car just yet.

 “Is that [thought] there? Sure,” he says. “But it also has to do well. Everyone at Universal, the writers, everyone wants it to do well. I want it to do well. But if it doesn’t do well, there’s no baton to be passed.”

Fortunately for Renner, the response in anticipation of the film’s release has been overwhelmingly positive, with critics and film buffs hailing it as one of the most anticipated movies of 2012. “The filmmakers have pulled a neat swerve and replaced Damon with one of the most exciting American actors around,” said The Observer’s Tom Lamont of Renner, with’s David Wharton adding, “Jason Bourne’s legacy looks to be in good hands.”

 Renner shrugs off the praise. “We’ll see,” he says. “Moviemaking’s tough. I think people will be really happy with it. But yeah, baton, nah.”

 But should it be a commercial success, would he do more? “I am happy to do another one, let’s put it that way,” he admits. And considering that Renner isn’t taking over Damon’s Jason Bourne role but is playing another agent, Aaron Cross, he and director Tony Gilroy have purposely left the possibility open for Damon’s return. “I told Matt I would love for us both to do the next one together,” Renner told Entertainment Weekly.

But if Damon wants a collaboration to happen, he’d better hurry. Renner, 41, makes no bones about the fact that he doesn’t plan on continuing at this rapid clip much longer. He hopes to retire, he says, at 45. As in, in four years.

“I think it’s something that I’ll always do, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “My definition of retirement is doing what you want to do when you want to do it and for no other reason. I’ll always be acting, whether it’s community theater, Broadway, an independent film or a big franchise. I’ll always be doing it — but because I want to do it.”

The hard line in the sand — and you truly believe it when it comes from Renner’s mouth — is that he’ll never stick around this (potentially) lucrative business for the money. It’s just not his style. Instead, he intends to leave a mark that goes beyond The Bourne Legacy, beyond acting, beyond fame. His lasting contributions, he insists, are what he’s accomplished outside of Hollywood.

“If there’s a legacy that you can leave in life, it’s what you do,” he says. “That’s what I love about building houses. Those structures and those trees that I’ve planted will live long after I’m gone. And I feel good about those things and what they mean — to the planet and to the people that inhabit it.”

Like most things with Renner, it’s pretty simple.