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.”