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Jeremy Renner's Shot at Playing Hero

This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In a town of A-list actors and wannabes, a certain media-trained polish is expected. You artfully dodge questions that are troubling; you steer clear of controversy; you smile and measure your words carefully in the presence of anyone who actually might print what you say. But actor Jeremy Renner, 41, on this Thursday night at West Hollywood's Soho House, clearly missed his Self-Editing 101 class. Or one might imagine, he ditched it, smoking on the loading dock behind school.

Sipping vodka and eating a Caesar salad, he freely tells this reporter he took drugs when he was younger and likes to get "wasted" every now and again (but, mind you, he says, only in moderation). He tells the story of how, on Christmas Eve a few years back, when he was with his family in a bar, "This guy chokes me with the scarf I was wearing. He called me a fag 'cause I was wearing a scarf! Then he shoved my sister and I got behind him and I choked him out -- put him to sleep." Without a trace of irony, he adds, "I'm not violent." Although, he says, "I'd have gone to prison" if he'd been present when a family member recently was raped. Oh.

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Asked about an incident last year in which singer Christina Aguilera crashed his birthday party and ended up in his bed (without him), Renner shrugs. "She was just chilling in one of the bedrooms," he says. "I was happy to meet her. I was a big fan. Mind you, I was probably pretty shit-bagged at the time."

And what about that much-reported knife fight in Thailand in January? "It was a silly, tragic accident that happened to this guy," explains Renner, noting that he had gone to Phuket for a break when an acquaintance made a comment and "got attacked in a bar fight at 4 in the morning. He was saying stuff, and 20 people jumped on him. I was in flip-flops. I don't do bar fights. Did he deserve to get stabbed and almost murdered by 20 people? F-- no." (Six local men were arrested.)

Most recently came the death in March of his 8-month-old French bulldog, Franklin, of a heart attack. For a moment, Renner's eyes go moist because the puppy touches on the singular problem that has most bedeviled him the past two years. Says Renner, "He was my solution for being so lonely."

A mix of talent and tough guy seemingly missing from Hollywood's current runway of top male stars, Renner is an anomaly among his peers. He is older than your average up-and-comer (Ryan Reynolds is 35), less pretty (compared with, say, Taylor Kitsch, 30), and rough and rogue in a way that makes one think of Daniel Craig or even a young Harrison Ford. But while his peers might beat him in a Handsome Man Contest, the Modesto, Calif.-raised Renner dwarfs them in accolades with his Oscar nominations, first for 2008's The Hurt Locker and then for 2010's The Town. "He's like George Clooney: When he hit it big, he was no wunderkind," says Tony Gilroy, co-screenwriter and director of the fourth Bourne movie, The Bourne Legacy, which will be released Aug. 3 and for which Renner was paid $5 million. He adds that Renner is the type of actor who'd "seen a lot of less talented people make it and not them. Now he has pride of ownership and an eagerness to hang on to it."

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Adds Donna Langley, co-chairman of Bourne studio Universal Pictures: "Every few years, an actor comes along who is undeniably eye-catching. Jeremy leaps off the screen with his raw talent and charisma. He's a real star."

But awards and buzz are one thing, box-office performance another. While Renner's role as Hawkeye in The Avengers, Marvel's $220 million almost slam-dunk blockbuster out May 4, will up his marquee value among a cast of all-stars, it is his turn in Bourne Legacy that will have the industry obsessing. After all, Renner -- who, before Hurt Locker, had starred in 2002's Dahmer, about the serial killer, and the short-lived 2009 TV series The Unusuals -- has yet to prove he alone can shoulder a box-office hit. And this fourth Bourne movie, with a budget of $125 million, is crucial to a studio eager to revitalize a 10-year-old venture that turbulently lost its lead, Matt Damon.

Damon had refused to sign on when Paul Greengrass, who directed the second and third Bourne installments, pulled out. He compounded the series' problems in a December GQ interview in which he lambasted Gilroy's original script for 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum as "unreadable," adding: "This is a career-ender. I mean, I could put this thing up on eBay, and it would be game over for that dude." (Damon later apologized, but he and Gilroy haven't spoken since. Renner says he won't get involved with others' disputes.)

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After Damon's withdrawal from the fourth Bourne, Universal chairman Adam Fogelson and Langley had to scramble. Gilroy (who'd written all three Bourne films) was adamant the series needed a new character, Aaron Cross, who doesn't exist in any of the Robert Ludlum spy books on which the movies are based but who inhabits the same super-secret world as Jason Bourne.

Upon completing his script and coming aboard as director, Gilroy, in October 2010, started screen-testing multiple actors for the role and favored Joel Edgerton (Warrior) and Oscar Isaac (Drive) until he met Renner.

"He wasn't on my 'available' list of people for a long time; he wasn't on the first five lists I looked at," Gilroy notes, simply because Renner was filming so much.

In March 2011, Gilroy and producer Frank Marshall flew to Berlin, where Renner was shooting the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay-produced action-comedy-horror film Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. After that dinner, the massive superstructure behind any franchise -- Gilroy, the studio, Captivate Entertainment and the Ludlum estate, which has casting approval -- agreed Renner was their man. "This character knows exactly who he is and remembers too much and has a very different self-preservational issue [from Jason Bourne] that required a lot more danger and intellectual activity," says Gilroy. "It's about combining verbal nimbleness and physical danger."

But Renner hesitated. "It was a game-changer in anonymity," he says, "and I like my private life and my family. I had to consider how this was going to affect everyone I love -- especially myself."

That meant weighing not only the toll of making five films back-to-back (including Bourne, The Avengers and Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol) but also how it would interfere with a host of other passions: for buying and renovating property, returning to the stage, doing the macro photography he loves (above all, shots of anything with an unusual texture). Finally, after talking to his CAA agents and close friends, he said yes. 

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Now, Renner's personal fortitude will be tested, as will his true wattage. His ability to carry the film -- along with his Avengers role -- will factor in determining if the year's box office can maintain its incandescent pace, compounding a 20 percent lead over 2011.

It will affect the fate of three companies (Universal, Disney and Marvel). It will even spill over on Paramount's plans for the next Mission: Impossible, where he has been groomed to supplement what has been for more than 15 years Tom Cruise's one-man show.

Above all, it will prove conclusively if Renner is the star Hollywood needs him to be.

But he knows this course opens him up to the kind of scrutiny that comes with being a big star, the kind that he, unlike others, can't shrug off. For Renner, Internet speculation already has centered around whom he's dating (everyone from Jessica Simpson to Scarlett Johansson, if you believe the tabs) to his sexual orientation.

"I want my personal life to be personal, and it's not f--ing true," he says of the suppositions. "And I don't care if you're talking about things that are true, you're still talking about my personal life. How about I go peek in your window, take what underwear you wore last night, whose husband you were f--ing, and shove that in the megaphone throughout your neighborhood? How does that feel? It's none of your goddamn business."

He seems unaware of controversial remarks made by the Today show's Meredith Vieira in 2010, when she asked of his warm hug with Hurt Locker co-star Anthony Mackie, "Should I be worried?" She later apologized.

Notes Renner, who becomes passionate discussing this, but never angry or unpleasant: "Any person I touched during the Hurt Locker campaign, I was f--ing. They had me f--ing Kristoffer Winters, my brother," as he describes his live-in business partner, who restores houses with him. "Goddamn, I must be busy!"

As to his long-term involvements, he says he had one five-year relationship with a woman while in his 20s and another that ended two years ago after 4-1/2 years -- not helped by the fact roommate Winters continued living with them.

He met that girlfriend, Jes Macallan -- who, as her Twitter account reveals, married actor Jason Gray-Stanford (Monk) on March 17 -- when she was 23 and working at a film festival in Florida; subsequently, she decided to go into acting. "That was part of the issue," says Renner. "I was going through the Hurt Locker campaign and she's like, 'Where do I get headshots?' "

"We're outta gas!"

Tony Gilroy slumps in his director's chair, hunched in a tent next to a vast outdoor water tank in Sun Valley, Calif., calling to Renner as he bobs up and down in the dark waves.

He could be talking about his and his star's emotions after a grueling 90-day shoot for Bourne Legacy, on this, the last day of principal photography.

Over the past six months, Renner has had to wrestle animatronic wolves, race a motorbike across the oil-slicked streets of Manila and take out four guys in one no-holds-barred scene, while hopping to New York, Calgary, Alberta, and at last back to this water tank right across from the curiously named Vintage Industrial Strip Club, a venue for transgender performers.

But it's the machine that pumps bubbles, designed to indicate Renner is under a waterfall, that is out of gas, not the actor. Muscles rippling, naked torso revealing tattoos on either arm with the crests of his Irish and German ancestors, he waits until they're back up. Then Renner dives over and over, seizing a mysterious, cylindrical object that's part of a vital Bourne sequence. Twenty takes or more are needed for a shot that will last two seconds at most, until Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit have precisely the speed and angle they want, and Renner does each one without complaint.

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Renner's work ethic, perhaps part of his late-stardom gratitude, has made an impression. "Oh my God! It's a very explosive performance," says Gilroy. "This is the highest degree of difficulty, emotionally and physically."

Renner prepared intensely for the picture, training for six weeks in hand-to-hand combat and Filipino stick-fighting and keeping in mind the advice Cruise gave him while making Ghost Protocol: "Since you are doing all your stuff, there is no second string and you have to do due diligence not to get injured."

But he hasn't been so lucky. On Bourne, "I got injured kicking a table and missing and hyper-extending my leg! I had to get an MRI." He also hurt his arm, which "will be f--ed up for a while. I can't really grab anything" with one hand.

Ditto for injuries on Avengers. "He's an amazing fighter -- his fight work is wonderful: precise, heroic, and you seldom have to double him," says director Joss Whedon. "But one day he just turned wrong and his whole body shut down. He could not do anything. He was in enormous pain, and we had to shut that sequence down and shoot it a couple of weeks later." (Explains Renner: "I tore the muscle from my back to my shoulder. I got chewed up pretty good.")

Then there were scenes that required more than the evident stunts, such as running across roofs or jumping from one tree to another: "I had to wrestle this stuffed-animal version of a wolf. I had to animate the wolf, and it took all this extra effort, and it's like a street fight, just wrestling around in the snow with this stuffed animal slapping me in the face." For another scene, "I had to degrade to near death in the movie, where I had to shake for many minutes, and it looks like it's nothing, but when it's over I was more sore than I was the entire shoot."

The eldest of six children, Renner was born to young parents who worked in a bowling alley and split up when he was 8. He discovered acting while a student at Modesto Junior College, initially thinking of becoming a detective until he stumbled on an acting class and later moved to Los Angeles, where he launched his career.

In the mid-1990s, he started to get regular work in commercials, TV and movies and then drew serious attention for 2002's Dahmer, which earned him a Spirit Award nomination for best male lead. At the time, he was making more money flipping houses with Winters.

It wasn't until he was shooting the 2007 virus horror film 28 Weeks Later that he was shown the script that would change the course of his career. Kathryn Bigelow had seen Dahmer and cast Renner as bomb defuser Sgt. William James in The Hurt Locker, a role for which he trained intensely with explosives experts.

The shoot was almost impossibly hard, given that it was filmed in Jordan in 135-degree heat. "People had full-on mental breakdowns; I did," he says without elaborating. "Pure loneliness, that's what it came down to. It was a whole rainbow of good and bad."

He earned his first Oscar nomination (though Locker grossed only $17 million domestic). Subsequent efforts failed to quell doubts about Renner's blockbuster potential, though no one questions his enormous talent. Credit for The Town went to director-star Ben Affleck even as Renner drew a second Oscar nom for his role as the hotheaded James Coughlin, who helps Affleck's character stage his heists.

And the global success of last year's Ghost Protocol, with its $692 million worldwide gross, was ascribed to Cruise, reminding the world what a real movie star is. (Renner is committed to a follow-up but says, "It's Tom's franchise," and adds that speculation he is being groomed to succeed the 49-year-old Cruise is wrong.)

He had already agreed to play Hawkeye, the one character not gifted with superhero powers but just gigantic archery skill, in Avengers, before Ghost Protocol.

"Avengers was the first big movie I signed on to," he recalls. "It was something Zak Penn was the writer on; he's a friend. Then I met [Marvel Studios president and Avengers producer] Kevin Feige, and Zak was really pushing, saying 'You guys have got to hire Renner.' "  

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This was eight or nine months before he was signed in July 2010, because no script or director was in place when Penn made his push. Renner's casting, along with that of co-star Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk, was announced at that year's ComicCon by director Whedon.

"I had a general meeting with him just when Locker was gaining steam," Feige remembers, reveling in Renner's ability when they came to shoot. "He doesn't just have the guts to do the stunts but also a level of knowledge and skill that's impressive. He can even talk about 'pick' points -- where a wire attaches to your body when you're pulled through the air."

Feige was on set for a sequence in which Renner had to leap from a two-story building while turning and shooting an arrow toward the camera. "That was him, not a stuntman. And it was impressive. He's got this great intensity and is very focused."

As is typical with Marvel films, the actor received a mere six figures for Avengers (he also did a cameo in Thor) but will get more if Marvel exercises its option to feature him in up to six additional films.

That Renner is right on the brink is hardly overstatement. He has a long career as a Marvel star in his grasp and a potential second franchise in Bourne, a dream scenario for any actor. If Renner continues with Bourne (he's agreed to two more films), the $5 million he received for Legacy will zoom to an asking price of $10 million-plus -- and might reach as much as the $20 million Damon received for the series' most recent outing in 2007.

Stardom already has allowed Renner to take a break from the real-estate business that kept him afloat for many years, buying and renovating properties, though he says it's a passion -- and a lucrative one -- he plans to keep pursuing. In 2009, Renner and Winters sold a Hollywood estate they'd renovated for more than $4 million; they had bought it a year earlier for $1.55 million.

"I'll always build houses," he notes. "I'm about to buy another one; there's one close to my house and another at the top of Coldwater Canyon, and I love that." His current home, which once belonged to director Preston Sturges, has been rented out while Renner films, meaning he's spending his nights on a Murphy bed in his office.

This is just one of the many interests that pulls him in different directions, occasionally giving him a scattered quality that contrasts with his intensity. He has plans for properties and says he may do a run on Broadway of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with his Avengers co-star Johansson (if Ridley Scott doesn't hire him for his upcoming The Counselor). He also just finished filming James Gray's Low Life, in New York.

So even as Hollywood eagerly awaits to anoint him, one must wonder if it is a crown he even wants.

He says, at minimum, he won't be held back by fear. "That emotion even conquers love, and that makes me sad," he reflects. He spent eight years trying to analyze the roots of his old fear -- "finding out what I was afraid of, what stops you in your life, what gets in the way."

Though studios, his handlers and the entire town may be consumed by the primal emotion, Renner says: "Fear is just not a part of my life -- so much so that if it's involved in somebody else's life and they're close to me, I won't be around them."

With his usual dispassionate nature, he adds: "The star thing, the celebrity thing, is new to me. I don't want to be a good celebrity, a good f--ing star. I want to be a good human being."

SUMMER PUTS TALENT TO THE TEST: The industry will be watching these three actors as a key role in a blockbuster can make, or break, a rising star

Channing Tatum: Thanks to recent hits The Vow and 21 Jump Street -- and a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live -- Tatum's on a roll. Now he needs to keep the momentum building with the one-two punch of G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Magic Mike.

Brooklyn Decker: Does the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl have star potential? Two movies, the ensemble comedy What to Expect When You're Expecting and the sci-fi extravaganza Battleship, could answer that question.

Tom Hardy: Critics applauded his bruising turn in last year's Warrior, but he isn't a household name. The villain's role in The Dark Knight Rises could change that -- if that mask doesn't get in the way -- followed by the drama Lawless.

FRANCHISES THAT HAVE SWITCHED STARS: Although recasting is always risky, Bourne won't be the first to attempt it. In fact, these big series all successfully installed fresh faces.

James Bond: The granddaddy of all film series, it has seen six actors play OO7 since Sean Connery set the template with 1962's Dr. No. The producers even have perfected the art of turning the baton-passing into a major publicity event.

  • Die Another Day (2002): $432 million
  • Casino Royale (2006): $594 million

Jack Ryan: Alec Baldwin first stepped into the shoes of novelist Tom Clancy's intelligence analyst. But negotiations for a sequel broke down, Baldwin went to Broadway to star in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Harrison Ford took over.

  • The Hunt For Red October (1990): $201 million
  • Patriot Games (1992): $178 million

Batman: After two movies that Tim Burton directed, Michael Keaton decided not to continue when Warners brought in Joel Schumacher to give it a lighter touch. Val Kilmer donned the mask for one film and then was followed by George Clooney.

  • Batman Returns (1992): $267 million
  • Batman Forever (1995): #337 million

Alex Cross: Morgan Freeman played novelist James Patterson's detective in two movies. Lionsgate, which is relaunching the franchise in October, first talked to British actor Idris Elba but then turned to Tyler Perry, who is setting aside Madea's housecoat.

  • Along Came a Spider (2001): $105 million
  • Alex Cross (2012): TBD