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“You have no idea what you’re getting into,” Jeremy Renner is told midway through Kill the Messenger, in which he plays real-life San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, who broke the “Dark Alliance” story of the CIA’s connection to Central American cocaine smugglers. While initially celebrated for his revelatory reporting, the film traces Webb’s swift fall from grace as mainstream media organizations jumped to poke holes in his reporting and malign his character by digging up some less-than-savory details from his past.
Adapted by screenwriter Peter Landesman from Nick Schou’s book, production languished for years until Renner came on board as both a star and a first-time producer. “I didn’t understand why [this story] needed to be on the big screen until I finished the script and realized, ‘Oh wait, … this is a true story,” Renner told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s premiere on Thursday night at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. “This happened 70 miles from where I grew up [in Modesto, California], and I didn’t even know about it. I did more research, and it became something I had to go do.”
Renner recruited Michael Cuesta, whom he’d worked with in the indie coming-of-age drama 12 and Holding, to direct what would be his first big-screen feature since the runaway success of Homeland. The film quickly became a passion project for Cuesta also, namely because “there are not a lot of guys like Gary Webb left,” he told THR. “We need these guys. This film, I like to think, is carrying his torch and putting a spotlight on the importance of people like him. There is also a swan-song quality to it, which is sad and kind of devastating.” (Webb committed suicide in 2004, years after the controversy surrounding his reporting had effectively ended his career as a journalist).
The entire cast was tasked with depicting real people. “I felt a greater sense of responsibility,” Rosemarie DeWitt noted, who attended alongside husband Ron Livingston. Before production started, DeWitt — who portrays Sue Webb, Gary’s wife — flew to Sacramento to visit her real-life character. “In the original script, the character of Sue used a lot of crass language, but when the real Sue and I had lunch, she was like, ‘Why do they have me talking like that?’ ” DeWitt recalled. “And I said, ‘I’m going to get it out! Don’t worry!’”
Sue attended the premiere with her three children. “It’s so weird,” she said of seeing herself depicted onscreen, although she approved of DeWitt’s portrayal. On the red carpet, Lucas Hedges, who plays Gary’s eldest son in the film, shared an embrace and posed for pictures with the real-life Ian Webb. “For us all to see our story portrayed on the big screen, … it’s pretty amazing,” Sue added.
Michael Kenneth Williams plays real-life drug dealer Ricky Ross, who was “one of the most successful drug dealers in the country” until his supplier, the Nicaraguan, CIA-connected drug lord Oscar Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), set him up. To research for the part, Williams sat down with Ross, who was released from prison in 2009. “We became real close,” he explained. “He gave me a lot of websites to go on to listen to interviews and articles to read, and I got a sense of his involvement and his personality and demeanor.” While Ross has seen the film, Williams has yet to receive any feedback on his performance. “I don’t want to ask,” Williams laughed. “He didn’t say anything bad, so that’s good enough for me.”
So what does Renner prefer: portraying Webb or playing, say, the fictional Jason Bourne or Hawkeye? “It’s easier, and then it gets harder,” Renner said. “It’s easier at first because you have a road map telling you where to go and who this guy is, but you are limited to those truths of who they really are — you can’t make anything up.”
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