December 11, 2011 -- Jeremy Renner on Mission Impossible 4 (

Not too long ago, Jeremy Renner could barely afford to buy junk food. Now, he’s a two-time Oscar nominee who has cornered the market in intelligent action heroes. What’s his secret?

Jeremy Renner pushes down on his eight-week-old French bulldog’s tiny rear. “Sit, Franklin – sit!” he hisses. “Will you sit, you d---head?”

After the shock of seeing one of Hollywood’s hardest movie stars swagger into the room with a 10in dog in tow, the outburst of aggression comes as something of a relief.

Handbag-sized pooch aside, 40-year-old Renner — the rough-hewn star of Dahmer, The Hurt Locker and The Town — is about as far removed from the Paris Hilton brigade as possible. With his indigo jeans tucked into a pair of army surplus boots, a battered leather jacket hugging his workout-thickened frame and a squint that’s fast becoming box office gold, the actor looks more like he’s heading into mortal combat than an interview. Then again, considering the line Renner likes to draw between his private and professional life, perhaps the two aren’t so different.

Does he dislike doing press that much, I ask, noting the gritted expression on his face as we move through the photographic studios off Sunset Boulevard into a private room? “Oh no,” he assures me with a polite smile. “I’m getting better at it all the time.” It’s just as well. As one envious male actor friend puts it the night before we meet: “That boy is cleaning up: 2012 is Renner’s year.” To have landed a starring role as the former spy Brandt alongside Tom Cruise in the forthcoming Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol would have been enough to propel Renner to new heights. Throw in his part as Hawkeye in The Avengers, an all-star superhero epic that has him battling alongside Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, his lead in the Grimm fairy tales update Hansel and Gretel, not to mention the role created for him within the Bourne franchise, where he is to take over from Matt Damon, and you’ve got yourself the new Tom Cruise. Not that you could say that to Renner; the merest hint of a comparison prompts protestations of humility.

“Tom’s been so giving with me throughout the process,” he says. “He’s much more of a collaborator than an adviser.” Hunched forward, with his legs apart and a professional urgency to his tone, Renner talks me through the meeting with uber-producer J J Abrams that changed everything. “We were discussing another film when suddenly he asked whether I might have time to meet with Tom Cruise about Mission Impossible that afternoon. Three hours later, I’m sitting down with them both – and something about it just feels right. So I get home and Tom calls straight away. Within the hour, I’d signed up to the next three MI films.” Luckily for Renner, what would turn out to be one of the most physically challenging roles of his career was followed by The Avengers, the the fourth Bourne film, The Bourne Legacy. Both demanded similar superhero builds, so there was no bulking up and slimming down in between productions.

Renner was famously less than happy about the hell he endured while filming his Oscar-nominated role in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker; he became ill, shed weight at an alarming rate, and kept passing out from the Jordanian heat. “Will I go out and shoot in the desert again for Hurt Locker II?” he said at the time. “You couldn’t pay me enough money.” Today, he describes himself as an “easy-going dude” at odds with his tough-guy roles, but over the course of detailing the catalogue of physical challenges he’s put himself through over the past nine months, his face has gone from boyish to masochistic — and back again.

“I was an athlete when I was growing up,” he shrugs, “so maybe I’m just someone who likes to participate. If I go to the beach, I can’t just lie there and roast like a suckling pig. I’ve got to be active in life, and it’s the same when I’m doing stunts in a movie: I’ll do anything.”

While this last part takes no convincing, the rest of the explanation feels a little simplistic. Surely the roles an actor chooses are as significant as an author’s subject matter or a woman’s taste in clothes. When the son of a bowling alley manager from Modesto, California, decides — in his late teens – to immerse himself in every traumatic, dark or physically challenging role out there, from a cannibalistic serial killer in Dahmer to a cocky but complex bomb technician working amid the carnage of the Iraq war in The Hurt Locker, it’s tempting to indulge in a little armchair psychology.

“It’s true that I’ve always been drawn to things that are physically challenging or emotionally demanding,” he concedes. But why? Renner may have come to acting late in life (by Californian standards, that means any time beyond puberty) but his interest in the twisted and the macabre, his fascination with the anti-hero, made itself felt when he was still a child and dreamt of being a detective. “I liked the good guy, bad guy dynamic — it goes back to the root of storytelling, to Greek mythology.” He was only 10 when his parents, Lee and Valerie, divorced. The eldest of five, it nevertheless hit Renner hard. “I thought it was normal to change school once, sometimes twice a year and have to be shy around new sets of people,” he says, clearly keen to change the subject. “But kids are resilient and, actually, my parents ended up living across the street from one another — they still do today. Still, at the time it was tough.”

At 19, his fascination with human depravity showing no signs of abating, Renner enrolled in a criminology degree at Modesto Junior College. When, on a whim, he signed up to a local drama class a few months later, he had no idea what an immediate impact it would have on his life. In an interview given two years ago, the actor described the discovery of acting as “a pretty wonderful place for me to express 19 years of repression”. What did he mean by that? “I was very shy when I was younger,” he says slowly. “But I did have a terrible temperament. I would get angry very quickly, but the rest of the time I was this big goofball, playing the drums in a band and making out with girls,” he shrugs. “Basically enjoying life.” He stares at the untouched blueberry smoothie an assistant made for him earlier. “When I was growing up, I wasn’t taught how to feel or communicate feelings. I suppose normally people are inadvertently taught those things by family or the people they surround themselves by in life, but I felt I’d found this thing on my own, away from my friends – this one little compartment in life where I was allowed to do and feel whatever I wanted to feel, truthfully.”

Only then does he look up. “But I’m safe, because I’m playing a character: I’m hiding in this character.” From the start, Renner admits, the roles that he “connected to – the ones that made me feel like I was flourishing – were really f----- up”. He played the scarecrow in a local rendition of Wizard of Oz, then a suicidal teen in a theatre production called Ordinary People, but it was his first real “bad boy” role in a 1998 play called Search and Destroy that triggered something within him.

“The character I was playing was so far from what I was. But I feel like everyone has the capacity to do terrible things. Even if you disregard the sick and the mentally ill, I think we all have this curiosity about what it would be like to rob a bank or do something really bad. I’m pretty well-balanced as a human being, but you don’t always want to be nice and sometimes it’s” – he ponders the right word – “lovely to be able to purge all these negative thoughts by acting out all this stuff.”

What were these negative thoughts to do with? His parents’ divorce? “Of course,” he says. “It had to do with all of that. Look, I wasn’t beaten and there was no alcoholism at home, but it hits you in different ways. I’m sure that that’s where my temperament came from and my inability to deal with certain emotions.”

What’s certain is that a strain of shyness or introversion has persisted into adulthood. Within the industry, Renner is often likened to Sean Penn for his intense, nomadic qualities, the trappings of celebrity not seeming to hold much allure. Indeed, it’s the low points of his career and not the obvious triumphs that Renner describes in the most nostalgic terms. “The last 11 years have been great,” he tells me at one point, “but prior to Dahmer I had to do whatever it took to get by. I couldn’t afford any power so I lived by candlelight in an apartment where the water didn’t work. There was a place nearby called Yum Yum Donuts where you could get 14 doughnuts for 99 cents, so I would spread those out over the week and sometimes mix it up by getting two cheeseburgers for a dollar and making them last. I was getting by eating on $10 a month back then. But I do remember sitting in my little s--- box of an apartment with all these candles, entertaining myself and my dog by playing the guitar and thinking ‘you know what? This is quite beautiful’.”

When it came, fame wasn’t something he “relished”. He gets a fair amount of paparazzi attention in LA but hasn’t yet holed himself up in a high-security compound in the hills and gets “lots of notes stuck under my door”. “Still, they’re nice notes, so I can’t complain.” He tells me about a famous actress friend who is being stalked at the moment. “It’s scary stuff, but if a girl ever does that to me, what’s really going to happen? I have a shotgun and a samurai sword under my bed, so I’m protected.” I burst out laughing, but Renner is serious. “I’m not lying,” he assures me – and it’s his turn to laugh.

He’s proof that in personal relationship terms, you can just opt out of the fame game — even at his level. His 40th birthday party was awash with A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio, Christina Aguilera and Johansson, but unlike his guests, he’s so far managed to keep his private life exactly that. He’s not about to break any confidences with me, laughing off rumours that Johansson made a play for him on The Avengers set (“Oh no — we’re just really good friends”) and suggestions that he once dated Charlize Theron (“I never looked at her as seductive — I always think of her more as a drinking buddy”).

Taking his mother, Valerie, to the Oscars two years running was not about “what was going on in my mind”, he tells me. “It was because she endured me and pushed me out of her during labour and I wanted to give something back.”

“Look,” he surmises, impassioned and slightly breathless as we get onto an actor’s public role, “I think it’s the individual’s prerogative if they want to use their celebrity to create awareness about something, but I have never and will never use it to put across my personal belief systems. That’s where you expose your personal life, and that’s no one’s business unless you’re a friend of mine and we’re privy to each others’ beliefs. Either I’m accepted or I’m not, either I’m loved or I’m hated and none of them even know[s] who I am, so f--- ’em all. I feel blessed to be in this spot and I’m conscious of letting the work speak for who I am.” Which, to his credit, it always has.

For now, there’s a long awaited Steve McQueen biopic in the pipeline, for which Renner would be perfect “if the script ever comes in”, and the possibility of him playing Kurt Cobain in the distant future. And if it all dries up, he laughs, there are always the doughnuts to fall back on. “When I think back to some of the situations I’ve found myself in throughout my life, I don’t think you can ever complain. If there’s an issue or a problem — find a solution and get through it.” He’s good at that, he says. “I’ll give you an example: I can make something out of whatever’s in the fridge. Doesn’t matter if it’s only Parmesan and butter: I’ll make you a sauce out of that. I know how to get creative; I had to get creative, because I had nothing.”