November 11, 2011 -- Holiday Preview: Jeremy Renner (

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A decade ago, he was a struggling actor living on ramen noodles. But after two straight Oscar noms, the 40-year-old is poised to become an action star in a series of big movie franchises. First up: teaming with Tom Cruise

Back in 2001, things couldn't get any worse for Jeremy Renner. Or so he thought. The out-of-work actor had just turned 30 and was living with his French bulldog, Simon, in a tiny Hollywood apartment with no power. To this day, he says, ''every time I see a candle it's a reminder that it was the only form of light I had for eight months.''

Renner had moved to L.A. from blue-collar Modesto, Calif., in the early '90s. And despite some early success — landing the lead in 1995's National Lampoon's Senior Trip and a handful of TV guest spots — his luck was running cold. Each time he auditioned for a movie role, it seemed to go to Leonardo DiCaprio or Mark Wahlberg. ''I ate on $5 a week,'' says Renner, now 40. ''Top Ramen, McDonald's two-for-Tuesday cheeseburgers, and Yum Yum doughnuts, which had 14 doughnut holes for 99 cents.'' During the worst of it, Renner recalls looking at Simon and saying, ''We're gonna look back on this one day, and it'll be awesome!''

Before things would get awesome, however, they would become more bleak. Prior to nabbing the role of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in 2002's indie Dahmer — a role that earned him an Independent Spirit nomination, but not enough money to turn his power back on — Renner decided to suck up what was left of his pride and start waiting tables. ''That was hard,'' he says. ''It was the first time where I felt like, 'Okay, you're not a working actor anymore.' It was tough, but it gave me iron balls.''

Needless to say, Jeremy Renner has come a long way in the last decade. His last two major film roles — in 2009's The Hurt Locker and 2010's The Town — have earned him Oscar nominations. Next month, he will costar with Tom Cruise in one of the biggest movies of the holiday season, Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol (rated PG-13). After that, Renner will star in the spooky adult fairy tale Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (March 2, 2012), pick up a bow and arrow to play Hawkeye in Marvel's superhero extravaganza The Avengers (May 4, 2012), and step in for Matt Damon in The Bourne Legacy (Aug. 3, 2012). In other words, Yum Yum doughnuts will have to make do without one of its best customers for a while.

On a chilly October night, Renner slumps back in a chair in the dark bar of a hip New York City hotel and orders a large pot of coffee. His voice is raspy and his eyes are bloodshot. He says he's still beat from the previous night, when he was belting out James Brown's ''Living in America'' with Damon at John Krasinski's karaoke birthday party downtown. He's also still recovering from a long week of night shoots on Bourne. (Yes, he and Damon discussed their torch-passing on the series. And no, he won't spill any details of what was said.) Listening to Renner describe his nonstop schedule, you get the sense that it's taken him so long to finally land on Hollywood's radar that he's busting those iron cojones on as many projects as he can before the suits in Hollywood realize he's the same guy who used to serve their omelets.