October 5, 2010 -- Call the Shots (Menshealth.com)

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Jeremy Renner is determined to make it on his own terms. Now that he's succeeding, his resolve has only hardened.

 

It was Jeremy Renner's idea to come here, to a piano bar called Piano Bar, the kind of joint where he can swill a Ketel One and croon some Billy Joel and, if it so happens, go a little overboard without landing on TMZ. Hollywood is lurking just outside--both the newly dolled-up Hollywood and the perpetually seedy version--but no eyes are on him at Piano Bar. It has the feel of a neighborhood saloon, dark, bluesy, cheap, perfect for a man unwilling to be anything but himself. "It's very anti-Hollywood here," says Renner, steering me to the nearly deserted patio. "If we were somewhere where there's, like, paparazzi, you'd be in the paper"-- and here he predicts how a photo of us would be spun--"We're f--king!"

I laugh at the absurdity of the leap, but we both know the Web is swirling with sightings and speculation about his private life, all juvenile stuff. The dude is 39, not some flavor-of-the-month pretty boy. He has spent the past decade playing complex and unpredictable characters--a serial killer, a neo- Nazi--the most celebrated of them being the hope-to-die bomb disposal specialist of The Hurt Locker.

This month he toys with expectations again in The Town, a film directed by Ben Affleck in which Renner plays a manic yet sensitive bank robber in Boston's working-class Irish quarter. "I've worked so hard to be respected," says the Oscar nominee, who has the slightly elastic face and roguish eyes of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. "I don't need some tabloid running off with something just because I got drunk some night and showed my ass to the bartender."

"Renner is the one to laugh now. Fame is new, a mystery still. Image is not a worry he has ever lost sleep over. "I'm just getting to learn it, brother," he says. "I'm learning as I go."

The kid is 16, a product of Modesto--the safe, suffocating San Joaquin Valley town that inspired the setting for American Graffiti--and his mother, on her second of three husbands, enlists him as her Lamaze coach. He has to come straight from soccer practice, grass stains on his knees, and sit with her at the Y, learning to breathe in unison. "At the time, it was like, 'Oh my God, this sucks,' " says Renner, the oldest of five. "'Why am I watching videos of these vaginas squirting out all this fluid?' It was terrifying."

Years would pass before the traumatized adolescent could see the beauty in birth. Given the choice, he would have opted to remain in the dark about episiotomies a bit longer. But the experience of learning the hard way--enduring, finding value in sacrifice--offered lessons that he would apply many times over. "What a gift I was given," he says.

Renner carried those lessons to Modesto Junior College, where he took his first theater class. "Nineteen years of emotional repression," as he is fond of saying, came pouring out on the stage, a catharsis he knew was worth repeating. He was nudged by his father, a Cal State administrator with a background in theosophy, and then by esteemed acting coach Julie Ariola. They both taught him that self-awareness is more important to success than any single skill.

"If you don't know who you are, how the hell are you going to be able to...?" Renner leaves the thought unfinished, but it would be easy to fill in the blank with a million possibilities, most of them more profound than becoming a movie star. "So I made a very conscious decision to be fearless, to live a life of fear-freeness. I decided to do something every day I was afraid of." Like?

"I swam with sharks," he says, recounting a scuba trip off California's southern coast. "I was terrified of sharks and I'm still terrified of sharks, but at least I was taking action--and not being squelched by something I don't know about."