Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker features an elite squad of U.S. army soldiers, dismantling bombs in the most dangerous areas of Baghdad. The film's anything but your typical big-budget war flick—avoiding sensationalism and without political agenda, it realistically portrays one of the most fascinating and underrepresented facets of the war in Iraq, in the process capturing the psychological complexity of soldiers who voluntarily deal with borderline-psychotic danger on a daily basis. Rising star Jeremy Renner taps into Sergeant William James, a member of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), who’s taken apart 873 bombs in the heat of combat. James and his subordinates Sanborn and Eldridge (Notorious star Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, respectively) are specially trained to handle homemade bombs and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which are responsible for more than half of America's Iraq War casualties and the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Already winning awards at the Venice Film Festival and earning Renner and Mackie Independent Spirit Award nominations, this not-to-be-missed war flick hits theaters on Friday (don't forget to check out the review from this month's issue of BlackBook before you see it). In a car ride on his way to the airport, Renner gave us a ring to wax on recklessness and courage, and the bombs that he’s disarmed both in front of the camera and in his own life.
What drew you to the story of these bomb squads and to the character of Sergeant James in particular? The initial attraction I think, besides Kathryn Bigelow, was that it was a really fresh story. I had no idea what EOD was and I believe I’m not alone in that. And knowing that it’s a volunteer thing made it more interesting. The character is one of the best-written antiheroes I’ve ever read, so that was exciting to me. I just couldn’t wait to figure out why this human being was doing it. I had so many questions and so many answers that I couldn’t wait to figure out. I still haven’t figured it all out yet, but it’s been a good journey so far.
Speaking of antiheroes, you played a serial killer in Dahmer, a rebellious soldier in 28 Weeks Later, a gang member in The Assassination of Jesse James… I could go on. What is it that attracts you to these antihero roles? Well, they’ve got to be complicated. Even if it’s a good guy, the character has to be flawed because that makes it realistic, it makes it honest, and it makes it true. That’s what I look for in roles, that there’s truth involved. Otherwise I don’t know what to base the character on. And that’s a kind of requirement in those characters.
Do you feel that you identify more with those types of characters? Well honestly, Dahmer, I don’t relate to in too many ways. I could find ways, but there’s not a whole lot of me in that dude. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a lot of me in James. I certainly wouldn’t be in his position; I wouldn’t have the courage or the guts to do what he does. But his philosophies and his sense of humor, those things come into play and make him a bit more like me.
What do you think motivates James and keeps him doing this dangerous job day in and day out? It’s open to interpretation, but...ultimately it comes down to this: for me personally, and only my opinion, you could say that you’re put on the planet for one reason and that’s what it is you do. And then you also enjoy what you do. Everything else to him seems small, or he feels that he’s under-serving anybody else unless he’s doing what he’s best at. He could probably be a decent father, he could probably be a decent husband, but it’s not in him because of this more powerful experience that he’s involved in. So it’s almost not even a choice that he has to make or that he can make. It’s the ultimate sacrifice. To me the most interesting thing about James and this very particular part of him is that there’s a duality—and a very polar duality—in that what he’s born to do is so selfless. This job is saving people, rendering safe IEDs, and representing the country. It’s the absolute selfless act. But doing the act is the most selfish act because he’s leaving his child, the wife and the family, and it’s the most selfish thing he could do. But in doing that it is selfless. So there’s something really interesting in that.
What were some of the challenges and some of the exciting parts of filming in Jordan? The challenges are easier to talk about because there were so many. The heat was intense for everyone. The crew got sick; that was hard for everyone. We were dehydrated every day. And the heat is one thing, but there’s no place to escape it, and that’s what really started taking a toll on everyone. So we just had to take breaks and rehydrate. And the suit was tough, but I also loved it. I had a love-hate relationship with that thing. When we did have time off, we’re really in a beautiful part of the planet that I never thought I’d visit. But there’s the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, some of the best scuba diving around, and Petra. People were gorgeous, they couldn’t have been more giving. It was just really cool, I couldn’t believe I was hanging around while goats and camels were crossing the road. It was a completely foreign thing, and I got the opportunity to learn a lot about the Arab and Muslim culture that I never that thought I’d learn. I’m so fortunate to have been able to do that.
Do you think that filming in the Middle East and being in such close proximity to where all of this has been going on made the situation more real for you? Absolutely. There’s no way the film would have turned out the way it has if we didn’t shoot there. It made it very difficult for us, but the backdrop of Jordan is like another character in the movie. It’s visceral to me. The Hurt Locker is an experience you feel, and being in Jordan forced us to feel that. We reacted to the circumstances that were given to us, regardless if it was the heat, the tank, the goats running through the frame, the absolute chaos added to the reality of it. And don’t get me wrong, we acted that stuff out—I think there’s some pretty stellar actors in that movie who certainly made it feel more tense. We acted it out, but in a sense there was no acting in this movie, there really wasn’t.
People are calling this your breakout role. How does it feel to have everyone saying that you’re the next big thing? It feels great, but I don’t really buy into it too much. I hear that every third year about something, from Dahmer to something else, but this just happens to not be a bad guy role—it’s a sort of antihero role. It could lead to bigger things. Yeah, I think it’s amazing. But what it really means, I don’t know the answer to that question anymore.
You’ve been doing a lot of theatre work in LA, including a show called The Unusuals, which was canceled. How did you feel about that, and what were your reasons for delving into theatre when your film career seems to be really thriving? Well I was happy that I was doing the show because it was an amazing cast and I would have been happy if it had run for another season. But I’m also happy that it’s canceled because there’s a lot of opportunity that any actor would die for that I’m dying for right now—to be desired, and to have people curious about you, to have opportunities to film, which is why 20 years ago I moved to Los Angeles. I realize that I have the opportunity to have a really phenomenal film career, so I’m happy about it.
You’ve also been writing, performing, and recording rock music on the side. How did you get started with your music career and what are you doing on the musical front right now? Music has always been a big release for me. My first instrument was the drums, and that was a physical release. I started when I was 16 and I wanted to write song. So I moved over to drums and from drums to piano and guitar, and just learned from watching people. I never wanted to become a guitarist or a pianist, I just wanted to learn how to write tunes. From there I’ve been in a few bands, and I just really enjoy the expression of it. I could always sing, so as long as I had an instrument, I could sit and write a song and that’s all I needed. I didn’t need an audience, didn’t need them recorded, didn’t need anything. Like with a movie, it takes a thousand things to make that happen and to be satisfied. So music is a wonderful release for me. And I do have plans of recording an album.
Do you share the musical taste of James, who always seems to be listening to metal and hard rock in the film? Oh yeah, absolutely. There are definite similarities. I think part of that was on my playlist for the character. There’s absolutely that, but there’s also the individuality of throwing in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and some jazz scattered as well.
Aside from dismantling bombs behind the camera, what kind of bombs are you working on dismantling in your own life and career? (Laughs) That’s a great question. More untangling than dismantling, I would say. I’m just finishing building a house. I’m trying to untangle this web of chaos so I can just find a moment to take a nap. I want to dismantle all the chaos so then I can do something simple just for Jeremy, like a nap and showering. That’s like a luxury. That’s fun.