- Published: Saturday, 04 October 2014 19:55
- Written by coolshades
It isn’t Jeremy Renner’s natural state to be in movies seen by every second person on the planet.
Renner exercised his acting muscles in indie films for more than decade before becoming Hawkeye in The Avengers and Tom Cruise’s teammate in Mission: Impossible.
So he’s aware of the chasm between billion-dollar “event” movies and Kill the Messenger, his modest producing debut, in which he also stars.
“If you’re thinking in terms of how much attention it will get, you might ask, ‘Why do this movie?’” Renner says of the moving and disturbing real-life tale of a San Jose investigative journalist who reported on the CIA’s culpability in the crack epidemic, and had his career ruined for it.
“But for me as a performer, it’s ‘How do I tell the best story I possibly can?’ This is a story that needs to be seen, it’s a story that needs to be told. And right now, I’m in a microcosm, speaking to journalists that have seen the movie and doing a lot of Q&As at random theatres.”
For Renner’s first time out as a producer, he’s tackling a story that is not journalism’s shining moment. Gary Webb was an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, which published a 20,000-word series by Webb entitled Dark Alliance. In it, Webb used Freedom of Information material and interviews with drug traffickers to expose the part the CIA-backed Contras in Nicaragua played in the import of crack cocaine to the U.S. in the ‘80s. The drug-trade money was ostensibly funneled back to fight the Communist Sandinista government (the Reagan administration’s obsession), while the drugs ignited a crack cocaine epidemic that devastated communities throughout the U.S. for decades to come.
The response: major media outlets – including the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times – devoted themselves to finding holes in Webb’s story and debunking it (the LA Times alone devoted 17 staffers to the job of sinking the “scoop” from the small market upstart). Many of their pieces included sniffing dismissals from CIA “sources.”
“The CIA are great at f---ing things up and they're great at covering it up,” says Peter Landesman, the former investigative reporter who scripted Kill the Messenger. “And they understood the ego and competition and narcissism among reporters, and how to manipulate it.”
An intimidated Mercury News backed down and published what amounted to an apology for the Dark Alliance series. Webb quit, his career effectively finished. In 1998, after an internal investigation, then-CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz published results of an internal investigation that basically corroborated Webb’s story, but little attention was paid. Monica Lewinsky led the news.
In 2004, Webb was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head, a death that was ruled a suicide.
Renner, who came to know Webb’s widow and two children in the process of “becoming” him, becomes emotional when he recalls them attending the premiere of Kill the Messenger.
“Sorry,” he says as he tears up. “They weren’t adversely affected and they were very proud. It was very cathartic and very difficult and they could not be more proud and happy. I raise my arms in victory. I could not say anything else after that.
“I’m so happy they’re happy. It was hard for them and it was hard for me, and we both walk away with our heads held high and it was a wonderful feeling.”
Webb’s family gave Renner free access to troves of family home videos. “It was the only sort of research I could do on Gary. There’s limited stuff on the Internet to grab. The family was very open and generous with home videos – with the kids, with the wife, he’s playing hockey or whatever. When he’s at work, there’s some interviews, some colleagues, some weddings.
“It gave me something to run with in terms of belief systems and how he spoke and sat.”
Ironically, Landesman’s script caught Renner’s eye because the actor was utterly unfamiliar with the scandal. “I grew up in Modesto (California), right around the corner from where this all took place. And it was like, ‘Why did I not know this?’
“The tragedy, the loss of Gary Webb, his life, the things he did. It was a great role, and I thought the idea of investigative reporting was a departure from things I’ve done.
“When I did The Hurt Locker, I spoke to guys reporting the war, so that was kind of an introduction. I have a lot more respect for investigative reporting now. How to get the story; to pry it apart and dig in. It’s kind of what I do with characters, dig in deep.
“What I really found interesting were the relationships with editors and with other reporters. The bureaucracy, it’s very corporate in a lot of papers. Meanwhile Gary was a rebellious, rogue, anti-establishment kind of guy.
“What broke his back was the betrayal by the Merc. Everything else really didn’t have any effect on him ultimately. It was the paper’s betrayal.
“And that’s when he decided to go out on his own. That’s when he wrote his book and worked alone and spiraled and he went down a lot of rabbit holes. And some obsession and compulsion went on.”
It’s left unsaid that the take-away from a movie like Kill the Messenger is a little deeper than a end-credits scene of The Avengers eating shawarma.
But what does Renner want audiences to take away from his movie?
“Take away a conversation, a debate, a smile, maybe a crushed heart, an emotion, a thought. It’s an amazing thing to walk away with,” he says.
THE BEST OF RENNER
The artist currently known as Hawkeye, Jeremy Renner has been plugging away as an L.A. actor since the early ‘90s. Herewith, some of his notable non-archer roles.
- National Lampoon’s Senior Trip (1995). Hey, a guy’s got to start somewhere. Renner played the hard-partying “Dags” D’Agostino. Key scene: Stops the school bus from crashing when the driver (Tommy Chong) ODs mid-trip.
-Dahmer (2002). Renner played the real-life serial killer and was rewarded with an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Not exactly big box office, but it caught the eye of Kathryn Bigelow, who eventually directed The Hurt Locker.
-S.W.A.T. (2003). A little recognition from playing Jeffrey Dahmer earned Renner a bad-cop role in this disastrous Jamie Foxx/Colin Farrell movie adaptation of the old TV series. Fun stuff: Renner’s character got to shoot down a helicopter with a high-powered rifle.
-Neo Ned (2005). Renner got more indie cred (best actor, Palm Beach International Film Festival) playing a white supremacist in love with a black girl (Gabrielle Union).
-Take (2007). Harrowing psychological drama about a mom attending the execution of the luckless gambling addict whose attempt to hold up a drugstore ended with the death of her child. Renner and Minnie Driver both won acting awards at the California Independent Film Festival.
-28 Weeks Later (2007). In the sequel to 28 Days Later, Renner plays Sgt. Doyle a Delta Force sniper who balks at some of the more lethal commands he receives while serving with the American occupying force in a post-zombified Britain.
-The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Terrific, cold-eyed performance by Renner as Wood Hite, the malevolent cousin of Jesse (Brad Pitt).
-The Hurt Locker (2008). You might have heard of this one, even though it may have been the least-watched Best Picture winner in Oscar history. Renner was amazingly good in his Oscar-nominated role as a bomb squad specialist in Iraq.
-The Town (2010). Another criminal role, terrifically played. Renner is Jem Coughlin, a whip-smart heist artist whose weakness is his overwhelming loyalty to his partner-in-crime Dougie (Ben Affleck, who also directed). Renner got another Oscar nom (supporting) for this one.