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ET's Welcome Wagon: Jeremy Renner in "Arrival" (SF Chronicle)

Jeremy Renner, above, plays a physicist in “Arrival.” Amy Adams, right, has the lead as a linguist trying to understand aliens. Photo: Paramount Pictures

To hear Jeremy Renner tell it, in some ways, making “Arrival” was just another day at the office.

Sure, the story is one of an alien visitation in which his character, physicist and mathematician Ian Donnelly, is among the welcoming party. But then this is the same actor who is the Marvel superhero archer Hawkeye in the “Thor” and “Avengers” franchises and IMF Field Operations Director William Brandt in “Mission: Impossible.” Renner is used to insane situations and acting in scenes where what he is interacting with will not become “real” until postproduction.

 “In this one, when we’re in that room in the shell, the set was built and there was a big white screen, kind of like a movie screen, and there were these puppeteers,” Renner, 45, says of “Arrival’s” extraterrestrial encounter.

“So there was kind of a weird, creepy alien thing about it already — a guy in black tights with a long, 40-foot pole with a bean bag at the end of it. ... And the set was eerily quiet, because sets usually aren’t so quiet. You really have to use your imagination.

“I was astounded when I saw ‘Arrival’ for the first time.”

Canadian Denis Villeneuve, director of the Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” “Prisoners,” and “Sicario,” directed “Arrival.” Among Renner’s co-stars are Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, but for Renner, the lure was Amy Adams, the drama’s lead as Louise Banks, the linguist charged with unlocking the aliens’ language.

The two actors had been friends for years before finally getting a chance to work together in 2013 on David O. Russell’s 1970s-set “American Hustle.” That experience, where Renner portrayed a New Jersey mayor and Adams a con artist, was so rewarding that they were eager to find another project together.

“To work with her again was an absolute joy,” says Renner, who grew up in Modesto, “and it also meant something to me that she was playing a very strong female lead, a role of a powerful, smart, intelligent woman.”

“Working with Jeremy just feels really easy and very natural,” says Adams. “On ‘American Hustle,’ we both sort of realized we take our work very seriously, but we’re both like, ‘Let’s get it done.’ We put our heads down and do the work. We have a lot of fun.”

Ian and Louise are strangers when they meet in “Arrival.” Thanks to the pressure-cooker nature of being plucked from their lives by the government to take part in humankind’s most extraordinary adventure, the bonds of friendship form almost immediately.

But the film also flips the script. Renner, so often the hero in movies as diverse as “The Hurt Locker” (for which he received a best actor Oscar nomination in 2008) and “Kill the Messenger,” is in the type of supporting role so often consigned to actresses. The actor, himself the father of a 3-year-old daughter, is happy to play second fiddle.

“I’m Lois Lane and she’s Superman. Superwoman. I love that,” says Renner, who also received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for “The Town” in 2010. “‘Arrival’ says a lot about women without getting on a soapbox or anything preachy. Maybe 20 years ago, it would have been a man playing that role and a woman playing my role. I think it’s really refreshing and needed.”

Renner came away from “Arrival” just as taken with Villeneuve, likening his experience with him to what he imagines working with Stanley Kubrick must have been like. The unusual quiet on the set was one aspect; Villeneuve’s vision was another.

“We were so focused on language and mathematics and communicating emotional content, especially me,” Renner says of his collaboration with Villeneuve. “Math, zeroes and ones, is just not interesting to listen to. We were always talking about more, ‘How do we make this emotional and human?’ That’s what we focused on.

“Everything has its own challenges. The part wasn’t really requiring a lot of work on my part, outside of the understanding, within the confines of the script, what I had to learn. ... It’s like going to the gym and having to stretch to go put on a superhero costume. It’s the same thing. It’s sitting down and reading a book. It’s just as exciting, in a different way.”

Source: Pam Grady at SFChronicle.com

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