Jeremy Renner: But What of the Trees Seeing the Forest, Too (Flaunt)

By John-Paul Pryor


How many times have you come across the phrase the gift of life? Sure, the briefest of scans across the minute-to-minute content avalanche of the soon-to-be meta-verse presents an endless stream of sentimental tropes espousing the notion, devaluing it one trite haiku at-a-time. Nonetheless, it strikes me that life is indeed the ultimate ‘surprise’ gift—after all, no one consciously chooses to be flung into being from nothingness, and were you actually able to process one iota of the phenomenology in any single moment you’ve been ‘gifted’ since birth, your head would likely explode piñata-style. It’s the opportunity to explore this born-never-asked paradigm we all have a stake in that crackles my synapses when Flaunt hits me up to ask if I would like to interview Jeremy Renner for The Gift Issue.

I figure that an actor with a penchant for playing masculine guys with inner lives immersed in a vortex of moral and existential paradox might just have an interesting take on the mind-blowing gift of existence—something beyond a reductive positivity slogan, at least.

To put that another way, inner conflict and existential paradox is my thing, and it’s also something Renner loves to take a deep-dive into. The 50-year-old actor from Modesto, California has built a formidable career playing the troubled everyman in extraordinary situations—from portraying a PTSD-scarred bomb disposal expert (in his major breakthrough role The Hurt Locker by Kathryn Bigelow), to nestling a profound darkness within the reluctant Avenger and sometimes assassin Hawkeye (whom he plays in the quantum-time-loop-skipping Marvel Universe). Let’s be clear, this is a guy who almost managed to humanize the inhuman real-life cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer in one of his earliest forays into cinema almost two decades ago, and has since quietly carved an enviable reputation as an enigmatic character actor, who also knows how to handle himself when it comes to hi-octane action. In fact, to watch Renner ply his trade is very often to wonder: is this guy a bad person trying to be good, or a good person trying to be bad? “I don’t think there is light without the dark,” says Renner, thoughtfully, when we connect across the Atlantic on Zoom. “A truth doesn’t exist without a lie, you know? My job is always to look at other people’s perspectives, and in general, I always try to remain very, very hopeful about even the bleakest situation. It’s coming through darkness or hardships or failures in life, where successes become real success.”

If you should need any proof of our cover star’s success in finding humanity in pitch black situations, you don’t need to look any further than his current grit-and-grime crime show Mayor of Kingstown, in which he plays a man dedicated to keeping a delicate balance of order in a community teetering upon the edge of chaos. His character’s gift to this somewhat broken community is peace, but the question is: at what personal cost comes his generosity of spirit? Suffice to say, it’s got a body count. “It’s easy to talk about how the show is bleak and hopeless, but it’s actually not that in my mind,” he tells me when I offer that I find it to be a fairly desolate evocation of the human condition. “When you put a lens on something, you get a very specific microcosm of humanity, and this is a town that’s kind of a prison itself, because it’s a prison town. There’s really not a lot of hope for the mayor, sure—you’re kind of spinning your wheels if you’re that guy—but at least there is peace. You kind of have to shift your perspective, and say, okay, in this town, the best thing that can ever happen is just some sort of peace, and not anarchy or chaos. In that respect, it’s hopeful, and even though it looks bleak, there is a real humanity to it.”

The notion that humanity lies in moral relativism is at the core of many of Renner’s performances, and his performance as Mike McLusky in The Mayor of Kingstown is characteristically convincing, infusing a shadowy emotional spectrum with coruscating authenticity. It begs the question: what does he draw upon in his own life experience when exploring conflicted emotional states on-screen? “I have my own obstacles and difficulties of loss in my own life, but I don’t really draw upon that when I’m working,” he explains, “I think those things taught me how to manage and deal with losses, death, or failures, and that obviously goes into characters, but I don’t ever think about anything bad that happened in my life when I am acting—it’s more about a sort of inward emotional processing and mental toughness. Some characters are kind of more of a coiled spring, and I really like that—when you’re not quite sure if this guy could be dangerous.”


There’s definitely a coiled spring element to McLusky, who exists in a world that is not without extreme violence. The show explores the lengths a good man must go to in order to maintain order in the dog-eat-dog world of a corrupt society in decline, and it almost feels like a metaphor for a sharpened dark edge of America. It occurs to me to ask Renner why he thinks contemporary filmmaking has such a fascination with violence and the underbelly of society. “I think in the history of humanity,” he considers, “it probably goes back to The Colosseum in Rome, you know? I guess the entertainment value of violence might be like a psychological purge, because you can involve feelings that are kind of compressed, and that if you were to act on them, would create some real problems in your life. I don’t know if everyone has murder in them, but fight or flight is definitely there.” He pauses and continues, “Maybe there is an attraction to a fantasy of violence because while it’s not part of our daily lives, it also contains a truth and reality—these things do happen.” Does he have hope that we might one day overcome the more brutish and violent instincts apparent in the human animal? “I do tend to think human beings are ultimately built to be thoughtful, but what environment are they in? I don’t think a capitalist society, driven by money rather than thoughtfulness, consideration, and kindness, means humans are in an environment that allows them to be the best that they can be. When I look at that wide lens, I don’t feel so hopeful, man. It usually takes an absolute atrocity or avalanche, or something, for people to unite together and help each other.”

I wonder whether he feels the last few years in American politics have brought people together or not, and if he has much hope for the future of politics in America in the post-Trump era. “I’m not a political guy at all,” he shares, “but you can focus on the whole country being divided or in turmoil, or focus on the uniting part of all of that. I focus on there being a silver lining. It might actually be division that gets a kid of 18 to get out there and vote because they realize the situation is actually just so ridiculous that they have to make a change.”

I suggest that a good litmus test of this assertion would be the collective trauma COVID-19 has dragged global society through in the last two years, and I ask Renner whether he believes it has been a brutal teaching of sorts. “Not to excuse all the death and all the chaos that it’s created, but if there is a silver lining in it, I think it’s in the fact people got to stop going to the job that they don’t like—that they do so they can afford the rent—and actually spent time with their kids or family. It was a moment to figure out who has real value in your life, and there’s something beautiful about that. Having to take a pause in life doesn’t pay the rent, or put gas in the car, but it feeds your soul and your spirit with the fuel that you need to live and love.”

Renner is very much a family man, and it becomes obvious as he goes on that he found the opportunity to step out of the rat race and spend time with his eight-year-old daughter magical. “I would say that since becoming a father eight years ago,” he says, “my perspective on life has changed in a strong principled way, where that has become the most important thing for me. I love my job, but that comes second to my desire to be a very involved parent to my daughter. It’s a beautiful teaching for me, and there is something new for me to learn every day because a kid’s perspective is the most glorious perspective of all—it’s wide-eyed, and everything is kind of brand new.” Has being a devoted father made him more mindful of the kind of roles he wants to take in the future? “I’m mindful that there’s not a lot of things my daughter’s been able to see,” he says, laughing, “I’m really excited to see the Disney+ thing because it’s a show I will really be able to watch with my whole family, and that’s kind of cool. I usually don’t watch anything I do, but this one I’m going to sit down and watch, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. Ultimately, I will not say I’m going to pass on something because it’s like, you know, you’re going to play a murderer, but there is a palette for what I want to do as an artist in general.”

It’s a broad palette, rich in multiple perspectives, and what he modestly refers to as the Disney+ thing is, of course, the current Avengers spin-off Hawkeye, in which his character takes center stage—beaming the actor directly into the homes of gazillions of fans of the Marvel franchise. I ask whether the spike in fame that comes hand-in-hand with being an Avenger has ever been tricky to navigate? “Celebrity has always been kind of a struggle,” Renner admits. “I don’t think there are a lot of actors worth their salt out there that are trying to be famous—they’re just good at what they do. But with the Marvel franchise and all those films, my acceptance of it has been quite amazing, because it’s about the kids, right? I’ll do anything for kids, like stop in the middle of a meal and take a picture, and it’s not even a celebrity thing as much as like, I don’t know, being a cool older brother?”

Being a cool older brother is a role Renner is very much used to, being the oldest of seven siblings, but why does he think kids see Hawkeye that way? “I have a character that has no superpowers—he is only a superhero because he has a high skill set, and I love that. It inadvertently and passively teaches kids that anybody can be a superhero, and that it is all about having mental capacity and fortitude, and all these other things that I think are great to teach a kid.” Sure, but chances are that any selfies snapped with the star are going straight on TikTok, or the like, so what is his take on another more ubiquitous form of screen-time all-too-often shaping young minds? “I don’t think kids should be on social media—that’s my opinion. I think it’s a toxic environment for adults, and it’s certainly not suitable for children. I think it just complicates life more than it really needs to. The mental capacity and mental matureness of kids is just not there yet for them to be able to deal with sifting through what is real and what is not—there’s so much more value in one- on-one human communication.”

Defining what is real and what is not is perhaps the next great challenge for cinema audiences given the advances in deepfake tech, and I want to know what Renner thinks about the increasing ability to place an actor into a movie without them ever being on-set? “It’s kind of almost there,” he considers, “but I can’t imagine that ever becoming a thing. I don’t think I can just put a green screen in my home and like, do it from there— you can’t just all do it separately. It takes a village, or a small city, to be able to get any sort of film or television show done, and you have to be there in this beautiful kind of shared experience. There’s a communion that happens when you work on a movie set together. It’s why cinema won’t go away too, because, you know, it’s different watching something at home and going into a theatre—exponentially different because it’s a collective experience; the people and the energy are part of the process.”

Communion, collective energy, mental capacity, fortitude... all of these channels seem key to Renner’s craft as an actor, but are they also fundamental to his approach to life in general? “I try to live a very fluid life,” he says, when I ask him about the pillars of his personal philosophy; about whether he is fatalistic when it comes to the gift of life, “and I think that’s about accepting that the only control you have is your perspective. You only have control of what you do with that, and how you deal with the opportunities that come. I work diligently every day on having no ego or fear in my decision-making. I don’t want things to stop in my life because of fear, or my own limited perception or needs or desires. I try to always be open to ideas and remain curious. I love human behavior—how people operate, and why they operate; how they respond and emotionally react to things.”

I suggest that perhaps these are all things he came to be seduced by as a young man, while studying criminology, before taking a career swerve into acting via skin-pounding in various rock bands in Modesto. “Definitely,” he enthuses, “It’s a bit dark when you’re doing criminology, because you’re dealing with all this death and crime, and the dark side of human behavior, but studying those things informed me as an actor and a human being.”

As much as Renner’s oeuvre explores what it means to be a human being, it also could be said more explicitly to explore what it means to be a man, and often a certain kind of man at that. It’s interesting, then, to get his take on modern masculinity, which is so often now reduced to riding sidesaddle with ‘toxicity’ in certain circles. “I believe that I’m a pretty masculine dude,” he says, “but I think a lot of that comes from my sensitivity and my thoughtfulness. I can’t watch the news, for example, because I’m super sensitive to it. I know as a society we identify with certain behaviors as masculine or feminine, but it’s hard for me to put that stamp on what that is, you know? What is a masculine quality and what is more of a feminine quality? We can maybe agree that what is construed as a more feminine quality might be sensitivity and emotion, or whatever, but I don’t look at it that way, because I’m one of the most sensitive people that I know, and I’m also one of the most masculine men that I know.”

It’s a salient point that the nuanced sensitivities of masculinity are all too often sidelined in the age of culture wars, and I ask him if he feels it is getting harder for men to genuinely express themselves without fear of censure—if it’s not just all getting a bit too serious for its own good? “I don’t know. I think a lot of people are walking on eggshells and things like that right now, and probably often for good reason. I’m sure I do as well. I’m kind of witty, but I find myself being more careful, conscientious, or thoughtful about saying anything that someone might get hurt feelings about. It’s a tough time to be a comedian, I’m sure,” he laughs. “There’s divisiveness at the moment, and I’m not as forthright as I might have once been with my humor in public settings, or on a talk show, because you can get crucified, no joke. I do sometimes wonder where our sense of humor has gone—just because there are serious topics and things that need to be changed socially and in the country doesn’t mean you have to lose your sense of humor. It’s not all about going into fight mode—let’s not lose our sense of humanity.”

So, what does the actor think might be the cure to the societal malaise of something like cancel culture, I ask, as we wrap up what has been an enlightening discussion. “I think the seeds of love are really about being witnessed and being understood—at least from adults to adults. I can guarantee you that if you name anybody you love, then you feel witnessed and understood by them, and sometimes we can express love with humor—anything to get a good laugh and not take life too seriously, know what I mean?”

Indeed. And what would Renner consider to be the greatest gift of life? “Laughter has been the greatest gift I’ve ever received, and I’ve ever given; even more so than love.” And he concludes with a wry smile, “The greatest gift is laughter; that’s the fountain of youth, brother.”

Article taken from Flaunt Magazine