- Published: Sunday, 21 November 2021 03:15
- Written by coolshades
From 'The Hurt Locker' to 'Hawkeye' and from sharks to fires, Jeremy Renner is fighting his demons and finding himself.
By Alex Bhattacharji
It's an early-October day, and as Jeremy Renner sits in the open-air lobby bar of Los Angeles’s Sunset Tower Hotel, the breeze smells faintly of smoke. Wildfires are raging in California and across the West, and the Caldor Fire, which crossed over the Sierras near Renner’s sprawling Nevada ranch above Lake Tahoe, is still not fully contained. Although his retreat was spared, it’s at risk each wildfire season. “There’s been a fire not a half mile from where my house is. Pretty threatening,” says Renner, who has trained as a volunteer firefighter. “I’m using fire trucks for defensible space and for protecting my neighborhood, all the people up there.”
Unlike the rest of us, he didn’t spend the pandemic bingeing on Netflix and death-scrolling Instagram. He spent nights bidding on fire trucks in online auctions, and he’s amassed quite a few. “I had 30 fire trucks a hundred feet from a hydrant,” he says. “Not because they’re there to firefight, but they all potentially could.” That Renner collects fire trucks rather than muscle cars or McLarens should not come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed the 50-year-old actor’s career. They are, like him, highly pragmatic, more appreciated than loved, and easily overlooked until one is needed.
Renner’s fire trucks also find surprising ways to be useful. They put out fires, of course, but he also retrofitted one of his hook-and-ladders for a different purpose: a birthday-partymobile for kids, topped with a bounce house. “A compressor inside the fire truck, it blows up the thing,” Renner says excitedly. “On the side of the rig, Slurpee and snow-cone machines—all that stuff!”
His truck-rehabilitation project—which has grown to around 200 vehicles, each finding new life at his Nevada homestead—speaks to pragmatism and creativity. “It isn’t a horse ranch,” he says. “It’s more of a horsepower ranch.” Beyond fire engines, Renner is restoring and reimagining utility vans; an ambulance, which he is converting into a veterinary clinic; and a slew of city buses, which he has earmarked to become tiny homes and glamping accommodations. If they are still roadworthy, they might become roving barbershops or mobile gyms. Nothing is disposable or superfluous; nothing is static. “I try to do things with a flow,” he says, “and never square peg/round hole something. Why force it? Water flows over a rock. It doesn’t just stop when it hits an obstacle; it moves around it, right? That’s how it is with life. It’s my religion, my belief system. Whether it be a bus or a movie or a home or how I parent, that’s in everything I do.”
Constant motion is a cornerstone of Renner’s worldview, which could be published under the title Zen and the Art of Fire Truck Maintenance. Other volumes could follow. As we talk, Renner sips iced coffee and leans forward when he makes a point or shares aspects of his life philosophy, which he likes to do. We’ll call them Rennerisms. They’re informed by his lived experience, on- and offscreen, and guide him on the journey we’re all on, to be the best iteration of ourselves.
Seeming contradictions—like fire and flavored ice—coexist easily within Renner’s world. His cherubic cheeks and button nose come together to form a pissed-off appearance—which he alternately calls “resting angry face,” “resting dick face,” and “resting bitch face”—that belies his warmth. He laughs often and speaks with depth and gruff gentleness. It may make him seem intense, but in truth he’s liberated. “Zero fucks given,” he says. “Less than zero, if that’s possible.”
He’s just finished shooting a pair of miniseries back-to-back—Hawkeye for Disney+ (debuting the day before Thanksgiving) and the thriller Mayor of Kingstown (now streaming on Paramount+). He is the lead in both projects, but he shrugs that point off. “I never wanted to be famous,” he says. “I still don’t.” He owns a secluded house in the Hollywood Hills, which he keeps so he can spend time with his daughter, Ava, when he can’t bring her to his Nevadahome, where he moved eight years ago. The two-time Oscar-nominated actor is resistant to being a cog in the celebrity- industrial complex, unless it’s on his own terms. “Everyone is like, ‘You should buy a tequila brand,’” he says, mocking the know-it-all tone of a stereotypical Hollywood suit, even as a pack of them pass our table. “Fuck that. I bought a bunch of fire trucks. So fuck you, Ryan Reynolds or George Clooney or whoever,” he adds with a laugh. “I’ll come put out the fire on your agave farm.”
Renner grew up in Modesto, a small city in California’s Central Valley. His parents divorced when he was eight, and he shifted between their homes, an active and adventurous latchkey kid. “I built a lot of shit, broke a lot of shit, and burned a lot of shit, just out there in the orchards.” He played soccer competitively and was a prodigy at the bowling alley, rolling a 225 average by the time he was 12. He was also outdoorsy, spending time exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite National Park, which he calls “my backyard.” He fell in love with skiing at Squaw Valley, overlooking Lake Tahoe, and became an instructor during high school.
His mother worked as a bookkeeper and his father studied theology, then became a professor at nearby Cal State Stanislaus. Renner was exposed to the liturgy, tenets, and practices of every religion, major and minor, and he came away with a realization as a teen, telling his dad: “Everyone is running the same race. They’re all wanting the same thing, the same end goal, but going about it in different ways.” He got into a number of colleges, including UC Berkeley. But short on money and direction, he decided to find his path at a local junior college first. Heeding his father’s advice to “just throw a dart—try anything and go fucking fail, son,” Renner randomly took aim at an acting class. He’d later add psychology to his studies before dropping out to pursue acting full-time.
Arriving in Los Angeles, Renner says, “I had three goals: to be in a movie, be in a movie that was big enough that it would play in Modesto, and have a part big enough where you could recognize me.” He gave himself 11 years to achieve these goals but surpassed them in under four, landing a starring role in National Lampoon’s Senior Trip as a slacker teen opposite Tommy Chong. He was in the mix, up for the same parts that Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg were, always on the cusp, lacking that breakout opportunity but not the confidence. Until he was fired from a project, recast because a network exec thought he looked too young. “That really fucked me up and created a lot of self-doubt—not for very long but long enough,” he says. The experience left him with a few lasting lessons. “Once you’re fired, then you become a real actor,” Renner says. Another: “Networks can kiss my whole ass.” Perhaps the most critical takeaway: “Never take a job for money.” Renner says he never has.
For five and a half years, he lived in a studio apartment in Hollywood with all the conveniences of the Unabomber’s shack. “I had no electricity, no gas, no hot water. So I learned to play guitar. I lit candles. I made a vibe out of it. I said, ‘Hey, look, this is romantic. It’s not depressing that I can’t afford power.’ ” The alternative was pointless. “If I sat and cried about it, which I probably did once or twice, it doesn’t really move the needle. Changing and shifting your perspective—that’s the only thing we have control of in perpetuity.” Even so, it wasn’t easy. At times, Renner says, his entire monthly food budget was ten dollars. He’d live on a case of Top Ramen and maybe treat himself when McDonald’s had its two-burgers-for-25-cents special. “I always thought, At least I’m doing a job that I love,” Renner says. “I’m glad I’m not doing a job just for a paycheck. That’d be fucking miserable. And most people are.”
He made the rent by doing things he enjoyed. At first, Renner worked as a makeup artist at shopping malls, having acquired the skills in theater class. “I was terrible at selling, but I learned that I was good at listening to people.” Rather than pushing products, he helped his customers give voice to their goals and self-images. Ultimately, he changed their outlooks more than their looks. “When you feel witnessed and understood, those are the seeds of a lot of good things to come in life.”
Then, two decades ago, Renner began flipping houses. Closer to a second calling than a side hustle, the work offered him far more than a few bucks in his pocket and a roof over his head. “It kept me learning and growing and failing and succeeding,” he says. “It shaped who I am in a lot of ways. It taught me how attentive I am to detail.” Most of the two dozen or so homes Renner has renovated and resold were built in the 1920s. “Anybody can build something from the ground up. I like the limitations of taking something that was once amazing, reconfiguring it, and making it work for today. It’s a different art.”
The job lent Renner an improbable edge every time he auditioned. “I walked in with brass balls,” he says. “It doesn’t mean I was cocky or aggressive. It means I didn’t have that desperation. I didn’t have so much . . . need for it.” Sure, he’d want some parts, but he could just perform without fear of failure. “I was making money and being satiated as an artist by doing these homes. I didn’t have to care too much.”
Buoyed by his brass ones, Renner landed the lead in the independent film Dahmer as well as sizable roles in dramas like North Country and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and multiplex movies like S. W. A. T. and 28 Weeks Later. The same conviction let him look past a big payday to turn down the title role in Hellboy. “I said no to more money than I’ll probably ever make,” Renner says. “I was focused on what I wanted to do and how. I just felt if I wasn’t connected to the material—even though it was a great director and a great job—I don’t know how I’m going to do anything exceptional.”
Renner knew he could do something special in The Hurt Locker, and he did. His portrayal of Staff Sergeant William James, the nervy, reckless leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in Iraq, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and helped the 2008 film win Best Picture honors. It remains Renner’s most resonant work, though not because of the awards or even the invitation to the White House.
The film was like a Rosetta Stone for returning military, translating their war-zone experiences for civilians. “So many soldiers would come up to me like, ‘This is something I cannot explain to my wife. Now she can watch and have a fucking understanding of what the fuck I’m talking about.’ And it helped their marriage. They were going to get divorced. They’re done. This guy did like eight tours—fucking eight tours. Insane.” Renner’s eyes well up with tears as he recalls the episode. “This is not cinema,” he explains. “We’re not talking about people sitting at this theater and eating popcorn and watching a movie. A different thing was happening.” The depth of the response bowled him over. “It was amazing, man. I don’t get that out of a Marvel movie.”
He earned another Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Supporting Actor, for his work in The Town. He took the baton from Matt Damon, starring in The Bourne Legacy. He honed his action- movie craft with Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible films Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation. And while Renner kept his hand in dramas—notably in the Best Picture nominee American Hustle and the gritty reservation murder mystery Wind River—he has spent much of the past decade as Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, whose superlative in the MCU yearbook might be “most relatable Avenger.” Hawkeye is a superhero without a superpower, taking circus training in archery to the level of lethal assassin and action hero. “That’s why I liked him,” Renner says. “I’m like, ‘I can access this. I get this.’ It’s this guy with a high skill set and nothing to lose. This guy is probably the most dangerous man in the room.”
In some ways, Hawkeye’s relationship with the Avengers mirrors Renner’s relationship with Hollywood. Renner rolls with aliens and actual gods in the film series while somehow making Hawkeye a deadly, heroic, and very human archer who fits right in with the superhuman crew. IRL, Renner’s a global action star, but he just wants to fix stuff, hang with his daughter, and do the things he likes to do. Hawkeye’s arrows have earned him an outrageous fortune. Yet while Renner may be in Hollywood, he is not of it. “I want to be challenged, I want to grow,” he says. “But I’m not striving to do more in this town. There’s nothing that needs to be satiated in me.”
Competence and satisfaction are symbiotic for Renner. “I focus on all the things I’m good at or the things that I enjoy. And those go hand in hand. It’s rare that I’m good at something and don’t enjoy it.” Hokey as it sounds, acting is his dream job. “I do shit I love for a living. I get paid to make believe. I get paid to be a third grader on a playground. I get paid to do that! Things are ‘work’ when they’re not that enjoyable. Usually press is . . . not that enjoyable.”
Renner isn’t being confrontational or evasive, and our interview goes well beyond the allotted time. “You’re asking questions and I share with you as I would with my father or one of my best friends. Right? It doesn’t change.” Deep and contemplative, even with eight-year-old Ava. “I’m just stuck with being me,” he says. “I can’t have light, fluffy conversations. I can’t do it. I can’t fucking do it, dude. I’d rather run into traffic. I’m polite. I’m cordial. And I get the fuck out of there, fast.”
One thing Renner undeniably enjoys is music. He has released two albums of hard-driving rock; built recording studios in both his houses; and written, he estimates, about 1,000 songs. He’ll play guitar, piano, and drums when recording at home, but his best instrument is his voice. He’s placed songs on several soundtracks and one in a Jeep ad in which he appeared. Renner could, as has been suggested, advance his music by engineering a film role as a singer. “I don’t want to do a musical story just so I can do music in a movie,” he says. “That’d be for my fucking ego. No. I don’t do that shit. I don’t do that.”
Never forcing things has led Renner to a pragmatic form of pacifism. Despite being trained in martial arts, he says, “I’ve never been in a physical altercation in my life. Why combat when you can find solutions to move around? It’s all ego based when it comes to fighting.” He’s applied this perspective to pretty much everything he does. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be good at problem-solving,” Renner says. “It doesn’t mean all the solutions are perfect or that they’re even good. But at least it’s a solution instead of doing nothing. Stagnancy is complacency. It’s like a pond: If water does not move, it sits and collects scum. A river is moving; it’s alive and ever-changing.”
That represents Renner’s platonic ideal of navigating the outside world and inner struggles. “That’s how I want to feel. Fluid.”
In 2013, when he had a child with Canadian actress Sonni Pacheco, Renner says, his priorities changed. After a year and a half of flying from London to L. A. each weekend to see Ava, often for only a few hours, Renner decided he had to create boundaries. He brought the same brass-balls attitude to bear when negotiating with Marvel. “It taught me how to have the nuts to say, ‘Everyone, fuck off. It’s my time with my daughter.’ ” Although people close to Renner cautioned that Marvel might fire him, he didn’t back down. “I said, ‘Fine, recast me. I’m going to be here with my daughter.’ It was pretty gnarly.”
His determination paid off. Now Renner insists on being able to visit Ava or have her visit every weekend on every project. If the producers balk, he passes. “Acting and everything else goes out the window,” he says, “until my daughter says, ‘I want to hang out with my friends, and I don’t want to be around you so much, Daddy.’ ” He brightens when he discusses his morning with her. “I never knew that resting face I have could be beautiful. It’s not on me. It is on her, on Ava.” He describes with delight how he made her lunch and packed some celery because she wanted to feed the rabbits at her school.
This daily routine is not something Renner takes for granted. He and Pacheco
share joint custody of Ava. The two divorced in late 2014 after ten months of marriage, citing irreconcilable differences. In the years since, they have waged a battle over custody and child support. According to the Los Angeles Times in 2019, Pacheco cited Renner’s “ongoing substance abuse” in a court filing and alleged he talked about killing her and himself in 2015. TMZ reported that Renner denied the allegations in a subsequent court filing, claiming that Pacheco was unstable, made up the allegations because she was upset that their relationship had ended, and was looking for a money grab. In the wake of those allegations, Disney reportedly considered replacing Renner, but it didn’t, choosing instead to continue to invest in its relationship with him. Neither side has commented publicly on the accusations, except for denying the claims. Renner denied them again in our interview, declining to address the allegations specifically. “I don’t respond publicly or privately to nonsense,” he says. “It only empowers it. . . . If you respond to it, you give it gas. I don’t fuel shit fires. I just don’t do it. I refuse to.”
Renner spent the early months of the pandemic sheltering with Ava at his Nevada ranch. He is acutely aware of the pain and suffering the pandemic has caused, losing several family members to Covid. But he saw hopeful signs, too. “It’s like people were saying, ‘Let’s spend time with those that we care about—not focused on the next rung in the ladder, chasing whatever we were chasing.’ ” Familiar and resonant themes for Renner. “I live my life by that, right?” he says. “I’ve been doing this for so long. I was the king of the mountain, man. I was like, ‘Welcome.’ ”
Renner responded to the societal change with a shift in lifestyle. “I got, I wouldn’t say fat, but a little lazy. I was like, ‘Fuck it.’ It was sloth life.” But he has no regrets; it’s what he needed. However, going back to the gym to get in shape for Hawkeye was tough. “It took me two months of working out just so I could get enough energy to be in the stunt gym,” he says.
The Disney+ miniseries has holiday vibes of the Die Hard and Home Alone variety. Set in New York City, it follows Renner’s Barton as he reluctantly takes an overeager Hawkeye superfan named Kate Bishop (played by Hailee Steinfeld) under his wing. Mentor and protégée battle shadowy figures from Barton’s past as he tries to get home in time for Christmas. After the shoot in Atlanta concluded, Renner went directly to Toronto to film Mayor of Kingstown, which reunited him with Taylor Sheridan, who wrote and directed Wind River and brought the melodrama to Montana as one of the creators of Yellowstone. Renner plays the title role of Mike McClusky, who oversees a crime family and city hall in the fictional Kingstown, Michigan. It tackles some heavy themes (systemic racism, corruption, and inequality in the criminal-justice system) and reveals plenty of personal demons.
The actor finds that immersing himself in darker roles like McClusky has a cleansing effect. “I don’t negate my negative feelings. I live in my emotions. With all these characters I’ve played, you get to dump a lot of that toxic shit. So I get pretty balanced and light.” He adds, “I work very hard not to have fear and ego in my life.” It becomes clear that ever since he started acting, he’s been working on a single renovation, stripping Jeremy Renner down to the joists. The demolition phase entailed exorcising his fears. “For ten years,” he says, “I did something every day I was afraid of.” The sheer length of the project speaks to its scale. “I’m an overachiever. I guess I had a lot of fears. But not anymore.” It began with taking an honest assessment of himself and cataloging what frightened him. Some phobias were external (the fear of sharks), others internal (the fears of success and intimacy)—“things that take a little time to work out.”
As he tells it, “I became a master diver because I wanted to overcome my fear of sharks.” To conquer his anxiety over rejection, he made himself ask out a woman at a bar for the first time. Other fears challenged him to dig deeper, “into the nine layers of the subconscious.” It was often a nonlinear process but one he attacked constantly with his problem-solving mindset, arriving at solutions perfect or otherwise. “I forced myself to do these things to get me to overcome the fears, doing all these things every day,” he says. “The through line of it all, I was just afraid of the things I did not know. That’s it. As soon as I got educated,” Renner says as he opens his hands, “poof. They lost their power over me.”
It’s not that he doesn’t have a fight-or-flight reaction when facing a great white. It’s that Renner knows what he should do. He can activate his fluid-pragmatist mode. “Yeah, there’s still healthy fear,” he explains, “but I’m not paralyzed by any fears I do have. They don’t stop me from any decisions I make.” He nods as if considering the meaning of his statement for the first time, then smiles. “I will make my own bad decisions without fear, okay?” Renner says, scanning the restaurant for a waiter. “Tequila, please!”