September 2016 -- A Better Man (AugustMan Magazine)

One of Hollywood's underrated actors is playing the role of a lifetime -- being a father.

by Cesar Greif

In a recent TV commercial for a liquor brand, Jeremy Renner was shown sitting on a film set, then stepping into the producer's chair, then working on renovating a house, and finally going onstage as the sing of his own band. He's all that. But he sees himself first and foremost as the father of his three-year-old daughter, Ava.

Forged in the working class town of Modesto, in central California, his journeyman work ethich has served him well, landing him supporting roles in the Mission Impossible film franchise, a part in several Marvel movies as superhero Hawkeye, and lead roles in one of the Bourne movies as well as in the critically acclaimed The Hurt Locker.

In 2016, Jeremy Renner will again step out as the leading man in two films. He continues to renovate homes and to be more down-to-earth than most Hollywood stars. He sat down with us in a quiet hotel bar to talk about his exciting upcoming plans and new life as a father.

What was it like growing up in Modesto, California?

It's a great place to grow up -- better place to leave. But it was good for me. I had a lot of freedom growing up in a place like that. It's a small town, versus a big city like this [he points outside to LA}. It gave me a lot of confidence.

In what way?

It was a lot safer back in those days. It was the 70s. Nobody locked their doors. You could even leave them open. I was a latchkey kid. I had my own key and could get in and out of the house. My parents were divorced. they were both working. As soon as school was over at 1:30 pm, I was free until my mom came home from work, around 6 pm. As a latchkey kid, with my own key around my neck, in third or fourth grade, it allowed me to get in trouble.

So what did you get up to?

Oh, just typical things [laughs]. I'm actually writing a show about it. I found out that there were so many people who were latchkey kids, with both parents having to provide for the family -- especially divorced families. Sure you get in trouble, but you also learned while getting in trouble. There were no rules, as long as I came home when the street lights turned on, did my homework and got good grades. Having all that freedom and what I did with that freedom gave me confidence and self worth. Building a fort, then lighting it up on fire, whatever it was. Experienced a lot of freedom as a kid. We ran around orchards and shot at each other with BB guns. Nobody got killed or hurt. It was a lot of fun.

With that kind of freedom, some kids can go in a bad direction.

I always made pretty good decisions as a kid. I did my homework. I worked a lot -- as soon as I could work, I did. I delivered newspapers, etc. My parents knew my friends. I had few friends because my parents moved a lot. I moved schools every y ear. I just thought, "New grade, new school." Because of the divorce and my parents shifting a lot, I was never rooted in one place. I ended up pretty introverted and had to be very extroverted to make new friends.

But I was quiet, so I just kind of held on to the same one or two friends that I had throughout all those years. If there was any trouble to be made, it was with my buddies, Danny and Todd. Our parents were always talking, so they knew what was going on. If you surround yourself with like-minded people, you give yourself a chance to grow as a human. I still believe in that today.

I know you grew up in the 70s and 80s, but was it anything like American Graffiti, directed by another guy from Modesto, George Lucas? Specifically those scenes were they drive classic cars.

There's a huge culture of cruising during the weekends -- from McHenry Boulevard all the way to J Street. it went on till probably 1989 or 1990. Then it died out because people started to get drunk and did stupid stuff. It was tragic because it was such a tradition, all those cool cars like the Ford Model Ts and the '57 Chevies brought out. And it would bring something like 50,000 to 100,000 people to that little town. It was huge. Every weekend the kids went cruising because there was little much else to do. Including me.

What gave you the acting bug?

That was a fluke. My father was an educator. He worked in a neighboring town at California State University. I finished high school with good GPA scores and got accepted at Berkeley and a few others. I didn't know if I even wanted to go. I didn't know what I wanted to do. My parents encouraged me to go to college but couldn't afford it.

So I told my dad, "I know I need to go to school, but I don't want to go into debt for something I'm not sure I want to do. I don't have the money. You don't have the money. Mom doesn't have the money. I'm not sure why I should do something just because it's a good school or what to study."

My dad said, "Why don't you go get your undergraduate degree, you AA, and then just explore?"

Going to junior college in the same town cost nothing. You could choose your major, and then you're gone. I was always a competitor and wanted to be the best at everything -- try stuff I never even thought I was interested in.

That's unusual advice for a father to give to a son.

It was great, though. As long as you get what you need -- nine units of math, science, and whatever else to move on to another college, you get transferred. The rest are electives. I filled it with speech, acting, and music classes. And then I fell in love with acting. I went from being lost -- going out and falling down, and realizing what you don't want -- to finding something. I started to focus more on theatre and college fell by the wayside. I was doing plays and want to San Francisco and studied with the ACT (American Conservatory Theatre). Then I figured out I had to move to LA to pursue this.

Did the fact that George Lucas also came from Modesto have any kind of influence on you?

Not really. It's not like there's something in the water up there that promotes artistry. There's not a lot of support for artists. The community theatre is small. It has grown a lot, but not by much. You have to drive a lot to find something to do. Acting wasn't something anybody did.

Your breakthrough role was that of James Coughlin in The Town. Anyone who saw that movie would think you grew up in Boston.

It was my first time in Boston ever. I'd be very curious to know what would've happened if we didn't shoot that movie in Boston. That place and environment helped me figure out what that character was. How they spoke, how they moved, all the human behavior that came behind that. Ben Affleck [the director] didn't want a dialect coach. he wanted authenticity. He sent me off with a couple of ex-cons and I visited some prisons and some bars for two weeks.

You played a villain, but a relatable one. Did you take a specific approach to make sure the audience could identify with him?

Hero or villain, I think there are a lot of gray areas. For storytelling purposes, you need the bad guy and the good guy. But a hero should be flawed because otherwise, he is a boring, one-dimensional character. Similarly for the villain. If all he does are bad things, it's uninteresting. When you can find empathy for the villain or flaws in the hero, then you make them more human, accessible. No one really believes Superman walks around just doing good all day.

The more we understand human psychology, the more we find that lines are blurred between good and bad. That is what makes characters more interesting to watch and that's what I look for in the roles I choose. If it's not there, and I can't find a way to insert it, then I'm not doing it.

You're now known as an action star. How do you feel about that label?

I understand what that means. I'm blessed to have had those opportunities. They happened to come all at once, which was a little intense, so that might explain it. I don't have a problem with the label, but I'm not big on labels. They limit how people are defined. I'm more a father than an action hero.

What's your take on superhero movies?

I didn't read comics growing up but watched the Spiderman, Superman, and Batman cartoons. I saw Michael Keaton as Batman.. I also watched Christopher Nolan's version, which was darker and more interesting. Technology is making superhero films more accessible and realistic, so much so that they're kind of dominating the market. People like those huge, episodic movies. They fall in love with the characters and want to keep watching them. I think Marvel has done a great job. But it does seem that an actor tends to put on a cape or costume to make a movie these days. All the good drama has gone to cable television.

Would that be something you would consider doing?

I am. I'm developing something with John Handfield, my business partner. I was telling you about latchkey kids growing up in the 70s and getting into trouble. That's being developed at HBO with Playing with Fire. We're also doing Knightfall for the History Channel. It's about the Knights Templar. The setting is like Game of Thrones. I originally intended for it to be a movie, but with the characters and the world around them, I thought the story might be better told in an episodic series. I'm looking for the time to do this. I would definitely consider doing more of it too, but it has to be the right material, and keep me close to my daughter.

So if there's a project that requires you to shoot in New Zealand for three months, like Lord of the Rings, you wouldn't do it?

Probably not. As a single dad, I make my decisions based on whether they're good for my child. It's tough.   But being able to see Ava is the most important thing.

Playing a politician in American Hustle was a big departure from your other characters.

Yes, it was a big departure in time and character, but it was a lot of fun to do. I liked doing the film because it had a wonderful director [David O. Russell] and great writers and actors. The fact that it was different from anything I've ever done was a bonus. It's great to remind myself and the audience that "Hey, I'm not just an action hero."

David O. Russell has a different way of working with actors.

He has an interesting way of shooting. More fluid, more creative, but also chaotic and vacillating. There's a lot of movement and things happening at once. He lights the whole room to shoot in 360°. Usually you'd have the camera here and another there, and you work with that. You'd shoot one scene, stop and then shoot another. He shoots all at once.

It creates interesting and exciting cinema, but it's a lot of hard work because you need to be constantly switched on and you also need to do a lot of improvising. It can be quite difficult but the outcome is usually brilliant, and that is all that matters in the end.

There are other sides of you, too. Music?

Yes. Music is another huge thing in my life. This record was what I was listening to just before we started talking.

Your record?

I'm recording an album. I'm debating about releasing it or not. I'll definitely put out some singles.

You've been thinking about releasing music for a while?

For the last eight months, I took time off from making movies to spend time with the baby. I was able to make some music during that time. Let the music tell me what I need to do. It's important to keep being creative, and near my child, and not take me to New Zealand to do "Mission Imposssible 9".

Do you ever see music taking a bigger place in your life?

I do actually. I started a record label and a band called Shepherd City Sound. I plan on releasing stuff in the UK this year. Music has always been a huge part of my life even before I was an actor. I played drums, piano, guitar; I wrote music. Writing is another way for me to purge, or express artistry, I suppose. I didn't have to plug in, I had an acoustic guitar and a little piano. It was a great outlet for me while waiting to get acting jobs. Now I'm going to take a step back from being an actor and devote more time to music. I'm happiest when I'm singing and playing.

It's instant gratification, not like acting. I can sit with a buddy and jam with a guitar, and write a song together -- that's so much fun and it feels great. Music is a beautiful thing. You have three or four minutes to tell a story, make someone shake their ass or stomp their foot or melt their hearts. Music transports you to any place in time and space you have in your memories, a specific period in your life.

Movies can do that, but they take about two hours. I remember watching E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and being transported back to that time in my life when I first saw it.

You'll listen to a song a lot more than you'll see a movie because it's so short. It has a huge impact on people's lives. Music is important and a very personal thing for me, though maybe my music is going to become a bit more public now. I don't get to hide in character. People are going to be, "Ah it's Renner singing about his divorce, or his daughter!"

What's your style of music?

It's the genre called soulful rock. Like the stuff you would hear from the Hoosiers, Kings of Leon, Bruno Mars. It has that kind of old-school feel. I work on the music and the melody first, and then the lyrics come after. I'm always influenced by old-school acts like the Beatles and Otis Redding.

You're playing leads in Arrival and Wind River. Can you talk about those? Do you feel more pressure when you play leads?

I just saw Arrival. Good Lord, that's just a beautiful story. I don't usually watch my own films, but it's a movie with a great director. Denis Villeneuve is like a Kubrick-meets-Spielberg kind of director. He's very clever. Anybody who is a parent will have their guts wrenched out. It has sci-fi elements, but it's also insular in its storytelling about Amy Adams' character and how we team up together.

I just finished Wind River and I have to say that there's a lot of me in this one. W shot it in Park City, Utah, which is very beautiful. it has a thriller aspect to it, a bit like Mystic River. It's hard for me to talk about it now because I haven't seen the whole thing.

I find it's actually easier when I'm playing the lead. There's more to grab on to. There is more to chew on and to navigate in and thus easier to make the arc interesting. I can carve out a whole journey when it's through my eyes.

Can you talk about your home renovation business?

It was never really a "business," more like an investment. Every dime I make I put into a house, and then I sell the house and move on to doing the next one. I did it with a childhood friend, Kristoffer Winters. He's like a brother. We've done some 20 homes together. I don't want to have money in the bank. I'd rather have it in something that puts a roof over my head. I don't invest in stocks.

Homes are tangible things. Music and acting are not. Renovating houses is still an art form for me, from designing to building, and it's something I can touch. But the last two houses I did were for myself, finally, and not to sell to anybody. I just got back an hour ago from the one at Lake Tahoe, near the Nevada border. That's where I lay my head because that's where my child is.

That's an eight-hour drive.

I'll do it. And for winter, I have some vehicles to deal with the snow. I had to learn about that. Two metres deep in snow is no laughing matter.

How has being a father changed you?

It changes everything, and at the same time, it changes absolutely nothing. The biggest change is just how you perceive everything. And that certainly dictates how decisions are being made henceforth. In the past, it was always about me. The big change was going from selfishness to selflessness. I went from doing everything for myself to now doing nothing for myself and everything for her.

When my child was born and took her first breath . . . and then when she put that tight grip on my finger . . . I was there when my sister's kid was born, but I didn't have the same experience because it wasn't my own child. With that experience I had at the birth of my baby girl, everything changed. I'd do more when it's for my baby girl. She's freed me from my own self, which makes life far more interesting. I now look at life through the eyes of a pure spirit, which is really, really fantastic.

It's a lot of work, but the rewards are just exponential, and the meaning of life and how I see things are clearer. Sure, I'm still doing a photo shoot today and she's not around. But when I do have her, I'm just not available to anyone or anything. I don't care who's calling. I'm with my baby.

Source: September 2016 digital issue of AugustMan magazine.  Scans of the article, including photos, can be found in the gallery.