He’s touted as a dark horse in Oscar’s Best Actor race, a relative unknown in a field of nominees highlighted by presumed frontrunner Jeff Bridges and George Clooney. Yet Modesto native Jeremy Renner, the fair-haired star of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” is no stranger to the screen, or to awards consideration.
Renner, 39, has been appearing in movies, usually in supporting roles, for 15 years, most famously as an independent-minded soldier in “28 Weeks Later” (2007) and, later that year, as one of Brad Pitt’s wayward sidekicks in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
But it was his chilling, Independent Spirit Award-nominated turn as a serial killer in “Dahmer” (2002) that, until now, represented his career’s biggest breakthrough.
Is he bothered by the suggestion that he’s the new kid on the block?
“No, I understand why people think that way,” he says. “Starring in ‘The Hurt Locker’ gave me the role of a lifetime, I think, and I was more than prepared for that opportunity. But little character actors like me have a way of blending into movies.
“If I’m going to break through, why not do it when I’m 39? I hope I continue to break through. And if I’m up against some of the classiest actors in the business for an Oscar, I’m flattered. I have no ego about that.”
In “The Hurt Locker,” Renner plays Staff Sgt. William James, the cool-headed leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit stationed in Baghdad. Unlike some of his colleagues, who panic when thrust into the potentially lethal position of defusing a live bomb, James is positively stoic when death is on the line. For him, danger is the ultimate rush.
After agreeing to star — Bigelow, who admired his performance in “Dahmer,” specifically sought him out for the role — Renner spent time with real-life EOD team leaders to discuss their experiences. While he says winning an Oscar would be a terrific achievement, it is their appreciation he values most.
“I got to learn how to make bombs, defuse bombs, and that was great, but the best thing was hanging out with these guys, grabbing burgers and beers with them,” Renner says. “They were very generous with their time and stories.
“I never thought we’d be talking about this movie almost three years after we made it, but the most gratifying thing to me is how the men and women fighting for our country have responded to it. I’m proud that this movie has informed some people about their experience. There’s a pretty big gap between civilians and soldiers.”
IF YOU GO
The Hurt Locker
Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce
Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes