One only has to look at the attention being bestowed upon Jeremy Renner to see how an Oscar nomination can change your life.
The 39-year-old star of The Hurt Locker has, in the space of a year, gone from being a relatively unknown character actor to being talked about in the same breath as Tom Cruise. Renner's latest role in The Town, which opened at number one in the US box office last month and comes to the UAE next week, confirms his status as the hottest property in Hollywood right now.
The Californian-born star plays the crook James "Jem" Coughlin in Ben Affleck's adaptation of Chuch Hogan's crime novel Prince of Thieves. The action is set in what the filmmakers state is the robbery capital of America, Charlestown, a neighbourhood in Boston (a claim that has since been disputed by fact-checkers around the globe). Nonetheless, the message that this is not an area one would choose to live is established.
Coughlin is meant to represent a typical figure from the neighbourhood. Armed robbery is his career of choice, and he's the man called upon when a strong arm is needed. As with The Hurt Locker, Renner excels playing an edgy character ready to explode at any second. He also lives by a fierce moral code and has a natural distrust of outsiders. One senses that Renner lives by a similar ethos. When I met him after the film screened at the Toronto Film Festival, he said: "Something that definitely attracted me to the character was the sense of loyalty – that, I really could connect with. I've never robbed a bank or lived that life, but I certainly could connect to that sense of loyalty."
Strong friendships appear to be just as important: when Renner's name was pulled from the envelope at the nominations for the Oscars, he and co-star Anthony Mackie hugged in an overjoyed state for more than five minutes. It was superb television with an outflow of raw emotion that the actor channels into his characters as well. Perhaps Renner was aware that his life would never be the same again: "Life has changed in a lot of ways, the opportunities for me as an actor have grown vastly and even just more meetings with fantastic directors. But I still look at things the same; I still do the things I like to do, and just because there are more opportunities I want to take, I'm still steadfast to what I want to do. But the rainbow just has that many more colours now, rather than the shades of grey that it was before."
Comparisons have been made to Sean Penn, although Renner does seem to internalise his performances more. It's true to say, however, that he's attracted to the same types of roles as Penn, someone who could be described as having a lot of contradictions. "Sure, I'm attracted to on-edge characters," Renner says. "I also like a lot of other things. But I certainly command a certain complicated character. I don't know if there are a lot of librarians out there who are complicated, or a grocery-store clerk; maybe there is, but I haven't seen that story yet.
"I want to learn and grow, and I don't want to know the answers going in. I can't phone in a performance. I really need to learn and grow, so the more complicated, the better." The problem as he sees it is to avoid being typecast. "There's not a lot of creativity in Hollywood," he admits. "Whatever you do is repeated, so it's my responsibility as an artist to avoid that." He likes to live and breathe the characters he inhabits. For The Town, he spent time hanging out in Charlestown, meeting and befriending unsavoury characters who could give him insights into the behaviour of a thief. He says it wasn't hard to find criminals willing to talk in Charlestown and that it was necessary to get the accent right.
Renner is currently filming in Prague for Mission:Impossible IV. He jokes: "It's a little movie, a little independent!" He lines up as an operative alongside Cruise and confirms there is some truth to the rumour that should Cruise decide to make the fourth instalment his last appearance in the franchise, the series may well continue with Renner being the focal point. The big movies are coming thick and fast for the actor: after Mission:Impossible he'll be donning a superhero costume to play the role of Hawkeye in The Avengers movie, scheduled for release in 2012. Renner admits he doesn't know much about the character but will begin research, reading the comic books and learning how to shoot arrows, after he finishes working with Cruise.
He argues that he doesn't have much choice but to take on the big blockbusters: "Those are the movies being made, my friend; they don't make many films like The Town, do they?" He does admit that after The Avengers he'll be "champing at the bit to do something gritty and small". The first job Renner had in the film industry was behind the camera rather than in front of it. "Strangely," he says, "I was a make-up artist as a trade, and it was great. I got to put make-up on hot chicks. That's a pretty fantastic job, and I got paid to do it, and it kept me afloat while I was struggling as an actor, that was for sure."
His first screen credits started to appear in 1995, but it wasn't until he nailed the role in the drug thriller S.W.A.T. in 2003 that he came to any sort of prominence. It meant he had to do a lot of menial jobs on his way. "There were not a lot of job opportunities in Modesto, California in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I worked at a pizza place and a car-wash and a grocery store, bagging groceries.
"My favourite job was fragrance modelling, where I had to stand in the mall and say to people: 'Try this product or this product.' It was a Christmas-promotion thing. I put on a cheap suit and spray people for 25 bucks an hour, and this was back in 1989 when minimum was something like $4.25 per hour. I thought it was awesome." It was this willingness to do anything that got him into doing make-up.
"There was an opening in the mall at the comb counter, and I said to the girls: 'Maybe you want a guy to work here.' I went into the peacock thing, the psychology of it, and they said: 'That's interesting, you're hired.' And I didn't know how to apply make-up, so I practised on them all day. I loved it!" This enthusiasm and zest to be separate from the norm is still paying off today. And given these jobs, it's hard to begrudge Renner putting artistry to the side and going for the blockbuster money.
The Town opens in the UAE next week