I tend to be most fascinated by the celebrities who elicit instant reactions of passion from people, be it positive or negative. There’s something intriguing about seeing how others just instinctively form an opinion on an actor or musician or public person, knowing without having to think about it that they adore them or can’t stand to see their face. This is all the more exciting to me when the person is a lesser-known individual: More B-list than A, and not the type who usually attracts mountains of press attention. I can talk for days about those who I love or hate. Doing so about someone who leaves me utterly ambivalent? That’s a much tougher task.
Enter Jeremy Renner.
When I asked some friends what they thought of Renner, most of them shrugged or struggled to form an opinion more eloquent than “meh”. A few expressed dislike for him, but even then they couldn’t work themselves into much of a stupor over him. Celebrities are the perfect vessel for us to see our society’s most pressing concerns and fetishes sold back to us. Gossip is the lens through which we survey these canvases, but some are more blank than others. Some just don’t say much to us. He’s an Avenger, but not your favourite; he’s got two Oscar nominations but you never list him as one of the great actors of our time. That’s not to say that Jeremy Renner is dull or empty, but there’s something peculiar about someone of his stature, both critically and commercially, being reduced to an also-ran in his own life and career.
Renner’s career beginnings were like those of many actors: Several years in bit part roles on film and TV, including the seemingly mandatory turn on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The role that pushed him to the next level in the indie world was as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in David Jacobson’s biographical horror film Dahmer. Films like this tend to be pretty shlocky, as even the most respected portrayals of true crime cannot help but delve into the saliciousness of it all, but Dahmer was positively received. Even those who had mixed feelings on it praised Renner’s performance, which treads a fine line between pity and terror. The film wasn’t a financial success but it did garner Renner an Independent Spirit Award nomination in 2002.
That same year, Renner appeared in a Bravo reality show called The It Factor, which revolved around a group of aspiring actors trying to make it big. The second season, set in LA, followed Renner after shooting Dahmer. In a 2009 interview, he reflected on his decision to star on the show: “I initially did it because I had this little move Dahmer that I thought maybe is going to finish getting made. [The film] was shot for [a few hundred thousand dollars] on credit cards, so I didn’t think this thing was ever going to see the light of day. So, I said, hey, let’s just do this cool show, this documentary series, and maybe I can help promote it on there.”
I have tried very hard to find footage from this show but to no avail. In 2002, reality TV wasn’t new but it hadn’t permeated pop culture to the point of over-saturation, so something like this, even if Renner had been awful in it, probably wasn’t a major risk for his career.
What followed were more substantial supporting roles in similarly small budget indies like The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, North Country, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but bigger budget mainstream projects did increase his visibility during this time. The action film S.W.A.T. followed his stint on The It Factor. The next step for Renner came in 2008, when he took on arguably the best role of his career up to that point and became a real one to watch.
The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, still faces pointed discussions to this day
over its portrayal of war, soldiers in combat and PTSD. All of that tends to overshadow its technical marvels, but also how damn good Renner is in the lead role. As Sergeant Will James, the bomb disposal expert addicted to the thrill of his dangerous occupation, Renner has an abrasive charisma that fits perfectly with Bigelow’s lean storytelling (she was drawn to casting him after watching his performance in Dahmer, which makes a lot of sense once you see him in The Hurt Locker). Richard Corliss of Time Magazine compared him to a young Russell Crowe, while Roger Ebert positioned him as a “leading contender for Academy Awards”. A nomination did follow, although he was never a serious contender to win the award due to 2009’s Jeff Bridges victory lap. Nevertheless, as predicted by various reviews, the film brought Renner (and several of his co-stars, including future Avenger cohort Anthony Mackie) into the limelight.
His first job following the Oscars season - the cult ABC comedy procedural The Unusuals - landed with a thud and was cancelled after 10 episodes. Another Oscar nomination followed with 2010’s The Town, but it wasn’t until the following year that Renner would begin to establish himself in a new mould: As an action star.
A year before The Avengers, Renner joined the ensemble of the long-running Mission Impossibleseries. His character, William Brandt, seemed set up to one day take over the mantle of Ethan Hunt, giving the series further longevity as its leading man edged closer to his 50s. That alone wouldn’t be unusual, but when coupled with Renner’s attempt to reboot the Bourne movies as the new star following Matt Damon’s initial departure, it presents an interesting view of his career potential. The following years of work are defined by this attempt to become an action oriented leading man in the vein of Cruise and Damon, but that’s not a model that can simply be replicated. Cruise, now aged 54, has crafted this persona for decades, honing it into its current blockbuster form through a fascinating sheen of invincibility. He’s charming, he does his own stunts, he’s completely fearless but still does the patented Cruise smile. They don’t make stars like that anymore simply because we have no need for them. The A-List model holds little water in the franchise age, although a timeless star like Cruise can still bring in the big bucks with the ever-crucial Chinese box office. Damon has less mileage to his name but can still be called a bona fide star. He’s a face people recognise and that universal appeal was what brought him to projects like The Great Wall, as potentially misguided as that was. The lightning-in-a-bottle appeal of both actors is something Renner just does not possess, hence why Cruise is still hanging on as Ethan Hunt and Matt Damon is back in Bourne mode. He’s demonstrated his dramatic chops numerous times, but they don’t translate into the necessary charisma required to fit that kind of leading man.
That hasn’t stopped him from trying, of course, and that doesn’t even get into his work as Hawkeye. His performance is fine. There’s little to say about Clint Barton because the films seemingly have no interest in developing him beyond a few shared quips with Natasha and some snapping archery skills. Arguably more than any other major role in the Marvel franchise, Renner’s Hawkeye exemplifies how frequently thankless the franchise formula can be for actors. It’s a steady gig, one that offers a level of cinematic visibility to international audiences that’s almost a necessity now, and it seems as though every actor will inevitably sign the multi-film contract at some point. Renner benefits over some of the newer arrivals simply because he’s part of the original team, but there doesn’t seem to be much hunger for him. He’s not given any of the interesting aspects his character in the comics is, and his sudden development into secret family man with a farm in Avengers: Age of Ultron merely exacerbated how little the series seemed to care about him (those segments tend to be the aspects of that film people remember the least, although the film overall is pretty middling). As the franchise moves forward, accumulating more characters and increasing the stakes, it’s tough to imagine what crucial role Hawkeye will play that would truly get viewers rooting for him.
In between franchise duties, Renner has a solid filmography of dramatic roles, like The Immigrant and Arrival. The most notable role came in the multi-Oscar nominated American Hustle, where Renner played the crooked politician with a conscience who becomes involved with the FBI’s ABSCAM operations. David O. Russell, a notoriously volatile director with a reputation for treating his cast and crew like shit, is known for making solid films that attract great actors and industry respect. Renner was the only actor out of the five leads who didn’t get an Oscar nomination, although he’s arguably one of the more interesting performances in it. Nowadays, only three and a half years later, the film isn’t talked about with much excitement, but the behind-the-scenes talk very much is, thanks to a major e-mail hack that revealed how little has changed in Hollywood.
Much was made about the pay disparities between the male and female leads of American Hustle, especially since those two women were an Oscar winner and a multiple-Oscar nominee. Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams received 2% less than Renner, Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale, despite easily being on equal footing with at least Bale and surpassing Cooper and Renner in terms of fame and acclaim. Soon, everyone in the industry had to answer for this problem that they all knew about but seldom discussed in public. Renner’s response was less than encouraging. Business Insider asked him if he’d be willing to negotiate alongside female co-stars in the future, something Bradley Cooper had said he planned to do, and Renner responded, ‘That’s not my job. I don’t know contracts and money and all that sort of stuff.’
To be fair, actors seldom negotiate their own contracts, and while many would be aware of the pay gap, they probably weren’t clued into the exact numbers until after shooting finished or even later. Even after clarifying his comments to ensure people he has ‘always supported women deserving equal pay’, many weren’t convinced. It wasn’t about the action itself - none of us will ever know if Cooper marches into negotiations and demands equal pay for his female co-stars - but the gruff dismissal of a glaring issue that rubbed people the wrong way about Renner. It may not be his job to sort of the financial side of his job, but to not even bring up support for women in his initial statement felt especially cold.
We know little about Jeremy Renner’s private life beyond the basics and some curious conjecture: He worked as a make-up artist in-between acting jobs to make ends meet, he supports the San Francisco 49ers, and he has a 4 year old daughter named Ava. His relationship with her mother, model Sonni Pacheco, was furiously short, and the pair divorced after less than a year of marriage. The custody battle was bitter and Pacheco’s allegations against Renner included owing close to $50,000 in child support. In turn, his lawyers accused her of blackmailing him by threatening to release ‘intimate videos’ of him if he didn’t help her secure a green card to live in the US. Renner’s roommate provided supporting statements that Pacheco did cocaine, stopped breastfeeding in order to start drinking alcohol earlier, and left Ava unattended. The pair have since sorted out a joint custody deal.
That elusive roommate has been the topic of much gossip. Kristoffer Winters also co-runs a house-flipping business with Renner, but the rumours about the pair’s relationship have been internet fodder since The Hurt Locker drove Renner into the mainstream. None of the rumours are especially salacious, and Renner has always laughed them off, declaring them to be proof that he’s finally made it. The gay gossip may be one of the more intriguing things about Renner, and even then, it’s still mostly boring.
Yet there is something Renner has that I cannot imagine anyone else on his level doing - there is an official Jeremy Renner app. This is a bizarre decision for any celebrity who isn’t Kim Kardashian and yet so many have tried to replicate the multi-million dollar success of her social media branding to no avail. That happens because they greatly under-estimate what makes her so appealing to her fans. Kardashian reveals everything about herself through a carefully monitored filter that suggests both perfection and spontaneity. For those who love the allure of her kind of beauty and style, having an insight into that through a seemingly one-on-one method is total genius. That doesn’t work for most other celebrities, but definitely not for Jeremy Renner. Were even his most zealous fans clamouring for this? He already uses Twitter and Instagram, and this brings nothing new or exciting to the table, unless you’ve always hungered to hear Renner sing ‘House of the Rising Sun’. There isn’t much about Renner we want or care to know about. Indeed, his Instagram is the most intriguing in terms of image management - lots of promo, some “spontaneous shots” and plenty with his daughter, but always with her face obscured or hidden: The labour of fatherhood shown, but his child kept mostly private. It’s a tough tightrope to walk.
There will always be a need for actors like Jeremy Renner - solid, often great, workmanlike and willing to flip between projects big and small. His upcoming projects include Wind River, which received highly positive reviews out of Sundance and Cannes, and ever more Marvel stuff. Perhaps one day he will do something to arouse real interest from me, but for now, Renner is there and that’s just fine.