Speakasy with actor Jeremy Renner
The Hurt Locker actor discusses his explosive career
In Kathryn Bigelow’s thrilling war film The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner creates one of the most iconic characters of 2009. As staff sergeant William James, a bomb disposal expert in 2004 Baghdad, Renner proves macho, heroic and also terrifyingly reckless, even when he wears a protective “bomb suit” that makes him look like a 19th-century deep sea diver. Following starring roles in films such as Dahmer and 28 Weeks Later…, as well as ABC’s short-lived “The Unusuals,” The Hurt Locker is sure to make Renner’s career, well, blow up.
The filming took three months in Amman, Jordan, in summer. How did you prepare for the role, and how did you prepare for the climate?
You can’t really prepare for climate like that. Before we went, Kathryn gave me these brochures that said things like “Jordan! The Dead Sea! Scuba Diving!” We didn’t shoot at those places. The shooting was awful — you can’t escape the sun. I was on the film for about a year before it started, so I had a lot of time for research. I went to Fort Irwin with some other guys and did some military training, mostly with EOD explosive ordnance disposal. There were a few experts who allowed me to pick their brain and ask a lot of questions. I was like a sponge. All they did was speak in acronyms, like “HEs.” And I’d be asking “What? Oh, high explosives.”
Did you wear an authentic, 100-pound bomb suit? How much protection do they offer in real life?
It was the real suit with the real weight. I’m glad I didn’t have the fake one. It’s good for shrapnel — nails, rubble, anything near the explosive. It won’t protect you from displacement or concussion. If you’re standing over the device, or close enough to the explosion, it’s not going to do anything.
How long would you wear it at a time, compared to the real bomb techs?
Sometimes, they wouldn’t even get in the suit: They’d assess the situation and just do the job without. Some guys would be in it as long as four hours. You don’t want to be in it for more than an hour. Because of the weight, the heat, and the intensity of the situation, you can start to hallucinate.
When I did my first test in it, I stayed in for about 45 minutes, which was all I could handle. Shooting, I’d be in it for 20-35 minutes, tops. They were really good about keeping me cool so I didn’t pass out. Sometimes I wouldn’t want to take it off — I just wanted to keep working, because you can’t cool off that much in 125 degree heat. But it was also peaceful. All you hear is the drone of the fan and maybe you hear your own breathing. It was quiet. Personally, I like that.
Why is your character so reckless? Does he have a death wish, or think he’s indestructible?
Initially, after I read the script, I wrote five, six, seven things down immediately that were exactly like that. “Is he suicidal?” “Is he an adrenalin junkie?” Then I’d think about it and say, “What if he’s like this?” and tried to deepen it. What fuels James is complicated, but it’s simple. If you’re born to do a thing, if you’re the best at it, you do it. The whole bit about the bomb parts under his cot is about having the ultimate respect for your adversaries. He loves what he does — keeping them is kind of nerdy, for him. Risking your life to help others is the most selfless act in the world. But James, in doing this selfless job, is selfish — he’s accountable to the other people in his family.
You shot 200 hours of film for this movie. Did that give you license to stray from the script and improvise?
Like the guys in the movie, sometimes we had to shift things at the last minute, like the U.N. building scene. We definitely used the script, for sure. That’s important, but we also had to adjust when it was appropriate. We certainly improvised. The sets were massive, and we hardly ever saw the cameras. Kathryn kept them concealed, so we called them "ninja cameras." There would be camels and goats walking through the shoot, people who looked like locals coming up to us, and we’d wonder, “Is this supposed to be part of the movie?”
Kathryn Bigelow is famous for being a woman who primarily makes action films. Is her process different from male directors you work with?
I got to spend almost a year with her, but I can’t really get into her head too much. Her attention to detail is so great, I’m sure she would have put on the bomb suit and done the training, too. She has a very light hand as a director, which helps me a lot and empowers me as an actor. It says, “I trust you.” She’d tell me, “You know James better than I do.” She might come in with a little adjustment, but that was just a few times. Because I trusted her so much, I’d endure anything. A few days, I’d feel like, “This is too much. Send me home. This sucks." But we’d always find a way to make it work.
Do you think The Hurt Locker has politics?
No. I think anybody can pull anything out of the movie, which I think is fantastic. There’s no force-feeding here — it forces people to ask their own questions, rather than provide answers. It’s one of the most amazing things about cinema in general. That’s really getting your 11 to 14 dollars worth.