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Oscar Watch: Best Actor Hopeful Jeremy Renner Talks ‘The Hurt Locker’

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 Sergeant 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 him sought 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.

“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.”

Renner never anticipated that he would be talking about The Hurt Locker two-and-a-half years after shooting began in July 2007, not simply because movies dealing with America’s war in the Middle East have largely failed to resonate with the public, but also because Bigelow’s modestly budgeted drama doesn’t feature marketable, big-name stars. Yet, in a happy twist of fate, it has paved the way for Renner to become one.

“We didn’t expect anything from this movie,” he says. “We made it because the script was fresh, about three interesting characters and the journey they take. It didn’t feel like an Iraq movie to me, but that’s obviously the backdrop, and movies about the war don’t produce box-office gold. And considering that the stars are all pretty fresh faces, you’d have to say we started in a deep hole.

“But here we are, and the experience has been awesome. Am I seeing offers now that I might never have seen without The Hurt Locker? Yes, I’d say so. I just finished a movie called The Town, directed by Ben Affleck, and that’s coming out later this year. And I’m really excited about the possibility of doing [the upcoming Marvel Studios release] The Avengers, but nothing’s set in stone, so I can’t really talk about that. But the idea for me remains the same – find great scripts and do good work. That’s all I want to do.”