A Few Words With 'Hurt Locker' Star Jeremy Renner

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Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in 'The Hurt Locker' i

Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) and Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) dodge bullets and defuse bombs in The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's much-discussed Iraq war drama. Jonathan Olley/Summit Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Olley/Summit Entertainment
Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in 'The Hurt Locker'

Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) and Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) dodge bullets and defuse bombs in The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's much-discussed Iraq war drama.

Jonathan Olley/Summit Entertainment

Unlike many war movies, The Hurt Locker isn't obsessed with action or violence; instead, it's all about the tension that precedes them. Katherine Bigelow's film is about American soldiers who defuse bombs in Iraq, and as soon as the picture begins, you're in it — racing against time.

At the center of The Hurt Locker is Staff Sgt. Will James, an expert bomb technician who isn't much for conversation, and doesn't like to follow the rules. He's played by Jeremy Renner, who tells NPR's Madeleine Brand that he and his castmates spent a lot of time living like real soldiers — in a Jordan summer, with temperatures as high as 130 degrees.

"It was hell," Renner says. "I'm not gonna lie. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."

Renner says he knows he wasn't in a real war, that he's "always trying to check myself — to realize, 'I'm just shooting a movie.'

"But it's so hard to think clearly, even, in that kind of heat," he explains. "And then with the bomb suit on ..."

The shoot wasn't a standard Hollywood setup, Renner says. "You don't see cameras — the sets were a square mile. You never knew who's in the movie, who wasn't, so it felt as real as it possibly would ever feel, except I never felt that my life was actually on the line."

Yet there were moments — "every day," Renner says — when he thought he might not be able to finish the shoot. And it wasn't just about the bathroom facilities: "one outhouse ... for 200 people," he says.

"It tested everybody on a personal level," he says. "I mean, divorces were happening; it was chaos for a lot of people. ... Would I ever do it again? I doubt it. I don't know if I have the strength to. And we're just shooting a movie, right? I'm just some silly actor in a silly movie. Not so much, in this experience."

'It's Top Secret, Can't Tell You'

Renner and his castmates visited California's Fort Irwin, where he trained with real U.S. Army bomb crews. He learned how to make bombs, the better to know how to take them apart. But they wouldn't teach him everything.

"I'd ask a lot of questions, and a lot of the answers were, 'It's top secret, can't tell you,'" he says.

But some truths they did share, once they got to know him.

"After about a week or so, they said, 'We put one of our dog tags in a boot,'" Renner recalls. "And I asked why — why d'you put a dog tag on your neck, and one in the boot?"

The answer, Renner says, came matter-of-factly: "When someone gets hit with an IED, you always find boots. ... You don't find a lot of the other parts, but for whatever reason you always find a boot."

"That spoke volumes to me," Renner says.

Conveying Conflict, But Not Talking Much About It

The characters in The Hurt Locker — especially Renner's character — do not speak volumes. There are long stretches in which the film conveys what it conveys without the tools most actors rely on: words. Renner says that actually plays to his strengths.

Jeremy Renner in 'The Unusuals' i

Jeremy Renner played Det. Jason Walsh in the short-lived ABC cop series The Unusuals. ABC hide caption

itoggle caption ABC
Jeremy Renner in 'The Unusuals'

Jeremy Renner played Det. Jason Walsh in the short-lived ABC cop series The Unusuals.

ABC

"Just as a human being, I'd rather say very few words," he says. "I'm a simple, simple man. So there's a lot of me in that aspect of him.

"But to be able to convey conflict [without speaking], I guess that's just part of acting," he continues. "That's why I love my job."

'I Guess I Don't Think About It'

A pivotal scene in The Hurt Locker involves Renner's character and another soldier, Anthony Mackie's Sgt. JT Sanborn, who breaks down, saying he doesn't know who'll miss him when he dies. "How do you do it?" Sanborn asks — "take the risk?"

James's response: "I don't know. I guess I don't think about it."

It's been suggested by some, Renner acknowledges, that Staff Sgt. James and his ilk are just thrill junkies — or worse.

"That was one of my first questions," Renner says. "Is he just an adrenaline junkie? Is he suicidal? Is he all these other things?"

No, he says.

Renner decided, rather, that James knows his place. He understands that his talent is saving lives, that he "was born to do this, and everything outside of that seems so ... trite, I suppose."

"You're not giving up anything, really, in my mind or especially in the character's mind, when you know the answer," Renner insists. "You know what you're supposed to be doing. It absolutely feels right."

"It's a hard pill to swallow for some, but this is exactly where that man needs to be."

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