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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When the film "The Hurt Locker" first opened, it seemed destined to be one of those really good films that gets great reviews but only plays at select art houses and has a very limited audience, a film that proves the common wisdom that Iraq War movies are box office poison.

But "The Hurt Locker" has been rescued from that fate. It was rereleased, spurred by nine Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director and best actor. That actor nomination is for my guest, Jeremy Renner.

He plays Staff Sergeant William James, the leader of an Army bomb squad unit in Iraq whose job is to defuse live IEDs. He's the guy who puts on the protective suit, walks over to the bomb, analyzes how it's put together, then carefully cuts the wires. James is accurate and brave, but his fearlessness also gets him and members of his team into trouble.

In this scene, James and the members of his team, played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, have been sent to check out an explosion. It's likely the work of a suicide bomber, which would make it outside the team's responsibility. Their task is defusing IEDs.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. JEREMY RENNER (Actor): (as William James) Jesus. So where's our trigger man?

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE (Actor): (as JT Sanborn) Burned up into flames, man. Suicide bomber. Can never find a body in that (censored).

Mr. RENNER: (as William James) What if there was no body? What if it was a remote det? A really good bad guy hides out in the dark, right? Right here. It's a perfect vantage point outside the blast radius to sit back and watch us clean up their mess.

Mr. BRIAN GERAGHTY (Actor): (as Owen Eldridge) You want to go out there?

Mr. RENNER: (as William James) Yes, I do. I could stand and get in a little trouble.

Mr. MACKIE: (as JT Sanborn) No, man. This is (censored). Look, you've got three infantry platoons behind you whose job it is to go hajji hunting. That ain't our (censored) job.

Mr. RENNER: (as William James) You don't say no to me, Sanborn. I say no to you, okay? You know there are guys watching us right now. They're laughing at this, okay? And I'm not okay with that. Now, turn off your goddamn torch, 'cause we're going.

GROSS: Jeremy Renner, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the nomination.

Mr. RENNER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Now, assuming that you have to have some kind of, like, port of entry to get into a character's mind, what was yours for the character that you're playing in "The Hurt Locker"? This is a character who's willing to risk his life every day - not so much because he's a patriot or because he lives in the wars, it's in part because taking risks and living in the moment is the only life he's good at. He's not very good at ordinary life.

So, what was your way into that frame of mind?

Mr. RENNER: I had to figure out what fueled him. So I just sort of had to ask a lot of questions. And if I could tap into what fuels this individual, it makes him really an individual. It separates him from other EOD team leaders, other human beings. So, I wanted to make him very specific. And so I had to do a lot of training in EOD, and that helped.

And there's a lot of little gems that happened throughout the shooting process and the training process that also informed me of the - like, the bomb suit, putting that on. I had no idea what that would be like, but there's a certain walk that came out of that. There's a certain mentality and philosophies that sort of came to my mind about how peaceful and almost beautifully poetic that is inside the helmet, and outside is chaos. So there's lots of things that kind of kept informing me.

GROSS: Now, did they want to use a real Kevlar suit for authenticity and so that you would really feel what it's like? Or did you need a real protective Kevlar suit in case there was some kind of explosive problem on the set?

Mr. RENNER: No, I don't think they'd put me in harm's way that way. And I know Kathryn and all of us were trying to make it as authentic as we possibly could. I definitely wouldn't have hosen to have it be a fake suit, even if I had that choice, because the suit was such a big part of that character, a massive part of that movie - visually, and then just physically. If it was a fake suit without all the Kevlar in it, I would have not walked the way I walked. I wouldn't be able to move the way I moved in it. Something very sort of lunar...

GROSS: Yeah, mm-hmm.

Mr. RENNER: ...about that suit, you know, in the desert. It seems - it's kind of bizarre, and it's such a beautiful visual, as well. So it ended up working out pretty great. I mean, I have a, again, a love-hate relationship with that dang thing. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. For any listeners who haven't seen "The Hurt Locker," Jeremy Renner is wearing this bomb suit, and it looks like a space suit. And, you know, it's, of course, protective, in case a bomb he's defusing does go off.

Since this is such an important part of the process for you as an actor, describe the almost ritualistic aspects of putting on the suit, getting prepared to make the walk down to where the IED is and to defuse it and what it feels like to slowly put on the suit and have the rest of the world kind of drift away as you become encased in this protective garment.

Mr. RENNER: You know, it takes a couple of guys to get it on, 'cause it's, again, pretty heavy and pretty cumbersome to try to throw it on right. And it's really quiet. All you hear is the drone hum of the fan in the helmet and your own breath. And you look around for snipers, you're looking around, you're looking for - you know where the IED is. They're not afraid of the IED. They usually know how it's built before they even get there half the time.

So, there's, again, afraid of time on target and being down there and getting shot at. Because they can't stop that.

So, it's just an interesting kind of - for me, it was very peaceful, sort of -I dont know. I used - I put Beethoven "Moonlight Sonata" in headphones inside the suit. So it was sort of a, I dont know, very kind of almost romantic kind of peaceful place.

GROSS: Why did you do that? Did you know real soldiers who had done that?

Mr. RENNER: No, no. I did that for me, just to kind of put me in a very relaxed state amongst all the chaos and stress. It just - it made it sort of, like, a very kind of - again, it's a poetic kind of thing. And...

GROSS: And when you were at Fort Irwin training with real soldiers who were going to actually be defusing IEDs, were there stories that circulated about men who were blown up or men who were shot by snipers while trying to defuse an IED? Or were the men protected from those stories?

Mr. RENNER: No. They were very generous with their own lives, their own experiences and very candid about kind of the goings on. I remember one thing that kind of - that they said that I kind of asked about. Like, why do you have a dog tag in your boot? And they all wore them in their boot, and they wore one around their neck. And he's like, well, if you get lit up by an IED, usually you kind of disintegrate into pieces, but you always seem to find a boot.

And he's just saying it while he's eating a sandwich, so kind of cavalier about it. And I'm like, wow. That's pretty intense. And he's just sort of, like, yeah. You just find boots. It just happens.

GROSS: Did you need security on the set, and did you have security?

Mr. RENNER: Yeah, we had some security, but I never felt like we had to have it. It's certainly nice to have some Navy SEALs around you and some Blackwater guys, and - but I - you know, there may be a few spots where it got a little rocky. You know, I - you got some guys glaring at you that look like they don't like you very much. But for the most part, I mean, 99 percent of the time, it was perfectly safe, in my mind.

GROSS: What was the other 1 percent?

Mr. RENNER: There's a lot of Iraqi refugees that populate, you know, Jordan right now, a lot of Palestinian refugee camps, very poor and, you know, a lot of kids are running around. I dont know, there's a few spots where I just felt like this - you know, I mean, there was one point where I remember I was talking with Kathryn and I had the bomb suit on, and we're going over how she wanted to shoot this one scene. And kids were throwing the two-by-fours with nails in them down onto us from four stories up, and she - you know, we should probably walk away.

And I was in the bomb suit, so I would've been fine, but it nearly hit her. I'm, like, wow. We have to - and they're little kids. You know, they throw rocks and the whole thing. And, you know, we throw rocks back and have fun with them. And so it wasn't, I think, anything really that dangerous. It was just, you know, it could've been a terrible situation for Kathryn if she got hit with that thing.

GROSS: Now, when you were interviewed on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, you mentioned that you had a few breakdown moments, but you had them privately in your hotel room. What caused them?

Mr. RENNER: Well, the strain - the physical strain was a first. And then it went to a mental strain, spiritual strain, in the sense of, you know, coming from California and having no experiences in the Middle East, and then it being during Ramadan, and just all - it was compiled, a thousand things compiled. And I just tried to hold it together and hold it together and hold it together. And then every once in a while, I have to go home with a bottle of wine and fully decompress. And sometimes, I just came out in a mental breakdown in a lot of ways.

GROSS: You mentioned it was during Ramadan that you were shooting. How did that complicate things?

Mr. RENNER: Because you can't - and we try to be as respectful to the community and the culture as we could, so eating and drinking out in public or smoking or whatever, everything had to happen at night. And then all the prayers - you have the mosques that go off, I think - is it every four hours? I can't remember at this point. But - so - and they'd lay down the rugs and the things, and we have to sort of kind of respect their religion and the practices of that.

So, kind of, you know, did it get in the way or did it help? I dont know. I thought it was pretty kick ass, you know, to be honest with you. It was beautiful. It was kind of weird at first, those sort of chanting, almost moaning sounds that come out of these mosques. And then it was just - became very beautiful. And it just echoes through the canyons and the hillsides of this country. Oh, my goodness. It was just beautiful.

So, you know, did it slow us down? Yeah. But I think it also helped us in a lot of ways.

GROSS: My guest is Jeremy Renner. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "The Hurt Locker." More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeremy Renner, and he's nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "The Hurt Locker."

And he was also in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "North Country" and "Dahmer" and other films as well.

When Kathryn Bigelow, the director of "The Hurt Locker," was on our show when the movie first opened, she said that she cast you in this because she'd seen you as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the movie "Dahmer." He's a serial killer, and a kind of cannibalistic one. He'd eat the remains of some of his victims. And what she said was that you elicited so much honesty and truth and actual empathy for a character who she couldn't even having empathy for so, she was determined to work with you.

And she said she needed someone who has bravado and swagger and almost reckless quality combined with a profoundly capable skill set. She needed someone who had the authority to pull off that paradox, and she thought that you could do it. And, of course, she was right. Were you surprised that she'd even seen "Dahmer"? I mean, you know, really, it was not a film that got a lot of play.

Mr. RENNER: Yeah. Yeah. It was big within the movie industry and people within in it, but not too much to the public. It was a small, little $200,000 movie. I think on paper, I feel like - I think I know why she kind of wanted me for this.

GROSS: So, she called...

Mr. RENNER: She said I was the only guy - she told me instantly, you were the only guy to play Will James. And I said, well, here's why I think - and I went on for two hours on the phone talking about, you know, all the questions and answers that I had for her. And I asked her how I - how she wanted the audience to feel and all these sort of things at the end of the movie. But, yeah, on paper, I feel like Will James could be very unlikeable, or could be very sort of callous or too much - too cocky or something. He had to be likeable, otherwise the audiences will check out and not care.

GROSS: Since you got the part in "The Hurt Locker" based on your performance in "Dahmer," let's hear a scene from that film with you as Jeffrey Dahmer. And this is from very early in the movie, when you're choosing and then honing in on one of your victims. And you're in - I think it's like a sporting goods store. And you're looking through jackets, and you're actually looking at this young man who's looking at shoes. And he's eyeing a pair of shoes that he obviously wants, but he maybe can't really afford to buy. So let's hear that scene.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dahmer")

Mr. RENNER: (as Jeffrey Dahmer) Which ones do you like?

Mr. DION BASCO (Actor): (As Khamtay) Those right there.

Mr. RENNER: These?

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) Yep.

Mr. RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) I'll buy them for you.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) Why would you buy me those?

Mr.�RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) Because I like to do nice things for people. It makes me feel good about myself.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) Are you some kind of nut?

Mr.�RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) That's sad.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) What?

Mr.�RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) That we've gotten to a point where doing nice things for people is considered insane.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) I've got to go.

Mr.�RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) All right, wait. I do want something from you. I want to buy you those shoes. Then, in return, I'd like to take some pictures of you.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) See, I was right.

Mr.�RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) Yeah, you were right. It's still a good deal for you. I buy you these shoes. I'm just going to take a couple pictures.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) Well, what kind of pictures?

Mr.�RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) Just a couple pictures of you, you know, making a muscle, sitting in a chair, you know, looking tough.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) I don't know.

Mr.�RENNER: (As character) Come on. Let's get you these shoes.

GROSS: That's an example of how kind of seductive you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RENNER: I guess.

GROSS: I mean, how you seduce your victims into coming home with you when they really shouldn't. A little bit later, you kind of drug him and knock him out and then drill into his skull.

Mr.�RENNER: It's creepy. You know, I'm sitting here talking about it now, and it's, like, wow. That's really dark, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yes. What did you do to get into the frame of mind for that, because it's not like it's a zombie movie, like it's a sci-fi zombie movie. This is like the real thing. Jeffrey Dahmer really did this kind of stuff.

Mr.�RENNER: Yes, yes. A lot of things that happen in the movie really happened, and you know, I had to approach that from a very sort of human thing. I couldn't just him by what he did. I had to understand again, what fuels a human being to go to these lengths to do these things. And once again, us getting into abandonment issues and having his father not be around and not be able to a terrible communicator, being a young, gay man - at 14, he realizes, and he's just yeah. So I had to come with very human sort of behavior and, you know, what again fuels this individual, and I needed reasons why.

GROSS: Early on, in order to make a living, you correct me if I'm wrong you worked as a makeup artist?

Mr.�RENNER: Yeah, yeah I did.

GROSS: Now, was that special effects, or was it, like lipstick and eyeliner kind of stuff?

Mr.�RENNER: No, more lipstick and eyeliner, more beauty makeup. Because I started doing a lot of stage, and you know, we had to put on our own makeup to do these stage plays. And I remember, you know, when you live in a small town, and you're 19 years old, there's not a lot of jobs you can do outside of Pizza Hut and those things like that, right?

So I went through this Gottschalks, which is a department store, and I was fragrance modeling, where you get, like, $25 an hour to spray a card and hand it out to people during the holidays, right? So me and my buddy do this, and we're, like, this is awesome, $25 an hour. Like, we're 19. We're, like, this is great.

And a position opened up at this Lanc�me counter, and I decided, I'm like oh, wow, maybe I should tell these ladies, maybe they want a guy's opinion on makeup. And that's it kind of sold them on the idea, and I got trained to learn all their products and used all the ladies at the different counters as guinea pigs to constantly learn and grow be a better artisan.

I was always a I could always draw and paint and that sort of thing. So I just thought of the canvas as, you know, the face. So and understanding what light does with the eye, and again, it's just awesome. I'm putting makeup on beautiful women all day. It's this - kind of a great gig.

GROSS: And another odd job that you had, you worked for the police academy, training cadets in kind of like a role-playing thing. So you were paid to pretend that you were who?

Mr.�RENNER: Yeah, they would when we were at the college when we were doing plays and things like that, they asked some of the people in the theater department to come over to the police academy on the other campus - and this was my first paid gig, by the way, as an actor. So I was really excited.

So this police academy, it's a bunch of cadets that they're training to learn to become cops, right? So the actual real cops would say, look, okay, these guys, they're students and all, but we want you to treat them as real situations. So... This is what they know. They got a call. Somebody's unruly, and you know, they have to come and see what the situation is.

So be unruly, and literally, we're in a tiny, little room, like this booth I'm in now, and you can say what you want, do what you want, just be unruly. So literally this cadet would come in. As soon as he walks in, I'd push him to the ground and kick and spit on him, and he's supposed to try to arrest me. And you know, I got paid $50 a day to do that.

GROSS: Were you supposed to actually hurt him? I mean, was that part of the deal?

Mr.�RENNER: Well, you know, I didn't try and hurt him too bad, you know, but I guess I made it as real as possible, but I didn't hurt him, you know, but enough to make it kind of realistic.

And there were situations where there was, like, you know, if you find a dead body, or you had play like a little six-year-old boy that got, you know, fondled by, or something, or whatever. And the women were actually really good at trying to sort of get that information out of you. It's interesting to kind of be on that side of it. It's so funny, and I was getting paid. I'm like, this is awesome.

GROSS: Well, I want to ask you finally about the Oscars. Were you surprised when you were nominated, and were you, like, waiting by the TV to see if you were?

Mr.�RENNER: Yeah, we were Anthony Mackie and Kathryn and myself were on the "Today Show" in the morning in New York, live television, just to make it a little bit more tense than it already kind of was. I would rather have been sleeping, but it was very interesting to kind of, to do that because I was nervous. I was pretty confident that was going to happen, and for Kathryn. For me, I wasn't sure. I mean, it wasn't out of left field, don't get me wrong, that the potential was there for me to get nominated, but is there any guarantee? No.

So the wave of pure ecstasy that came over me was the purest high I've ever experienced in life. It was pretty awesome.

GROSS: Well, good luck. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr.�RENNER: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

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