A Few Words With 'Hurt Locker' Star Jeremy Renner Like some soldiers, the actor doesn't like to talk a lot. But he tells NPR's Madeleine Brand plenty — about acting, about preparing for his role, and about the toll of making even a fictional war.
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A Few Words With 'Hurt Locker' Star Jeremy Renner

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A Few Words With 'Hurt Locker' Star Jeremy Renner

A Few Words With 'Hurt Locker' Star Jeremy Renner

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. I'm sitting in for Michele Norris while she's on book leave.

The new movie "The Hurt Locker" is about American soldiers who defuse bombs in Iraq. Unlike many war films, it's not obsessed with action or violence, but with the tension just before.

At the center of "The Hurt Locker" is Will James. He's an expert bomb technician who doesn't like to follow the rules. He's played by Jeremy Renner.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. JEREMY RENNER (Actor): (As Staff Sergeant William James) Right here is a perfect vantage point outside the blast radius to sit back and watch us clean up their mess.

Unidentified Man #1: You want to go out there?

Mr. RENNER: (As James) Yes, I do.

Unidentified Man #1: I could stand to get in a little trouble.

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE (Actor): (As Sergeant JT Sanborn) No, man, this is (BEEP). You got three infantry platoons behind you whose job it is to go Haji-hunting. That ain't our (BEEP) job.

Mr. RENNER: (As 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 god damn torch because we're going.

BRAND: Jeremy Renner, playing Will James in "The Hurt Locker."

I spoke with Jeremy Renner earlier. He told me that they shot the movie in Jordan last summer, with temperatures as high as 130 degrees. Jeremy Renner said that he and the other actors spent a lot of time living like real soldiers.

Mr. RENNER: It was hell. I'm not going to lie. You know, it was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, always trying to check myself realizing, like, I'm just shooting a movie. But it's so hard to think clearly even, in that kind of heat, and then with the bomb suit on, and then I couldn't explain the hell that we all went through for those three months. I couldn't do it. I can only talk to Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie, and…

BRAND: Your co-stars.

Mr. RENNER: Because we had a very difficult time, especially Brian and I, coming back to the States. I mean, I didn't leave the house for three months. I had a hard time getting acclimated back into watching girls paint their toenails and get their lattes. It was really tough for me, and it was one of those things - you don't see cameras. The sets were a square mile. You never knew who was in the movie, who wasn't. So it felt as real as it possibly will ever feel, except I never felt that my life was on the line.

BRAND: Well, were there moments when you were in that hell, as you call it, where you thought, I can't do this, I don't want to do it anymore?

Mr. RENNER: Every day. Every day. It was an absolute challenge and a different challenge. You know, it's an independent film. There happened to be one outhouse, and everyone's sick, for 200 people. And there's always - presented different challenges every day. And I had a few breakdown moments, but privately, in my own room back at the hotel.

It tested everybody on a personal level. I mean, divorces were happening and it was chaos for a lot of people. It was no smooth sailing by any means. And 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.

BRAND: Did you meet real bomb technicians and talk with them about why they do what they do?

Mr. RENNER: Yeah, yeah. Everybody at Fort Irwin was really gracious with their time.

BRAND: Fort Irwin is a training camp here in California that mimics a lot of the conditions that the…

Mr. RENNER: Yeah, they even have little - a small Iraq village there, where they sort of kind of train guys to get used to the idea of what it might be like over there, and I was training with the guys that were about to be deployed. So I had a lot of opportunities to learn how to be a pretty good bomb-maker so I knew how to render them safe.

The suit informed me a lot of those - all those things. It's about 100 pounds. You know, it's pretty much all Kevlar, and, you know, I didn't think about walking a specific way in that, but apparently, I did. When I put the suit on, I had this sort of, almost sort of strut in it - I didn't know. I didn't plan that.

BRAND: And are there any - do you remember any particular conversations you had with some of these expert bomb technicians that made you go, wow?

Mr. RENNER: Yeah. I'd ask a lot of questions, and a lot of the answers were: It's top secret, can't tell you. Then they would just kind of throw out a few random things. So once they got a little bit more comfortable with me, after about a week or so, they say we put one of our dog tags in a boot. And then I ask, why do you put a dog tag on your neck and one in the boot? He's like, well, you know, when someone gets hit with an IED, you always find boots. I'm like, oh. And he's like, yeah, you don't find a lot of the other parts, but for whatever reason, you always find a boot. I mean, he's just saying it like just over a sandwich.

BRAND: Like a matter of fact.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RENNER: Yeah. I'm like, okay. That's good. That's how it is, huh? Okay. So I thought that was kind of telling and in volumes…

BRAND: Yeah.

Mr. RENNER: …just one sentence, you know? So that sort of almost veneer of, like, accepting what the job is. And I don't know, it spoke volumes to me.

BRAND: And then that is the persona that your character has, that he is a man doing his job, doing it really well.

Mr. RENNER: Yeah. Yeah, there's not a lot of room on the field of battle for fear or insecurity or a lot of other things, you know? You have to make it happen, get it done.

BRAND: Well, as an actor, how do you portray that? A lot of the movie is silent. A lot of the movie takes place without a lot of dialogue, and you can -have to convey a lot of what's going on in your character's mind. So how do you portray that?

Mr. RENNER: I think that sort of plays into my strengths as an actor, you know? And just as a human being, I'd rather just say very few words. And I'm just a simple, simple man. So there's a lot of me in that aspect of him. But to be able to convey conflict or - I don't know, I guess that's just part of acting, I suppose. And that's why I love my job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Your character has a pivotal scene with Anthony Mackie, the actor who plays Sanborn, the closest guy that you have there.

Mr. RENNER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: I mean, your character doesn't make a lot of friends.

Mr. RENNER: Right.

BRAND: And Sanborn breaks down at one point and he says he doesn't know who will miss him when he dies.

Mr. RENNER: Oh, yeah.

BRAND: Your character, that doesn't seem to ruffle him.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. MACKIE: (As Sergeant JT Sanborn) I mean, how do you do it, you know, take the risk?

Mr. RENNER: (As Staff Sergeant William James) I don't know. I just - I guess I don't think about it.

BRAND: I mean, it just struck me that this movie is really an existential movie. There's no meaning in it other than you defusing a bomb.

Mr. RENNER: Mm-hmm. This is why I approached James with the idea of would he -if he stayed home, would he be a good father and be a good husband? Yeah, but he was born to do this, and everything outside of that seems so trite, I suppose. Not that raising a family is trite, but to be acclimated back to, okay, do I now drive a, whether a forklift for Costco, let's say, or when I was saving lives. And you kind of…

BRAND: But he gives up a lot for that.

Mr. RENNER: Yeah, you give up a lot for that, but you're not giving up anything, really, in my mind or especially in the character's mind, when you know the answer. You know what you're supposed to be doing. It absolutely feels right. And then some people initially on page, you know, when you first meet James, is that, oh, he's just a thrill junkie, and that was one of my first questions. Is he just an adrenaline junkie? Is he suicidal? Is he all these other things? But, you know, it's a hard pill to swallow for some, but then that's exactly where that man needs to be.

BRAND: Jeremy Renner stars as Will James in the new movie "The Hurt Locker." Thank you very much.

Mr. RENNER: Thank you, appreciate it.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: For more on "The Hurt Locker" and lots of other summer movies, you can visit the arts and life section at the new npr.org.

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