‘I never anticipated any of that stuff,” shrugs Jeremy
Renner, talking about his mid-life career boom. These past five years, the
45-year-old has become a Hollywood blockbuster staple. Playing the
straight-shooting Hawkeye in Marvel’s Avengers films, he’s also a regular in
the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible franchise and played the lead in The Bourne
Legacy — a spin-off from the Jason Bourne/Matt Damon films. “Physically, I was
a late bloomer as a child,” he winks.

Renner had been acting long before these huge-scale movies
came his way. After making his first appearance in a best-forgotten high-school
comedy Senior Trip in 1995, he came to attention as serial killer Jeffrey
Dahmer in 2002’s Dahmer, then for roles in North Country and The Assassination
of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, alongside Brad Pitt. Two Oscar
nominations for Kathryn Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker and Ben Affleck’s
crime caper The Town swiftly followed.

Now he’s back in Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi Arrival, a canny
mix of blockbuster and arthouse that begins as 12 alien spacecraft land across
the globe. He plays Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist and mathematician,
who teams up with Amy Adams’s linguistics professor to make first contact with
extraterrestrials inside the shell-like craft that arrives in Montana. More
Close Encounters than Independence Day, it’s the smartest sci-fi you’ll see
this year.

Dealing with issues of time, loss and memory, with rather
more intelligence than most of its kind, Renner admits that when he first saw
it, it left him in bits. “It emotionally wrecked me. I don’t know if I’ll watch
it again.”  Dressed in a black
short-sleeved shirt and a pinstriped trousers, with his sinewy arms and
buzz-cut hairstyle, he doesn’t look the sort to get teary-eyed over a sci-fi
movie.

Aside from Avengers — he’ll be returning as Hawkeye for
Infinity War, due in 2018 and hasn’t really tackled sci-fi before. Is this a
genre that’s always intrigued him? “I like to call it science non-fiction,” he
replies. “There’s a certain reality and plausibility to stuff like this that
makes sense to me. I love that. Yeah, I like this genre, sure. If it’s based in
human emotion, and the themes are great, it’s something I can connect to
because I still play a human being. That’s all that matters to me.”

While Arrival certainly doesn’t have the budget of a Marvel
movie, what Villeneuve and his team did visually impressed Renner. “I didn’t
think it would look as big and expansive as it does,” he says — understandable,
given much of the film sees him and Adams venture inside the aliens’ craft.
“We’re in a black box with a white screen and wearing a Hazmat suit. That felt
like it for the bulk of the movie.” He chuckles. “Not to take the sexiness out
of filmmaking, but filmmaking usually isn’t very sexy.”

Even if sci-fi hasn’t dominated his career, Renner was born
in Modesto, the same California town that Star Wars creator George Lucas came
from. Lucas shot his 1950s-set teen classic American Graffiti there, which
became something of a thing for Renner and his friends. “When I was 16, we’d
get in the car and cruise up and down that whole thing.” In keeping with the
Americana theme, Renner’s father ran a local bowling alley in the town. Beyond
playing drums in a high-school band, he was at a loss for career plans. “I
didn’t want to go to college and spend a lot of money and not know what the
heck I wanted to do.” Instead, he went to Modesto Junior College “to fumble
around and figure it out”, taking courses in computer science and criminology.
“I was all over the map,” he says. “Then I took an acting class. I thought
‘I’ll give it a go’. I fell in love with it.”

With music still a passion, he also runs a house-renovating
business and indeed there’s something blue-collar about him on screen, a
no-nonsense, vanity-free, get-the-job-done actor. “For me, I like to give
directors problems,” he says. “Like good problems in an editing room! I want to
give them choices like ‘Oh, that’s a good idea and so is that!’ That’s my
challenge. I want to give the director many problems.”

Where did this come from? It sounds like an interesting
tactic. “I’m the oldest of seven kids and I just give a lot of people
problems!” he says. “I think that’s my job. It’s my birthright to give people
problems and not always bad problems. Problems can be good, right? It’s just
born in me. It’s in my bones!” Acting is all about offering up choices, he
says. “The idea is that we’re giving. I feel like that’s my job to give.”

His next set of problems, so to speak, is Wind River, the
story of a murder on a Native American reservation. “It’s a beautiful, small,
insular film like I thought Arrival would be. It’s very well-written. It’s hard
to pitch. I’ll talk about it when it’s time for it to come out. But I’m glad
Denis pushed me to go do it.” (The film is the directorial debut of Taylor
Sheridan, who wrote Villeneuve’s Sicario.)

Beyond that, his focus is looking after his three-year-old
daughter, Ava (Renner was briefly married to Ava’s mother, Canadian model Sonni
Pacheco, before it ended in divorce in 2014). “Being a father is number one,”
he says. “That’s what keeps me focused, and not worrying about whether movies
may or may not come my way.” Is he planning to show her any of his films? He
shakes his head. “I’m going to keep her away from anything I do.”

Renner softens immediately when he starts talking about his
daughter– not least that she has a pair of Avengers pyjamas given to her that
feature his likeness. “The only thing she knows is the guy on her pyjamas kinda
looks like Daddy!” It must be a little confusing for a child to see her father
next to the Hulk and Thor. “She’s never seen the movie,” he smiles, “but she
says, ‘The guy with the bow and arrow looks like Daddy!’ I say, ‘No, that’s
Hawkeye!’”

The Independent