Two-time Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner takes on the CIA in his new drama, Kill the Messenger.
It’s quintessential Hollywood: meeting an A-lister for an interview at the iconic and discreet Chateau Marmont over some gluten-free, organic green juice. I head to the lounge for our 11 a.m. assignation and interrupt Jeremy Renner in the midst of a goodbye with a bearded Jon Hamm. “Elizabeth?” he asks me sheepishly as we shake hands. I reply, “I told you we had an interview,” giving him my best “told you so” face.
I am referring to the events of the previous night when I saw Renner in Bar Marmont with fellow actors Vince Vaughn and Sam Rockwell. I wanted to say a quick hello to introduce myself in advance of our interview the next morning, but I was escorted away from the megawatt table by hotel security two sentences into my Capitol File spiel.
Back to our meeting this morning: As Don Draper flees the scene, Renner smiles and shrugs, explaining that his table was being bothered by some very aggressive women, who were sending over drinks and desserts with notes that said things like, “We want to be your dessert.” The dark and smarmy side of Hollywood. The dessert assault prompted the hotel to situate a security guard around the boys’ table. Renner assures me he’s happy to be here and talk about his new movie, Kill the Messenger.
Opening on October 10, Kill the Messenger is a dramatic thriller based on the true story of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Gary Webb. Renner, also a producer on the film, plays Webb, a reporter with the San Jose Mercury News, who stumbled onto the insidious origins of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s during the Reagan Era’s “Just Say No” war on drugs campaign. Webb alleged that the CIA was aware of dealers smuggling cocaine into the US and was using the profits to arm rebels in Nicaragua.
Despite ominous warnings from drug kingpins and CIA operatives to stop his investigation, in addition to a smear campaign allegedly led by the CIA, fed to The Washington Post, and picked up by many other major news outlets, Webb kept digging to uncover a conspiracy with explosive implications that threatened his family and career. A few months after Webb’s story broke, major dailies, including the The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, along with The Washington Post, wrote editorials mocking Webb’s reporting, even alleging that some of his sources didn’t exist. Under this intense media pressure, Webb’s editor Jerry Ceppos retracted the story and demoted Webb, causing him to quit the Mercury News. In 1998, the CIA quietly admitted it “tolerated” cocaine exportation to fund the Contras. Despite the vindication, Webb still paid a terrible price—he lost his job, his journalism career, his family—and never recovered. In 2004, Webb was found dead in his Northern California home from an apparent suicide.
Renner was crucial in having this nail-biter of a CIA thriller made. “Being a producer and the lead of a film is no easy task,” says Kill the Messenger director Michael Cuesta. “At one moment, he’s in character, and the next, there’s concern regarding the budget. Jeremy handled both flawlessly. He was always encouraging the actors and myself, never losing faith when things got difficult. He’s passionate and laid-back at the same time.” Cuesta adds, “I directed Jeremy in a film called 12 and Holding back in 2006. I knew from the moment the camera was on him that he was the real deal. One of the best actors of his generation. He has a face that speaks volumes. His inner life is constantly stirring.”
I saw a screening of Kill the Messenger and loved it. Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Richard Schiff, Michael Sheen—what a cast!
We’re very lucky to have the cast that we had. I was offering to do their laundry, clean their car, whatever I could to have them come in. Ultimately, they liked the parts. We got very lucky. Tremendous cast.
The movie is based on real-life events—investigative reporter Gary Webb’s actual story. Did you meet the real Webb family?
Yes, but not until later on. I didn’t want to go prying and asking questions; I was very sensitive. I [also] did not want to get skewed by the family’s perception—I wanted to be very unbiased.
You did it based on his book, Dark Alliance?
Yes, but the family also gave the production side a lot of help. They [shared] videos, personal photos. I got to see little documentaries; it was great. I was able to get their relationships and their humor, which is very important.
Gary Webb was so brave to go public with this story. The subsequent smear campaign is heartbreaking to watch.
That was a terrible thing, but I learned that Gary was not affected by that. If anything, he probably liked it because he knew that investigative reporting ruffled feathers. The paper’s retraction is what really broke his heart; that was an emotional betrayal.
Lucas Hedges, who plays your oldest son, is remarkable.
Again, we got so lucky with that. It was a fine line to find someone who had that youthful innocence, but who’s not too young. It was terrific.
There’s a very emotional scene between you two in the garage.
That story line is why I did the movie, for the artist in me, the personal part in me. I did it for a lot of reasons, but that relationship with the wife and all, it was really fun for me to explore because I’d never played a father of an older kid. It was quite interesting and very, very emotional for me.
You’re a producer on this film. Were you so captivated by the book and the script that you wanted to have a hand in this, beyond a starring role?
It was going to be a big hill to climb to get it made. It’s not a movie that people were screaming to make. Having me as a part of it helped. I wanted to get it made, not just sit around and wait for someone else to make that happen. My producer role was quality control as well as acquiring and aggregating the cast, the directors, other producers, the team. Once we started shooting, [I couldn’t] just focus on producing anymore. So that’s where my duties stopped.
Were you involved in editing?
Yes, but I don’t micromanage. I was just there [to see] where my voice was in it. I think about things in terms of an audience member.
For how long did you film in DC?
That was pretty awesome. It ended up being three or four days. It’s a cinematic city; it’s so beautiful and so gorgeous. And there are so many similarities in the business in DC and the business in LA—the level of ambition, for one.
Tell me a little about Mission: Impossible 5, which you’ll be filming.
It’s already started [filming]. I know little about it except that the whole cast is coming back. Chris McQuarrie is directing and writing.
It’s a cool franchise.
Yeah, I really dig it. It’s a lot of fun—from cast all the way to production.
How is working with Tom Cruise?
It’s so much fun! He’s a great dude. I learned a lot from him, and he can be intense. I’m intense from a darker place; he’s intense because he’s got a lot of energy, and he’s very positive and works hard. He’s funny. He’s a cinephile.
Director Michael Cuesta reviews a scene with actors Michael Sheen and Jeremy Renner (right) in DC for the upcoming film Kill the Messenger.
Tell me about fatherhood. You have a baby daughter? Does she live with you? Are you married to her mother?
I did not know that. Congratulations! How come nobody knows that?
I have tried to protect my family’s privacy, my wife’s privacy. I don’t need her to get hammered with my life. Privacy issues are important because I want her to go about her day without being bothered.
Do you get bothered a lot?
Yeah… Paps follow me, [and] that’s fine. But it’s annoying being followed when I’m with my family. It’s not just me—everyone [in Hollywood] has to deal with that. I’ve been talked about a whole lot, because the less I put out there, the less people know, and it makes it interesting, I assume.
How do you think fatherhood has changed you?
It’s the best thing I have ever done—doing it later on in life. By then I achieved a lot of things that I wanted to achieve; I’m so blessed for that. Now I can really spend time with the family. The only thing I think about when I’m not with my baby is, How do I get to my baby? I need to get to her, and I’m very miserable when I don’t see her. I really love being a father. The only thing that has changed is my perspective on things. I still work, probably even more. It used to be for myself so I’m not old and broke. All these things I still do, but I do it now for the future of my baby, and if it gets in the way of her well-being, then I stop.
How old is she?
She’s 17 months old. It is just the best age. I can’t wait for her to get older, but I really enjoy her now. She’s the greatest. She’s into her sticker phase.
The father-daughter connection is very special.
Yes. As a father, I’m going to make it very difficult for her to find a man.
What else do you want us to know about Kill The Messenger? It’s getting some great buzz.
It was a really delicate task trying to show [Gary Webb] being right, but also being flawed. It’s the hero’s journey. He’s got a lot of flaws. It’s easy to point the finger: It’s the government, or the paper. I wanted to have a very subjective manner about this man. Thematically, that’s why I loved it, because it’s sort of a David and Goliath [story].
I felt a lot of empathy for Webb in the movie, and I wanted the truth to come out. Was he vindicated before his death?
I don’t think Gary really cared about it. He was ousted from a job he loved most, and that’s what ruined him.
I think people will love this film.
I want people to like it and enjoy it. I think there are a lot of pitfalls; we did not want this to be a soapbox movie. I’ve never seen it with an audience before so I think I’ll stay and watch it at the screening in DC.
It’s a date. Please leave your security guy at home.
[Laughs] Fair enough.
Photography by: Photography by Chuck Zlotnick/Focus Features; by Sarah Dunn