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Ebert: Modesto actor on Oscar 'short list' for 'The Hurt Locker'

When it's 125 degrees in the blazing Jordanian desert with no shade in sight and a 100-pound suit on your back, acting is possibly the last thing on your mind.

Still, it was in those conditions that Modesto native Jeremy Renner, cast and crew filmed the critically acclaimed new Iraq War drama, "The Hurt Locker."

The movie follows an explosive ordnance disposal squad, the soldiers who risk life and limb detonating bombs in combat zones.

"When you see the film, you understand our journey," said the 38-year-old Beyer High School graduate. "Half the time, we didn't know if the people walking around were in the movie or not. Kids would run down and start throwing rocks on me when I had the suit on. I'd be like, 'I guess this is part of the movie.' It felt as real as I ever wanted it to feel."

Renner plays lead bomb technician Staff Sgt. William James, a man who walks up to live bombs for a living.

Helmed by veteran action director Kathryn Bigelow ("Point Break," "Strange Days," "K-19: The Widowmaker"), the drama was shot over three months in Jordan two summers ago.

It premièred last year on the festival circuit and since has been accumulating critical acclaim and even Academy Award buzz.

Roger Ebert said Renner "immediately goes on the short list for an Oscar nomination." The role already has garnered him his second Independent Spirit Award nomination -- the first being for his breakout role as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in 2002's "Dahmer."

Some of the actor's previous roles include "S.W.A.T" with Colin Farrell, "North Country" with Charlize Theron, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" with Brad Pitt and the zombie thriller sequel "28 Weeks Later."

Earlier this year, Renner also was one of the stars of the short-lived ABC midseason quirky cop drama, "The Unusuals," alongside Amber Tamblyn.

Renner, whose parents both live in Modesto, will return to attend "The Hurt Locker" hometown première at Brenden Theatres on Friday.

The actor and his co-star Brian Geraghty will sign autographs, attend a screening and do a post-film Q&A with fans.

The Bee spoke with Renner from his Los Angeles home about his film's reception, his role and his impending homecoming.

Q: Congratulations, the film is getting massive critical love. Did you expect it to be received so well?

A: Uh, no. I don't think anybody could ever expect that. It's been a shocker in a lot of ways. You never know how people will respond to something. It's been wonderful; it's sure better than a stick in the eye.

Q: Iraq War films have had a hard time both at the box office and with critics. What about this project makes it different?

A: It's not an Iraq War film; that's the backdrop. It's about the world of EOD, which no one knows about. It's also the characters, these people who volunteer for this job.

So people are just curious about it; they are curious because they don't know about it and it's a relevant issue happening now. We've been in this war for so many years and we don't know what the warfare is.

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Q: What attracted you to the role and script?

A: It was a complicated role. Everybody asks me, what makes that guy do his job? That to me was someplace I could go to understand somebody. Who does that kind of job? That made me really curious. It's one of the best written antiheroes I've read in 10 years. I was fortunate enough to play him.

Q: How did you get into the mind-set of a guy whose job it is to not get blown up?

A: I got to train and spend time in the bomb suit with EOD techs. Some of these guys have done four tours, were going back for another tour, were just starting. So I got to pick their brains. They were very gracious and giving with time.

What I love about the film is that people will all take something different from it. That's what I dig about it. Good cinema doesn't tell you what to think or how to think. But it certainly encourages you to think and feel something. I could tell you what I think the character is about, but the right answer is what the audience thinks.

Q: How was it working with director Kathryn Bigelow? Were you a fan of her work before?

A: Yeah, I was. I had seen probably five of her films prior. When I got the script, I was very excited to hear that she was fighting for me to do the film. I was in London shooting "28 Weeks Later" at the time and the producer gave it to me and said Kathryn was a fan of mine because of "Dahmer."

Q: How were conditions? Was it physically challenging?

A: Yeah, the shooting conditions were tough for everyone. ... It wasn't like there was a trailer to go back to and eat green M&Ms. Everything -- the flies, the sweat, the redness -- was real. There is no makeup in this movie; no acting in this movie. It's only reacting because of how Kathryn set up the shots.

Q: You'll be here Friday for the première. What does it mean to you to be able to screen the movie in your hometown?

A: It's really important for me to come back. I am curious to see what the audience in Modesto thinks. I'm really glad I'm getting a chance to bring it to the hometown.

Q: Does the excitement around "The Hurt Locker" take the sting out of "The Unusuals" being canceled?

A: Well, I was already feeling the momentum on "The Hurt Locker" when they were deciding if the show was going to go or not. I would have been happy if (the show) came back; it was a great series and cast.

But I am much happier to be in film. I think the quality of TV is great, but it doesn't fulfill me as an artist. It's not as creative or collaborative as I'd like it to be and just can get a little stifling. But that's just me. I've definitely always been a film guy.

Q: What is next for you?

A: I'm off to Boston on Aug. 19 for a film Ben Affleck is directing called "The Town." It's based on the novel "Prince of Thieves" about a group of career bank robbers. One of the robbers falls in love with a girl we rob. So it's a great crime thriller and romance. It's a lot of fun.

I'm a robber. Ben will direct and star. It also has Rebecca Hall ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Jon Hamm ("Mad Men"), and Blake Lively ("Gossip Girl") plays my sister.

I'm also fighting to do the new Mad Max film with George Miller. That might be next summer. I'm screen-testing and meeting George Miller.

Q: Are you also clearing space on your calendar for March 7, 2010, the date of next year's Oscars?

A: (Laughs.) It's hard to think that far ahead.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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