Jeremy Renner has gone from a student on the small stage in the Modesto Junior College auditorium to a star on the movie industry's biggest stage -- the Oscars.
Tuesday, the 39-year-old actor became the first Modesto native to earn an Academy Award nomination for acting. The Beyer High School graduate is among the five best actor nominees for the 82nd annual Oscars for his starring role in "The Hurt Locker."
"To get the best actor (nomination) along with four actors who have inspired me throughout my career, and as men they are the definition of class, is just a wonderful thing," Renner said just an hour after learning the news early Tuesday. "No matter what happens, it's something I'll take with me to my grave and know that this is something they can never take away from me."
Renner was nominated for his gripping portrayal of staff Sgt. William James, an explosives disposal technician in Iraq.
He is nominated alongside Jeff Bridges for "Crazy Heart," George Clooney for "Up in the Air," Colin Firth for "A Single Man" and Morgan Freeman for "Invictus."
"The Hurt Locker" tied box-office record-setter "Avatar" for the most nominations, with nine apiece.
'A kid at Christmas'
The war drama about the soldiers whose job it is to walk up to live bombs also earned nods for best picture, director, original screenplay, cinematography, film editing, original score, sound editing and sound mixing.
Renner was in New York on the set of the "Today" show with his director, Kathryn Bigelow, who became only the fourth woman to be nominated for best director, and co-star Anthony Mackie when the announcements were read live at 5:30 a.m. in Hollywood.
Upon hearing the news, Renner said he "jumped into Anthony's arms and squeezed onto him like a koala in a tree" and felt like "a kid at Christmas or going to Disneyland for the first time."
Back home in Modesto, Renner's family woke before dawn to watch the announcement at the home of his sister Kym Vieira. After the disappointment of the Golden Globes, where Renner was not nominated, family members were cautiously hopeful about his Oscar chances.
When his name was read, his mother, father and sister leapt into one another's arms.
"Who ever thinks that your son is going to go on and make it and get nominated for an Academy Award?" said his mother, Valerie Cearley. "He is up there with some of the biggest guns, and it's so exciting. It is still is so surreal to me. That's Jeremy, that's my little boy up there."
About 20 minutes after the nominations, Renner called his mother and asked her to be his date to the Oscars ceremony March 7. She accepted while joking about hitting the gym every day before her walk down the red carpet.
His father, Lee Renner, said he remembered hearing about the film in its earliest stages. "Jeremy told me, 'Dad, I've got this role coming up, I'm going to sign for it. If I get this, this could be a really, really terrific role. It could be the opportunity of a lifetime,' " said the elder Renner.
The film was shot in the summer of 2007 in the blazing Jordanian desert. With a budget of about $11 million and a largely unknown cast, "The Hurt Locker" was released over the summer to immediate critical acclaim.
In the past month, Renner earned best actor nods from the Screen Actors Guild, Critics' Choice, and British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards.
"As an observer of the scene, here is an actor who has been laboring in the vineyards for a long time and always turning in good work," said John De Simio, executive vice president of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which runs the Critics' Choice Movie Awards. "Every film he's done, his performance has been of equal merit. This one happened to be the right combination of man, moment and the zeitgeist."
Those who knew Renner when he attended MJC in the early 1990s said his talent was apparent from the start.
Retired MJC instructor Charline Freedman said he stood out as one of her two best acting students throughout her 12-year career.
"I would say within a month, I knew we had somebody very special in this young man," she said.
She said it was his sensitivity and willingness to explore that made him exceptional at such a young age. She has followed his career since, and they have kept in touch.
Renner calls Freedman "my acting coach, my gal" and said she "pointed me in the direction that I never turned back from." He also praised the MJC theater and music departments, as well as current YES (Youth Entertainment Stage) Company director Melanee Wyatt for helping him begin his career.
Remembers his roots
Over the years, Renner has been true to his hometown roots, returning often to visit family and attend premières of "The Hurt Locker" and his movies "North Country," "28 Weeks Later" and "S.W.A.T."
"He still has the same friends he had all his life," Lee Renner said. "I think I am most proud that Jeremy loves his community. He is loyal to it and glad the community supports him. That doesn't always happen for people, where they have a love for their town."
And the town is loving him back. Renner's family was flooded with calls from friends, well-wishers and media Tuesday. The marquee in front of the MJC auditorium scrolled a congratulatory message to its former student.
"I can't believe that any of this is happening. It's the most wonderful form of validation and recognition for something I've worked 20 years to do," Jeremy Renner said.
As for his and the film's chances at the awards, he said: "We've already won. We won a long time ago when the movie was in the theater. It's all semantics at this point."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2284.