DALLAS -- When the makers of The Bourne Legacy courted Jeremy Renner to star in their movie, the actor suddenly felt like he had stepped into a paranoid espionage thriller for real.
There was the exotic European location, the late-night knock at his door, the meeting with a mystery woman, the handoff of a top-secret document.
"I was like, 'OK, that was strange,'" he says. "But it was awesome -- and very spylike!"
Renner was in the German city of Braunschweig in 2011, filming a movie called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, when it all went down.
"They flew somebody out to deliver the script," Renner recalls during a recent visit at the Ritz-Carlton. "There was a knock on my hotel room door around midnight. The script slid in under the door with instructions: 'You've got two hours. When you're done reading, call this number.'
"So I read the script and I called the number and I said, 'OK, I'm done with it.' The woman on the line said, 'I'll be at your door in two minutes.' Then there was a knock and I gave the script back. I believe she was the wife of one of the producers.
"It was all very cloak-and-dagger. It was weird, but very cool."
Renner -- a two-time Oscar nominee, for 2008's The Hurt Locker and 2010's The Town -- ultimately chose to accept the daunting mission that had been offered.
He has become the new face of the hugely successful movie franchise that originated with Matt Damon as reluctant super-agent Jason Bourne.
The Bourne Legacy, opening Friday, is the fourth in the series that began with The Bourne Identity in 2002. The new movie introduces Renner as Aaron Cross, a government operative/super-soldier like Bourne. He must use his unique skills to stay alive after the secret program that trained him is eliminated.
Renner returned to North Texas two weeks ago (it's familiar turf for him -- he spent his summers as a kid here with family in Plano, practically living at the Thunderbird Roller Rink), and we talked about the film and about his life today as an A-list movie star.
What was your first reaction to the idea of making a "Bourne" movie without Bourne?
It didn't make sense to me. My ears pricked up about it in a concerned way. So it was a big sigh of relief when I saw that they weren't asking me to play Jason Bourne. If they had asked me to do that, it would have been an easy no. Matt Damon will always be Jason Bourne.
But it was very interesting how cleverly they could continue the franchise without him. It's like they've created a parallel universe. There are similar colors, but it's a different canvas to paint on. I thought, 'How exciting,' and then, 'How terrifying.'
Why terrifying? Because those are big shoes to fill, like when George Lazenby tried to replace Sean Connery as James Bond?
I wasn't concerned about that. It was more like, can I physically do what is required of me? Am I going to have the energy? This was going to happen right on the back of doing The Avengers and I was already tired from Hansel and Gretel. So my main concern was, 'I hope I have the energy to do it right.'
The Bourne Legacy feels like a throwback to gritty action pictures of the 1970s that were filmed on real streets and real alleys and real rooftops, with action sequences that were intense yet plausible. Is that something you like about this movie?
It's what I love about it. That's why I liked the three prior films. It's reminiscent of my favorite cinema from the '70s, movies like The French Connection. It's a form of fantasy that's like hyper-realism, a style of filmmaking that creates a world so foreign and yet so authentic that you're just drawn into it as a moviegoer. That's very interesting to me, as opposed to having to put on some tights and fly around.
Not that there was anything wrong with playing Hawkeye in The Avengers.
Not at all. That kind of movie, when it works, and The Avengers worked, is pretty great as well.
Which satisfies you more as an actor? When you're in the heat of the action? Or do you prefer the character/relationship moments?
I'm more attracted to the character moments. They're the reasons you tell stories. I mean, like The French Connection. Great car chase. But who cares about the action if you don't care about the people in the car? What's great about doing this movie is I get physical and emotional challenges in the same role.
When you make a movie that's shot in exotic corners of the world like this one was, is it a rich work-related travel/tourist experience or is it merely a pain-in-the-neck commute?
It's a great perk to the job to be able to travel the world, for months at a time, and to get immersed into communities where maybe you'd never go. Iceland was never on my radar to go check out. I never even really knew where it was. But it's a fantastic, beautiful place. Glad I went there to shoot a movie.
And Manila, I don't know if that was ever top on my list to visit. But [the Philippines is] 7,000 islands of some of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. Also some of the most heart-wrenching poverty. The people are gorgeous. They have such amazing smiles. Their attitudes are infectious. So it's great to get immersed into that. I feel like it's an education. It's socialization education, a wonderful treat if you're a good observer.
And it's so much better than doing it on some soundstage in Culver City, Calif.
Was there a pivotal moment in your life that compelled you to become an actor?
I took an elective in college. What was I at the time? Computer science. No, criminology. I had jumped majors. But as an elective, I did a play: The Wizard of Oz. I was the Scarecrow. And it stuck. I just loved doing it, and it's continued.
And what drives you now as an actor? It can't be the same things as when you started, because you've changed, the work has changed, the expectations have changed, and you don't have to prove yourself in precisely the same way.
I like to be challenged. It can be any genre. It can be any kind of character. I just want to be physically challenged and to have emotional complexity in a role. The base of it really is this: Can I learn something? If I know the answers going in, or even if I think I know the answers, I'm not interested.
But if I'm totally confused and perplexed and terrified, if I'm uncomfortable with the very idea of playing a role, then I'm like, 'Hmm, there might be something there. I have to consider it.'