An unexpected chill breeze greets us as we meet Jeremy Renner in a London Hotel room. We find the Hollywood star standing next to a window, his black coat swathed around him, collars turned up and pointy like a vampire’s cape.
“It’s chilly. I love it,” Mr Renner says, cupping a roll-up cigarette, leaning partly out of the window. He’s in town to promote Arrival, the sensational sci-fi drama-thriller from director Denis Villeneuve. A chill, moody breeze blows through the movie, too, as the unexpected appearance of alien craft leave our planet on the brink of a new cold war.
What do the aliens want? Can we trust them, or should we launch a pre-emptive attack? As the world’s leaders grow ever more fractious, it’s up to linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to decipher the aliens’ language and, if possible, avert a nuclear crisis before it’s too late.
Jeremy Renner co-stars as Ian Donnelly, a mathematician who assists Louise in her attempts to decode the visitors’ web-like language. The spark between the two actors gives a cool, cerebral film a shot of warmth, and by its end, Arrival proves to be that rarest of things: a sci-fi film with sincerity, humanity and intelligence.
Released in a year that has seen political tension build in the real world, Arrival also feels like a timely, relevant movie – which was one of the things we were itching to ask Mr Renner about as we sat with him last month. Here’s what he has to say about making of Arrival, the importance of Amy Adams’ lead character, and why he based his mathematician on Richard Dreyfuss’ marine biologist in Jaws…
Congratulations on the film. I absolutely loved it.
Thanks, man. When did you go see it?
I saw it a couple of weeks ago, but it’s still very much fresh in my mind.
I was a big fan of the short story before I saw it.
That’s one thing I didn’t read.
Really? You didn’t? That’s interesting. It’s a fantastic story, but I was wondering how it could be made into something cinematic…
Right. Dude, really, right? When I read the script, the last thing I thought about was what the aliens looked like, or what the ship looked like. I mean, the story’s great. You read the short story, but I didn’t want to have something I couldn’t do anything with. I didn’t want to think, “Oh my God, the short story’s so great…” and now I read the script, and it takes away from it.
But I never thought about it. The script was great – one of the best things I’ve read in a very long time. So with me being in it, I thought, “I’m not sure what the hell I’m gonna do in this movie but I love this, and I love Amy [Adams], and I love Denis [Villeneuve]. Fuck, I’ve gotta be a part of this.” It was like something jumping out at me: I gotta go do this thing.
But I never thought how visual it was. When I saw the movie for the first time, it wasn’t done; the sound wasn’t done, the visual effects weren’t done. You saw the aliens once or twice. It was really kinda rough. But you got a sense of the scope. I got up, I went out of the theatre, I burst out, “That’s a motherfuckin’ director”, quote-unquote. I never said that.
I went, “Holy fuck!” I ran out, fell in the fucking parking lot and cried my eyes out. I said, “I can’t believe I’m a part of this. I cannot believe what that guy did with this beautiful script.” He’d made it so damn visual, to get back to your point. How do you make it cinematic? This guy just exceeded everyone’s expectations. We were all so focused on this insular little story called Story Of Your Life, told through this amazing smart woman’s eyes.
It turns into this giant, beautiful movie – the framing’s gorgeous. It has that Kubrick-esque quality to it, but the emotional accessiblity of a Spielberg movie… I was blown away by it.
I still can’t believe I’m in this movie.
Do you feel like that in general, though, as an actor? I was standing out there and looking at the poster, and your name’s on top next to Amy Adams’. You’ve had a long career, but it’s exploded with The Hurt Locker. Have you get used to that whole thing of having your name on posters and things like that?
Um, I don’t think it’s something you ever get used to. It’s so far removed from what you do as your job. You show up to tell stories and hide in a character, explore human behaviour. Then all of a sudden you’re on the side of a bus and you think, “Oh, cool. That’s coming out.” And that’s a year later, you know what I mean? It’s so far removed what we do. I finished [Arrival] in August last year, so you don’t every get used to something like that. Well, I don’t think so.
You’re used to working against green screens and special effects, but what was it like to make what’s effectively a low-key drama where you can’t see what you’re reacting to? I’m presuming you couldn’t see the aliens.
Well, it wasn’t a green screen; it was a white movie screen, essentially. It was in a shell; you had the set, and then a big white screen. Then behind the screen you had these guys in leotards with a 40-foot stick and a fuzzy ball on the end of it – there were two of them. They’d just tap on the white screen from behind, move a little bit, tap… that was it. But it was so alien in itself, that what I just described was happening, that these fuzzy balls kind of became characters in themselves. [Laughs] You know what I mean? It made it easier than staring at an inanimate tennis ball. Denis wanted them to move because they’re creatures that move; he wanted them walking up and down, doing their own thing, so he wanted to make them feel alive.
He made it a lot easier for us than just staring at a screen, right? Because we’re both looking at the same thing, we have the same eyeline, you know what I mean? So it helped a lot. It was so queer and quiet on set anyway, and then you have this [whispers] tap, tap, tap… it was alien, dude! [Laughs] It felt, like, you might as well have the damn aliens there.
One of the things that interested me about the story is that the arrival of the aliens brings about another cold war. There’s a distrust that gradually foments between the countries. Do you think that’s right for the political climate we have right now?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Especially in the political climate, absolutely. There’s a lot of ties with that. That’s my takeaway from the movie – not so much the politics of things, but what unites us and divides us as a species, as humans. The beauty of when things align, which is pretty rare, usually after some event, like aliens coming down, and what happens when we divide. The huge terror and fear that come up because of that. That’s my takeaway from it, thematically.
You’re a really interesting – and great – choice to play a mathematician. How do you get into the mindset of that character?
I had to learn a lot about binary… which wasn’t too hard because I’d studied computer language – Pascal, Basic, DOS, blah, blah, blah, so it wasn’t too hard to learn binary. All the physics of it, the theorems, the Wolfram books – a 15,000 page book of all these different ways of looking at things very scientifically.
[Humanising Ian Donnelly] was the main thing for me, because there wasn’t a lot on the page for the character. How do we deal with this complex information? He needs to learn, like, this language, right? And [Amy Adams’ character] is doing her thing. How I deal with, like, zeroes and ones, and [makes a sound like a chattering computer, or maybe an old dot matrix printer] and all these really unemotional, scientific things? How do we make this guy a human?
My initial reaction was, I thought Richard Dreyfuss should be in this thing. I said, “Don’t cast me, get Richard Dreyfuss in this thing! I mean, he’s perfect. Why me?” So I saw [Ian] as Dreyfuss in Jaws – that was my initial way in. He was like, “I love sharks! I love the fuck out of sharks!” Whereas most other people are running from them.
So I used that as an idea – his passion towards something. But also, “Let’s give him a sense of humour.” Let’s give him… whatever my sense of humour is. Just kind of inject it in there, like, not taking things too seriously. Whatever it is, right?
That made him a bit more accessible and not some book-y, hyper-intelligent, socially awkward… you know what I mean?
Yeah. That would almost be the cliche of that character, wouldn’t it?
Kind of, yeah. So it worked out alright, I think, with that approach.
I read a story that one studio wanted to make the lead a male. [This was according to Screen Daily deputy editor Andreas Wiseman on Twitter.]
[Wearily] Ohhh. That’s sounds like Hollywood to me. Jesus Christ, that’s terrible. It’s the main reason why I did the movie: for Amy. I thought she’d be great in it, and it’s a great script, and Denis is amazing. But also, I think it’s important to see… I don’t remember the last female lead I’ve seen in cinema that wasn’t a victim. It’s great to have female leads and all, but this one’s about a smart woman who’s good at her job, good at what she does. And she’s a superhero, right?
She’s badass, she’s a woman, she’s smart. It has nothing to do with gender – it’s not playing on her being a woman. Because, yeah, that character could have been a dude, but I think it’s much, much more interesting as a woman, with that Mother Earth energy that Amy has. The power of a woman… that was important for me, too, because I grew up with a lot of women in my life, and that character had a lot of qualities that I think are amazing. It was important to me too.
It’s exciting to see a film this intelligent made at this budget level, too.
Yeah, it really is, man. To have a woman do it, all of it. It means a lot to me personally. I don’t really care what people think about it, it just means a lot to me. That the movie got made, in the way it got made.
Jeremy Renner, thank you very much.
Arrival is out in UK cinemas on the 11th November.