Jeremy Renner on the ‘Emotional War’ of Wind River

We spoke with Renner about his new thriller, his producing plans and, of course, Hawkeye.

Jeremy Renner has excelled in his career at playing everyman characters faced with difficult and often overwhelming circumstances, both in the world around them and within their own souls and hearts. Whether it’s in The Hurt Locker, The Town or Kill the Messenger — even his Hawkeye/Clint Barton in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most grounded of all the characters in that franchise, a man who sets out to do a job so he can return to his family as soon as possible.

In Wind River, Renner adds to that gallery of incisive portrayals as Cory Lambert, a game tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who lives and works on the remote Wind River Reservation, where he has somehow managed to navigate politics and earn the trust of the wounded families living on the land. His discovery of a frozen body in the snow not only puts a horrifying tragedy from his own life front and center again, but triggers an investigation — on which he teams with a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) — that will lead Lambert into some dark corners of the region and its denizens.

Renner sat with Den of Geek recently to discuss this unsettling new film, which completes a loose thematic trilogy about the modern American frontier — following Hell or High Water and Sicario — from writer Taylor Sheridan, who also makes his directorial debut on Wind River. Renner himself is back in the MCU as we speak, donning his Hawkeye gear for Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4, and also has a comedy in the pipeline called Tag.

Den of Geek: Tell me a little bit about what you saw in this character. He’s obviously tormented by his past. He hasn’t let it consume him, but he struggles with it every day.

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Jeremy Renner: I always found that to be very interesting. He’s a very actionable guy in not being consumed by something. You could see the opposite effect in his ex-wife. How her life is almost utterly destroyed and it consumes her. Sort of the downfall of that marriage is because of the loss of her child, and that’s where hunting got really involved. That was more of an expression of escapism and his duties to the reservation were important to him, but it was, I think, an unconscious expression of escapism. Which is simply when you have loss, you kind of want to stay busy.

Had you seen Hell or High Water and Sicario? Taylor’s said that these three movies sort of form a trilogy. Do you see the way that this one connects to the other two?

Yes and no. I guess in more thematic terms. I couldn’t perform my duties, and this job, and this character and the story thinking about those. Only now in reflection taking a jab at those three and what they mean to him and how or why he wrote them, you can see through lines in them for sure. It’s not something I thought about in making the picture. It’s only in reflection now I can see that.

On a technical, nuts and bolts level, what kind of research, if any, did you do into what these guys at the US Fish and Wildlife Service actually do?

The technical stuff of it was pretty easy. Just information about tracking, things like that. Using the rifle. All those sort of things are little quick, easy learns. I had to figure out more what that job was for him. Why do you the job, and what the job is there for — which is so people on a reservation can eat, and the wildlife doesn’t take out their food. I had to get really good on a sled. I was okay on one, but I had to get a lot better. I think most of the nuts and bolts work was really navigating the emotional war that was inside Cory — how he was going to deal or not deal with it.

If you were put on the spot, would you consider yourself an outdoorsman or are you more of a city guy?

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I’m much more of an outdoors guy for sure. I live in an environment that’s very similar to that in North Lake Tahoe.

So doing a movie like this, where you are filming in this very rugged, cold habitat, that didn’t necessarily faze you?

No. I actually enjoyed it.

What was the most challenging part of it for you, if there was one?

The scene towards the end of the movie, on top of that ridge, is above 12,000 feet. It was difficult for the crew, for everyone just to get there. There’s a small little sliver of the ridge that we had to do this scene on where everybody’s cabled. It was a big, important scene, and we only had X amount of time to shoot it. There’s a lot of pressure to get it right. It’s a very intimate scene, but you’re at the top of this mountain with the elevation, the cold, all of it. I just wanted to make sure we got it right, because it was such an intimate scene and I didn’t want the environment to get in the way of the storytelling. There’s a lot of pressures on us, I suppose, in getting in and out of there. But I’m happy with it.

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This is, for lack of a better word, sort of a mid-level adult drama. These movies come out and your name is in a lot of them, whether it was this or Kill the Messenger, or even Hurt Locker. Is that the wheelhouse where you feel most comfortable? And does navigating the blockbuster landscape with Marvel or the Mission: Impossible movies give you the leverage to go back and do these kinds of films?

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Yeah, I think they help each other. Those movies that are in my wheelhouse, if you will, aren’t easy to get made. But with the big movies, it certainly does help get those others movies made. I’m just blessed I’ve been able to do those films, The Hurt Locker, The Town, Kill the Messenger and such. They’re important to me and they’re not comfortable to me, they’re uncomfortable. That’s why I like them. They’re challenging and they’re thoughtful and I love them because of that.

Speaking of big movies, we missed you down at Comic Con last weekend. Some of your partners were down there.

Yeah, yeah.

Are you done with your Infinity War scenes, or do you have to go back to Atlanta at any point?

Yeah, I’m going back in a week, I think. We start up on (Avengers 4). They’ve kind of blended 3 and 4 together a little bit. I’ve shot things for 3 and 4 already, and now they’re focusing mostly on 4, I think, for the rest of it. I’ll be busy for the rest of the year.

I know you can’t say very much, but when we last saw Hawkeye, he was not enjoying his retirement at all. Where are these next two films going go to take him?

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There’s a lot of great change and a lot of things turned upside down on their heads. It’s really exciting. I really can’t wait to go explore where they’re putting Clint. I’m pretty excited, but I know very little about it. I haven’t seen the script or anything. Only what the Russo brothers have told me what they want to do, and it’s pretty amazing. I can’t wait to go explore it.

That’s fantastic. The other thing I saw you were filming is Tag.

It’s still filming. I think most of my work is done on it. I think I work one more day in August, and then I’ll wrap up on Tag for good, and then just focus on Hawkeye stuff for the rest of the year.

Is comedy something you would like to do more of?

Yeah, I’m just exploring it, having some fun, and being challenged. It’s easier to sort of let go at the end of the day and just have a lot of fun. It’s a different side. I enjoy it.

The last time I spoke to you was for Kill the Messenger, and you were also a producer on that. You also produced The Founder with Michael Keaton. Any more producing projects in your future?

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We have Knightfall coming out on the History Channel towards the end of the year, I believe, about the fall of the Knights Templar. Outside of that, next year I might be developing, with Taylor, the origin story of Doc Holliday. It’ll be the Breaking Bad of the West. We’ll see if we can get that off the ground.

Wind River is out in theaters this Friday (August 4).