July 2, 2012 -- Each Time Slightly Bigger, Slightly Braver (esquire.com)

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Published in the August 2012 Issue.

He wants to go back to the start.

It's nice to think that he knew back then that today was in his future, that he somehow picked this spot on the horizon — Academy Award nominations, blockbuster franchises — and pointed himself at it, and made his opening move, and then another and another, and now here he's finally arrived, roaring through these crooked streets in his silver Porsche, with the top down and the sun pouring in. It's nice to think that he might have been capable of single-handedly creating this present for himself, that the right combination of work and planning and sacrifice might take a not particularly tall or lean or handsome twenty-two-year-old California kid and turn him into this forty-one-year-old poster-sized man. Because if Jeremy Renner actually earned his way here, to his suite at the Four Seasons, to this bucket seat, to The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy, the bookends of our summer, just because one day he decided he was going to, suddenly we would have a process, a map that we could follow.

Too bad there's no such thing. It's naive to think that we're in total control of our own destinies. There are too many variables to account for. There are too many random collisions.

For instance: Five minutes into his journey back today, Renner gears down to a red light. Beside him, an open-roofed van filled with gawking tourists pulls up. He had just been talking about his growing fame, about the rise in his being recognized.

"Yeah, I go to a few spots," he said. "People will want to talk about something, that's fine. People for the most part — "

When suddenly: "Hey!"

" — people for the most part — "

Now there's another yell, louder this time: "Hey!"

It's the driver of the van. She's looking down into Jeremy Renner's Porsche. He turns to look up at her, so slowly that you can almost hear his neck creak. But now his face flashes with recognition.

"Hey," he says. "How you doing?"

"Long time no see!" she says.

"Good to see you, what's up?"

"I told you that you'd be in a movie with Tom Cruise, didn't I?" And if this woman driving the tour van had somehow told Renner such a thing, she became remarkably right when he starred alongside Cruise in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol last winter.

"I don't know about that specifically... ." Renner says, smiling. "Are you singing to these people?" He turns to address the admiring tourists, now taking pictures of the movie star idling beside them. "She's a tremendous singer," he tells them.

"Thank you," she says. "You want to go to Barney's? Is that where you're going? Are you going to Barney's?"

"No, not right now."

"Not anymore, huh? I'm so happy for you, my brother. Good to see you."

"Thank you, darling." Then the light changes, and the conversation's over. Renner turns left; the van goes straight.

"Amazing," Renner says, mostly to himself. What are the odds? Of that particular tourist van, at that particular red light? A tiny accident of time and place, and Renner's exactly where he wanted to go, back before all this.

"I used to hang out at karaoke bars all the time. It was the most fun you could have when you had no money. I went right here twice a week" — and Renner points to Barney's Beanery, a beer-and-burgers-and-karaoke place that conveniently appears to his right — "from 1995 until, like, 2002. Religiously. And she was one of the gals. There was a whole clan of people, this circuit of people. We'd get together and just have the best time. You know, she was a tremendous singer. A really, really great singer."

That's what she wanted to be. Now one of them drives past Barney's in his convertible Porsche, off to retrace his path to gigantism. The other is serenading her open-topped van filled with tourists. How do two people who start in the same place find themselves at such different spots on the horizon, if not for the stars?

Renner parks outside 7777 Hollywood Boulevard. He lived in this little collection of apartments, in a studio on the ground floor, for five years, back in his karaoke days. It remains the longest he has lived anywhere since he was a child. It wasn't his original Hollywood address, when he first moved here from Modesto in pursuit of the usual dreams — that was 1635 Formosa Avenue, which, at the time, was a pretty sketchy little spot. (Renner remembers walking out his door one morning and stepping over a man who was lying prone on the sidewalk, in the gun sights of a couple of cops.) But 7777 Hollywood Boulevard was his launching pad. His friends took over all the apartments in the building — "It was like Melrose Place," he says — and mostly things went well for him here, even though he was broke, and even though he struggled to get work during the day and spent his nights howling at Barney's Beanery. He was living in this apartment when he got his first significant part, in 2002, playing the true-life cannibal serial killer in Dahmer. It was a small movie, shot quickly, but people who were drawn to it were really drawn to it. That's when Renner first started being recognized on the street; unfortunately, it was by the sorts of people who might connect with a murderer who kept the heads of young men in his fridge.

The hot girl who bit Renner deep into his arm, sending him to the hospital for shots, was only his second-weirdest encounter with admirers. The weirdest was an older man, maybe in his sixties, who started popping up a little too often in the places Renner hung out back then: in the coffee shop around the corner, at the record store. The man kept saying, Gee, what a lucky thing this is, running into each other like this, maybe it's a sign, maybe we should go get a drink, and Renner always demurred, never really thinking all that much more about the guy and his repeated appearances.

It wasn't until the man showed up outside Renner's apartment that the truth began to register. Renner was walking his dog, and the man bumped into him: Here we are again, can you believe it? Do you live around here? Renner said, Oh, no, just walking the dog. Once again, the man asked Renner to go for a drink. And this time, when Renner said thanks but no thanks, the man got upset. He started yelling. Renner hustled away, walking his dog all through those streets, around corners and behind hedgerows, blocks out of his way, before he finally decided he had lost the man, and he returned to his home.

He was sitting at his computer when he heard a noise outside on his patio. It was a coffee mug, crashing to the ground. Renner thought his dog or maybe his cat — he had a cat then named Milo — had knocked it over. He went outside to investigate. And there was the man. There was the man, and he had Milo in his hands. "He had my cat tucked like a football, under his arm," Renner says, sitting in his Porsche all these years later. Renner was stunned, frozen in a kind of low-level shock. The man bolted into the street. Renner gave chase, but before he could catch him, the man jumped into a car and squealed away. The man was gone, and so was Milo. Renner never saw either of them ever again.

"I hope Milo had a good life," he says today, firing his engine back up. "I hope he didn't end up as that guy's dinner."

We'll never know whether Milo the cat ended up in a patch of sunlight or in a pot on the stove. All Renner learned for sure is that accidents aren't always accidents.


Renner finally moved out of that apartment when, later that year, he signed his first contract for a studio movie, S.W.A.T., a pure testosterone shove. At the time, he had $200 to his name, but he took that contract to a bank, and along with an actor friend named Kristoffer Winters, he pooled enough money to buy a house in Nichols Canyon. "I hated paying rent," Renner says. "It was just money going out the window." He and Winters did some work on the house, which was a cool 1960s modernist place; they found they had a shared knack for the remodel. Many people admired the house. After only a few months, some people admired it so much that they offered Renner and Winters $900,000 for a house in which they had invested $659,000. They had made more in a few months than they had made in their entire lives.

Which meant that they bought another house. And then another house. And then a condo in the Granville Towers. And then another house. Driving around today, Renner points to house after house — he calls them structures — that he fixed up either alone or with Winters. Since 2002, they've bought and sold more than fifteen houses, each time slightly bigger, each time slightly braver. They've often lived in their temporary, torn-up structures, without plumbing or power, trying to squeeze out a few more dollars. "I can tell you every Starbucks that had a bathroom around here," Renner says.


He stops outside a Greek Revival beauty in West Hollywood, mostly obscured by a towering row of ficus. He and Winters planted them; instant ficus forests, craned in, are one of their signatures. "That is an amazing hedge," Renner says, admiring its recent growth. He and Winters bought the house, which they dubbed Hemingway House, for $1.55 million in 2008. About a year later — in the midst of a historic real estate crash in California — they sold it for more than $4 million. They are not hobbyists; they are expert at this. "I will never be in the stock market," Renner says. "It's just gambling. I'm a gambler, but I'll gamble on the practicality of things. If I'm all-in on a structure, at least I can sleep in the damn thing."


Meanwhile, he continued the same kind of slow, interlocking build of his acting career. Supporting roles came first. He was cheap and good. Then he played the lead in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker — she'd liked him in Dahmer — for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination. (He was renovating a condo at the time, his mattress on the floor, zipped up behind plastic. He was worried about plaster dust getting on his tuxedo.) He was reportedly paid only $65,000 for that part — he's getting $5 million for The Bourne Legacy — but his success with the houses had made money a secondary concern. He found himself in a rare, blessed spot. "I always wanted to make good decisions," he says. Now Renner never had to take a part because he was desperate. Instead, he found his cinematic wheelhouse, and he stayed in it: intense, sweaty, morally ambiguous roles, drifting occasionally into mean little bastard territory. Action didn't hurt. And off he went, one of the few fortunate actors who could draw his trajectory with a ruler, getting another Oscar nomination for The Town, which led to Mission: Impossible and then his joining The Avengers and now, finally, his carrying The Bourne Legacy. Rung by logical rung, all the way to the top of the ladder.


He stops the Porsche once again, outside yet another house that he and Winters renovated: Sturges House — Charlie Chaplin was supposedly married in its living room — rises above another wall of ficus. Renner lived in the house until relatively recently, when he started hearing the vans filled with tourists shouting on the other side of the trees, when people started sliding strange packages under his gate. He could feel his reality changing, the specter of Milo the cat looming large. "I couldn't even take my garbage out anymore," he says. "It bummed me out." A bizarre confrontation with a mobile, militant yoga class was one of the final straws. "Look, man, I don't come onto your porch and start doing deep lunges," Renner told them. "Get the fuck out of here." But he knew what was coming. He put up his house for rent and moved into the Four Seasons, and only yesterday he bought another house, a retreat, hidden back up in the canyons. He hasn't taken possession, except in his head. Now he wants to go see the future.


It's another 1960s house, 1964 to be exact. Flat roofs, sharp angles, square shoulders. Airy, with lots of glass. Renner walks around it, pressing his face against those windows. It's a very cool house. It's not hard to see what he sees, or at least what he sees in it today. It's harder to know what he sees it will be. "This will probably be my home forever," Renner says. It's remarkably intact, and he says he's going to try to preserve most of its character. The former owner — who died recently — lived in this house a long time, and he had taken care of it. "I want to do good by this guy," Renner says, admiring the huge brick fireplace that will soon be his. "A lot of people like to tear shit down here, and it breaks my heart. This town's already so transient."


The former owner's belongings are still in the house. It looks almost like a museum, like a time capsule. In the office, there are dozens of faded framed pictures of the man and all the places he had been, a permanent record of his existence: There he is in front of the Kremlin; there he is in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And above his desk, where he could always see it, there is a map of the world on the wall.


Renner heads for Beverly Hills to meet Winters at their latest build on Delfern Drive. Really, this one is 95 percent Winters, because Renner's been so busy with his other work, but they've still been sharing the psychic load. It's easily their biggest risk. "This is a big job," Renner says back in the Porsche. "Big, big, big job."


He's not kidding. All that remains of the original house is a pair of towering brick fireplaces. The rest of the construction — ten thousand square feet on a single story, an art deco palace with fourteen-foot ceilings and eleven bathrooms — is new. Renner and Winters walk over the acres of dirt to the front doors, above which two square, stone eagles have been perched. They were salvaged, they were told, from the old Federal Reserve building in Los Angeles. "Hey, the eagles are up!" Renner shouts happily. They've been at it for close to a year; they have maybe three months to go. They're calling the house the Reserve. It is a monument.


Workers are everywhere, stripping the palm trees, painting trim. Winters wants Renner's advice on some finishing touches, and they drift through the master bedroom into what will be one of two enormous closets. It alone is several hundred square feet, with its own bathroom and custom walnut cabinetry. Winters has three small walnut panels propped up under the light, each with a slightly different stain on it, each a shade of gray.


Renner likes the lightest of the three because it shows off the wood's grain the most. "I think that's beautiful, dude," and he's right. It really is beautiful. Every corner of this house — the shining tin ceiling in the kitchen, the door casings that mirror the setbacks on the roof outside — is evidence of care.


"We've made a killing even during this down market," Winters says later. "Sometimes in life you have to give that extra 5 or 10 percent, and that really makes the difference." One of those extra percentage points is waiting in the garage: a grand fountain, at the center of which is a life-sized sculpture of a woman. A famous actor apparently owned it before he ran into financial problems. Winters and Renner bought it at an IRS auction. Together, they plan on listing this house for at least $22 million, maybe as high as $25 million, while a fellow actor watches his life get liquidated.


"I'm very lucky," Renner says, tearing through the streets again. "I could have pretty easily been driving a forklift." He could be driving an open-topped van filled with tourists, shouting down to a woman he used to know.





Except that's not even close to being true.

Renner passes a diner, Mel's Drive-in on Sunset Boulevard, that he and Winters have always gone to each time they've bought a new house. It's another one of their signatures. This is how it always starts. They grab a table together, and they pull out a wad of napkins, and they begin planning out their next grand parlay, plus an extra 5 or 10 percent. They talk about the sort of house they want in the end and how to get there, step after purposeful step. The stars have nothing to do with it. "Architecture and building is about how you get around the obstacles that are presented to you," Renner says. "That sometimes determines how successful you'll be: How good are you at going around obstacles?"

This last time at Mel's, after he'd first seen the house in the canyon, the one he's going to live in forever, he and Winters were tearing into their napkins when Renner looked up. And right there, on the side of the building across the street, was an enormous mural for The Avengers. There was Renner, with his pile of napkins in front of him, looking up at a superhero version of himself, several stories taller than any structure he'd ever built. He and Winters stopped and laughed for a minute, thinking about how far they'd come, all the way from 7777 Hollywood Boulevard and Nichols Canyon to The Bourne Legacy and the Reserve, how lucky they were, and then they went back to turning their napkins into maps.

Source: esquire.com