October 5, 2010 -- Call the Shots (Menshealth.com)

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To fight complacency, Renner developed a tool he calls a "life awareness chart." Draw a circle on a sheet of paper. Divide it, like a pie chart, into per-centages: time spent working, time spent not working, time spent bitching about not working.

 

"It takes 10 seconds to do, but now you can really assess, like, 'Okay, look here, ass nuts, you spent a third of your year in a bar, getting drunk, singing karaoke'--this is me I'm talking about, right?--and so now it's, 'Oh, wait, I have to be accountable,' " says Renner, who has gone from pointing at my legal pad to jabbing a finger into my chest. His closest friends do charts, too, and then pass them among one another, offering interpretations, making challenges: "Be more communicative." "Lose the gut." "Grow a beard."

 

"Whatever it might be," he says, "now it's tangible. It's not a thought swimming in my head or a feeling in my heart. It exists on this paper. I own it."

 

After moving to L.A. in his early 20s, Renner needed all the wisdom he could summon. He wanted roles that were nourishing and authentic, not mindless fun, a standard that left him teetering on the brink of indigence. While holding out, he survived on two-for-29-cent burgers from McDonald's. For months at a stretch his utilities were cut--water, power--forcing him to camp in his own apartment. Even when he was cast in Dahmer, the 2002 biopic that earned him a Spirit Award nomination, the rewards were strictly creative. His pay: $50 a day.

 

"You could call it making sacrifices," he says, "but those sacrifices have made me who I am, so I don't know if I'd consider them sacrifices or blessings." These days there are more opportunities, but also more opportunities to go astray. He refused to settle when times were tough. Now that he is in demand, he is even more determined not to let money dictate his choices. "My plan is to be able to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and not because I have to," says Renner. "I call it my 'pull-chute' plan. That's a military thing, you know...time to pull chute, like, time to kind of float and enjoy the view."

 

That may sound risky, and maybe it is, which is why Renner some years ago turned to real estate. Even in a depressed economy, he earns more money flipping houses--gutting, remodeling, decorating-- than he does making movies. He and his investment partner, actor Kristoffer Winters, started with a $650,000 place. Fifteen properties later, they are selling $4 million Greek Revivals, usually living in the construction site until a buyer takes it off their hands. "During the Academy Awards, I was sleeping under painter's plastic in a guest apartment with no plumbing, and I had to go brush my teeth at Starbucks," says Renner, whose mother, now a retired bookkeeper, was his date for the ceremony.

 

This leaves little time for the gym, but climbing ladders and spackling ceilings is a worthy workout: At 5-foot-10, Renner is still the same sinewy 160 pounds he was when he finished high school. He eats better than he did during those Mickey D years, or, when he feels indulgent, has at least graduated to the haute beef of $12 burger bars. After all, on that pie chart he draws of his life, there must be times he can forget about money--and the paparazzi.

 

"Sometimes," says Renner, ordering another vodka and eyeing the piano, "I just kind of want to have fun and be unconscious for a while."