Renner has taken a long, slow road to fame

March 6, 2010 

While it may seem like Jeremy Renner is everywhere all of a sudden, the Modesto native is no overnight success.

The first-time Oscar nominee has been on a nonstop media blitz since the Academy Award nominations were announced a month ago.

He has appeared on "The Today Show," "Late Show With David Letterman," "Larry King Live," "The View," "60 Minutes," "20/20," "Oprah's Oscar Special" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

But the road from starving artist eating Top Ramen to star hobnobbing with A-list celebrities took almost 20 years.

And it's one his friends and family still can't quite believe is happening.

"I have a Google alert for him, and the other day a story came up

that said 'Jeremy Renner spotted,' " said his mother, Modesto resident Valerie Cearley. "That's so strange. From 'Who is Jeremy Renner?' to "Jeremy Renner spotted.' I don't know how he's going to live his life now."

The answer to how his life has been in the 33 days since he was named one of the five best actor nominees is hectic. Renner has been to Los Angeles, New York, London and various stops in between on a whirlwind of press interviews, award shows, talk shows and industry parties.

But the 39-year-old Beyer High graduate makes sure to remember his Central Valley roots. He mentions Modesto in almost every appearance.

And his Oscar date is, of course, his mother.

As he told The Bee, "I have to, that's not even a question."

Cearley has been in Los Angeles with Renner for the past week, getting the full star treatment, including dress fittings, salon days and Oscar parties with her son.

For the record: Both plan to wear Armani for the big night.

'Role of a lifetime'

Renner has called his part as lead bomb technician Staff Sgt. William James in "The Hurt Locker" the "role of a lifetime." But it was preceded by years of well-reviewed work that gradually came to a critical mass.

"He has worked long and hard," Cearley said. "I think (the slow rise) has been good for him. If this had happened when he was young, it might have changed him. Now he's such a grounded person."

Still, his parents never would have guessed he would become an actor. In fact, Renner, who moved around attending Coleman F. Brown, Garrison, Sylvan, Stockard Coffee and Sherwood elementary schools, was shy as a child.

"He always stood in the back to get his picture taken," Cearley said. "He was just a quiet little kid."

Renner's father, Lee, managed McHenry Bowl in the 1980s, so he and his younger sister, Kym, bowled competitively until their teens.

His parents divorced when Renner was about 10, but they stayed close and bought houses across the street from each other. Lee Renner and Cearley still live across the street, though in a different neighborhood.

Renner went to Somerset Middle School and then Beyer. In high school, he wasn't into drama or sports, instead spending his free time playing drums in his garage band, Hot Ice. Cearley can't remember them playing any gigs, but she does remember the neighbors complaining.

After graduating in 1989, he went to Modesto Junior College and studied computer science and criminology.

Then he took a drama class.

Retired MJC instructor Charline Freedman remembers him as one of her two best acting students from her 12-year career. She said the 19-year-old connected almost immediately with her demanding Stanislavsky acting method.

"It's a very difficult process. You work to find yourself and become the character, rather than just acting," she said. "Very quickly, once he got it and realized what I was asking for, that's when I knew, 'Uh-oh, we've got a real winner here.' "

Renner starred in a handful of MJC productions, including the dramas "Orphans" and "Sister Gloria's Pentecostal Baby" and the musical "The Wizard of Oz."

MJC drama instructor Michael Lynch had just come to the school when he cast Renner in "Sister Gloria's Pentecostal Baby."

"He didn't strike me as being just a 19-year-old kid. He had an instinct and made that part his, instantaneously," Lynch said.

The move to Hollywood

Soon after, Renner decided to make his way to Hollywood. It was a decision his parents worried about, but neither stood in his way.

"When he first came to talk to me, I said at some point you should finish school," said his father. "But he said, 'I really want to try this.' And I said, 'Well, you should try it when you're young.' "

Renner got an agent shortly after moving, and then slowly the roles came. He started out in commercials. He was in ads for McDonald's, Kodak, Duracell, Kia and Bud Light.

"He ate a lot of Top Ramen," Cearley said. "He racked up his credit cards to the max. But no one told him to try anything else. And then things kept getting a little better and a little better."

His first movie role was in the 1995 teen comedy "National Lampoon's Senior Trip." Guest starring spots on shows such as "Angel" and "CSI" followed.

Flipping houses

About 10 years ago, he started a house-flipping business with a friend, something he has used ever since to supplement his acting income.

And then, in 2002, he caught the critics' eye with a star turn as the serial killer in the indie biopic "Dahmer." The role earned him an Independent Spirit Award nod.

A mix of roles followed. As the bad guy in "S.W.A.T." opposite Colin Farrell. As the bad guy in "North Country" opposite Charlize Theron. As a train robber in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" opposite Brad Pitt.

And as a good guy, finally, in "28 Weeks Later" opposite a bunch of zombies.

Last spring, he was the star of the short-lived ABC police drama "The Unusuals" alongside Amber Tamblyn.

But it was that sinister role as cannibalistic killer Jeffrey Dahmer that caught "Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow's eye. She decided against casting better-known actors in favor of nonhousehold names such as Renner and his co-stars.

"Directing has so much to do with casting, and if you cast it right, then your job -- it's not that it's done -- but you're not kind of forcing something to happen. It will happen naturally," Bigelow said on "Charlie Rose." "That actor will own the part, will embody the character."

Once Renner was cast, screenwriter Mark Boal said he rewrote the part to showcase the actor.

"After meeting him I thought, 'Wow, I've really got to make this part better and give it more range,' " Boal said on "Larry King Live." "He has such range as an actor and the part, I thought it was good, but it didn't have all the humor that he can do and it didn't have some of the surprise. So I tried to add some of that in there to take advantage of him."

Momentum has grown

The movie opened modestly to great reviews and few screens. But its momentum built and built through the summer and into the fall award season. And then, to nearly everyone's surprise, to front-runner status for the Oscars. It is considered the chief competition for box office record-breaker "Avatar."

But no matter how "The Hurt Locker" and Renner do, his family is excited about the actor's prospects.

He already has wrapped shooting the Ben Affleck- directed crime drama "The Town" with Jon Hamm and Blake Lively, to be released in September. And he has signed on next to appear with Ewan McGregor in a film about the life of Edgar Allen Poe.

His mother has read the script -- she reads almost all his scripts -- and is excited about the project.

But with that acclaim comes the rest of stardom's trappings. Paparazzi have followed Renner to Starbucks. And People magazine reported he was seen "flirting" with Jessica Simpson.

"I would say that I guess the best word to describe it is really surreal," said sister Kym Vieira. "I think the funniest thing are the tabloid stories about him. But I was talking with my daughter about everything that has happened. I mean, Oprah Winfrey has said my brother's name. Wow, that just came out of her mouth. It's just such an honor."

The whole family -- his father, sister, stepbrothers and sisters, and other relatives -- will attend the "Rally for Renner" event tonight at the State Theatre.

"As a parent, I like the fact that he is successful and all that, but the real test of a man is how you handle things like this," said his father, Lee. "And he hasn't changed his character. He is still a really, really good and fine person. So whether he wins or not, he has already won."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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