MODESTO -- Jeremy Renner has reached a new, unexpected fan base.
It's not just the legions of comic fans he collected being in the superhero ensemble "The Avengers," or the action fans he acquired by appearing in the latest "Mission: Impossible" installment.
No, it's an altogether different demographic he's talking about. And a decidedly shorter one.
"Now, little 6-year-olds are coming up to me," Renner said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "I never thought I'd have 6-year-olds coming up to me with their eyes wide open. It's a glorious thing and it's so cool and cute. There are also grown men dressed as Hawkeye who come up to me, and that's a different kind of cute."
The 41-year-old Modesto native has spent nearly two decades working steadily and gaining respect in Hollywood. Since earning back-to- back Academy Award nominations in 2010 and '11, Renner's profile has skyrocketed. And now he is on the verge of his first solo leading role in a major studio action movie, "The Bourne Legacy," which opens worldwide today.
The Beyer High graduate and Modesto Junior College alum's road to taking over the reins of the Bourne franchise began in small, independent pictures such as the 2002 drama "Dahmer," in which he played the serial killer to much acclaim.
Since his Oscar nods for "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town," Renner's career has veered into blockbuster territory as he's starred alongside Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol" and Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson in what he called "that teeny independent movie," "The Avengers." Since its première in May, the film has earned $1.5 billion worldwide to become the No. 3 highest-grossing movie of all time.
Renner's face, in character as Hawkeye, has been plastered on everything from bobbleheads to toy bow-and-arrow sets to Dr Pepper cans.
"The last couple of years' journey has been all face-slapping and pinch-me moments," Renner said. "I remember walking down the street past a carwash. Someone yelled, 'Hey, I'm drinking you, you're on my can!' I didn't know that was happening. They make action figures of you. That's a coolish, weirdish thing that can happen. There's a little 7-inch version of you and people playing with you. I'll leave that at cool."
Respect of his peers
Renner's rise through the Hollywood ranks has impressed fellow actors. "Avengers" co-star Johansson said the first film she saw him in was "Dahmer," which garnered him an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
"He was in complete control of his performance while retaining an element of surprise in the nuance and complexities of the character," Johansson said in an e-mail interview with The Bee. "It is that seemingly off-the-cuff, naturalistic quality that is so hard to achieve, that I think forced larger audiences to take notice of him in 'Hurt Locker.' "
Johansson said Renner is known and respected as one of the hardest-working actors in the business.
"Not only does he dedicate himself wholly to his character's development, motivation and purpose, but he goes head first into preparation and skill training," she said. "His ambitions are not just driven by his desire to have a well-rounded body of work, but to make sure that every character he creates are truthful and honest ones.
"It is this ability that makes him one of the few actors in the business that resonate with both male and female audiences a very rare and sought after quality."
Moving up to leading man
Still, making the jump from respected independent actor to mainstream marquee star did make Renner hesitate, if only momentarily. This was especially true with "The Bourne Legacy," which is set to launch him into franchise leading-man territory of past co-stars such as Cruise and Downey.
"It certainly gave me, for a few hours, a little pause. I did think how this would affect my personal life my family and friends," Renner said. "But I talked with them and they said, 'Stop being an idiot.' Otherwise, there are no other reservations. All signs are pointing to, 'Wow I can't believe I'm so blessed with this opportunity.' I just hope I don't suck, really."
"Bourne Legacy" producer Pat Crowley said in the film's press junket that Renner's up-and-coming status helped him land the coveted role of Aaron Cross, another covert operative in the same secret spy program as Jason Bourne, the character played by Matt Damon in "The Bourne Identity," "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum."
"Audiences haven't formed their opinion about Jeremy Renner," Crowley said. "He is still sort of evolving from the audience's perception: Who is this guy? What does he bring? I like him, but I don't know why. I want to see more."
Expanding 'Bourne' universe
Crowley and fellow producer Frank Marshall said Renner hasn't replaced Damon's Bourne, but expands the universe. Marshall said Renner's physicality was a big bonus. Instead of using green screen, they could film him up close in fight scenes and chase sequences.
"He is a movie athlete, he is extraordinary," Marshall said. "Those moves he makes, it almost looks like we're speeding the camera up, but we weren't."
Renner said he trained six to seven hours a day for three weeks to be ready for the stunts and action sequences required in "The Bourne Legacy." But he said he had a running start on his conditioning thanks to his previous back-to-back action roles. In fact, he worked with the same fight choreographer on "The Avengers" as on "Bourne."
But it was one co-star in particular who helped him prep for his new role as action star. "Tom (Cruise) was very, very influential on how to treat those action scenes and stunts," he said. "On how to prepare your body for it, that helped a lot."
While it may seem his career has been in overdrive of late, Renner said its slower trajectory in the past helped prepare him for the frenzy today. He also keeps in perspective all the glitzy travel and promotion that come with being part of multimillion-dollar major studio projects.
"You travel the world, which can be sexy," he said. "I just went and did a leg out in Europe, but I never touched the soil. It's plane to car to hotel room, and out the same way. It's glorious and beautiful, but you don't get to see anything. You pretend the Eiffel Tower isn't there when you go to Paris, because you know you won't get to see it anyway."
For "The Bourne Legacy," Renner is jetting off to Australia, Japan, Berlin and, yes, Paris, among other cities. He said he hasn't had as much opportunity to visit Modesto recently, perhaps only once or twice a year for holidays or family birthdays.
Taking a breather
And Renner said once his "Bourne" promotions are over, he plans to step off the action treadmill for a bit.
"I want to get back to doing something where I don't have to stretch before I go back to work," he said.
His film "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters," which was completed before "Mission," "Avengers" and "Bourne" began production, should come out early next year. He also has finished work on a drama with Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard.
There are talks of a possible Hawkeye and Black Widow spinoff from "The Avengers," with Johansson, which Renner said he'd be open to if "the material was there." And "Avengers" writer-director Joss Whedon has just signed on to do a sequel.
Renner said he is "taking a peek" at a biopic about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that is in the early stages.
But all those decisions, he said, will have to wait for one important priority.
"I'm going to take a long nap and hang out with family and friends and dogs and just relax," he said. "These days, instead of wondering what my next job would be, I'm wondering when my next nap will be. But I feel so blessed, and that's why I do it all."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2284.
AT A GLANCE
Modesto native Jeremy Renner has been working in the movie business for nearly 20 years. Here's a look at some of the most memorable films by the Beyer High graduate and Modesto Junior College alumnus.
'The Hurt Locker' Academy Award nomination, 2008
'The Town'Academy Award nomination, 2010
'Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol' 2011
'The Avengers' 2012
'The Bourne Legacy' 2012