Journalist Gary Webb wrote a series of articles in the mid-‘90s exposing the connection between the CIA and a bumper crop of crack cocaine. Webb’s work was thorough and accurate, but truth was little defense and his career was quickly destroyed by powerful men with a lot at stake. The story is the subject for Jeremy Renner’s latest film, Kill the Messenger, which chronicles Webb’s investigation and tragic downfall while examining the importance of journalism in our country. For Renner, who is currently juggling three major action franchises including upcoming film Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mission: Impossible 5, playing an everyman like Webb was a change of pace. We spoke with Renner about why it was important for him to make a smaller movie about bigger ideas and how it fits into his overall arc as an actor.
What compelled you about playing Gary Webb?
Several things, I think. First and foremost, it was a true story that needed to be on the big screen. It had all the checks in the boxes that make me want to go to work—to be challenged, to learn something, to grow. I love stories with the everyman in extraordinary circumstances. I felt like there was a lot of me in him. I knew it was going to be very challenging, and I wanted to explore that.
What about yourself did you see in him?
His tenacity as a journalist, which is also important as an artist. To persevere through lots of adversity, to be courageous, to be brave. Those sorts of qualities.
Were you familiar with his story before the film?
No, and that was the last kick in the ass to go make this movie. Like, I can’t believe I grew up in his neighborhood and not know about it. That made it very important for me to want to play him.
When you have a person with a tragic story can making a movie about them vindicate them in any way?
I don’t think it’s about making a movie to vindicate him necessarily as much as it is to exponentially get recognition for journalism in itself and how important it is. We need more Gary Webbs out there. And they are out there. The accountability and responsibility that comes to journalists and what their job is. Freedom of speech is a huge part of it now. Any vindication comes from somewhere else, but it’s hard to say if it comes from making the movie.
What was it like to play a character who is also a father? That seems new for you.
That was also something I was really interested in doing creatively. The role in itself was something new and fresh for me, and I loved the complications of the story. But being a husband and being a father and having that story be told was very exciting to me. That was new for me—being a husband and a father onscreen. It ended up being a very rich, complicated, flawed character who was so fun to play. American Hustle, where I had like 90 kids or something, was the only time I’d played a father. It was comfortable for me because I grew up with so many kids. I’m 43, and now I have my own daughter. It’s a wonderful energy to be in onset.
As an actor, is it important for you to take time in between action franchises to make movies like Kill the Messenger?
The big movies came my way because of me doing these smaller movies, like The Hurt Locker and The Town. Bigger movies came out of that. So I’m making time to do the big movies, if you’re in my shoes. It’s really important for me to do these movies artistically and creatively. It’s who I am as an artist, and it will always be. I’ll always continue to do these movies.
The real Gary Webb probably wasn’t quite as fit as you are, right?
Ah, yeah. That’s where we took a bit more license. Gary Webb is not a well-known figure by his face, too. So that’s why I didn’t have to wear the ‘80s porno mustache that he had. It’s going to be my face 80 feet on a screen, so no one needed to stare at that thing on my face. So maybe my facial hair is a little cooler than the porno mustache. We took a few liberties, but hopefully it’s not too far off.
You really surprised people when you appeared on an episode of Louie last season. How did that come about?
I worked with Louie C.K. on American Hustle, and then he said he wrote this thing for me. It ended up being a little bit of a departure for his show, a little bit more dramatic in tone. Still funny in a retrospective sort of way. I worked a few days on it. I’m a big fan of Louie, and I’m glad I was able to do that. Those are fun little outlets for me.
He wrote that role specifically for you?
Yeah, because I reminded him of that guy. He writes about his life, and that’s almost verbatim what happened to him when he was a kid. I just reminded him of this drug dealer that he knew.
Is that a compliment to you?
I don’t know! Maybe because of the guy I played in The Town? I was into it.
Are you allowed to talk about Mission: Impossible 5 yet?
Well, I’d have to know something to say something! We just started shooting, and we got a lot of the same cast back, which is great. It’s the very beginning—we’re only two weeks in. We have months and months to go.
Speaking of future projects, what is your fate in the Bourne franchise now that they’ve announced Matt Damon is coming back?
I think it’s all still the same as it’s been. I know in recent news they’ve said Paul [Greengrass] and Matt want to do another one, but I think that was always there. It just becomes news because maybe they found a reason to actually do it. They always wanted to do it. I think it’s awesome because I’m a big fan of them both and ultimately for those worlds to collide is very interesting to me. I hope it does happen.
Everyone probably does want a Bourne movie with both of you.
I think so, too. Both worlds will be established, and then I think they’ll end up bringing us together. Probably not unlike what they’re doing in the Marvel universe. That ends being a very popular thing nowadays.
Photos by Charley Gallay / Getty Images for Disney