He isn't expected to win. And a nomination wasn't even assured. But Jeremy Renner, the star of "The Hurt Locker," is savoring his Oscar moment.
When his best-actor nomination was announced Feb. 2, he hugged co-star Anthony Mackie live on NBC's "Today" show, saying "It's awesome!" Then, noting the competition that he faces, he told "Today" co-hosts Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer, "I've got to break some serious leg."
The Vegas oddsmakers are predicting that the 39-year-old will lose to Hollywood favorite Jeff Bridges, who plays a washed-up country singer in "Crazy Heart." But even if Bridges fails to capture his first Oscar victory, Renner will have to compete with such stalwarts as Morgan Freeman of "Invictus," George Clooney of "Up in the Air" and Colin Firth of "A Single Man."
The nomination means that Renner, who started theater training at junior college in Modesto, Calif., has finally made Hollywood's top tier of actors. His most memorable roles before were in 2002's serial-killer drama "Dahmer" and 2007's sci-fi thriller "28 Days Later." This time, he's on a David-like team that's battling the box-office Goliath "Avatar," both of which have nine Oscar nominations.
Whatever happens tonight at the Oscars, no other nominee had to go through as much physically as Renner did when filming "The Hurt Locker," which takes viewers inside the workings of a bomb squad unit in Iraq.
"I had to wear a suit that weighed from 85 to 100 pounds," says Renner, who plays William James, the headstrong leader of the bomb squad unit. "It was about 125 degrees outside when we were filming in Jordan, so the conditions were difficult. It gave me a lot of respect for the military guys doing this."
Despite the heat, Renner says, the suit provided a weird kind of isolation. "It's quiet and peaceful inside the thing, while outside the world is chaos. It's a spiritual experience."
Perhaps that's why Renner's character seems so addicted to work.
"There's a fuel behind him," Renner says, "and when I was trying to figure out how to play the character, the purity of the love for his job trumped everything. That's the basis of who he is, what makes him an adrenaline junkie."
Like many actors, Renner put some of himself into the role. "He's a man of more action and fewer words, and I'm not a big talker either, for the most part."
Such lack of communication, along with the extreme risk-taking, helps explain why the other members of his unit regard him as a reckless renegade who's likely to get them all killed.
Oscar-nominated director Kathryn Bigelow, however, takes pains to show the vulnerability of Renner's character.
The key scene in establishing his humanity comes when his team and several soldiers-of-fortune are stranded in the middle of the desert because of a flat tire.
From a hut in the distance, a sniper opens fire, picking off people like sitting ducks and instilling panic in nearly everyone except James. He leads them to the relative safety of a ditch. But the bullets that the American team so desperately needs are in a clip that's covered with blood. And it's up to a terrified American soldier, played by Brian Geraghty, to get those bullets and clean them so that they won't jam up their weapons.
"We tried to make it seem like a real-time battle," Bigelow says of the desert standoff, "to convey the burst of adrenaline during a sniper engagement."
In a moment that borders on tenderness amid warfare, James calms Geraghty's character, Owen Eldridge, and shows him how to remove the bullets from the clip and clean them individually.
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Mark Boal says he thinks that scene is the movie's turning point.
"It's a moment of bonding between a guy who is seen as dangerous and his fellow soldiers," Boal says. "It's the ultimate expression of what James is."
Renner says he thinks the scene works, in part, because "it speaks volumes without words. My character literally goes down to the trenches and takes time to calm down Brian's character. And up to that point, everyone thinks my character is crazy and hates him."
It's that type of scene that bolsters the ambiguity and artistry of "The Hurt Locker." In many ways, moviegoers have to make up their own minds about Renner's character, as well as about the validity of the Iraq war.
And the title itself has multiple meanings, Renner says. "The hurt locker is a slang term, meaning that if you survive the experience, you will definitely be in a hurt locker, the ultimate place of pain."
At some times, Renner says, he thought of the hurt locker being a "hospital bed, perhaps a casket." At other times, he thought the hurt locker referred to the trunk under his bunk that held bomb parts that he had defused. But when filming the movie, he says, "the hurt locker became the outhouse, because we all had dysentery."
When you see Renner on the red carpet tonight, a starlet won't be on his arm. That'll be his mom, Valerie Cearley, from Modesto.
Renner says he also wants to give a shout-out to Texas. His mother's family lives in the Plano area, just north of Dallas. "My grandfather, grandmother and lots of cousins live there," he says, "and I used to go there every summer and just hang with them."