Having a pure, unwavering drive to seek and report the truth, and making sure justice is rightfully served for the most heinous criminal and societial problems, is a powerful resilience not many people embody. But Academy Award-nominated actor, Jeremy Renner, is an instinctual performer who possesses a natural ability to completely relate to the diverse characters he plays. His latest role as real-life investigative reporter, Gary Webb, in director Michael Cuesta’s upcoming biographical drama, ‘Kill the Messenger,’ emphasizes how their shared desire to showcase the truth is central to their personalities. Renner, who also made his producing debut with the crime film through his production company, The Combine, also showcased the journalist’s drive to prove how accountability in government is one of the most important ways to make sure that the public good is served.
Set in the mid-1990s, ‘Kill the Messenger’ follows Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb, a dedicated reporter who goes on a quest for the truth, which led him from California prisons to villages of Nicaragua to historic offices in Washington, D.C. After relocating his family to California, Gary, a respected investigative reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, takes a startling turn when he’s approached by Coral Baca (Paz Vega), the girlfriend of a cocaine trafficker. She urges him to shadow Alan Fenster (Tim Blake Nelson), the defense lawyer for Los Angeles crack kingping Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams). The writer soon discovers he has stumbled upon the origins of cheap cocaine that’s thriving on the streets of cities across America.
Upon further inquiries, Gary finds that Nicaraguan rebels are working directly with the CIA to smuggle cocaine into the U.S., and they’re using the profits to arm Contra militia back home. Making a risky decision to travel to Nicaragua, Gary collects crucial information from an imprisoned drug baron, Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia). With the support of his editor, Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Gary’s report on the drug epidemic runs in the paper and online. The two, along with executive editor Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt), initially welcome the nationwide attention that the story generates.
But Garry soon becomes the story and target, as jealous rival reporters who missed the lead work to discredit his work and reputation. His wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) tries to stand by him as their family, which includes their three children, is ripped apart. Despite warnings from drug kingpins and menacing surveillance intended to deter his work, Gary keeps digging to prove the direct link between cocaine smugglers and the CIA.
Renner generously took the time recently to sit down for a roundtable interview at New York’s Ritz Carlton Central Park Hotel to talk about portraying Webb in ‘Kill the Messenger.’ Among other things, the actor discussed how he feels it’s important to have more reporters like Webb, as he feels being willing to sacrifice everything for a story and the truth is an amazing quality in journalists; how he started The Combine in part so that he can initiate work on projects that he’s strongly passionate about, like ‘Kill the Messenger,’ and not wait for the offers to come to him; and how he naturally finds depth in characters like Webb, because he easily understands plight and fuel behind why people do the things they do.
Question (Q): Were you very much into journalism and news reporting before you took this role, and if so, has it shifted your perspective in any way?
Jeremy Renner (JR): No and yes is the short answer. I selectively read news. I’m also disheartened by media sensationalism, and always try and find something interesting to read and it’s very difficult. I wasn’t into news or journalism, necessarily, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to play the role. But journalism in itself is interesting to me. I can imagine the frustration of being an investigative reporter and trying to do good journalism or reporting, and then it goes by the wayside, not unlike Gary Webb’s stuff. You can hack into some celebrity’s phone, and that all of a sudden becomes a really important story. It’s kind of sad to me.
Q: Did you spend time with journalists before and during filming?
JR: Yes, the film’s writer, Peter Landesman, had a very similar experience to Gary Webb, but on a much smaller scale, so he was a good resource. Also, Mark Boal, the screenwriter from ‘The Hurt Locker,’ was also an investigative reporter, so I got to pry into his brain. I didn’t care so much about how the writer went to go grab the story, or what interested them. I like the idea of who the players were, like the editor and the paper, and the politics involved in there, and their frustration. I want to know what the journalists’ day to day life was like, as Gary Webb, as that was important to me.
Q: When you’re playing a really heavy scene, and the director says “Cut,” can you just go back to being you immediately?
JR: It depends on the scene and whether or not we got it, and if I’ll have to go back in or not. When I’m not having a heavy scene, I can come out cracking a joke. I stay in the realm of the scene, and when it’s done, I can move on.
Q: When you first began, people said, “Oh, he’s the next Sean Penn.” Then after you started doing more signature projects, then Jeremy Renner surfaced, and it was no longer, “he’s the next Sean Penn.” Did you hear any of that? Did that make you uncomfortable?
JR: I don’t know if I ever heard that, specifically, but that doesn’t make me uncomfortable. Better that than somebody I don’t like! That guy’s one of the best actors of his generation, if you ask me-he’s fantastic! To be compared to someone I hold in high regard is an amazing thing.
Q: You could be cast as his brother in a project.
JR: Yeah, we want to do something together. We’ve been talking about it, actually. I’d love to work with him!
Q: What was it about this script that made you think, this is a story that allows people to they see how things were 20 years ago, and how different it is now?
JR: I didn’t realize how important it was at first. I knew it was important when I first read it, because it was a true story, and it had happened 70 miles from where I grew up. But I didn’t know anything about it when the story was first published. I’m from Modesta, California, and Gary was at the satellite store in Sacramento and San Jose, and they’re both seventy miles away. So how did I not know about this at all? So I felt ashamed that I didn’t know. I started investigating, more and more, and it just became too important. It wasn’t a movie that I wanted to do, anymore; it was a movie that I had to do.
Q: Do you think we need more reporters like Gary, who are willing to shed light on the government’s actions?
JR: Without a doubt. I don’t know if anyone could ask someone else to do what Gary would do, but there are those that are willing to, and that is an amazing thing. To be courageous and be willing to sacrifice everything for a story and the truth is an amazing quality. It’s also pretty relevant to what’s going on now, in whistleblowing.
Q: Gary trued to control his own life and destiny, but was caught up in a web where he couldn’t. Is that part of the rationale behind your production company? Are you drawn to stories that you feel need to be told, but aren’t getting the opportunities to be told?
JR: The idea behind a production company is to have the opportunity to tell the stories I want to tell, instead of being a sheep and waiting for something to come to me. I want to generate something.
Studios aren’t making movies like this-they stopped doing that. This movie was at Universal when they did ‘State Of Play,’ and they just spent way too much money on that film, and it didn’t do that well. This is not in studios’ realms these days, so they don’t make them anymore.
So I started coming in and saying, “We’ll take these films from you, and we’ll find a way to make them for a lot cheaper then you made them, and we don’t have to pay x, y, z. We don’t have to pay this actor this much money.” I do this for almost free, essentially! It cost me a little money to do it, but I believe in it.
Q: What question would you ask Gary Webb, if he were alive today?
JR: I would ask what made him laugh, and the simplest little things that had nothing to do with his job. I would ask very personal things.
Q: Based on your research and your instinct, do you think Gary committed suicide?
JR: I always reserve my comment on that, because I think that’s where, in any good investigative reporting, you don’t put your opinion on it as much as you serve it up on both sides. You let the audience come up with their own ideas. Privately, I could tell you what I think, given all the information that I do know, outside of what is presented in the movie. It still doesn’t matter – what matters is what the audience thinks.
Q: What was the process of working with Lucas Hedges (who played Gary’s oldest son, Ian) on the film?
JR: It was awesome. I was very adamant on trying to cast the boy right, and Michael Cuesta found a great, great boy. We got so lucky with Lucas. The whole family dynamic was very important to me, and I think we got very, very lucky.
Q: Did you personally had any experience with drug addiction during the period the film is set in?
JR: I saw it in L.A., but at that time, it wasn’t even going down into Carson and Watts, even downtown. That’s really, really gentrified, and changed so much.
Really my only personal experience with the downstream effects of what Gary uncovered is, sadly, a PSA announcement for the war on drugs. I don’t know if you remember that campaign or not; I think it’s even in the movie, where you see the two fried eggs, “This is your brain/this is your brain on drugs.”
That PSA they auditioned for in ’93, and I remember sitting on this apple box, and literally all you wanted to do was tear the room apart. I remember just sitting in this room, and I started ripping sh*t off of the walls and throwing things and going crazy, and then I walked out. I didn’t get the PSA. But that’s my only personal.
Q: Since you didn’t have the luxury of meeting Gary, did that give you more freedom to play him? How were you informing yourself to be Gary?
JR: I’ve played a lot of people who have existed, and who exist still. It’s easier at first to find a character, because there’s a road map for you, already laid out. But as you get into it, and then you realize as you get deeper down the rabbit hole with all this information – now you’re limited by the information that you have. So in certain scenes, you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know if that’s really truthful, from what I know.”
If you’re playing some kind of Bourne-type of character, it doesn’t matter, as you can make up any character you want, as long as it’s still truthful to the character. There are limitations, absolutely, to playing a real life guy. It makes it more important to get it right, and to be accountable to his family and what he’s left behind.
Q: Did you interact much with Gary’s wife at all?
JR: I spoke to his family the last week of shooting, and connected with them. Now we talk often.
Q: Michael Cuesta has said you and Gary were very different people? When you looked into Gary’s life, did you find yourself having anything strangely in common with him?
JR: Yeah, I guess. We’re very different, but I think the parallels between us are tenacity and perseverance, and passion for what we do. One’s very selfless, and one’s very selfish. Unfortunately, I’m on the selfish side. But yeah, he’s an amazing human, and really smart. I have a lot to learn from him.
Q: Would you say that Gary is like a warrior and goes through a battle, especially in his own mind?
JR: He’s a warrior in his mind, sure, but not in the sense of ‘Braveheart.’ You can’t just put blue face paint on him and have him out leading the charge. But in his mind, he’s a shepherd. He’s not a follower, he’s a leader. He’s unafraid, or even if he is afraid, he still owns that fear, and goes down roads, to fight an unwinnable war. He’s fighting an unwinnable war. He knows that nothing good’s going to come from telling the story. But he’s still going to, anyway.
Q: People often credit you for is finding depths to your characters in some of your actions films. How do you find the heart of those kinds of characters?
JR: I don’t know.-that’s just my job! To understand plight and fuel behind why people do what they do separates us all, I’ve found. The reasons why we do things in life separate us and make us individuals. Even if we’re from the same family, and we look exactly alike, why we do things is what I grab on to, with both fictional characters and non-fictional characters, I go to that base level, and that informs me.
Q: What did you think about the way he lost his family for this cause? Could you see yourself doing something like that?
JR: I don’t think I’d have the strength to give up on my family. He was a great husband and a great father, and he loved his family very, very much; he never turned his back on them. He was just very focused and blinded by the search for truth. You can’t really fault a man for that. They may have some fallout, but you can’t fault a man for that.
Written by: Karen Benardello