ESQ&A: Jeremy Renner Talks Strong Women, Superheroes And Smart Science Fiction

Esquire caught up with the actor ahead of the release of Arrival

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Autumn at the cinema traditionally means the appearance of would-be Oscar films, but another, newer trend has emerged: the annual grown-up A-list science-fiction movie. Starting in 2013 with Gravity, there's been Interstellar and The Martian and in 2016 it's Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

A tense and surprising first-contact movie, it marks a departure for the twice-Oscar-nominated Renner. After pinging his Hawkeye bow for the fourth time in a Marvel movie during Captain America: Civil War earlier this year, in Arrival he plays second fiddle, as a quiet mathematician, to a linguist played by Adams, who is trying to communicate with aliens. But by playing against type, Renner has a pivotal role in the year's smartest sci-fi, a terrific film that demands to be seen on the big screen.

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ESQUIRE: Were you looking for a role unlike the ones we usually see you in?

JEREMY RENNER: That was part of the allure: this movie is something that I would never get cast in, as was the case with American Hustle for me. Here, there was nothing on the page in this script to say that this character is interesting. Nothing there. So I was hesitating. Then I thought: amazing director [Denis Villeneuve, maker of Prisoners, Sicario and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel], amazing story and Amy Adams playing a smart badass woman in a lead role who reminds me of my mom and my sisters. So I did it.

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Could your mum or your sisters talk to aliens?

No. Amy's character is tolerant, smart, thoughtful, empathetic, compassionate - all these things that make a woman a woman and separates them from men. This woman is not a victim, and a lot of times, even in great films, the lead woman is victimised. Not here: she is a real-life superhero trying to save the world.

Did the filmmakers want a Marvel superhero to make her look even tougher?

I didn't really ask why they wanted me. I just had to figure out how I could help tell the story without being bored to tears. Denis was like, "Just because the character is very lightly written in the script, he's very important to the story." So I was in. Even though I ultimately have nothing to contribute to this movie.

When you're making a film with lots of CGI, is it hard to imagine the end product?

You kind of have an idea. I haven't been in a film where the visual effects have disappointed. Marvel does a good job, you know, and the effects in Arrival are understated and brilliant. When I watched it, in a little screening room with five other people, the credits came on and I said, literally, quote unquote, "That's a motherfucking director". I ran out of that theatre and cried in the parking lot. It knocked me sideways, and still does. Because I'm a father, maybe [Adams' character is part of a unique mother-daughter relationship], I needed to walk away and have a moment. And I knew what was coming: I was there shooting the damn thing!

Why aren't there more grown-up genre films like this?

After the fatigue of all these big, giant movies of the summer – some of which I'm in, it must be said – this is something thoughtful and taut. Those huge movies are great, but I feel like Hollywood spoon-feeds people a lot of dumbed-down material. Yet there are a lot of smart people out there who want to be entertained.

Arrival is in cinemas from November 10.