There was a moment, back in the early 2010s, when Jeremy Renner really did it for me. The strong forearms, the relative shortness (5 feet 9 inches) — so taciturn, the perfect addition to my pantheon of Busted-Face Hollywood Men. Renner rose to prominence in the midst of a catastrophic worldwide recession, a model of the sort of working-class (white) masculinity seemingly under siege on all fronts. Like George Clooney before him, he’d spent decades toiling on the fringes of Hollywood, taking roles in commercials, television pilots, and indie films. By the time he arrived at stardom — cemented by back-to-back Oscar nominations for The Hurt Locker and The Town (2010) — he seemed mature, fully formed, confident in his skill and his role.
But around that same time, Renner was plucked up as the next American action hero — and over the next few years, his image began to sour. He looked the same, he acted pretty much the same; he became a father and doted on his daughter. But what kind of celebrity was he? Was he an indie darling, or the only Marvel superhero not on the Infinity War poster? Was he a humble guy just flipping houses, or a guy putting on fake concerts in the desert for a series of Jeep commercials? Was he a hot, likable movie star on the rise, or kind of a tool?
That tension came to a head earlier this month, when the Jeremy Renner Official app was shut down after being beset by trolls (again). There was some of the normal, run-of-the-mill trolling (death threats, misogynistic shit). But the real implosion was incited by the sort of trolls, like Deadspin’s Stefan Heck, who tried to see what would happen if, in answer to Renner’s question about plans for the weekend, he answered “looking at porno.” The sort of troll that posed as “Jeremy Renner’s Evil Twin” to suggest that he had put his “balls all over” Renner’s onion rings — or pretended to be an official account for Casey Anthony, and then, in turn, pretended to be Jeremy Renner defending Casey Anthony’s right to have an account. On Sept. 4, Renner publicly announced, “Due to clever individuals who were able to manipulate ways to impersonate me and others within the app I have asked ESCAPEX, the company the [sic] runs this app to shut it down immediately.”
It was a shitshow that, rather than sparking much hand-wringing over the toxic state of online discourse, primarily prompted most of the internet to wonder: Why does Jeremy Renner have his own app?
No one would ask that question about a fan website, or a forum or Facebook group. But a personal app communicates a weird mix of hubris and desperation: It’s a more crass and complicated version of Instagram, explicitly monetizing the “personal” content and interactions that the rest of social media provides for free (Escapex apps like Renner’s provide a tightly policed positive-commentary conduit between a celebrity and their superfans, wherein users can purchase the ability to “boost” their comments to prominence).
The Kardashians had personal apps that supplied content to fans for a monthly fee, before shutting them down this year, but those made perfect sense: The incredibly successful Kardashian brand is built on a willingness to monetize, well, everything. Renner’s app drama found him in an odd, liminal space of being at once too “legitimately” famous for this sort of explicit monetization (an Oscar nominee!) but also somehow not famous enough for people to understand why the app would exist in the first place. He made it hard not to ask the question: Who does Jeremy Renner think he is?
If that’s still a little unclear, the way most of us have come to see him has solidified into something best encapsulated by writer Nick Ciarelli: “like if a normal guy who works at Dick’s Sporting Goods was granted many wishes by god.” Renner has openly modeled that normal-guy image for the last decade: in interviews, in endorsement deals, in profiles, on junkets, in role choices. The existence of the app just cast all of it — the Jeremy Renner Store stocked with camping gear on Amazon; the vanity singing project; the Jeep ads; the abundance of leather car coats; the use of hashtags like #nature, #SharedExperiences, #SundayFunday, and #LoveTheseDudes — in a different light.
As a public figure, Renner is stuck in the no-man’s-land of contemporary Hollywood: too much “who-y” behavior for huge stardom, too much of a grizzled character actor to be a leading man, too established as a cineplex superhero to pivot to quality television, too much of a Hollywood name to lean in on #sponcon and semi-shady fan exploitation via app without attracting side-eye.
The sheer existence — and vertiginous decline — of the Jeremy Renner Official app is weird and inexplicably hilarious. But like the rest of Renner’s current image, it’s also a symptom of our current, confusing moment in pop culture and the economy built around it, where it’s unclear if the truly massive Hollywood star is increasingly a relic of the past. Why does Jeremy Renner have an app? A music career? An Amazon store? Because contemporary stardom is weird and contradictory and more impossible than ever to navigate, let alone master.
When Renner first broke into the national consciousness, he was hailed as the sort of man who had, as GQ put it, “seen a little bit” — like he’d done things with his hands, including punching people. The phrase also nodded to the reality that, at age 37, he was old, at least for an “emerging” Hollywood star. While Renner had been known for some time as a clutch supporting actor around Hollywood — first distinguishing himself in Dahmer (2002), followed by roles in S.W.A.T. (2003), North Country (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and 28 Weeks Later (2007) — by the time The Hurt Locker was released in 2009, he’d been trying to make it in Hollywood for nearly 20 years.
In the publicity haze surrounding Hurt Locker and Renner’s subsequent Oscar nomination, different iterations of the “seen a little bit” theme began to coalesce, with an emphasis on the masculine. Hurt Locker producer Greg Shapiro told Boston.com that “a lot of actors today feel like boys.” Renner, by contrast, “feels like a man.” He loved riding motorcycles (alone). He didn’t like talking much. Sure, he’d briefly worked as a makeup artist behind the Lancôme counter, but it was a great way to “hit on chicks.” Even his first foray into acting was masculine: He was paid $50 to go to a police academy training session, resist arrest, and kick a cop in the balls. When complimented on looking good for his age, he replied, “Must be all that smoking and drinking.”
Renner was framed as the opposite of a feminized pretty boy, with what Details magazine described as a “sturdily constructed” face with “De Niro-esque bull-nostrilled proboscis” and the “hooded, watery, fuck-or-fight eyes of Robert Mitchum.” He owned a French bulldog, which he described as “the toughest, most masculine little dog” available; in Men’s Health, he outlined his “very conscious decision to be fearless, to live a life of fear-freeness,” which means doing something every day that scares him (swimming with sharks, racing cars at the Baja 500 in Mexico). Writers emphasized just how physically taxing his Hurt Locker performance was; he suffered under the weight of a massive detonation safety suit in triple-digit heat for weeks on end.
Renner was framed as the opposite of a feminized pretty boy.
Renner has generally been game for interviews (almost always with men, whom he mostly refers to as “brother”) but he’s keen to note that he hates attention, he loathes rumors, he despises gossip — all of the most feminizing aspects of fame, which he finds “nauseating,” especially suggestions that he’s sleeping with his best friend and “live-in business partner,” Kristoffer Winters (whom he also refers to as “my brother”). “Anyone I ended up touching at the Academy Awards, I was [apparently] having sex with,” he told UK journalist Declan Cashin in 2011. “Where would I find the time? If I pet my dog does that mean he’s blowing me? Come on!”
And then there’s the house-flipping. In the early 2000s, Renner took his first substantial acting paycheck and used it to buy a house and flip it with Winters. Then they flipped another house, and another one — which helped float Renner financially as he continued to try to make his second decade in Hollywood a reality. Unlike, say, Brad Pitt, who was into architecture, Renner was handy, thrifty, and deeply unpretentious, to the point that he was still living in one of the homes he and Winters were remodeling during the Hurt Locker Oscars campaign. Even after his big break, Renner told GQ that he had no plans to get out of real estate: “It feels good to have your money invested somewhere else,” he said. “And then say, ‘Fuck you, I don’t need your damn movie.’”
Taking press on a tour of his “structures” — Renner’s word for the houses he’s flipped — became his go-to, providing a de facto framework for interviews and profiles. Add in a scene-stealing performance as an unhinged, tatted-up, deeply Boston-accented bank robber in The Town, which earned him a second Oscar nomination, and his image began to coalesce beneath a hard veneer of working-class authenticity.
“Jeremy Renner is the blue-collar face in the crowd,” Boston.com explained. Sam Rockwell, who costarred with Renner in The Assassination of Jesse James, told Men’s Journal that Renner has “a sort of West Coast machismo, an old-school Steve McQueen thing.” “It’s cool to have guys like that in the movie business, because they’re not around much anymore,” Rockwell said. “Renner’s good on a motorcycle, he’s good on a horse, he can drive a car. He’s just a dude.”
That sort of rhetoric helped distract from the missing element in Renner’s celebrity equation: a love interest. In 2010, he was (very dubiously) linked with Charlize Theron; gossip blogs speculated that he was flirting with Jessica Simpson and later dating the British actress Janet Montgomery. Renner told reporters about the two long-term relationships he’d been in before his Hurt Locker breakout, but mostly deflected questions about his love life with pithy, playful answers: “I never dated, because I couldn’t afford to date,” he told Details. “I didn’t even have electricity.” He explained that he’d always prioritized work over relationships: “Even now, any woman would take a No. 2 seat to my job.”
When pressed on specifics of his personal life, Renner would often lash out at the Hollywood gossip machine. “I want my personal life to be personal,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “How about I go peek in your window, take what underwear you wore last night, whose husband you were f—ing, and shove that in the megaphone throughout your neighborhood? How does that feel? It’s none of your goddamn business.”
It’s a common frustration among Hollywood stars, particularly men: Gossip helps animate stardom, but gossip puts men in the deeply unsettling (and often unfamiliar) position of having little control over their public image. But even with exclamations like the one above, Renner was never framed as a difficult celebrity. Instead, he was just “authentic.” He “clearly missed his Self-Editing 101 class,” the Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway explained, “Or one might imagine, he ditched it, smoking on the loading dock behind school.” Talking about “putting people to sleep,” aka choking them unconscious, and getting “shit-bagged” — all of it was proof that, unlike other fabricated, self-editing stars, Renner was just a guy. The sort of guy who’d never do something as blatantly self-exploitative as, say, launch his own personal app.
After the success of The Hurt Locker and The Town, Renner was set up as the industry’s next great action hero. He was primed to take over the Bourne franchise from Matt Damon, to inherit Mission: Impossible from Tom Cruise, and to help shoulder the massive weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Hawkeye. But The Bourne Legacy underperformed in 2012, and rumors of Renner’s Mission: Impossible takeover evaporated, as did the possibility of a Hawkeye stand-alone movie.
Renner increasingly seemed to be, well, over it. The Immigrant (2013), directed by Hollywood darling James Gray, failed to attract awards notice. Out of the four stars in American Hustle (also 2013), Renner was the only one not to get nominated for an Oscar. His production company’s first big film, Kill the Messenger (2014) — starring Renner — flopped at the box office, grossing just under $2.5 million. He’d become what Entertainment Weekly critic Darren Franich termed the “setup man”: “the movie equivalent of the pitcher who comes in for the seventh or eighth inning, after the starter, before the closer.” He was the foil that allows the leading man to shine (see: Mission: Impossible) but also the guy who keeps the game in play, orchestrating a “hold,” which is exactly what he did for the Bourne franchise while Damon decided whether or not he’d return.
It must be rough when you’re drafted to a team as an ace pitcher and then find yourself continuously relegated to setup duties.
It’s not that it’s bad, or even degrading, to be a supporting actor (just ask Brad Pitt!). But it must be rough when you’re drafted to a team as an ace pitcher and then find yourself continuously relegated to setup duties. “Maybe this is the modern playbook,” Franich speculated. “Actor takes minor roles in big movies, says his lines, hits his marks, and goes home. Maybe that is the Renner Legacy. But you wonder what it would look like if one of these big movies cared about Renner enough to make him care.”
That disaffection was palpable during the sprawling global press tours for each big movie, which he called “exhausting and tedious.” At a press junket for Avengers: Age of Ultron in April 2015, Renner referred to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character as “a slut.” He apologized for the joke, only to defend it two weeks later in an appearance on Conan. That controversy played out at the same time Renner was going through a messy divorce and custody battle with Sonni Pacheco, the mother of his then-2-year-old daughter, Ava; since Ava’s birth he had begun to fashion himself in interviews as a devoted father, first and foremost. Fatherhood “changes how much I do,” he told the Modesto Bee in 2013. “I don’t want to be away from my family like I was for the past several years on the franchise run.”
In a 2015 Playboy interview ahead of the release of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Renner did the unthinkable: spoke honestly about what it’s like to work on a franchise. “This Mission was like all the Missions,” he said. “I just went and gave to the best of my ability in the scenario I was in. Now, was it the best scenario for me? The best at what I’m good at? Fuck, no.” In the same interview, he shifted his longtime reaction to rumors about his sexuality. “I don’t care, ultimately, if that’s what people want to think, read and care about,” he said. “Fucking say whatever the hell you want about me.” He added, “To suggest that it’s negative, that being gay is a terrible thing, a perversion or whatever — I just don’t get it. Don’t you wish we were in a world where we’re not shaming, judging and boxing people in?”
That philosophy was in keeping with Renner’s half-hearted attempt at a new brand: what the Observer called a “badass renaissance man.” In a 2015 ad for Rémy Martin cognac, Renner proclaimed, “I guess I’ve always been hard to label,” moving from faux film set to faux construction site to faux musical stage, “because I’m not one thing. Never have been.” In an interview with Maxim, Renner explained that Rémy Martin was “celebrating” his life with the message that “none of us should be pigeonholed.” (He also admitted that his favorite curse word was “cunt.”) “Most people know me as an actor,” he told Crave Online (now known as Mandatory), “but I’m also a producer, a musician, and I renovate homes.”
If you’d been paying even passing attention to Renner, it’d be difficult to miss that he also renovated homes. But the emphasis on music was new. Renner explained that he’d realized his days as a regular at local karaoke bars before he got famous — five nights a week, in part because he was so broke, and they’d hand out free drinks to people who sang — were some of the happiest of his life. Which is why he decided to say fuck it and actually record some songs: “It’s not for any other reason than to just, kind of, do it,” he told the Observer. “It’s just to get in there, and make some music with my friends.”
This is the point where it’s important to note that — unlike many celebrities who have pivoted to music “to just, kind of, do it” — Renner has a legitimately good voice. You can hear it here, and here, and here. It’s a very karaoke voice: the sort of voice that thrives on attention, as illustrated in this YouTube video from 2013, in which he sings “New York State of Mind” on TV with Jimmy Fallon, spliced together with a clip of Avengers costar Robert Downey Jr. performing onstage with Sting. Downey exudes rock star indifference. Renner will be here all night.
Downey exudes rock star indifference. Renner will be here all night.
Renner’s embrace of his singing was the beginning of the current Renner iteration: the full-on Dick’s Sporting Goods employee-touched-by-God. He launched the first iteration of his app in 2017, which allowed him the frictionless interface with his fans that Instagram couldn’t provide. When the app was first shut down by trolls later that year, best friend/brother/house-flipping partner Winters — who, by that point, was also working as Renner’s business manager — told the Ringer that they weren’t “censoring” negative comments, just blocking anyone who says anything nasty. “If someone doesn’t like Jeremy, they don’t have to like Jeremy,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we have to post their comments in his app. They can go to a hundred other places and say something negative.”
The app, and the philosophy behind it, was an early manifestation of what the New York Times calls “the new walled garden of celebrity” — which isn’t actually that new. It’s a throwback to old Hollywood stardom, when the channel between stars and fans was tightly managed by the star’s studio and heavily monetized in the form of membership fees for fan clubs, which promised the same sort of intimate personal information, albeit in analog form, as the dedicated celebrity app. But that strategy is unpopular, or at least uncool, in an era of “free” access to stars via social media. “Real” stars either ignore social media entirely (Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt) or master it with savvy (Reese Witherspoon, Will Smith). Renner’s strategy was to make his own sandbox and throw out everyone who wasn’t willing to pay to play by his rules.
New Renner signed that deal with Jeep for a series of commercials, featuring numerous desert twirls and sand-kicks. New Renner released a single that sounds like bargain-basement Imagine Dragons. New Renner “selected” a bunch of outdoor implements (Sleeping bags! Lighters! Archery implements, just like Hawkeye’s!) and allowed Amazon to group them under the banner of the Jeremy Renner Store, featuring straight-faced photography of him fake-camping. If you think New Renner’s a tool, fine; he’ll go cry himself to sleep in his mountains of endorsement and Marvel money.
That sentiment is part of what’s fueled the long internet tail of the Renner app demise. It’s rare and oddly fascinating to watch a star so brazenly flaunt so many Hollywood PR directives. On one level, I’m totally turned off; on another, I clearly cannot stop thinking about his app, or the font he used to announce its demise (Bradley Hand!!!), or his declaration that it “jumped the shark. Literally.” I keep watching the Jeep ads and reading about this supposed (is it still happening?) relationship with Lady Gaga, and cringing when Jon Hamm and Ed Helms don’t know what to do with themselves when Renner takes over “Sister Christian” during Carpool Karaoke. I have a column on Twitter that’s just tweets about Jeremy Renner and it gives me continuous pleasure. Like Chrissy Teigen, apparently I NEED MYRENNER. Am I a Renn-head, or am I what Renner described in his app-shuttering note as “everything I detest and can’t and won’t condone”?
James Cagney, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen — the stars to whom Renner is most often compared — all railed against the boundaries of the iteration of Hollywood in which they found themselves. Renner, in his own way, is doing the same. The difference is that we’ve so much less tolerance now for men’s bad behavior and impetuousness, their hubris and allergy to the very systems that benefit them. There’s something almost charming about Renner’s current moment, but there’s something deeply insufferable, too. It’s novel only insofar as we’re unaccustomed to watching manly action men be the ones to stumble as they attempt to navigate the line between authenticity and self-commodification.
On one level, I’m totally turned off; on another, I clearly cannot stop thinking about his app.
For years, Renner’s production company has been developing a biopic of Steve McQueen — there’s even a script, written by James Gray. In 2012, Renner was asked about its status, and his enduring interest. “I think he’s a compelling individual,” he explained. “He was a walking paradox, a dichotomy: the most masculine and powerful man you could probably meet and, at the same time, very insecure. I want to dive into who he was.”
Every star is more complicated, more fallible, and less comprehensible than their mainstream image suggests. Yet every time that complication is revealed by something weird that slips through the cracks of a star’s PR apparatus, it’s still treated as a sort of titillating mini-betrayal. Two of Renner’s most famous costars have been there before — see the Cruise couch jump of 2005 or Downey Jr. waking up in a neighbor’s bedroom in 1996 — even if it feels like centuries ago in internet time. Each of those moments asks: Who is this star we thought we knew? And why is he acting so strangely? The implosion of the Renner app is simply that revelation happening in real, obsessively internet-documented, time.
Renner tried, and failed, to insulate himself from the toxic reality of packaging a human identity for public consumption as a digital brand — and now he’s back out here in the swamp, with everyone else. Twenty-first-century stars: They really are just like us. ●