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Interview: 'Kill the Messenger' star Jeremy Renner says good journalism is 'not popular'

Jeremy Renner says his new docudrama "Kill the Messenger," about reporter Gary Webb, speaks to not only whistle blowing but the decay of journalism.

Actor Jeremy Renner produced and starred in the docudrama "Kill the Messenger." Credit: Getty Images Actor Jeremy Renner produced and starred in the docudrama "Kill the Messenger."
Credit: Getty Images

Jeremy Renner didn’t know why “Kill the Messenger” had to be a movie until he was halfway through it. It tells of Gary Webb, a journalist at the tiny San Jose Mercury News who broke a story alleging a link between the CIA and the sudden appearance of crack-cocaine in parts of Los Angeles. What finally got Renner on board was the aftermath, when Webb was hounded for his piece to the point where his career was destroyed. In 2004 Webb was found dead of an apparent suicide.

“It was a movie I wanted to do,” Renner recalls. “Then it was a movie I had to do.”

Still, he found his take on the film evolving as production of the film, his first as a producer, went on. “Before it was about Gary Webb and his plight. I love the David and Goliath story, the everyman in extraordinary circumstances,” he says. “Ultimately it became a commentary on where we are today. I wouldn’t have known two years ago when we were doing this that whistle blowing would be such a popular topic right now.”

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But it was more than that. It also touched on newspapers. “Good journalism is not popular. People don’t care about good writing and good investigative reporting. They care about nude celebrity leaked photos. And that’s sad,” he says. “You can’t blame the media, even though I do. They do exacerbate the fire that’s already started. But it’s people who want to see this stuff.”

Playing a journalist meant he had to learn about it. “That was a new thing for me to think about, being on that side of it, rather than having hatred towards it,” he says. Indeed, Renner has been hounded by a number of rumors about his personal life, which he tirelessly insists are erroneous. He consulted with “Kill the Messenger” screenwriter Peter Landesman and his “The Hurt Locker” author Mark Boal, both former investigative reporters. But he was also concerned with how journalism would actually look like onscreen.

“No one wants to see Gary Webb researching. That’s just not fun,” Renner explains. “So we had him talk about his research with his editor.”

Jeremy Renner (with Mary Elizabeth Winstead) plays reporter Gary Webb in "Kill the Messenger." Credit: Chuck Zlotnick, Focus Features Jeremy Renner (with Mary Elizabeth Winstead) plays reporter Gary Webb in "Kill the Messenger."
Credit: Chuck Zlotnick, Focus Features

Acting can be a form of journalism, especially if you’re playing a real person. He says he didn’t meet with Webb’s family until he had done his own research into Webb as a person. “He was tenacious and self-righteous and stubborn. Those are attributes but they’re also flaws,” he says. “That’s what I love about Gary Webb: He’s unapologetically flawed, and that’s what makes him heroic. He accepted all those things about himself.” Without that drive, Renner says, Webb might never have pushed to get these allegations out in the open.

“Kill the Messenger” exists chiefly because Renner’s name is familiar to the globe’s moviegoers; in fact, he read the script while shooting “Marvel’s The Avengers.” Renner has that series, plus “Mission: Impossible” and the “Bourne” series (though Matt Damon has since reclaimed his role in the franchise). “Doing ‘Avengers’ movies lets me do ‘Kill the Messenger,” he explains. “We do those, then we get to make this movie that no one seemingly wants to make, because it’s not easy. No one’s throwing money at ‘Kill the Messenger.’”

It’s easy to forget — in part because the movie was forgotten almost as soon as it was released — but Renner got his start in no less than 1995’s “National Lampoon’s Senior Trip,” in which he played one of the misbehaving, slacker teens. “That was my first job ever as an actor on film,” he says. “I don’t like to bash something that meant so much to me at the time. It’s a crap movie, but it was a huge thing for me. It gave me a lot of confidence.”

It also introduced him to costar Tommy Chong. Asked what he’s like, he says, “Pretty much what you’d think. I remember some guitar streaming form his trailer, as well as some smoke.” It wasn’t, he recalls, herbal.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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