ST. LOUIS -- You'd think that suppressing a grin about joining two of the biggest franchises in film history and starting a surefire third would be impossible. But actor Jeremy Renner, who co-stars in the new "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" as well as the upcoming "Bourne" and "Avengers" movies, is playing his cards close to his bulletproof vest.
Mr. Renner has been tapped for stardom before, after his surprisingly humane performance as a serial killer in 2002's "Dahmer." He was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, but studio suitors were scared off.
He returned to the grind of auditions and landed supporting roles in "S.W.A.T.," "28 Weeks Later" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." He also starred in the short-lived cop series "The Unusuals," dabbled in music and rehabbed houses in Hollywood.
But Mr. Renner had an influential fan in director Kathryn Bigelow, who admired his work in "Dahmer" and wanted him for the lead role in an Iraq war film called "The Hurt Locker."
"She had to convince the producers that the same guy who played Jeffrey Dahmer could be a war hero," Mr. Renner said in a recent phone interview. "But she thought I was someone who could add dimensions to the character without judging him. Finding the humanity in a villain and the flaws in a hero is Drama 101."
For his role as a volatile demolitions expert, Mr. Renner was nominated for an Academy Award, and "The Hurt Locker" was named best picture of 2008. Two years later, he was nominated for best supporting actor as a ruthless bank robber in Ben Affleck's "The Town."
At age 40, the native of Modesto, Calif., who once studied to be a cop, is pocketing plum roles in guaranteed blockbusters. In next summer's all-star comic-book movie "The Avengers," he plays Hawkeye, the archer (for which he did a cameo in "Thor").
In "The Bourne Legacy," slated for release in August, Mr. Renner inherits the action-hero mantle from Matt Damon. And in "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," he is the top lieutenant to covert operative Tom Cruise. There's gossip that each of these roles could lead to long-term commitments.
Mr. Renner admits that there have already been discussions about sequels to those movies, but his participation depends on the public's interest -- and his own.
"As an actor, you just want to be challenged," he said.
His future challenges include a supernatural update of a fairy tale in "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" and securing funds to produce and star in a biography of quintessentially cool actor Steve McQueen. And although Mr. Renner chuckles at the idea of doing comedy, "if there's a great script about a transvestite detective, I'd have to check my schedule."
His biggest immediate challenge may be handling the fame that comes from starring in blockbuster movies.
"It's surreal that a dude from a small town is traveling in these circles, but I don't take anything for granted," he said. "Just like in 'Ghost Protocol,' you could have all sorts of experts and money at your disposal, but then you get hit by a sandstorm and you find yourself lost. It's like the Boy Scouts say -- travel light and be prepared for anything."
First Published December 16, 2011 5:00 AM