LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When casting the three lead soldiers for her action-filled war drama "The Hurt Locker," director Kathryn Bigelow avoided big name talent so audiences wouldn't know who was going to live or die judging solely by Hollywood star power.
The result is an unpredictable and suspenseful movie that is winning fans among critics and movie audiences and could boost the career of one of its stars, Jeremy Renner, to new heights -- if, that is, he wants it.
The 38-year-old actor has worked steadily in Hollywood for roughly a decade earning industry respect but little household name recognition. Yet, he is unsure how much he wants to increase his consumer appeal by working in big-budget studio movies because, he says, he feels more challenged in the world of independent film.
"Kathryn wanted fresh faces so I'm the new guy who's been here 10 years," Renner joked recently with Reuters.
"Hurt Locker" follows an elite band of soldiers who disarm roadside bombs on the streets of Baghdad.
At the center is Renner's character, Staff Sergeant William James, a swaggering, reckless rebel with complete disregard for authority. But for all his bravado, James is affected by his surroundings, as seen in his relationship with an Iraqi boy.
After playing film festivals, "Hurt Locker" opened in major U.S. cities in late June to healthy box office returns, and it expands wider on Friday, July 10.
Online movie rating service FanScore, which ranks films on critical reviews, audience buzz and per-screen ticket sales, puts "Hurt Locker" at No. 3 on its chart of top films with a score of 87, one point behind comedy "The Hangover" and seven points behind No. 1 film, animated "Up" -- not bad company.
Renner has been in good company before, starring in films alongside Colin Farrell in "S.W.A.T.", Charlize Theron in "North Country" and Brad Pitt in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."
The California native has worked consistently in film and on television since the 1990s, even getting top billing in "28 Weeks Later," the sequel to director Danny Boyle's successful "28 Days Later." Last month, he ended a 10-episode run on the ABC television network's cop show "The Unusuals."
Yet, the actor told Reuters that working in major studio movies can be "tough" and often "frustrating."
"I love working on independents where I can do really meaty, awesome, fantastic roles. But no one usually sees them because there's no money or distribution," he said.
The indie world is where Renner tends to shine, earning festival prizes for films like 2006's "Neo Ned" and 2001's "Fish in a Barrel." His creepy turn as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in 2002's "Dahmer" earned Renner his first Independent Spirit Award nomination -- the top honors for indie movies.
He was nominated again for a Spirit award with "Hurt Locker" after its festival run, putting him a category alongside major A-listers including Sean Penn and Javier Bardem. Mickey Rourke won for "The Wrestler."
While the acclaim has yet to translate into mainstream, box office appeal, Bigelow feels Renner's time is near.
"Russell Crowe came to the attention of American audiences when he was 33," she said referring to his "L.A. Confidential." "Daniel Craig also was a 30-something break-out actor. Jeremy's trajectory is not unusual for a serious leading man that can carry a commercial movie but also has real acting chops."
But the actor seems to be in a quandary about how success and fame might affect his work after seeing their impact first hand with the likes of Farrell and Pitt.
"I don't want a three-picture (studio) deal because that means I get to do one movie I like and two that I don't. So do I resist wanting to become a household name? I'm not sure.
"I understand the upside of being wanted because it creates opportunities," Renner said, "I'll still be steadfast in the opportunities I choose but at the end of the day, I don't have any doubts about where I'm going or what I'm doing."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte