Jeremy Renner Talks Narrating 'The World Wars,' Guest Starring on 'Louie,' and Flipping Homes

Two-time Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner says he's not a history buff and he doesn't watch a lot of TV, but History Channel's Memorial Day miniseries The World Wars (May 26–28, 9 p.m.) drew him in. Renner narrates the six-hour, three-night event, which includes interviews with the likes of John McCain, Colin Powell, Leon Panetta, former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, and former British Prime Minister John Major, and re-enactments of major historic events involving men like Roosevelt, Hitler, Patton, Mussolini, Churchill, and MacArthur as they made decisions that would propel the history of the world.

Renner, who's back on the big screen in October in Kill the Messenger, a thriller about Dark Alliance journalist Gary Webb, talked to Yahoo TV about why he signed on for The World Wars and why he's drawn to playing real-life characters on the big screen, how he helps Louis C.K. unfold his personal history in an upcoming guest appearance on Louie, and how his very successful home renovation business gives him the chance to involve himself in the history of Los Angeles.

Oh, and now that True Detective is looking for its next Oscar-caliber cast, we asked him if he'd be interested.

What made you sign on for The World Wars on History Channel?
Well, first: They asked. And I like a lot of stuff they do. It's what I watch on TV. I really don't watch much TV, nor do I have time to, but when I read a book, it's nonfiction. If I watch TV, it's History Channel, Discovery Channel, stuff like that — stuff that's entertaining and I feel like I'm learning something.

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Do you consider yourself a history buff?
I'm not a big history buff, but as I was reading [these scripts], I'm getting re-educated about stuff I've already learned in high school, or maybe should have learned in high school. [Laughs.] But these guys do really beautiful [productions]... I hate to say that there's re-enactors or any of that kind of stuff, because the way they tell the stories is really, really quite beautiful and eloquent and cinematic. It's just great to be a part of, and I've really enjoyed the project.

Specials like this make you think, "Where were these kind of projects when I was in high school?" It would have made those dry textbooks so much more interesting.
Oh, seriously. I mean, seriously. I would have gotten much more involved in it, because it really directs your attention. This particular project, too — it covers the expanse of 1914 through 1945 and covers the World Wars, but it really focuses on the characters and their perspectives, like Hitler and how he became the kind of monster he was, and Stalin and Patton and MacArthur. It's the perspective of all these guys and what they're doing and where they're at, throughout. You get a really cool perspective from a lot of different point of views.

Watch the trailer for The World Wars:

You have played a lot of real-life characters: Jeffrey Dahmer; Carmine in American Hustle, who is based on a real former mayor of Camden, New Jersey; Gary Webb; and you're going to play Steve McQueen in a movie soon. Do those kinds of roles draw you in first?
I definitely like true stories. But there are limitations to playing somebody that exists, so I wouldn't say that I would always run at that… because I'm limited to kind of what they look like, what they move like and talk like. There are limitations to creating a character that way, but I do like the challenge of finding the "why" [behind] their behavior. It's kind of like when we build houses. We don't build new houses — we take beautiful architecture that already existed. It's just falling down, and we redo it. It's taking something that's already quite beautiful, already exists, and being creative and reinventing it. It's kind of like the same thing with playing a real-life character.

Renner on his American Hustle character:

Are you still running your house renovation business?
Yeah, yeah. The one I'm building now is for me, though. We've been finishing that up and too busy to get into anything else. My brother's got a handful of projects he's doing right now, so he's holding down the fort on the real-estate side.

Do you have time to jump in yourself and do some of the physical labor of the renovations?
No, the projects are way too big nowadays for me to do that. The houses would never get done. I have people there that are really good at their jobs, and I oversee everything — the quality control and finishes and layout. I'm doing that now from London. That's probably the next phone call after I talk to you, checking with the contractors and seeing if I got my garage doors in yet.

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You obviously are very passionate about it. What specifically keeps you involved in that business at this point, when your acting career is very, very busy?
It's a tangible form of art to me. Structures and homes and lifestyles… it's nice to drive around Los Angeles and see tombstones, if you will, of moments of my life where I'm able to provide lifestyles for somebody else, and that they will last for a very long time — a lot longer than I'll exist. There's something quite gratifying about that.

You mentioned that you don't watch a lot of TV. Could you see yourself doing a series, like a really great cable drama, at any point?
The landscape of TV has changed so much. When I first started, it was sitcoms and all this other stuff that just really didn't resonate with me as an actor. But yeah, that's where all the great drama is now. It has kind of chilled drama in film, because people get such great series work. So yeah, maybe… now that they're doing these short runs where you can do 10 episodes and get out. Like True Detective, which I thought was really great. Normally, you have to commit seven years of your life before you even start shooting anything [on TV]. It's like getting married to somebody over the weekend. It's a little scary to do network television. I've done that, and it's just a little terrifying. I just did a little bit on Louie that's coming out next month. That was fun, and he's a good dude. I was happy to do that, but it was like: in and out. I could go in for three days and have some fun and move on.

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Do you play yourself on Louie?
No, no. I play a real character in Louie's life. Phil [Seymour] Hoffman was supposed to be in it, too. It's about young Louie, so he isn't even acting in it — he's just directing it. Yeah, then Phil unfortunately passed, but I guess they were able to pull the episode together. [Note: FX confirms Hoffman did not film a role in the episode, which will air on June 9, before he died in February.]

Back to True Detective, you like the series, it is a short-term commitment, and they're casting for Season 2. Is that specifically something you would consider doing?
It's kind of unlikely. In fact, I'm kind of strapped time-wise doing Avengers 2, and Mission: Impossible 5 is rearing its head, and then they want to do another Bourne movie. It's unlikely I can find the time right now. And that's all right. It's just really high-class problems — pretty awesome to have. Even if I really wanted to do it, which I don't, I couldn't.

The World Wars airs May 26–28 at 9 p.m. on History Channel.