By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Whether it's a serial killer, a bomb disposal expert or an investigative journalist in the political thriller movie "Kill the Messenger," actor Jeremy Renner likes playing dark characters and ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.
"Kill the Messenger," which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, is based on the true story of the late American journalist Gary Webb who wrote about links between drug traffickers, Nicaraguan rebels and the CIA.
Renner plays Webb, whose three-part series in 1996 about the CIA arming Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s as crack cocaine was flooding poor urban areas, caused a storm of controversy at the time.
"There are a lot of parallels that we have as people, even though we are very different. There is a rebellious quality to him," Renner, a double Oscar nominee for "The Town" and "The Hurt Locker," said about Webb.
Renner, 43, knew little about him when he first came across the script, which is based on Webb's book "Dark Alliance" and "Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb" by Nick Schou.
Webb committed suicide in 2004
"I kept researching a little bit more and realized this is a story that I want to tell. And the more I researched it, it became a story I had to tell," he said.
Webb's reports for California's San Jose Mercury News put him and the newspaper on the national map, led to protests by African Americans convinced that the CIA had fueled the crack epidemic among black Americans and left bigger, more influential news organizations embarrassed for not having the story.
Other newspapers picked holes in his reporting, questioned his facts and discredited him.
"I knew the story. I remember it, him being discredited," said director Michael Cuesta, who also directed episodes of the spy thriller TV series "Homeland."
"It was just devastating. I felt for him and I saw that as an injustice."
The film follows Webb from when he stumbles upon the story when he is contacted by the girlfriend of an accused drug dealer, to a Nicaraguan jail to question a drug kingpin and to Los Angeles and Washington to track down leads and sources.
Despite warnings and intimidation, Webb pursued the story although it put tremendous strains on him, his family and everyone around him.
Renner leads a star cast including Michael Sheen ("Frost/Nixon"), Ray Liotta ("Goodfellas") and Andy Garcia ("Ocean's Twelve").
"Jeremy inhabits the character just by being in front of the camera," Cuesta said. "I see him as a guy that just understands it instinctively."
"Kill the Messenger" is the first film made by Renner's production company, Combine, which he sees as a way of ensuring quality control for his career.
"Nobody is trying to make these types of movies anymore," he said. "Ultimately I think the take-away message, for me going through the journey I have been through, is how important the First Amendment is and the freedom of speech."
(Reporting by Patricia Reaney, Editing by Jill Serjeant and Cynthia Osterman)