Not widely known until just a couple of years ago, actor Jeremy Renner has used his Oscar nominations for both "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town" to springboard into high-profile roles in a slew of Hollywood blockbusters - "The Avengers", "The Bourne Legacy", "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" and - of course - next month's heavily-anticipated "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" opposite Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg and Tom Wilkinson. I recently sat down at a roundtable discussion with the actor to talk about the latest entry in the long-running franchise, this one being helmed by acclaimed animation director Brad Bird ("The Iron Giant", "The Incredibles", "Ratatouille").

Of course, Renner probably never expected at the time he signed on that he'd nearly be losing his lunch on one of the world's biggest movie stars.

"It’s one of those things, like if you, you know, if you get hit by a bus and you didn’t know it, that’s one thing. But if you see the bus coming and you can’t, you get paralyzed and you can’t move, and you just watch it come at you - it’s one of those things," he said of filming a scene in which he was forced to partially dangle outside a window in the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa. "Tom is out there, running around, doing his thing all over the building. And we’re just standing there, sort of by the edge, and that is more terrifying. And then once I hung out, 30 seconds of near vomiting almost happened. ...Tom was laughing, he’s hanging upside down; he’s all red faced and he’s like, 'Look at this view!' I’m like, 'What are you talking about? I’m gonna vomit on you.'

"But once that went away," he continued, "it was like, 'This is beautiful.' I mean, it was just - it was fantastic. And once all the fear went away and all that stuff, it became, you know a really amazing experience. But before that, the anticipation of it all was terrifying."

Now if you don't mind me backing up for just one second,  I also, like Mr. Renner, have a half-fantastic/half-terrifying "Ghost Protocol"-related experience to share with you...

In anticipation of the roundtable, I was invited to screen a few different scenes from the film at the IMAX headquarters in Santa Monica last Sunday. Showing up at the agreed-upon time, I found myself puzzled by the lack of other people around, particularly people I recognized (these screenings are often populated with journalists from various other outlets who you come to know by doing this for long enough).

Not only that, but I wasn't greeted in the normal way - you know, by a smiling publicist with gleaming white teeth sitting in front of a clipboard and a stack of press notes. No, see, there was almost complete silence in the IMAX lobby as I took a seat on one of the plush chairs and, unnerved, began fiddling with my iPhone as the other four people inside - three men and one woman, all talking somewhat apprehensively a few feet away - looked at me with puzzled expressions.

Was I in the right place? Well, surely, I thought to myself. After all, there was a giant "Ghost Protocol" standee just behind me, and this was the correct address...

Suddenly, one of the men stood up and walked over to one of the windows at the other end of the room - the soft glow from the afternoon light outside highlighting his decidedly anxious facial expression.

Are they here yet? One of his companions asked quietly.

No, not yet, he replied.

And that was when I began to get really nervous. I looked over to the man who had first barely greeted me as I walked in the front door as if to say: Just what have I stumbled into here, sir, and how in christ's name do I get out of it? And yet, just like everyone else there, he wasn't looking at me anymore - his gaze turned toward that front window, waiting, searching...for what?

I stood up and attempted to mingle. Everyone else had gotten to their feet, almost as a unit. Two of them introduced themselves to me and asked where I was from.

"HitFix," I replied. "I'm from HitFix." There was an odd sense that I was simultaneously reassuring myself by speaking the words aloud. They both nodded courteously at the name and then went quiet.

Suddenly, a car pulled up. Postures stiffened. I was frightened, quite honestly. I felt the urge to run and hide someplace. Everyone began moving, almost uncertainly, toward the glass front doors. I stood frozen in place, staring through them into the gray afternoon outside...

He appeared then, moving to open the door - smiling, of course, with that big, famous grin of his. Tom Cruise. Not just Tom, but Katie Holmes too, entering the lobby and then greeting each and every one of us in turn.

"Hi, I'm Tom," he grinned at me as he approached and stuck out his hand. "Chris," I said back, somehow afraid that he might suddenly turn on me and begin, I don't know, screaming in my face and asking for my legal ID or something. Through the haze of my confusion, I began to wonder what, exactly, were Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes doing at the IMAX headquarters on a Sunday afternoon for a screening of only a few minutes of film, a film that he was in and had produced and that surely he'd already seen?

Katie, wearing a black dress and heels, impossibly tall, came up and introduced herself too, and I could've sworn a hint of recognition flashed across her face as we met eyes. Perhaps she remembered me from the "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" junket? If she did, would she say that she did? Would I be found out - me, an intruder who clearly didn't belong in this place at his particular moment in time?

But then just as quickly she turned her back and began listening to Tom, who with a few simple words had drawn all attention in the room. We all laughed, I think, at the things he was saying, with that famous smile and that youthful, glowy complexion, though I couldn't quite register all of it as I stood in complete bewilderment. This went on for a bit; we laughed some more. And then, just as quickly, we were being ushered into a nearby screening room.

I entered the black space as if in a daydream, shuffled along by the people who were now all clearly IMAX representatives, bewildered but seemingly hopeless to stall the forward motion of what was happening.

As I stepped inside and stared up at the rows of stadium seating, Tom asked where the best seat in the house was, and was quickly informed that third row, center was his best bet. I stood there, dumbly, in a half-circle of people I didn't know, and then Tom started talking again, aggressively, asking questions of a man with a gray beard who had emerged as the spokesperson for the group.

How many IMAX screens will we be sharing with 'TinTin'? he wondered, and How many total IMAX screens are there, anyway? and other such things. Question after question, in a blur, and I felt a sort of numb concern for the man fielding them, though I was secretly glad that it wasn't me. Tom stated his belief, at one point, that IMAX was the future of cinema, or something of that nature, though someone reminded him that at $18 a ticket seeing a film in the large-screen format was currently out of reach for many American families. He nodded in agreement.

The conversation veered into 3D at one point, too, and Katie said something, once, just as she began fiddling with her long, brunette hair. A mention of Suri not liking the glasses.

And then with a word from Tom the conversation ended; he was ready to watch the film. As he and Katie turned to take their seats, I looked over at the man next to me, and, whispering guiltily, asked if they would be screening the entire film. He said yes, and then - resisting the urge to simply nod my understanding and promptly take a seat in the front row - I finally spat out the words I'd been meaning to say for so long but hadn't quite been able to muster: "I think I'm in the wrong place."

And I was; the press screening had been moved to 7 PM, only I'd been accidentally dropped from the email list and thereby hadn't been informed.  This was Tom and Katie's own private show, see, and I'd crashed it through no fault of my own. Still, I couldn't help but feel a little guilty at my luck (?) as I stepped back out into the dim light of the late afternoon, halfway thankful to have successfully extricated myself and halfway cold at having had my close proximity to the famous couple cut off so abruptly.

But hey, this thing is supposed to be about Renner, isn't it? Silly me. Allow me to pick back up where I left off...and please, forgive the digression.

In the film Renner plays the character of Will Brandt, a rogue IMF agent who must go on a mission alongside Ethan Hunt (Cruise), Jane Carter (Patton) and Benji Dunn (Pegg) to clear the organization's name after it's implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin. "Ghost Protocol" is the actor's first time out in the blockbuster series, and the role he's been given is a fairly complex one - that of an IMF "desk jockey" who may not be exactly who he seems.
 
"I’m attracted to those kind of roles, that you could be good or you could be bad, and you just don’t know," said Renner, gazing out from a pair of milky blue eyes. "I guess I just have one of those arresting faces that look like I want to beat you up or something."
 
Another attractive aspect, of course, was the opportunity to star in a film that people will actually see. Working for much of his film career as either the lead in low-budget independent projects ("Dahmer", "Neo Ned") or in smaller supporting roles in higher-profile films ("S.W.A.T.", "North Country", "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"), Renner is now clearly intent on bulking up his resume with blockbuster projects.
 
"I think it’s great to be part of a franchise that is successful," he told us. "That’s kind of nice to be a part of, when you’re [in] a movie gets all around the world and you know that, because 80% of the movies I’ve done, nobody’s seen. So - kind of going into that’s pretty exciting. And getting the opportunity to work with Tom [Cruise] is really exciting."
 
Like the last three "Mission: Impossible" films, one of the continuing appeals of the franchise is the fact that a new director comes on board for each installment - in this case Bird, an intriguing choice considering he's only ever helmed animated films. Of course, when two of the three films you've directed have won Oscars ("The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" both snagged the award for Best Animated Feature), you're coming into the series with a pretty stellar track record.
 
"They’re all very separate movies," said Renner. "Tom...[has] always had directors come on that had a very specific sort of vision for it that keep them kind of separate, as movies on their own, stand-alone movies, that if you didn’t see the first two, the third one still all makes sense. And the only through line is, you know, Tom’s character for the most part. ...So with this one, having Brad come in and have his sort of slant with the gadgets and the attention to detail and character, which brings tension and cutting tension with comedy...Brad Bird is all over this movie, and there’s - if you’ve seen 'The Incredibles' or any of [his other] movies, you definitely see [them] in this."
 
Specifically, Renner believes Bird's attention to character helped bring a new dynamic to the franchise this time around - an interplay between four very different people,  thrown together in an extremely desperate and unpredictable situation, left essentially to their own devices when the agency they've made their careers in is suddenly dismantled.
 
"Instead of having sort of a mission sort of dished out...circumstances kind of fall apart, and we’re thrown together and have to be together," said Renner of the core group in the film. "It doesn’t mean we like each other, but we have to unite, and to overcome certain obstacles character. ...All four characters are very strong archetypes and how they play off each other...is Brad Bird’s strong suit. If you’ve ever seen 'The Incredibles', I think you’ll see a lot of that [in the film]."
 
Of course, a "Mission: Impossible" film is only as good as its action set pieces, and - having seen about 30 minutes of footage which featured both a spectacular sequence with Cruise hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai (something he actually did, without the aid of computer trickery) and another taking place within a giant desert sandstorm - "Ghost Protocol" seems primed to deliver on that front as well. In addition to his aforementioned "stint" at the Burj Khalifa, Renner was forced to train in a variety of different disciplines in preparation for the role - a demanding experience that clearly took a lot out of him, but which also helped him get in shape for the slew of action projects that lay ahead on his slate.
 
"I mean, just stretching kind of winded me, starting this movie," he joked. "So I had a long curve to get ahead. After 'The Town' I didn’t do anything physical; I didn’t break a sweat for a year, until 'Mission'. And so...I had to make up for lost time and spend like five hours a day learning certain disciplines, like Muay Tai and Filipino stick fighting and all this sort of random stuff that I never thought I’d learn, which was, you know, a blast. ...[It] has prepared me for, especially “Bourne”, but all [my upcoming action films] - 'Hansel and Gretel' and then 'The Avengers' and then, now 'Bourne', for the sort of mental place [you need to be in]. ...Tom introduced me to some really great physiotherapists and that sort of thing, to prepare my body for that sort of torture."
 
Despite the fact that the majority of his upcoming films are heavy on the action, Renner insisted that going forward in his career he'll always be looking to make choices people wouldn't necessarily expect of him.
 
"I think that’s where, you know, real life and cinema kind of blend for me," he told us. "I like to play unpredictable characters, and I like to be unpredictable in what movie I’ll do. I want to be - I want to skip to work...I don’t want to repeat anything. So yeah, what the future holds, I don’t know. But that’s what I like...I’ll take any risks there [are]. I’m not concerned about what people think or what they want. What matters to me is, you know, learning and growing and getting to skip to work and do what I love to do. As long as I can do that, I’m happy."
 
"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" hits IMAX theaters on December 16th and releases everywhere December 21st.