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Actors gear up for witch hunting as Hansel & Gretel

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Around the world, ask movie-lovers where they saw their first movie witch, and the answer's the same.

“I was, like everyone, frightened by the witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz,' ” says English actress Gemma Arterton. “That's who we all grew up with, right?”

Jeremy “Hurt Locker” Renner agrees. And he can top that.

“ ‘Wizard of Oz' was the very first job I ever had. On stage. I played the Scarecrow. So, for me, there was always just one witch. That first witch. The Wicked Witch of the West.”

But, Renner adds, “We were going for something a little darker, a little different, with our movie.”

Their movie is “Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters,” a silly mashup of horror and hilarity produced by Will Ferrell's team, and starring the guy carrying on “The Bourne Legacy” and the accomplished former Bond babe.

“They had me with that lead-line, the idea of taking the Hansel & Gretel tale we're all familiar with into adulthood,” Renner, 42, says.

“It's 15 years later,” Arterton, who just turned 27, adds. “And they're not happy. They've become witch hunters.”

In the 3-D “Witch Hunters,” the kids were taken into the woods and left on their own by their father. They stumble into a candy-covered witch house, are taken prisoner and, when they figure a way out of their fix — working as a team — they've found their calling. They'll track, shoot, stab, behead and burn witches. Whatever it takes.

“You have to be very, very flexible” to play an action heroine, Arterton says. She's been in action films before — “Clash of the Titans,” “Prince of Persia,” “Quantum of Solace.” But never where she had to carry the action. “I had to do quite a lot of training just to get limber enough to be Gretel. You've got to get strong. You've got to look good in leather.”

Indeed. Renner's done his share of onscreen brawling, but playing Hansel was “a little tricky, at first. It's these tight outfits. But they're wonderfully designed to not just look good, but be functional. So, I figured it out.”

Playing siblings meant there'd be a different sort of onscreen chemistry called for, “that unspoken communication that brother and sister are supposed to have,” Renner says.

Making an action fantasy meant that they'd be working in a world filled with things no real person has ever seen. Because that wasn't to be manufactured digitally, “most of what you see is real — a real place, real witches in costume, a real troll,” he adds.

“Having an animatronic troll, instead of a digital one, was a real blessing on the set,” Arterton says. There's none of this look off-camera in wonder at something they'll digitally add later.

And, having Ferrell & Co. producing it meant there'd be laughs — anachronisms like ancient Bavarian milk bottles with pictures of missing (kidnapped by witches) children, the odd blast of era-inappropriate profanity.

“We had to keep focused on what was serious for us and what was serious for the audience,” Renner says. “The jokes, they'll come. But we had to treat our relationship seriously for the audience to buy into it, I think.”

“Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters” has piqued the interest of fanboys and girls on movie websites such as Rotten Tomatoes. Was it so much fun that they'll do another? Arterton was killed off as a Bond character, and didn't do the “Clash of the Titans” sequel, so she's game. “This action-heroine thing could open doors.”

And Renner, who might be called on to return to the Bourne movies, and certainly will be back in the various “Avengers” pictures (he's Hawkeye)?

“Studios are always thinking that. But for that to happen, we have to win over the audience and take them for a ride. They get to decide if she's Gretel and I'm Hansel again.”

Roger Moore is a film critic for McClatchy News Service.

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