Interview: Armie Hammer

Armie Hammer is one of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood. Not yet twenty-eight, the six-foot-five leading man has already taken direction from David Fincher, Clint Eastwood and Guy Ritchie in addition to starring alongside the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Julia Roberts.

He recently wrapped principal photography on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and is in the midst of producing something of a passion project—a documentary about his transcontinental Vespa expedition with a cast of his closest friends. He tells me that he and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their first child, and the actor fails miserably to conceal the obvious pride in his eyes as he reaches for his beer.

“We had been married for four years. We had travelled to about six continents, worked everywhere we could imagine; we’d taken amazing vacations and really enjoyed marriage, just the two of us, almost as much as you possibly could. So we were like, let’s introduce that next thing. We tried for about six or seven months. It’s a lot harder to get pregnant than it seems in high school.” We tacitly agree he should revise this position before any future graduation ceremonies, and he recalls fondly his own, “extremely peripatetic” childhood.

Riding a seller’s market, the Hammers moved yearly before settling down for a considerable portion of Armie and brother Viktor’s childhood in the Cayman Islands. Armie, great-grandson of famed businessman Armand Hammer, of Occidental Petroleum, considers his time in the Caymans as developmentally transformative. “It changed the way I dealt with people. It changed the way I dealt with stress. It changed the way I dealt with life. [Moving] was difficult. And moving back to Los Angeles was amazing at first, but then I hated it because I didn’t have the social tools to live in Los Angeles. I had grown up on an island. You’re nice to everybody. You’re going to see them again so you’re never a jerk. Whereas, you come to L.A.,”—he reads my mind about Hollywood’s reputation for the highest standards of propriety—“there’s this incredibly mean sort of social thing going on that I just didn’t have the tools for.”

 

Unbeknownst to him at the time, it was Armie’s itinerant lifestyle that ultimately prepared him for a career in acting.  “The more actors I speak to I realise that there is a kindred past. Most actors that I can think of moved quite a bit, and I think it builds this survival mechanism where you develop the ability to adjust. You have to meet new people. To read people. You can be with different groups of people, and you’re not being dishonest about who you are, but you’re also allowing a different part of you to interact with these people. It encourages characters.”

It was here in the Caymans where Armie first realized that he wanted to become an actor. His parents thought him crazy; perhaps he needed something their island medicine cabinet lacked due to geographical constraints. Yet the precocious Armie was able to see the distinction early on between film’s specificity for projecting fantasy and the reality that he might one day play a contributing role in the experience.

“It started for me when I saw Home Alone living in the Caymans.I had a dream that I was Macaulay Culkin in the movie. It didn’t translate, oh, what a fun dream. It translated to, that’s acting. There’s something about it that feels like a bigger message that I’m getting.” He reclines in his chair, throwing his arms to the heavens in self-deprecation. “I’m supposed to be an actor! I knew that I wanted to participate in the fantasy. I knew that making movies was magical. Watching them even more so.”

Returning to Los Angeles aged thirteen, he began going for auditions, and although “each one of them was a lot like being in a car wreck,” he confesses that part of him revelled in the experience. Yet after only a scant few of these episodes his parents had had enough of chauffeuring him around in traffic and subjecting him to the lifestyle of a child actor. Speaking now on others with less fortunate direction, his countenance, falling serious for the first time, reflects the immediacy of a soon-to-be father who’s seen it first-hand. “It fucks these kids up. Sometime beyond repair.”

After finding acting again in his late teens, a mature Armie received an invaluable crash course in moviemaking politics while portraying evangelist Billy Graham in his first leading role.  

“The movie [Billy: The Early Years] turned out to be a holy war. Robbie [Benson], the director, isn’t religious at all; he’s a humanist. He loves all people—especially underdogs. Certain people were convinced he was the devil. They had priests show up to exorcise demons from the set. I got together and told these guys they were barred from set while we try to make this movie.” Invariably, “there’s more shit than there is actual movie making process,” and I wonder whether certain studios in the Valley might not benefit from the tempered hand of a board-certified exorcist.

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Familiar as he now was with the tumultuous nature of his profession, were his antennae able to pick up on clues as to the eventual success of David Fincher’s The Social Network? Not necessarily, he tells me. “The thing that made me not think of all that was just how nervous I was. I felt like I was in over my head. I was pulling double duty, playing two characters, with Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue being directed by David Fincher. It scared the piss out of me.”

Instead of focusing on his self-proclaimed deficiency in experience, Armie channelled his energies into avoiding becoming the “weakest link” at all costs. Work came first. David Fincher saw to that.

“[Fincher] is the smartest person that I’ve ever been in a room with—hands down. And he wields it like a club. His direction was really specific because of the way his brain works, just the broadband of shit he’s able to focus on at once. He’s looking at your body position; he’s looking at where you are in the frame; he’s looking at the branches of every tree. We stopped takes during Social Network and he would say, ‘Someone get up in that tree and tie that branch down.’ Guys on the crew would laugh saying, ‘OK, yeah sure’. He’d say, ‘I’m not fucking kidding, now you’re wasting my time. Someone get up in that tree and tie that branch down.’ Every now and then he’ll ask, ‘Why aren’t we shooting?’ Quietly. But you hear it through the whole set.”

Fincher also has a notorious propensity for shooting upwards of fifty takes for one scene, and while many actors have difficulty with such repetitive volume, Armie appreciated the stylistic technique.

“The way I like to think about acting is everybody has the same set, essentially, of emotions. If you were going to really simplify it, it would be like sitting in front of a mixing board—with all the different levels—and everybody has one switch that is their anger, and their happiness, and their this and that. Every character that you make is built out of those same switches on the same switchboard, but it’s about how much you turn up this, versus how much you turn down this. It’s just about those little tiny tweaks you make in between every single take. You go, on the next one I’ll try a little bit of this. I don’t know why somebody wouldn’t appreciate it. It feels like safety. Like you’re taken care of, in a way. It was like going to film school, working with David Fincher.”

Compared to Clint Eastwood, the American frontier personified, the difference in directorial style is best illustrated by take count. “Dude, it’s like comparing ice cubes to lava. [Clint] has boiled down filmmaking to its most essential elements. He’ll walk off set and go the gym; that guy’s got veins bulging in his biceps. You’ll do a scene and he’ll go, ‘Great. Alright. Onto the next thing.’ And you’ll be like, wait, Boss—everybody calls him Boss—Boss, can we get one more? And he’ll go, ‘No, I really think that was it.’ There wasn’t a day when we didn’t lunch-wrap.”

For J. Edgar Armie accepted the challenge of playing Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged lover. In preparing for the role he had to delve into the psychology of a repressed homosexual while maintaining the authenticity of portraying an elderly stroke victim, playing the character from his early twenties through his late seventies—no small task. “That role was the scariest. I turned down the audition twice because I was like, I don’t get it. It’s too scary. I wasn’t playing college kids anymore.”

Though J. Edgar opened to an uninspiring critical reaction it pales in comparison to the universally-regarded blemish of Disney’s The Lone Ranger. I ask him flatly if that movie’s vitriolic critical reception is the reason for the ensuing poor box office attendance, as Johnny Depp has controversially claimed. 

“For sure. But it depends on how much credit you really want to give critics. I would also place a lot of credit in the hands of the audience. People knew what Disney was doing: very obviously trying to set up their next big franchise. They wanted their next Pirates of the Caribbean, with the same guys [producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski]. If you were making movies in a vacuum, it would have been perfect. But the audience knew they weren’t being sold the first Lone Ranger movie. They knew that they were being sold what we were meeting with [Disney] about which was how they were going to turn part of Disneyland into the Wild West.”

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More commerce than art?

“Totally. It was about setting up a franchise. 100% what it was about.”

Surely, not Disney?

“I think the audience said, ‘We’re not ready for that.’ Pirates of the Caribbean was spontaneous. It was lightning in a bottle… The movie itself I was fine with. The finished product? Tonally, there were definitely issues. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but at the same time I don’t know that it deserves the backlash it got.”

We progress into the present in silent acknowledgement of the setting California sun, pushing onwards in the face of overwhelming tragedy; the beer has been depleted. I ask about Tom Cruise, originally tapped to co-star alongside Armie in the Cold War adventure film, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

“I met Tom on the set of J. Edgar when we were doing late night shoots with his son, Connor. He shows up with his son and just walks on set. Just wants to see Clint. I think he was in a Veyron at the time. Who knows what he was doing? It’s a weird thing—I’m over it now because we’ve spent so much time together, but when Tom Cruise walks into a room, people get funny. People who you’re like, oh they’ve got it under control, they’ll act weird. He’s Tom Cruise. Literally the movie star. The most famous movie star. He is the guy. When he walks into a room people drop shit. And like, yelp. Cry. Weird, weird stuff.

“So he shows up, meets everybody. I think he knows Leo. Then he comes up to me and he’s like, ‘Hi. Tom. So nice to meet you.’ Later we end up doing the full screen test before I get a call saying Tom’s out. Sure. Whatever. Tom Cruise has like eight movies that he’s working on at all times. I just know we had a blast working together while we did.”

 
Hammer and Henry Cavill on the set of U.N.C.L.E.

U.N.C.L.E. marked another learning experience. Having wrapped principal photography, Armie found himself frustrated with a different aspect of the Hollywood process. “I loved every second of it and I’ve learned so much—but at the same time, for the first month of shooting, I didn’t say anything. It was artistically frustrating. I didn’t get into this to do action movies. I didn’t get into this to drive the car, or shoot the gun, or jump out of planes.” He cites this as his impetus for branching into co-producing his first theatrical feature, Mine, along with his Vespa documentary. “Mine was one of the best scripts I’d read in a long time and it seemed like such an amazing opportunity. It was just like let’s go. Let’s do it.”

Since his pregnant wife is waiting for him at home, I release his shackles and tell Armie he’s free to go after one last question. How might his own fame affect raising his child? He smiles.

“Ah man. It’s so funny. I just don’t consider myself famous. I don’t really consider the problems of raising my child while—I don’t even like saying famous—I don’t know. I would like to do everything I can to raise them so they don’t even realize it. This one will probably spend more time on road trips than anything else. Seeing stuff and having fun. Guy [Ritchie] gave me a lot of advice. He was like ‘There’s nothing about it that’s difficult. There’s nothing about it you need to fear. Just go for it. Quit fucking around.’ But you know we just travel so much—‘You crazy? Who cares? Take them with you.’ He made it so much about like dude, you’re making up problems.”

I anticipate a bright future. For his little one-to-be, and for the nomadic young actor who still, to this day, remains on the move.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E is scheduled for January 2015 release.