Say, who is that masked Lone Ranger actor, anyway?
You might think you don’t know Armie Hammer, but the man who plays The Lone Ranger has already impressed in The Social Network and J Edgar
When you walk into a room to meet Armie Hammer and he leaps out of his chair to shake hands, the 26-year-old appears to get up. And up. And up. And up. Standing just a little shy of two metres, the actor has long become accustomed to strangers walking up in the street to state the bleeding obvious: “Gee, mister, you’re tall”.
He modestly attributes any number of “Armie Hammer – superhero” headlines to his impressive stature: he was cast as Batman/Bruce Wayne in George Mad Max Miller’s aborted 2007 film, Justice League: Mortal and is the current bookies’ favourite to take the same chiropteran role in Warner Bros’ incoming Superman vs Batman. He will – in fact – be Illya Kuryakin to Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo in Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The rumour mill has also decided that Hammer will be playing Ant-Man in Edgar Wright’s upcoming Marvel adventure.
Hammer laughs off the notion. “Most actors are tiny,” he shrugs. “So any time a tall actor comes along – like me or the Hemsworth brothers – everyone says ‘oh, they’re big, let’s put them in big movies’. At least there’s no danger of a Napoleon complex with us, I guess.”
To date – and against type – Armie Hammer’s career has been defined by respectable character acting; he won awards for his titular role as the evangelist Billy Graham in 2008’s Billy: The Early Years and has subsequently turned heads with show-stealing turns as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network and long-time Hoover companion Clyde Tolson in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.
Finally, however, somebody – namely mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer – has put this big guy in a big movie. The Lone Ranger casts Johnny Depp as Tonto, an eye-rolling sidekick for Armie’s eponymous masked hero. This contemporary reworking of the old western serial is as a big as it gets: Pirates of the Caribbean’s Gore Verbinski is at the helm and the hefty production price tag stands at $215 million.
Not much pressure, then?
“I tried not to think about it,” he says. “Leading man and character actor? Those are a lot of branding terms. And they’re fine for studios and agents. But for me I was just making another movie. Okay, it’s a larger scale, but I’m with people who are competent with a larger scale. There are very few people who can make movies of the size that Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski can. I mean this is the dream team, right?”
Despite some barbed American notices (“But you cultured Europeans have better taste, right?” winks Hammer) you can actually see where Verbinski spent the money. The Lone Ranger reloaded is characterised by genuine antique trains and frontier landscape. It’s tactile where most summer blockbusters are pixel-heavy.
“Absolutely,” nods Hammer. “There were times you’d look around and you were riding through artefacts, actual thousand-year-old homes built into the side of rocks, and you’re tearing past on a white horse at full speed. As you say, it was a very tactile experience. We were there. We didn’t make this movie in a room with green paint everywhere. There was a concerted effort to make sure everything felt real and authentic.”
Mission accomplished. You can practically smell horse bottom from the screen, I suggest. Showering can’t have been optional?
“My wife did insist,” says the actor. “What you don’t realise about horses – because they are beautiful animals – is that they are impossible to potty train. A horse doesn’t give a damn if they are inside. Boom. Now is the time to go. But at the same time, weirdly, you get to like the smell of horse. The smell of horse shit? Not so much. But horses? I developed this Pavlovian thing. You wake up in the morning. You get to the set. You smell horses and you think, ‘Yep. It’s time to go to work.’”
You can see why Depp and co were so keen to get Hammer on a white horse. His best-known parts, thus far, have been fun and clean-cut, because he, in turn, is fun and clean-cut. The great-grandson of oil tycoon and philanthropist Armand Hammer is as close to aristocratic as an American can be. His great-great-grandfather founded the Communist Party in New York; his great-grandmother was the daughter of a Czarist general; his father owns Knoedler Publishing and a TV production company.
Armand the Younger was born in California and grew up attending the finest schools and enclaves that California, Texas and the Cayman Islands had to offer. Did he feel privileged? Did he know the historical import of his coat of arms?
He shakes his head. “I was always taught the opposite. That the person bringing you the food at the dinner table is just as important as the person you’re sitting with. You look everyone in the eye and you say ‘thank you’. That’s how normal human beings behave. I was raised to be nice and to treat everybody as equals and with respect. I was never raised to think we were privileged. Looking back I can see it was not a normal way to grow up. But my parents made every effort to make sure we behaved like normal kids. People are often surprised to find out I’m so normal. But I am. Because my parents would smack the shit out of me if I behaved like a dick.”
And how does a kid amuse himself on the Cayman Islands, anyway? What is there to do?
“Everything. Oh. You have no idea.”
I do now. He’s almost leaping out of his chair with excitement.
“Okay, you don’t have access to all the vices that a city kid has access to, but all you need in life is a machete.”
You played with a machete?
“Oh yeah. You can literally walk out into the groves and think, I’m a little hungry – I guess I’ll cut down a coconut and a mango. We knew all the locals. You could walk to the local gas station by yourself and buy a soda. You knew everybody at school. It was free. It was capricious. We could come home from school, take off the backpack and start walking around. We’d go anywhere we wanted to go. And then I came back to LA and it was the complete opposite. It was not carefree. It was just lockdown.”
Multiple addresses and schools, he suspects, came in handy for his future career. “You learn the art of cultural absorption when you have to move around a lot as a kid. You learn to walk into a classroom and work out the social structure. Who is in charge here? Where do I fit in? Am I allowed to chime in or am I better off just observing? You learn to pick up your cues and to pay attention to social interactions. You have to assimilate. So when you arrive each time you have a chance to try something new, do something different. Last school I was kind of quiet, this place I’m going to be a little more assertive. And later on, you carry that into your performances.”
Rather prophetically, young Armie always loved watching westerns with dad and can, indeed, remember his father calling him Kemo Sabe in tribute to the Lone Ranger’s Tonto. Still, the Hammer clan were not best pleased when Armand Jr announced that he was running away to join the acting circus.
“There was a little bit of pressure,” grins Hammer. “When I decided to drop out of high school and decided to pursue acting there was the conversation that went, ‘Sit down. Do you understand you’d be the only Hammer man not to go to college and not to get a business degree?’ But I did realise. I do. It just didn’t interest me. I wanted to turn my back on all of it and take a gamble. And fortunately it paid off.”
His parents ‘all but disowned’ him for a time. When did they come around?
“Once they realised I wasn’t dropping out of school so I could be a burnout who watched movies all day,” laughs the actor. “I did it because I was passionate about it. And once they saw that, saw that I was really taking it seriously as a career and that I wanted to make movies for the rest of my life, they decided there was no use fighting. I wasn’t going to give up.”