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Hammer Timeby Elina Fuhrman | Men's Book Chicago magazine | November 8, 2011
Just Google “Armie Hammer,” and images appear of the intensely handsome actor as the interchangeable Winklevoss twins, whom he portrayed in last year’s blockbuster chronicle The Social Network. In person, Hammer is just as dashing, radiating that well-scrubbed young mannishness and looking both older and younger than his 25 years. “I can’t tell you how many offers I got for guys who just have to wear suits all the time. I never wear suits. I don’t like wearing suits,” Hammer says, with a wink and a nod to his present attire: well-worn khakis, no-name dark T-shirt, a hoodie and flip-flops. “I’m not that guy, but everybody thinks that I am,” he insists.
We meet on a sunny afternoon in the courtyard of his apartment building, an elegant, château-like prewar mansion in Hollywood. Hammer comes downstairs with his Welsh terrier puppy (“Archie is almost a year old.”), an armful of papers (“This was all my research for the movie.”) and a small humidor (“a gift from makeup artist Felicity Bowring”). “Do you mind if I smoke a cigar?” he asks as he punch-cuts a CAO Cameroon. But for this gesture, you’d never think that Hammer was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the grandson of industrialist Armand Hammer, whose name he bears and whose legacy he can’t seem to escape.
“At the time of the Cold War and McCarthyism, my great-grandfather was the only private citizen who could fly between the U.S. and Russia, back and forth, as many times as he wanted,” Hammer notes with certain pride, adding that it was the elder Hammer’s chumminess with Russian and U.S. leaders that earned him equal doses of respect and suspicion. “We have handwritten letters from Lenin,” he says of his great-grandfather’s close ties with the first Soviet leader, amid legends of how many Czar-owned art treasures were given to him. “He [Armand Hammer] showed up with tractors and grain and medicine, and Soviets had no way to repay him. They asked, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘You can’t give me cash; so how about art?’ They struck a deal.”
Of course I ask if all the art and Fabergé eggs are sitting upstairs in his apartment. Hammer takes a puff of his cigar and smiles, “If I had all my Fabergé eggs, I wouldn’t be living in this apartment.” But what he does have is a tattoo: his last name written in Russian on his inner left wrist. “I got it for my 18th birthday,” he says, showing it to me. “All the guys in the family have these.”
As history and fate would have it, Hammer’s character in the J. Edgar biopic was quite likely keeping close tabs on his great-grandpa. “He [Hoover] was convinced that my great-grandfather was a ‘Soviet agent of influence,’” he chuckles. “That was the technical term he gave him.” In the film, Hammer plays FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson, close confidant of the brooding and complicated J. Edgar Hoover, the enigmatic FBI director, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Directed by Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar spans the lifetime of the two ambitious lawmen, telling the story of Hoover’s mind and torment as he built the FBI to become the nation’s most elite law enforcement organization—with Tolson at his side throughout. Then, when Hoover died in 1972, Tolson inherited his home and estate, and was beneficiary of the FBI director’s life insurance policy. Suspicions arose that the two men—long rumored to be gay lovers—had been inseparable outside of work, too. And it’s these suspicions that gave Hammer just the challenge he wanted in his portrayal of Tolson.
“I got sent the script and was told, ‘This is Clint Eastwood’s newest movie. You’ve got to read it.’ I read it and I didn’t get it. Not in the sense that it didn’t make sense to me, but the way I read it… the story between Clyde and J. Edgar had to be a love story, even though you couldn’t for sure say, ‘Oh, they were gay,’” Hammer remembers thinking.
Before deciding whether he would go for the part, Hammer called a friend, who is gay, and invited him to dinner. “I saw why Hoover almost needed to have Clyde around, but it didn’t make sense to me why Clyde had to be around. I kept thinking, ‘I don’t get it. And, as an actor, if I don’t get it, I can’t do this,’” says Hammer, remembering the dinner and a long conversation. His friend “basically explained the psychology that could be behind these relationships, that as a heterosexual male, I wouldn’t understand,” Hammer recalls. But once the door was open to me, I was like, ‘Wait a second. There is this whole other side. … ’ So I called back [Casting Director Fiona Weir] and said, ‘I’m coming in.’”
“I never thought, ‘A gay character? What will this do to my career?!’ I don’t think I’m self-aware enough to think like that,” he says explaining that he’s been getting lots of questions about playing a gay man. “I keep saying, ‘Don’t you want to hear about Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio?’”
Raised in the long shadow of his wealthy “Bumpa,” the late Armand Hammer, Armie Hammer grew up in the Cayman Islands, until the family moved back to Los Angeles, where he was born. Hammer recalls early memories snacking on caviar in his great-grandpa’s private jet, and Sunday dinners when Bumpa stopped in for Southern home-cooked meals that his mother had made at their home in Pacific Palisades. Hammer dreamed of becoming an actor since he was 11, but it was an idea that didn’t fly with his parents.
So when Hammer turned 18, he dropped out of 11th grade to pursue acting. “I was young, and I was dumb, and I never took it seriously,” he says. “I was an actor, so I could lay on my couch and watch movies all day,” he says, explaining why he didn’t work for years, despite having a top agent. When the agent finally called and threatened to fire him, Hammer knew it meant all-in or nothing. “For the first time in my life I was motivated by fear,” he says. “Everything I wanted to do was slipping away because of my own laziness,” he laments, recalling the agony. But he had three auditions coming up. “So I sort of just hunkered down and focused,” he says. And he ended up booking all three: a short film called 2081, a role in Justice League (which never filmed) and a guest-star spot on Desperate Housewives. The jarring experience pushed Hammer to commit: “If this is what I want to do, why am I not doing it?”
Before long, it was a stint on Gossip Girl, and then his breakout role playing both of the thoroughbred Winklevoss twins in David Fincher’s The Social Network, opposite Jesse Eisenberg with Aaron Sorkin’s searing script. Today, at least, Hammer tries to distance himself from the part, saying, “The characters of Winklevoss twins are so diametrically opposed to who I am. Dude, I dropped out of high school!”
True enough, but Hammer can’t escape himself completely, try as he might. In Tarsem Singh’s upcoming Snow White, Hammer is Prince Andrew Alcott, aka Prince Charming, opposite Lily Collins and Julia Roberts. When I point out taking roles like Prince Charming won’t help him shake his own regal roots, Hammer pleads, “I didn’t like the idea of playing a prince, and especially [not] Prince Charming… but I wanted to work with Tarsem Singh more than I didn’t want to play Prince Charming.”
Before I can ask about his next film, The Lone Ranger, a loud laughter suddenly comes from open windows of the top floor. “That’s my wife,” beams Hammer. He and Elizabeth Chambers, a TV personality and journalist, were wed a year and a half ago. “She is so strikingly beautiful and so suave, and she is so smart that it’s dangerous,” he says excitedly. “I love you, husband!” Chambers calls down to Hammer. “I love you so much, wife!” he responds dotingly. “How about kids?” I ask. “I don’t think we can give a child a normal upbringing just because of the amount of moving and places we have to go. … I don’t know if we can balance it all,” Hammer shares, adding, “But soon.”
When finally I ask what it means to him to be an actor, Hammer pauses. “It’s a tricky question because you can sound like such an idiot.” For a few seconds, his flip, articulate, free-associative, appealingly profane conversational style has deserted him.
“What does it mean to be an actor?” he repeats.
“Part of it is to willingly subject yourself to things that people in their everyday lives might try to avoid, like suffering and anguish and pain and frustration, and the things that people might try to bury with their work or with booze, or whatever it is.” He takes another puff from his cigar. “Does that sound pretentious?” he asks.
Hammer seems close to finishing his cigar, and I think our interview is nearing a close. But he continues to puff. “But then again, I don’t want to connect the dots while I’m still doing it, you know? I’m trying to blaze my own trail.”