Armie Hammer plays a repressed gay man in "J. Edgar." (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Since his dual performance in "The Social Network" as real-life Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, Armie Hammer has vaulted onto the A-list -- Hollywood suddenly can't get enough of the tall, graceful 25-year-old who's the great-grandson of oil magnate and baking soda tycoon Armand Hammer. He next appears as the Prince opposite Julia Roberts' evil Queen in "Mirror Mirror," and he's about to set out for New Mexico to take up trick riding and gunplay as "The Lone Ranger" alongside Johnny Depp's Tonto. But this season, he plays Clyde Tolson, right-hand man and constant companion to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar." Though Hoover's personal life remained private, the script conjectures that their repressed feelings for each other were the basis of their decades-long bond. We asked Hammer about the tricky business of playing scenes that become the movie's explosive emotional core.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 11, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Armie Hammer: An article in the Jan. 5 edition of The Envelope about "J. Edgar" actor Armie Hammer referred to his great-grandfather, Armand Hammer, as an oil magnate and baking soda tycoon. The Occidental Petroleum chief never owned or worked for the maker of Arm & Hammer baking soda.
Your Tolson is subtly assertive about his identity as a gay man, but he's also repressed as the times required. You ride the tension of those extremes. Did Eastwood direct you to do that?
I didn't meet Eastwood until we started filming. It came from my research, which suggested that from childhood, Tolson was aware of who he was and was doing everything he could to refine and control who he became. He couldn't control who he felt things for, so he controlled everything else. But he was also very smart and confident; he was a hotshot, and he could get away with things. Like putting on his FBI application that he had no interest in women -- that was brazen, for back then.
Clyde finally lets go with his feelings after Hoover suggests that it might be time for "a Mrs. Hoover." Can you walk us through that blowout scene?
It starts out with this fun and flirty exchange, where they're really enjoying their relationship, and then it turns, and deteriorates really quickly into something almost spiteful, and then the fight, and then the kiss. I tried to put myself into the mind frame of Clyde and experience it moment by moment. If I'm thinking at all, in the first moment, about the fact that in 30 seconds I'm going to be screaming at Hoover and breaking glass, you'll see it. It's like if you're running down bleachers -- if you stare at the steps, you'll stumble. You just have to go for it. That's why Clint doesn't want us to rehearse -- he wants it to be there, happening, on the day. One minute, I'm really having a good time, and then Hoover says something that just pins me, and I stumble, and I lose control.
One senses Tolson's fierce love for Hoover and his determination to fight for it. How did you find the compassion to feel that way about a man who often treated you so poorly?
I had this amazing conversation with a friend of mine who is gay. I said, "Help me. I don't understand why he stayed and put up with this abuse." He said that, at that time, when you had emotions that were so alien and foreign to most people, if you found someone you had that spark with, and you aligned and were in it together, you would do whatever it took to make sure that was kept alive. At the end of the movie, when Hoover kisses Clyde on the forehead, that was the first real display of emotion from him, and for Clyde, it was worth waiting around for.
You dropped out of school in the 11th grade to become an actor. Was it easy for you to break in?
Not at all. For years and years I couldn't get a job. I wasn't taking it seriously enough. Then one day I figured out that everyone who was getting jobs knew the craft better than I did. That led to a lifestyle change and a lot of acting classes. I now get really nervous before auditions because I'm digging deeper, putting myself on the line.
I hear the Winklevoss twins are hawking pistachios now. Did you ever meet them?
I met the Winklevii. We had a night on the town one night with my wife and their girlfriends. They're good guys, deep down -- they have a sense of morals and values. But their downfall is their sense of entitlement -- they feel they're owed so much in every situation. And I'm thinking, "That's not how this world works. You gotta hump it out."
You come from a similar background.
Yes, but I wouldn't call myself entitled, I'd call myself fortunate. I come from an affluent family, but I was raised to believe that money is never the answer. If you're miserable, it will only amplify that. Whatever I asked for, my parents would challenge me -- and give me less. They'd say, "Why do you think you deserve that?" I was taught that it isn't money that matters -- it's who you are without it.