COVER STORY: Thesp doesn't generate the same type of social buzz as today's top stars, but his turn as the Masked Man may change that
Armie Hammer’s parents did not want him to become a movie star.
Or, perhaps more accurately, they didn’t want him to drop out of high school to pursue acting. But that’s exactly what he did. And after a few carefully chosen supporting roles, Hammer is about to have his big shot at stardom.
Playing the title character in Disney’s big-budget movie “The Lone Ranger” could catapult the 26-year-old from the actor best known for his dual turn as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network” to the upper echelon of young stars favored by Hollywood’s major executives, directors and producers.
The closely watched July 3 release of “Lone Ranger” could potentially do for Hammer what the maiden voyage of “Pirates of the Caribbean” did for his Lone Ranger co-star, Johnny Depp, in 2003, and what “Titanic” did for Leonardo DiCaprio a few years earlier: Transform an actor’s actor into one of the global glitterati.
But the archetype and creation of a star have changed dramatically in the years since. The pervasiveness of the Internet and social media have eclipsed the more traditional paths to fame — think press junkets, talkshows, magazine covers. These days, in order to establish a unique brand, connecting with fans via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and having a relatable backstory have become as crucial to selling tickets as boasting movie-star looks, acting chops and a B.O. track record.
With his striking blue eyes, square jaw and 6-foot-5 Adonis frame, Hammer clearly has the good-looks department covered. And his acting turns, though so far limited to a handful of smaller roles, have been notable enough to grab the attention of some prominent filmmakers.
“His body of work, although he’s really young, is very highquality, and that’s already been registered, recorded, judged and accepted,” says Brian Grazer, who produced Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” in which Hammer co-starred as Clyde Tolson, the love interest of the famed FBI chief played by DiCaprio.
The Tatum effect
But Hammer has yet to generate the kind of social-media buzz, fan craze and online omnipresence a contemporary like Channing Tatum has done so effectively.
Hammer has no Twitter account or Facebook page. Nor does he use Instagram. Tatum, by contrast, has 4.3 million Twitter followers, who eat up the pics he posts of his mom on Mother’s Day or of his wife and himself at parties.
“Building a social presence is very important, because it’s rapidly becoming the source of news and information across all key demos,” says veteran publicist Kelly Bush, one of Hollywood’s most influential image-makers. “Social media allows actors to establish a direct relationship with their fans … that they can nurture from project to project.”
Bush points out that it’s no longer enough for stars to do anything less than dive full-on into connecting with fans, suggesting, “There’s a lot of noise, and your job is to rise above it and stand out in an authentic and engaging way. Just because you’re on a talkshow, it isn’t enough. You want to have an engaging segment that goes viral the next day.”
She recalls the time last year when actress Mila Kunis (not a client) discussed beer and food with a British reporter during a press junket for “Oz the Great and Powerful,” reassuring him that he was doing a good job interviewing her. “That was honest, genuine and a terrific moment that got huge pickup,” Bush recalls.
Part of the reason that video went viral? Social media, which is quickly becoming the preferred method for targeting key audience segments. As one top agent put it: “Twitter has almost become more important than doing the talkshow circuit because, honestly, the fans who are going to buy tickets for your actor’s movie are watching a Twitter feed more than they’re watching Jay Leno.” Joining the ranks of the Twitteratti certainly hasn’t hurt Tatum, whose last three pics — “The Vow,” “21 Jump Street” and “Magic Mike” — each grossed more than $100 million domestically, earning him a reputation as a reliable box office draw.
“I look at someone like Channing Tatum and I go, ‘Well that’s a guy you want in a movie,’ ” says producer Bernie Goldmann, who worked with Hammer on “Mirror Mirror.” “Channing’s fans love him, and he seems to love them back in Twitter exchanges, and they turn out for him.”
Hammer’s online popularity has increased somewhat with the release of each of his films — from his role as Tolson in 2011’s “J. Edgar” to the prince in “Mirror Mirror” the following year and now as the Lone Ranger — but it’s still dwarfed by the public profiles of other young actors, including Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pine (neither of whom has a Twitter account, either), according to a study by social-media research firm Fizziology.
Fizziology found that Depp is driving more of the positive online conversation about “Lone Ranger” than Hammer is. The company also said that actors who tend to promote their brands rather than act like traditional (read: aloof ) movie stars — James Franco with his multimedia installations, or Kevin Hart playing up his image as a comedian — have rabid followers on social media.
When Hammer’s “Social Network” co-star Andrew Garfield showed up at 2011’s Comic-Con dressed as Spider-Man and surprised the crowd when he stripped off his mask, bloggers went nuts.
“New stars are the new breed of actors who are their own unique flavors, brands,” said Fizziology co-founder and president Ben Carlson. “They are celebrated not for their range or traditional ‘star’ quality, but rather for their own unique characteristics.”
An unusual upbringing
Still, there are aspects of Hammer’s life that are nothing if not unique — for instance, he grew up in the Cayman Islands — but it’s a story of privilege that may not endear him to some.
Grandson of oil tycoon Armand Hammer, Armie was born in Los Angeles and moved to Texas before relocating to the Caymans when he was 7. His father, business entrepreneur Michael Hammer, wanted to live in the tax-free British overseas territory. The family, including Armie’s younger brother Viktor, moved back to L.A. seven years later when Armie was 14.
In press interviews, Hammer has told stories about being able to crack a coconut but not knowing much about pop culture, and about how his parents threatened to cut him off when he dropped out of Los Angeles Baptist High School when he was in the 11th grade to pursue acting. He signed up for UCLA Extension courses to placate his mom and dad, who had Ivy League ambitions for him, but stopped attending after two classes. “It was enough to know that it wasn’t for me,” he said in a TV interview on talkshow “Chelsea Lately” while promoting “The Social Network” in 2011.
A conventional strategy
So far, Hammer has followed a conventional media strategy that some marketing experts would argue ignores the current zeitgeist. He’s appeared on talkshows like “Lately” and “Conan” and done interviews with magazines that include Playboy and Elle. (Through spokespeople, he declined multiple interview requests for this article.)
In today’s overexposed media landscape, where celebs are under the constant eye of cellphone cameras, bloggers and the TMZs of the world, Hammer has managed to keep his personal life below the radar. If anything, that has made him appear somewhat mysterious and elusive.
“As an actor, there’s a public persona he needs to maintain,” Bush says. “He’s got to promote and support his projects, otherwise he won’t work. Beyond that, he can lay low in his private life, avoid the limelight, and that ultimately might make him a more intriguing figure.”
Howard Bragman, another longtime PR expert, says actors have a responsibility to help shape their public images.
“I do think it’s important to have a level of proactivity in defining yourself,” Bragman maintains. “If you don’t define yourself, it doesn’t mean that you’re not defined. It means that somebody else is defining you, and you lose power.”
While social media is undeniably king, Bragman says that print and television interviews are still important. Everyone, he notes, has a book they read, a meal that they cooked or, in Hammer’s case, a story to convey about standing atop a small platform 2,000 feet above Utah’s Dead Horse Point for a helicopter shot in “Lone Ranger.” Of course, professional image-crafters and star-makers can also bring such anecdotes to life on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Bragman adds.
Filmmakers who have worked with Hammer describe him as personable, candid, genuine and a prankster.
“He’s the kind of guy who just walks in the room and it’s like you’ve known him forever,” says “Mirror Mirror” producer Goldmann.
Goldmann, Grazer and “Social Network” producer Dana Brunetti also speak to Hammer’s professionalism on the set, where he has often been sighted eating meals with production assistants (in fact, his own assistant is his best friend). The producers also credited Hammer with not having an entourage trailing him in an age when stars tend to be micromanaged by hoards of handlers.
“Does he have a manager?” Grazer asked a Variety reporter during the interview about Hammer.
He doesn’t, and his agent, Brandon Liebman, of William Morris Endeavor, is a close pal. Liebman was said to have been touched when Hammer hopped an 8 a.m. fl ight from Denver to Santa Barbara to attend his wedding last year after working until 7 in the morning shooting “The Lone Ranger” in Colorado.
Grazer also responded to Hammer’s more vulnerable, self-doubting side. The actor hesitated to take on the role of Tolson in “J. Edgar,” worried he couldn’t make the character work.
“He felt he needed to meet with Clint go over why Clint felt he was special,” recounts Grazer. Despite any insecurities the actor may have had initially, Grazer says Hammer gracefully handled all the pressure that comes along with working with a demanding director and a superstar.
“Clint Eastwood only does two or three takes, maximum,” Grazer explains. “You have a lot of dialogue, and you’re playing against Leonardo DiCaprio, arguably one of the greatest actors of this generation, and you can’t fuck your lines up.”
Brunetti says Hammer also was reluctant to take on the Winklevii role in “The Social Network,” though his performance brought him the highest degree of attention and praise in his young career.
Still, the actor’s cautiousness in picking roles is perhaps wisely placed in the context of what happened to the promising young actor Taylor Kitsch, whose career hit the skids after two glaring box office flops, “John Carter” and “Battleship.”
Off camera, Hammer is less circumspect. Brunetti says he appreciates the actor’s penchant for playing practical jokes. In Brunetti’s Twitter headshot, there’s a hand slapped across his face at an awards show. The hand belongs to Hammer.
Brunetti also likes to recount how the actor and his wife gave each other a handgun for Christmas one year, thinking it would be an original gift.
“That’s the Texas in both of them,” says Brunetti. Hammer and his wife, entertainment broadcast journalist Elizabeth Chambers, also operate a bakery together in Chambers’ hometown of San Antonio. The couple live with their terrier dog, Archie, in the Hollywood Hills.
Hammer, who drove a Vespa to the audition of “Mirror Mirror,” likes to cruise around Griffith Park on his bicycle or scooter. He brought his dirt bike to the set of “Lone Ranger.” “He’s not a guy who goes slow,” Bruckheimer says. “We tried to take it away from him but that didn’t work.”
Whether or not “The Lone Ranger” hits, Hammer won’t necessarily get full credit — or blame — for its performance, since his uberstar “sidekick,” Depp (who also has no Twitter account or Facebook page), has top billing. Hammer already has another high-profile role lined up, starring as Illya Kuryakin opposite “Man of Steel” lead Henry Cavill (a young actor who’s also Twitter-free) in Warner Bros.’ feature adaptation of the 1960s TV show “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
No matter how much money “Lone Ranger” lassos at the B.O. — and how well Hammer is received — the question remains whether the actor can embrace the idea of being a celebrity.
In a March interview with GQ, Hammer seemed to wonder about that himself.
“I personally don’t see myself … as a movie star,” he said.
(Andrew Stewart contributed to this report.)
(This article was updated June 26, 2013.)