Leonardo DiCaprio was Armie Hammer’s first man-on-man screen kiss, but the experience was hardly romantic. “It just felt like kissing,” says Hammer, who plays Clyde Tolson, the real-life right-hand man and purported paramour of DiCaprio’s J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s film about the founder of the modern FBI. “I also had to shoot a machine gun in the movie, but nobody asks about that.”
Despite the kiss, J. Edgar leaves things a bit ambiguous. It suggests that Tolson beguiled the buttoned-up, occasionally frock-wearing Hoover and that the two shared an intimacy that went beyond their daily lunch dates. “Clyde was his lapdog and his go-to hatchet man,” Hammer says. “But Clyde took so much abuse—it was so hot and cold—that it didn’t make sense to me why he would stick around for so long if it weren’t a tragic love story.”
We’re sitting in the courtyard of his somewhat grand twenties Hancock Park doorman building. Accompanying the barefoot Hammer is his handsome and frisky Welsh terrier Archibald Leach. (That’s Cary Grant’s birth name.) It’s all very apropos for the 25-year-old great-grandson of oilman and art collector Armand Hammer; his well-bred appearance has landed him “entitled a-hole” parts on Gossip Girl and Reaper and the dual role of the Goofus and Gallant Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. “I do find myself at parties convincing people of the most heinously bullshit things just to get them to believe me,” Hammer admits. “My wife says it’s not fair—all I have to do is speak in a deep voice.” At six-five, he is apparently quite convincing.
The missus, TV journalist Elizabeth Chambers, appears midway through the interview. “Wife!” Hammer greets her. “Best friend,” she replies, falling into an embrace filled with kisses. They met on a group outing in 2008. “We were supposed to go skeet shooting, but it was raining,” remembers Hammer. “So we went to art galleries and the Hustler Hollywood store.” In J. Edgar, which sprawls over decades, Hammer also plays Tolson as a senior citizen; he even had a dentist give him novocaine to numb his mouth. “Elizabeth saw me in makeup and started crying and saying, ‘You are going to be such a beautiful old man.’ This is why I know she loves me.” (And this is why she should know it’s mutual: Under his wedding ring, he had two connecting E’s tattooed on his finger.)
Playing a smooth and somewhat subversive presence in a story about politics and power fits Hammer like the fashionable suits that Tolson wore (and picked out for Hoover). Hammer’s namesake great-grandfather was a Soviet-friendly Jewish Republican who boasted of having known both Lenin and Reagan. And Hammer’s own father was a nonconformist of a different type, marrying a Texas Christian.
Armand Hammer was born August 28, 1986, in L.A., but “I was always Armie,” he says. “There couldn’t be a 90-year-old Armand and a 9-day-old one. And I heard enough jokes about baking soda.” He recalls driving around in a pedal car at his great-grandfather’s home and trips to the beach, but by the time he was old enough for school he’d moved to Dallas and then on to a five-year idyll in the Cayman Islands. “I swam and fished and had something to do in the water every day and rarely wore shoes, to the point of getting ringworm a couple of times,” he recalls, cracking the toes of his size-15 feet. “Is that disgusting?”
At 11, Armie wanted to be Macaulay Culkin (“I had a dream that I was the kid in Home Alone,with the blowtorch and the BB gun”), and not long after, the family moved back to L.A. There, he made his stage debut playing Rooster Hannigan in a sixth-grade production of Annie.
Watching movies and premarital kissing were frowned upon at the small private Christian school he attended, and Hammer acted out, “doing things that were so stupid and not even in my character, because I felt caged.” His favorite film at that time wasFight Club, directed by The Social Network’s David Fincher. “I poured lighter fluid outside the school and set it on fire,” he says. “I was a bad criminal, because I wrote my name with the fluid, so they knew who had done it, and … ” He pauses to choose his words. “I was asked not to come back.”
Hammer dropped out of high school in eleventh grade, signed to an agent, and pursued acting. To appease his parents, he took college courses. One of his first roles was playing young televangelist Billy Graham in a film directed by seventies heartthrob Robby Benson. “I got to be the title role in a movie, and then no one saw it.”
Those days are over. He recently wrapped a remake of Snow White, where he’s the prince (naturally), and is set to play the title role in The Lone Ranger, with Johnny Depp as his Tonto. “I’ve said before, I think I am piggybacking on people who are more talented than I.”
J. Edgar’s script was written by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for Milk and is gay. “What really brings the film to life are the scenes that no one can prove happened,” says Hammer. And the actor’s nuanced performance as the young agent in those scenes has just the right amount of circumspect queenliness. “Back then, to be publicly gay, you were done for. But even in his application to the FBI, Tolson said he had no interest in marrying or being with a woman,” Hammer says. “While not fully out, he knew who he was and almost embraced it. He loved getting the sharpest suits. He was like, ‘Look at my fucking awesome pocket square. I am flossing it.’ ”
When it comes to gay rights, or indeed any social issues, Hammer flosses to the left. “I don’t think I should tell you what to do, nor should the government. As long as you enjoy your own personal liberties and don’t infringe on the liberties of others, I don’t care.” Which may not exactly be how Hoover might’ve seen things. But then, he (and his trusty aide) were responsible not only for one of the most respected crime-fighting organizations in the world but also for laying the groundwork for an all-seeing, all-knowing government. “I’m not paranoid,” Hammer says, speaking his piece. Yes, but does he think that Big Brother is watching us, even as we speak?
“Who knows, man?” he says. Then he ducks down, nods his head, and, suppressing a knowing smile, exaggeratedly mouths the word yes.
David Edelstein on J. Edgar