With a host of impressive, eclectic projects to his name – Armie Hammer is an actor you might want to start paying real attention (Call Me By Your Name isn’t far away now, after all). His latest is Final Portrait, where he plays journalist James Lord, who has the pleasure/burden of posing for a portrait for Swiss artist Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) – in a film directed by Stanley Tucci.
We sat down with Hammer at the Berlin film festival to speak about the role at hand – and what it was like collaborating with both Rush and Tucci. He speaks about his own ambitions to one day direct, his struggles in becoming the actor he is today, and why he’s started to turn to independent features. He also goes on to discuss his nomadic upbringing, his future project Freak Shift with Ben Wheatley, and the downsides to being famous. Finally, as an artist – we spoke about the perpetual sense of self-doubt he carries, which is a key theme within this genial drama…
That’s the reason I took it, I thought it would be really relaxing.
The character has to go through this tedious journey of having his portrait taken – were there any similarities between what the character went through, and what you had to go through as an actor on a film set?
Yeah, it’s funny analogous to acting, not only because it’s an art-form, but essentially when Giacometti takes his brush and changes his mind and marks over everything, it’s exactly what a director is doing when he shouts cut and tells us to do the whole scene all over again, then you’re back to the beginning of your take, on that pursuit of artistic perfection on every single take. Sometimes it gets frustrating, but Giacometti didn’t get frustrated by it, and we didn’t either, because ultimately we just want it to be as good as possible.
That said, Stanley was saying that as an actor he’s always hated waiting around – so because of that, as a director he deliberately works much faster. Did you find that to be the case?
Yeah, yeah. And there were logistical things put into place to make that efficiency that much more efficient. He had lights build into the sets, and things put in place so we could walk into a room and anywhere in the room was lit and ready to be shot, and all the cameras were always handheld, and it’s great because you keep the momentum going, nobody got tired during the day, the pace was breakneck, which was great. We shot the whole thing in 20 days or something like that.
Is there a palpable different being directed by an actor-turned-director than just a director?
Yeah, totally. I’ve had the privilege of being directed by an actor a few times and it’s always different. There’s a level of understanding that exists because they know what an actor needs to hear and be told in order to get the most productive result out of a scene. There’s a language and a shorthand, an understanding. It’s also convenient for the director because they get results quicker from actors, because they know the process.
Is directing an idea you’ve entertained?
Yes, I would love to, that’s the ultimately goal. And ultimately it will only take me being willing to admit that even though I don’t feel ready, I might actually be, and I just haven’t gotten to that point yet.
So are you studying directors now, even sub-consciously, just learning from their craft?
Yeah that’s been my goal ever since I first signed on for Social Network. I was working with a genius in David Fincher, so I studied everything he did on the movie, and it was the first I really just watched.
Have you ever actually posed for a portrait yourself?
No, and I don’t know if I’d have the patience to do it. Especially after seeing how arduous the process looked in this movie. That being said, if there was an artist, like Giacometti nowadays who asked me to be in a portrait, I don’t think anybody could say no. Giacometti mentions himself, people used to paint portraits and they used to finish them, but now they have photographs so they don’t need to, we’re more into immediate gratification.
How was it acting so closely opposite Geoffrey Rush across the course of this project?
It was amazing, I was playing a character who, while slightly introverted, was also a voyeur who really wanted to just watch and study this man who he was fascinated by, and I’m not going to lie, I’m fascinated by Geoffrey Rush. I was just sitting there, doing these scenes and becoming Giacometti, so my process of just observing and watching was really easy, I just had to pay attention.
How do you pick the characters you play? You’ve got another movie here at the festival with Call Me By Your Name…
There’s so many factors that go into choosing a movie, but if I was to make a pie chart of it I’d say one of the largest slices would be the director, and the creative people behind it. Then of course comes the script, schedule ability, but the director is the large portion of how I pick my parts.
Do you remember what your struggles were becoming an actor?
I couldn’t get a job for six years, I couldn’t get a job to save my life. I got into acting and had no idea what I was doing and I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I should’ve, I wasn’t studying as much as I could’ve. I was like, ‘I’m an actor, I can relax and watch movies all day, this is great!’ and that’s about how seriously I took it at the beginning, until I felt the opportunity was starting to slip away and my agent was threatening to fire me. I realised that man, I gotta get my shit together.
Do you remember the point when it felt like it was a career, not a dream or a hobby?
Maybe it was delusions of grandeur but I always just felt this was going to be the deal, like I was never gonna take no for an answer. I wanted to be in the entertainment industry, I want to make movies, that’s it for me, it was never not an option.
You’ve done some big scale movies – The Lone Ranger and The Man From UNCLE – but recently you’ve been on an interesting indie curve, is that just by chance?
I’m just following the really good filmmakers and really good content and it seems like that’s where a lot of people are migrating to, a lot of the great content being made now is for television and for independent movies because studio movies, within their studio systems, are all involved making two or three movies a year, these giant tentpole movies. I’m not in an Avengers movie, so I’m not gonna do a movie with that studio because that’s all they’re doing right now, so you have to just follow the good work.
Stanley was saying that he’s quite fearful for the future of independent cinema, and it could move towards streaming services and cinema would be for just big, event productions – like the Marvel films – as an actor, when it’s out of your control, how does it feel when you make something and discover it’s gonna get that big screen showing? Can that be disappointing to an actor?
I’ve never had a project go to Netflix or anything like that, but you know I can imagine it’s better than not getting any distribution at all.
You must embrace the nomadic side of being an actor, as you had a nomadic childhood?
It’s fun getting to go round to different places, you know, now I’m in Berlin, then I’m going home and then I’m off to Austin, and then I’m gonna go to London to work on another project with Ben, it’s fun, you get to do all the fun stuff, and live these fun lives. Variety is the spice of life I guess.
When you say Ben, you mean Ben Wheatley?
Yeah, this one is called Freak Shift.
Can you say what that’s about?
I actually don’t think that I can. I’ve already said too much probably!
But it’s sci-fi sounding…
Yep. It’s another chance to work with Ben Wheatley, so I really don’t care what it’s about.
Each project does seem to differ so much from one to the next – is that a conscious decision? Do you actively look for roles that are different, or do you just follow the good stories?
I don’t make a concerted effort to make each character different from the last, but at the same time I go for the best content I can get a job doing.
One of the paramount themes in Final Portrait is an artist’s sense of self-doubt. Is that something that resonates with you, simply as someone in the arts industry? To go over and scrutinise over your own work?
Perpetually, that’s chronically all I do. I’ve never watched anything I’ve worked on and though, ‘nailed it!’ I’m perpetually dissatisfied with my own work. But I think that’s, which is also shown in the movie, is paramount, like a pre-requisite for the artistic pursuit because if you paint something and you go, yeah that’s pretty good – what do you need to improve on? What’s your drive to get better?
Who is your biggest critic?
You know who is probably my best critic; my wife. Because she knows me so well she can just tell when I’m lying, so if she’s watching something she sees everyone of my mannerisms and knows them all, so she’ll tell me if I do a good job or a bad job, and she’s pretty much the only person I listen to.
Is life generally quite manageable in terms of your level of fame? You’re not being swamped by people on the streets?
I walk around all the time, everywhere, and nobody ever bothers me or recognises me. I’m not actively pursuing that so it’s not a part of my life really in any way.
You’ve worked with people who are at that crazy level, and you’ve seen how insane it must get?
Yeah, I’ve never really seen anything like it until I worked with Johnny [Depp]. People would try and pull his hair, it was like watching people turn into animals, it was really disturbing to see this deep, dark side to humans. It’s crazy. It doesn’t look fun or glamorous.
Do you think there’s a way to prevent that? Or the more successful you get does this just sort of come with it?
I dunno because I’ve never really had to deal with it, or figure it out. I dunno. I feel like you should ask Tom Hanks, I feel like he’s got a good thing going. That dude, if he wants to, can just go out for a walk by himself, and good for him.
Are you still starstruck by anyone?
I don’t get starstruck, but I get overly impressed sometimes by people’s talent. It’s not them as a star, but their level of talent, I can geek out on talent.
Final Portrait is released on August 18th. You can read our review from the Berlinale here.