Armie Hammer: By Any Other Name

How Armie Hammer arrived in the Italian countryside as an actor and emerged an artist.
Reading time 14 minutes

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“I knew that sense of feeling like an outsider, feeling misunderstood, but projecting an air of ease and comfortability.” Armie Hammer, an actor who seemed fated to appear in action movies, is talking with disarming honesty about his role in one of the most critically lauded romances in recent memory, Call Me by Your Name. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, the film costars Hammer as Oliver, an American grad student spending the summer in the Italian countryside. While there, he falls in love with his host’s son, Elio, played by Timothée Chalamet. Or it might be more appropriate to say that Elio falls for him, almost instantaneously, and spends the rest of the film pursuing him with a single-mindedness known only to 17-year-olds and those in love for the first time—of which Elio is both. Guadagnino’s film unfolds at a pace both languorous and painful, awaiting what one hopes is their inevitable union. 

“It’s a cover...But at the end of the day, [it] rings very true for me,” Hammer says of Oliver’s ease, the way he exits every scene (mainly dinners) with a nonchalant “Later,” which both infuriates and captivates his European hosts and their son. “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve moved so many times in my life, or I’ve lived so many places, or I went to a new school almost every other year...I related in a big way to that.” This is how Hammer speaks now—it may not be how we have known him, but perhaps it’s how he’s always known himself. 

Hammer and I sit in the courtyard of the Chateau Marmont, L.A.’s best approximation of an Italian terrace. His is a face you will recognize but may not be able to place: Since his breakthrough in 2010’s The Social Network (playing both of the Winklevoss twins), he’s starred in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie’s underrated spy caper, and The Lone Ranger. Neither of those later films particularly took off, which Hammer has dealt with in various interviews in his typically self-deprecating style. Call Me by Your Name feels like the first time he’s been asked to do the kind of proper, serious acting he’s evidently always been capable of. 

He is, just as in the film, exceptionally tall and handsome (real life has not diminished his 6'5" stature). However, he also gives the impression of having a roiling internal life, replete with serious book quotes and bursts of introspection. Of course, then, he was perfect for Oliver, whose goofy dancing and neck massages belie his terror of falling in love. Just as obviously, Hammer found the role vaguely terrifying when Guadagnino first explained it to him—if not for the reasons you’d think. “It wasn’t about playing a gay character, or anything like that,” he laughs. “I’ve done that several times, almost as many as straight characters.” What made him hesitant was how raw the film was, how exposed the interior lives of the characters would be. “[Guadagnino] told me we were going to shoot the whole thing on one lens, so it felt like you were just watching it with the naked eye,” he says, grimacing slightly. “And it made me kind of nervous, because it’s kind of daunting as an actor to know that you don’t have anything to hide behind and that if anything doesn’t work, then the audience won’t go from that scene to the next with you.” 

Guadagnino thrives in these moments, as Hammer calls them, when a look or the touch of a hand says everything (or almost everything: There’d be no Call Me by Your Name if they said what they wanted straight away). Both of Guadagnino’s previous films, A Bigger Splash and I Am Love, starred Tilda Swinton, master of the dramatic. Call Me by Your Name, however, is almost excruciatingly natural. Watching the film, it’s as if you too were in the small Italian town of Crema that summer in 1983. “The crux of the film,” Hammer explains, “is the emotional honesty between these two characters, and the fact that there’s no effects: There’s no giant set pieces, there’s nothing that propels the characters along other than the authentic moments that happen between the two.” 

“That was really nerve-racking. I’d never done a film that was so emotionally raw and unguarded before.” In what sounds like a protracted wooing, the director evidently persuaded Hammer to agree by convincing him that “fear and desire are sisters, almost twin sisters, and normally part and parcel with each other. That if you’re afraid of it, it means you want to do it in some way.” Hammer laughs, puncturing his seriousness, “The same way that if you’re afraid of heights, [it] kind of means you want to throw yourself off of it.” 

The film, however, is notable for its lack of fear. Elio and Oliver fall in love and there are consequences, sure, but nothing totally dreadful happens—a rarity in films about gay romance (not to mention ones set in the ’80s). “There was no antagonist, no one got sick,” as Hammer puts it. This was by Guadagnino’s design, which the actor remembers particularly from one take: “There’s the one scene where Elio gets a nosebleed and Oliver comes up and goes, ‘Are you okay?’ And in the first take, I played it in a way where I came up and was really concerned.” He continues, “Luca called and he goes, ‘Why are you doing it like that?’ And I go, ‘Well, chronologically, this is the early ’80s, this is the onset of the epidemic where people were getting sick.’ Luca looked at me and he goes, ‘Huh. I did not even think about that. Do it differently.’ So, he didn’t even want a twinge of that.” 

In fact, it sounds like any painful moments experienced while making the film happened off camera, when the cast realized their summer in Italy would eventually have to finish. “Luca and I started to fight with each other and get really angry with each other,” Hammer recalls. “And I didn’t understand until much later that it was because I didn’t want the experience to end.” Evidently, making the movie was a pivotal experience in Hammer’s life: “I’m lucky enough to have had the summer flings, and deep, deep—I don’t know if it was love or just massive infatuation, [but] I’m lucky enough to have had those experiences,” he says, looking quite stricken, “but this film kind of eclipsed them all. Just being there with these people who are now family—and the fact that we’ve now been promoting it for a year, because it was at Sundance.”  

The film has been a favorite on the awards circuits, having been nominated for Best Picture at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. “It’s been a journey,” he says of whether it matters if it wins anything or not. “If you’d asked me a week before awards season, I would have said, ‘Absolutely not. The award was getting to make the film. If you’d asked me a month or two months into the circuit, then I’d be like, ‘Yes, we’ve got to win, we’ve got to get these awards.’ And now, like Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I’ve come back to where we were before we started awards season, where we didn’t feel like we needed awards to feel like we were rewarded for having done the film.” 

Post Oscars, the Call Me by Your Name odyssey really will be over (unless the film does indeed get a sequel, as Guadagnino has suggested). In fact, Hammer’s filmed several projects since. One, Hotel Mumbai, which he filmed directly after, deals with the 2007 terror attacks in Mumbai. Different, to say the least. “So, I went from an idyllic Italian countryside where we were riding bikes shirtless and eating fruit and lounging, to being chased by gunmen down hotel corridors,” he laughs. “That was a shock, for sure.” He claims, however, that despite the rapturous critical reception for Call Me by Your Name, he hasn’t been offered any particularly different roles since. “I couldn’t answer that question,” he says, when pressed on the effect the film’s had on his career. “And I can tell you that because I’ve learned from the other times that I’ve had these moments before,” as one imagines he might have had after The Social Network or The Man from U.N.C.L.E., “I was like, ‘Oh, things are going to change now. This is going to be a whole new thing.’ And then it just doesn’t happen that way, ever.”

Hammer seems sanguine about the winding path he’s taken to his first truly great role. In his youth, he lived on the Cayman Islands, his grandfather having made his name in oil. As you would imagine, his parents weren’t completely thrilled when he first announced as a young man his ambition to be an actor, but they swiftly got over it when they saw how serious he was: Hammer is nothing if not dedicated to his craft. At school, he was told that roles created by auteurs (like Guadagnino) would be the pinnacle of acting, and he feels singularly lucky to have known what that feels like. “I viewed it as a challenge, and I really wanted to be challenged as an artist,” he discloses. “So now, at a dinner party, if someone says, ‘What do you do?’ I’m much more confident saying, ‘I’m an artist’—I want to challenge myself, I want to find those things that push me.” 

Although he no longer calls the Cayman Islands home, Hammer’s family still has something of the Swiss Family Robinson about them. He’s married to the TV host and journalist Elizabeth Chambers and they live in L.A. “She’s an amazing human to put up with the ups and downs of the whole thing,” he says of what it must be like for Chambers to be married to an actor—or more specifically, him. “It’s definitely a rollercoaster, especially if your job is to live in your emotions. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, actors are like the canaries in the coalmines, we’re so sensitive that everything affects us first.” If quoting Vonnegut isn’t enough of a clue, Hammer is slightly more tortured than we would have expected from his thoroughbred appearance. “And [Elizabeth] is incredibly sympathetic when she needs be,” he cracks a huge grin, “and also, when it’s required she’s like, ‘Snap out of it. Get your shit together.’”

Hammer’s other, just as pored-over relationship is his working one with costar Timothée Chalamet, with whom he has an easy, brotherly rapport off camera. “He is one of the few costars that I still talk to constantly,” Hammer says of Chalamet. “He’s the most unguarded human being in the whole world. It could be to his detriment, but it’s also a wonderful gift that he gives to the world, because he allows you in, which is why you’re so able to follow his emotional journey in the movie.” To build this chemistry, Guadagnino had his actors arrive in Italy three weeks early for a few hours of rehearsal each day. “But then, the rest of the time, he wanted Timmy and I together. Just, ‘You two go ride bikes. Go ride and go get coffee.’” 

This is what people fell in love with while watching the film. When did summer last that long, when did you last ride a bike, when did you first fall in love? “It’s like I felt so safe on set—and so safe with Luca, and Timmy, and Michael, and Amira, and Esther, and Victoire, and all the actors in it,” he reflects, “that to make yourself vulnerable felt like exactly what the prescription of the day was.” 

How wonderful that such a gentle, vulnerable film would find such an enthusiastic audience. “I mean, at the end of the day—to be crass—we made a movie where a dude fucks a piece of fruit and then another guy eats it,” he says. “So, I was like, ‘Maybe no one will see this. This might be something that American audiences will not accept.’ And that just hasn’t been the case, because people love to see a movie that’s just a celebration of love. And one thing Luca did, in all of his genius, was to boil all of this down to the most elemental human emotions, where anyone, regardless of their orientation or identification, can remember the first time they felt that way.” 

You can probably tell that Hammer still feels that way about the film. He continues on the subject of love, “Like the first time they were totally infatuated with somebody or the first time they ever cracked themselves open and made themselves vulnerable to someone, and said, ‘This is who I am, and you are what I want.’” This is Armie Hammer the artist speaking, the one who came back from his summer in Italy changed. “And for that person to receive it and reciprocate it, everybody understands that feeling.” For anyone else not wanting to let go of that feeling, there’s the audiobook: Voiced by Hammer, this time as the voice of Elio, who narrates the whole novel, it’s akin to hearing the entire story again. “Every time I finished a recording session, I would call Timmy and I would call Luca and be like, ‘Oh, I miss you guys. Let’s talk about this. Let’s just go back again.’” If only he could take us with him. 

Photography Randall Mesdon 

Styling Paul Sinclaire 

Grooming KC Fee (The Wall Group) Executive producer Michael Scheideler (CXA) Production Anna Magriplis (CXA)
Digital technician Hesh Hipp
Photo assistants David Winthrop Hanson and Matthew Evangelisti
Stylist assistant Walker Hinerman
Tailor Susie Kourinian
Location Chateau Marmont

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