Many months ago in mid-September, Armie Hammer had been sent to the Toronto International Film Festival on his day off between performances of the Broadway play Straight White Men. Hammer had come to discuss his new film, Hotel Mumbai, and the festival was giving him a strong sense of déjà vu. Now, a year removed from his breakthrough role as the PhD student Oliver who enters a whirlwind Italian romance with the teenaged Elio in Call Me By Your Name – which made the world reconsider Armie Hammer: Handsome WASP Lust Object as Armie Hammer: Handsome Jewish Character Actor – both he and his former co-star Timothée Chalamet were back at TIFF, promoting other projects.
“I love being at the festival, but to come back and have Timmy be here, I’m like, 'Wait, shouldn’t we be doing press together?’" Hammer says.
It’s like when your ex-boyfriend starts seeing someone else, I suggest.
“Yeah, and I’m really upset about it,” he joked, folding his hands delicately where one could just make out the faint etchings of an unexpected finger tattoo – his wife’s initials on his ring finger.
In the nine years since he first appeared as both of the identical Winklevoss twins in David Fincher’s The Social Network, Hammer has been trying to have Hollywood take him seriously. But in these times when representation is of paramount concern, it can be difficult for a 6-foot-5 heir to an oil tycoon’s fortune with the goyish screen presence of a young William Hurt to gain the sort of complex roles usually afforded to a Jake Gyllenhaal or a Joaquin Phoenix. While Call Me By Your Name and Hammer’s wild performance in last year’s Sorry to Bother You showed the limitless potential of what can happen when Hammer is allowed to bust out of typecasting, 2019 has seen the actor slotted into the sort of bland, one-dimensional supporting roles usually afforded to, oh, Jessica Biel. In the recent biopic On the Basis of Sex, he played Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s unbelievably supportive husband, Marty, who says things such as, “Jane, language!” to their teenage daughter, while wearing an apron and a tea towel around his neck.
“You don’t really get to have a strategy in the beginning of your career,” Hammer acknowledges. “Even if I have been put into a box, I’m still working and lucky enough to do what I’ve always wanted to do. Now if I’m starting to get more complex roles, roles where I just don’t have to play the handsome guy, that just makes me even happier.”
In his new film Hotel Mumbai, Hammer plays a wealthy family man who is deeply in love with his wife and new baby. The couple spend a weekend with their child and nanny at a luxury hotel in Mumbai until they are forcibly taken hostage by a group of Islamic terrorists and split apart. The film is based on the real 2008 terrorist attacks that occurred at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, in which the Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba killed more than 160 people in Mumbai from Nov. 26 to 29. For most of the film, both husband and wife desperately try to reunite and escape the property without being killed. The film is visceral, violent and features many small acts of heroism. Hammer’s scenes see the actor being chased down by terrorists, until he is bound and shoved face down on the floor, trying to hold fast to the memory of his family.
“Yeah, I’m not going to sit here and pretend it was anything like what the actual people who had this experience had to go through, but it was kind of jarring, and the closest I’ve come to feeling like a victim of terror,” the actor says. “We’re running down the hallways and these guys are yelling at us in Urdu, and there are no subtitles in real life, so I had no idea what they were saying. I had just come from Call Me By Your Name to do this, so I went from riding a bicycle in the countryside of Italy and drinking wine, to being chased by guys waving machine guns at me.”
Even more disturbing was when Hammer’s scenes would wrap and he’d go grab a sandwich at craft service. Bored, he’d log onto Instagram, and check his mentions, only to be sexually harassed and objectified by random strangers. “Actors aren’t real people to people, and because we’re public figures, people just feel free to say and do whatever they want,” he tells me. “The comments I get on Instagram are just like ... it’s stuff that if you actually walked up to someone and said it in real life, it would be full blown sexual harassment. I post a picture and there’s guys being like, ‘I want [to give you oral sex].’ Now if you said that to a stranger, you would get in trouble with the law, or punched in the face. I just learn not to check the comments very much.”
The self-effacing actor, who peppers our interview with constant disclaimers such as, “I mean, this is only my opinion,” remembers tough experiences in his career starting out as a glorified extra. When I make a passing mention of a recurring character he played on season two of Gossip Girl (his evil socialite Gabriel Edwards two-times Serena van der Woodsen only to try and con her into relinquishing her fortune), Hammer blushes and audibly winces with embarrassment.
“Yeah, I started my career playing Student No. 2 and Abercrombie Boy and Hey, Whatever Your Character Name Is,” he says. “You unfortunately aren’t given the respect and value and gravitas that the actors who are playing the top five on the call sheet get. The crew is just like, ‘Go, go, stand over there! Okay now, do it again, but don’t do it so bad!'”
“I remember [those experiences] so much that I don’t allow myself to get sucked into the other side. Because this side of the pendulum is not good. It’s not good for people who get treated like they can do no wrong."
Maybe it is time to start affording Armie Hammer the dignity he deserves, as well as the complex roles he deserves to play. It’s 2019. Armie Hammers can be Paul Giamattis, too.
Hotel Mumbai opens March 29.
Special to The Globe and Mail