Armie Hammer is Hollywood's new resident heartthrob. He's parlayed TV roles on series like Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives into a big-screen career. He did double duty as the litigious Winklevoss twins in The Social Network and just wrapped Snow White, costarring Julia Roberts. He's next onscreen in this month's J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's biopic of the FBI's conflicted and complex string-puller. Hammer delivers an emotive performance as Clyde Tolson, the associate director and maybe-paramour of J. Edgar Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film's screenwriter (and Out100 honoree), Dustin Lance Black, chats with Hammer about his character's unrequited love.
Dustin Lance Black: What did you first think of Clyde when reading the script?
Armie Hammer: Clyde didn't make sense to me. This guy treats J. Edgar like a human -- and he's the only person in the world that does. Clyde takes nothing but abuse through the course of their relationship. There were little bits of payoff, like the kiss on the forehead, like, "I need you." Those things were there, but they didn't seem enough to me to make him stay. Then I went to dinner with a buddy of mine who's gay, and I was like, "Dude, can I run this by you? I'm curious." And he was like, "Yes, Hammer. Sometimes you just fall for a person who might not even be of your orientation at all, and there's nothing you can do about it. Sometimes you get little glimmers, like he cares about me as much as I care about him, and that's enough to keep you going." In the way he broke it down, I was like, "Wow, I get it."
Black: Edgar would be incredibly abusive and then he'd send these almost-love letters to Clyde.
Hammer: I hired a researcher. I thought, What the hell is he doing here? Go find someone else. But you can't. And it made sense, and it was so tragically beautiful. I tried to learn everything I could -- I worked my ass off to figure both of them out.
Black: We are talking 1927 here, not 2011. There weren't a lot of options then. You couldn't be out. It was still the love that dare not speak its name.
Hammer: Of course, because if it had spoken its name, it would have cost you your job, your social standing, your career, your family, everything. There's no way you could be open about your sexuality, because you'd have been crushed, crushed. So you have all that added pressure on the relationship as well, which makes it really tumultuous.
Black: What Clyde was truly feeling had to remain between the lines because that's most likely how it would have been. I remember seeing a rough cut of the film for the first time and, for lack of a better word, you were basically eye-fucking Leonardo DiCaprio for two hours. Did you guys ever talk about that, or work through that?
Hammer: No, not really [laughs]. I couldn't help it.
Black: The FBI recently said they told Clint and Leo there was no hard evidence that these guys were gay. What is your response to that?
Hammer: I had three binders of photographs, and in almost every one, they were touching or leaning against each other. If you go on vacation, if you go to a restaurant with a bunch of people, why are you always next to this guy? I have 400 photos of [Clyde], and they're always next to each other. And then I found out that Hoover had a collection of photos of Clyde sleeping. And that, to me, is, if not proof, certainly more evidence.
Black: If a single guy and a single girl, working together in the FBI or anywhere, showed up to work together every morning, went to lunch every day, went home together every night, went on all their vacations together, and shared hotel rooms, there'd be no question that they had something going on. But two perpetually single guys doing the exact same thing, I think because there is historically a prejudice against it, some folks are still hesitant to draw conclusions. They demand an almost impossible burden of proof.
Black: It seems to me that you, more than anyone else in the cast, talked publicly about the kissing scenes.
Hammer: It's not a big deal! It's always the first question that people ask: "How's kissing Leo? How is it doing the gay scene?" What the fuck? It's the same thing! If I do a scene with an actress, that's not the first thing that anybody asks me about, because it's kind of inappropriate. I had to shoot a machine gun in the movie, too. I don't know how to shoot a machine gun, but they hand it to you and they go, "Shoot it," and you go, "OK." There are so many more things I was thinking about in that scene than just, "Oh my God, I'm about to kiss Leonardo DiCaprio! Oh my God, I'm about to kiss a guy."
Black: How do you think the themes of this film apply to the present?
Hammer: It's like a reflection of a time that has passed, and, if not totally passed, then one that will soon be passed. If you come out now and say, "You know what? I'm gay, and I'm proud of it," people almost pat you on the back. They'll say things like, "Good for you, do your thing."
Black: So you think this film is going back to a time that you hope is almost over?
Hammer: Yes, because there's just no place for that in the world anymore. Just like soon there won't be a place anymore for nationalities because the world is becoming so small. What does it really mean to feel you're from this place or you're from this state? "I'm from Arkansas, where are you from?" "You're from Nebraska, what is it like there?!" No. The world is becoming so small that there's not going to be a place for, "Where are you from, or what's your sexual orientation?" That's very archaic.
Black: Did you have any resistance from your family or anyone who's close to you about getting involved with this film?
Hammer: Yes, for sure. My mom's family is very old-school; they're from Oklahoma. My grandpa lived through the Depression, very old-fashioned; he's like a preacher. But it wasn't he who had a problem with it. He said, "That's fantastic!" He was so happy for me, which was really interesting. But then, there were definitely people who were like, "No, dude, you can't do this, you can't play these kinds of parts!" Why? Why do you have such an issue with me playing this part? It's unlike anything else I've played before. That's why I'm an actor.
J. Edgar is out in theaters now. Also in Out, a review of the film.