To say that life in America now is different than it was back in the mid-19th century is a gross, almost laughable understatement. Social and technological advancements over the last 200 years have made life much simpler and comfortable than ever seen before, and not having those advancements made life hard back in the 1800s – particularly for those who lived out west. It would be a challenge for someone today to completely understand the lifestyle from a 21st century perspective, but when Armie Hammer first landed the role of The Lone Ranger he made his understanding of the time period a priority – a what he discovered is that life in the Old West was harder than you could possibly imagine.
As I mentioned a few days ago, last month I had the chance to fly out to Santa Fe, New Mexico to take part in a press day for The Lone Ranger, and during my stay I had the terrific opportunity to sit down one-on-one with the star in the titular role. Check out our conversation below, where Hammer talks about tackling an iconic pop culture character, working with both director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp, and his surprise that we didn’t all just die out in the desert years and years ago.
You were here during production, yeah?
Yeah, we were here for probably three or four months before.
That must add to the whole mystique of the desert.
Paradise. Yeah, it was like you wake up here and then you go to work and you ride a horse all day and you’re like, “I think I actually am a cowboy.”
Did you have any of the ranger skills going into making the movie?
I mean, I probably had like a hint of some of them, maybe most of them, but nothing like the extensive skills I would need to actually do the movie. I’d thrown a lasso. I think I lassoed my brother a couple times for fun, but never a moving object especially not a Gatling gun, which I had to lasso at one point in the movie.
Where did this project start for you?
Yeah, I mean, the project had been around for a while. I think Jerry and Johnny started talking about it back in 2006 or something like that. And then I got involved at the end, pretty much, to right before we started shooting. I just went in and auditioned and auditioned four or five times and then had a good conversation with Gore and he was like, “Do you want to do the movie?” and I was like, “Is this binding? Yeah, I do. Sure, let’s go.”
When you take on a new character, is there a particular thing that you like to hone into first, and especially with this character, what was it that?
It’s research. I basically honed in on just daily life at the time, so before I learned anything about being a Texas Ranger or the history of the television show or anything like that, I want to know what that person had to do to feed themselves every day. I want to know what that person had to do if they wanted to take a shit. I want to know what that person had to do if they had to go visit their cousin in another town and I promise you, it was the hardest thing in the world, each one of those things then, and I just wanted to know about that, because that really informs everything about the characters from that point on.
When it came to the research part of it, I have to assume that you also looked back at the history of The Lone Ranger.
Then we got the radio series and the TV show. We got the comics. We got the books. We’ve got the 1980s movie, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, that whole thing.
What would you say that you took the most from?
It’s funny, probably the original show, just because so many of the core elements of this movie came directly from the show, whether it’s the bad guys, Silver, the mask, hat, horse, Tonto, I mean everything is original. So, that’s kind of where all of that came from, so probably the show.
In terms of working with Gore Verbinski, he is a fantastic visual director, but I’m also curious about what he’s like to work with as an actor’s director. How much, was it a collaborative process? What was it like every day?
It’s very collaborative in as much as he’s seen this movie a thousand times before you even say any of the words out loud. So, it’s about, you know, sort of understanding what he wants and then figuring out how to put that through your own process to give it to him. That’s kind of, and he’s great. He’s very verbal. He’s very communicative. He’s a great director, very smart. Very smart.
He has worked with Johnny Depp on quite a number of projects, so I assume they have their own kind of shorthand. Was that ever a challenge you had to face on the set?
Not really, because it was, it never felt exclusive. It was like the most inclusive club I’ve ever seen in my life. As soon as I showed up it was like, “Have a seat. OK, here’s what we’re doing.” I just felt like a part of it the whole time. I mean, it probably helped that I was playing the Lone Ranger.
The title role!
I did feel like a big part of it, which was great.
In addition to Verbinski, you’ve had the chance to work with some really great directors these past couple of years. David Fincher, Clint Eastwood, Tarsem Singh… did you ever notice any kind of through-lines in between the way that they work? Do you see connections between them?
Yeah, but what I’m paying attention to, more than anything else, are the differences. What does this guy do differently and how does that make his movies end up differently? So, he does it like this. How does that affect what happens on the screen? It’s like film school, it’s essentially like I’m just in the most fun film school in the world.
What did Gore Verbinski introduce new that you hadn’t seen on previous sets?
Gore does all of his own storyboarding and he draws it out super, super simply, like literally just stick figures, to the point where no one knows at all what is going on on the story boards. It just looks like a bunch of scribble.
As long as he gets it.
It’s like a Rorschach test. I mean, I think, “What’s going on there, with the chicken?” and then you’ll do this shot and you’ll do this scene and he’ll take a still out of it and put it right over the story board and it’s like, you’ll lift and go, “Oh...that’s the guy. That’s the... Well, that’s perfect,” and it always worked out perfectly. So, that’s, you know, I don’t know if I’ll have the ability to do that, but he made it look easy.
A couple weeks ago there was a featurette that came online about you on the spirit platform and it, you looked fairly terrified…which is completely understandable.
I was fairly terrified.
At the same time, though, this is a very action heavy role for you, and we see you pull off a lot stunts in this movie. What would you say was the most challenging day on set?
There were a couple night shoots, that we would just shoot all night, but in a river, like freezing our asses off, all night, nowhere to get warm, because it’s like you get out and you just get colder. There’s no sun and you’re just cold.
In the middle of the desert.
In the middle of nowhere, Utah. That was hard. Being dragged behind the horse probably, bring dragged behind the horse was probably like the moment where I came the closest to being like, “I’m out. Someone else do this. I’m done.”
Were you fighting to do your own stunts? Is most of it is you versus using a stunt double?
I think everybody was fighting for me to do it. I was. I know Gore was. I think it’s a big part of this movie. I think, you know, to have a big action sequence happen and not have a hand or the back of my head in the frame, you know, “Oh, this is really going on. This is happening.” It makes the audience feel like they’re in it and that they’re part of it more.
Just to kind of touch on the western genre in a more general sense - over the last century the popularity of the western has come in waves, but has long been a part of filmmaking history. What do you connect to in the western genre and what makes it such an important film tradition?
I mean, as an American, Westerns are a very specifically American form of storytelling, much like Bourbon has to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Champagne has to be made in France. Whiskey you can make anywhere. Scotch you can, well Scotland, mostly, but I mean you’ve got Japanese scotch and stuff like that, and it’s ok, but Westerns have to take place in America. I mean, obviously you’ve got Spaghetti Westerns and Sergio Leone, I mean arguably one of the best Western directors wasn’t even American, but every one of his Western movies took place in America, because this was the last place where there was that most unclaimed open frontier, where you could just go and do whatever the piss you wanted to do, and it’s like, that thing of seeing the good guy wake up and do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do, and he’s got to feed his family. He’s got to fix that fence. He’s just got to do it. He doesn’t have a choice. That’s good, that’s like good American stock.
As you’ve learned, an extremely hard lifestyle.
The most difficult, I mean, I don’t know how they all made it. We’re lucky we’re all here.
It’s true. They could have all just died out there in the desert.
I’m surprised they didn’t.
Were you kind of a western kid? Were you kind of the kid who played with Western...?
Yeah, I did Indian Guides as a kid, which is kind of like Boy Scouts but with a more Native American slant to it, always outdoors, always playing outside.