Actor Armie Hammer says he wants to make art, not blockbusters

Armie Hammer, who has been getting the best reviews of his up-and-down career for his role in “Call Me by Your Name,” thinks he has finally found “what I want to do” as an actor.

“The year 2017 was a turnaround for me,” he says during a recent visit to Austin for the South by Southwest premiere of his latest film, “Final Portrait,” an arthouse movie about a writer named James Lord (Hammer’s character) who poses for a portrait by artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush). The movie is set to open in Austin on April 20.

“‘Call Me by Your Name’ was a big turning point for me because it was easily the first film I ever did just for the sake of making art,” he says. “It was so invigorating and edifying, from an artistic and personal standpoint. I’m happy with it. I think I’ve found what I want to do. I like watching the big movies as much as anyone else, but I think there’s something special about smaller passion projects.”

And that’s what “Final Portrait” is. It’s directed by Stanley Tucci, and Hammer says he was excited by the special challenges posed in the script.

“The thing that scared me about ‘Final Portrait’ was that it made me nervous that it doesn’t have any big set pieces,” Hammer says. “There’s no huge conflict. There’s really no antagonist in this film. The only thing that’s in this film is the need to be emotionally honest with people. If that doesn’t work or connect, then it doesn’t work. It’s a daunting challenge that the only thing that will make this movie work is acting. There’s nothing to hide behind.”

SXSW 2018 review: ‘Final Portrait’ a look at the frustrations of creating art

So, how do you make two guys sitting in a room, discussing art while one is posing for a portrait, interesting and fun?

“We had a great script that Stanley turned out, and Geoffrey Rush is obviously a major talent,” Hammer says.

But Tucci comes up with ways to expand the story, even though much of it takes place in an artist’s studio, mainly by making Hammer’s Lord — and the audience — a voyeur, looking at the life of Giacometti. As Lord sits still, people come and go in the studio, including Giacometti’s wife, his personal prostitute, his brother and others.

“Stanley is amazing at managing this ballet,” Hammer says. “This movie could be two people seated in a room, talking or not talking the whole time. … But Stanley gives us that voyeuristic look into Giacometti’s life … and that allows the audience to see what’s going on in a fun way, to be a part of Giacometti’s crazy lifestyle.”

Hammer says he can identify in some ways with Giacometti’s craziness, especially since he has decided to focus more on art movies than the bigger ones.

“I don’t know that choosing to live your life as an artist is the most sane decision,” he says. “You have no pension, no retirement plan. … So it’s really an interesting choice to live an artistic lifestyle. Do you have to be crazy? No, but I think that you probably would be hard-pressed to find someone who is completely sane who would choose to do that.”

But Giacometti doesn’t really have a choice, Hammer says. “It’s his passion.”

SXSW celebrity sighting: Armie Hammer at Lady Bird Lake

And Hammer says he doesn’t have a choice about being an actor. “I’ve had lots of ups and downs,” he says, like the notable big-budget flop “The Lone Ranger,” “and sometimes I wonder why I just don’t quit. But I can’t. It’s what I love to do. And regardless of the ups and downs, that’s what I’m going to continue to do. … It’s always about personal growth.”

So, what’s next for Hammer? He was coy at South by Southwest about making a sequel to “Call Me by Your Name,” even though it appears that all the key players are on board for such a film.

Hammer’s next project is an untitled thriller, set in New Orleans. “It’s with a wonderful director named Babak Anvari, who did ‘Under the Shadow.’ So I’ll do that for a while, and then I’m going to New York to do a show on Broadway,” Hammer says.

And it’s not just any old show on Broadway. It’s “Straight White Men” — the first Broadway production of a show by an Asian-American female playwright.

“It’s sort of a story of toxic masculinity and what happens in modern society when a straight white man stops acting like a straight white man,” Hammer says.

The show will be Hammer’s Broadway debut, and it’s scheduled to open in late June.

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