Hammer stars as the weirder-than-you-can-imagine Lift in Boots Riley's sometimes surreal dark comedy, Sorry to Bother You, a movie that renders you speechless because the right words don't exist to describe it. The film — which also stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius "Cash" Green, the eager telemarketer who uses his "white voice" to get ahead, Tessa Thompson as Detroit, Cassius' artist and activist girlfriend, and Steven Yeun as fellow telemarketer Squeeze — is a commentary on modern capitalism and how it exploits those the bottom. Lift is the Machiavellian mastermind behind one of the biggest corporations, Worry-Free, whose main goal is to make money at the expense of literally everyone else.
"Fortunately, I do not relate to Steve Lift at all," Hammer told Refinery29 a recent June afternoon. "But that only makes him more fun to play." It's his first film in which he plays a true villain, and Hammer and Lift (sidenote: a pretty good name for a construction company), couldn't be more different. Lift wears sarongs, and carries a crop. Hammer, unfortunately, does not.
The 31-year-old star of Call Me By Your Name is seated next to me in a warm and sunny suite on the top floor of the Crosby Street Hotel, wearing maroon pants, a printed brown polo, and the biggest smile for a busy, busy man. (He's doing press for one movie after just recently wrapping up shooting for another, all while rehearsing his Broadway debut.) He seems the exact opposite of evil ('benevolent Greek god" comes to mind). And that disparity is what makes Hammer so electric and unforgettable in this role.
Ahead, we talk about CEO psychopaths, snorting fake cocaine with a hundred dollar bill, and the necessity of tracksuits.
Refinery29: You mentioned before that you had done research on real life CEOs for this role. Did you make any specific changes to Steve based on your research?
Armie Hammer: "Not really. Boots had such a clearly defined character and he had so much that he wanted to say with this character that I just found a bunch of stuff about CEOs to corroborate with. One of the interesting things that I found is there there is a disproportionately higher level of psychopathy in CEOs in Fortune 500 than in the general population. It’s not huge. It’s not like every CEO is a psychopath, but instead of a number like .2%, it’s like 1.5%. I think that it's one of the things that lends itself to CEOs being willing to do whatever it takes to get "there," and valuing their own successes over the value of human rights. That is a big thing in Boots’ message not only in this movie, but also in his music career. "What does unchecked capitalism look like?" Putting profit margin over the people that work for them."
And that really shows in Steve's dialogue. He is very sure that everything he is doing isn’t evil, or even that bad.
"Yeah, he totally believes he is doing the right thing. And like many of these CEOs, they have to have that clarity of vision. They have to say, 'I believe in what I am doing so much that I am only going to sleep 3 hours a night, underneath my desk, in order to get it done.' You have to be driven to do that. The problem is that he is driven towards something totally insane."
This is your first time playing a true movie villain, not just an antagonist like in Social Network or Nocturnal Animals. Did you enjoy breaking bad, and could you relate to him at all?
"Fortunately, I do not relate to Steve Lift at all, but that only makes him more fun to play, to kind of experience something outside of you that is still fun. I really enjoyed playing Steve Lift because he is a crazy, larger-than-life kind of character and my favourite thing about Steve is that while he is inarguably a terrible person, he doesn’t think so. He thinks he is truly going to save the world, and that kind of delusions of grandeur are a lot of fun to get to play."
You mentioned Boots’ music — were you a fan of his before you got involved in the film, and what was that [casting] process like?
This is his first film, and you have recently, but not too recently, made the crossover from big blockbuster to indie films. What was it like working with him, and is there an overall difference between those two worlds?
"You know, working with Boots was amazing because the entire process was totally about executing his vision. It was so specifically his vision and his voice. When you’re working on these smaller director-driven projects, you’re given that opportunity. You’re not necessarily beholden to what the studio needs from you, or wants from you, or what they think will work versus what you think will work. We did things in this movie that you would never be able to do with a studio film."
What was the process of filming that scene where you snort a huge line of cocaine, and how many takes of that did you have to do?
"We did it several times because there was a timing issue: there was the vibe of the party, there were all those people we had to get right. Fortunately, I didn’t actually have to snort a two foot line of lactose powder. First they gave me like a five dollar bill rolled up and I was like "No, no, no. This is Steve Lift, I need a hundred bill." And they’re like “OK!” So they rolled it around a tube, and put a vacuum tube down my sleeve, like up my back and then down my sleeve and into the bill, so actually it goes into a vacuum. I didn’t have to snort anything, thank God, because we did so many takes I think I would have probably died."
You mentioned the crowd, and from the trailer it’s obvious this coke scene is a big one, but when the camera zooms, it’s kind of hilarious. You see this whole crowd of people — his hype crowd — watching him.
"He literally stands in front of a huge group of people watching him like they’re not even there, showing this total disregard for everybody, and just bashes a massive line of coke, like it’s totally normal. For him it’s like, this is my house, my party, and I don’t care what you think. That sort of attitude reverberates in everything he does."
The sarong that you wore – was that written into the character?
"I don’t remember specifically. I remember having conversations with Deirdra [Govan] who did all the costumes, because we definitely worked together to create this. And she had so many great, specific ideas, so we would just kind of collaborate. She was amazing in creating the little bits and pieces that would make all of the characters who they were. She also was also super down to collaborate which was a lot of fun. So I was able to come in and say, “I want a crop, I want a necklace that looks like a bridle!”
I noticed that you often post songs you are listening to on Twitter. Do you often listen to music to get you in the headspace to play a character?
"Yeah, I really started doing that more recently. A lot of that has to do with getting in the vibe and mind space and all that. But whenever I post a song on Twitter it’s nothing like big or planned. It’s just me listening to music and then a song comes on, and I’m like “I’m really digging this song” [bobs head] and then I’ll just tweet it out."
What kind of music did you listen to for Steve Lift?
"I listened to Ziggy Black, Chabaz Palaces. I think I have some of the playlists still on my phone."
[Pulls out pure gold iPhone.]
A little Tommy Genesis, Shabazz Palaces, Zebra Katz, Ghostemane, Nine Inch Nails, Denzel Curry, Aristophanes, Ian Chang. All kinds of good stuff."
"Darker, murkier, more intense stuff."
"I haven’t found anything else like that yet. The tracksuits were really born out of necessity of like, I am now bored, and stressed. We traveled for like 14 months doing press for Call Me By Your Name. It was literally 14 months."
I enjoyed it, as a fan…
But thinking about it, it’s actually crazy.
"We just didn’t stop. Doing travel for press, you’re going to totally new places every single time, and have this same experience over and over. You end up in a nice hotel. You end up doing press. You get arguably the same questions [Ed note: he was not referring to me], maybe phrased differently, but the same questions, over and over. You have great food, but then you’re also with the same exact people so it’s almost like totally different, but totally the same. It was really psychologically taxing. Then you have all of the clothes you need to take and all the stuff they’re shipping, and you’re doing wardrobe fittings. Eventually one day I was like, "I am so over this. If I’m going to still be doing this, and you want my attention, I am just going to be comfortable." And that’s where the tracksuits came from."
That makes sense. Speaking of Call Me By Your Name , how often do you and Timothee Chalamet talk? Are you on a text chain with director Luca Guadagnino?
"Yeah, I talked to Luca either yesterday or the day before. And Timmy and I, we FaceTime pretty regularly. He’s in London filming right now, but we talk a bunch. We all became really close so we talk as much as friends do."
Sorry to Bother You opens in select cinemas in the US on 6th July. UK release to follow.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.