Where do you go to find someone who is up to the task of portraying the most famous evangelist in modern history? The producers behind the new biopic "Billy: The Early Years" auditioned wannabe movie stars from coast to coast looking for someone special to encapsulate Billy Graham's physical likeness as well as his charisma. They finally found who they were looking for when they cast 22-year-old Armie Hammer, an actor who up until now, has only appeared in a handful of supporting roles on television and film.
But just in time for the opening of "Billy" on October 10, Hammer is receiving all kind of Hollywood buzz. He has recently been listed by Variety magazine as one of the up-and-coming stars to watch. Earlier this year he was cast as Batman in the much-hyped "Justice League" movie, though that project is in a holding pattern at the moment.
Such attention doesn't seem to be going to the young actor's head. On a day jam-packed with interviews and events for the movie, Hammer exudes every bit of the charm and energy that is evident on the screen and speaks with genuine enthusiasm about the process he went through to portray Graham .
Did you have any reservations about playing Billy Graham?
At the time I was offered the part, I didn't actually. Maybe I should have. He is an iconic figure. Playing a character that's [fiction] on paper you have so much more liberty to kind of goof around and make it your own, and allow your personality as an actor to come through. In this case, if you mess up there are two billion people on the planet who know and love him, and who will know, and who will say, that's not right. So it's more of a challenge, but that's okay. I love a challenge.
Did you have any preconceived ideas about Graham before you played him?
Sure. All I knew was that he was this preacher, so I thought as an actor I needed something real. I need some conflict. [I thought] he probably didn't have conflict. Little did I know he's had more conflict than most. He had problems and questions and doubts, but he stayed true to his beliefs.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for this movie?
I did it all on computer. I watched movie footage. I watched interviews. I watched Youtube. The internet is an actor's best friend. My favorite piece of footage was an interview with Woody Allen I found on Youtube. I loved it. It was from the 70s and it was amazing. Graham holds his own, and he's funny and articulate. I sat there and watched it over and over again and couldn't believe how smart it was. It really helped me gain insight into Billy's personality.
Of everything that you found in your research, what had the biggest impact on you?
I took away from all the research was that there has been an enormous ripple effect in this country from Billy's work. And I believe everything that happened in Billy's career was out of love, not ambition. It happened because he cared about people 100 percent. I believe he could not have been happy doing anything else.
I would say that I am definitely expecting a far amount of scrutiny, and with such a charged subject like Billy Graham, there is just no way to make everybody involved happy. You're not going to appeal to every single person who would like to see this movie. But that's okay, we know that's not going to happen and we're okay with that.
How do you think people outside of the religious community will react to such an overtly religious film?
I think people who don't know about Billy Graham will love it because this will open their eyes. I think it is possible that those from so-called Blue States will like it even more than those from Red States because they will have fewer preconceptions. And what they will find out about him will surprise them.
What's the family reaction been to the film?
I have spent most of today with [Billy Graham's daughter] Gigi and she has seen the movie something like 14 times now and she says she likes it more each time.
She did let me know that she was talking to her father about the film and explaining how beautiful Stefanie [Butler, who played Ruth Graham] looks in it and how beautiful his first girlfriend, Emily, [played by Lily Mortoff] looks in it. That he sort of got this glint in his eye and he was very excited. And he said "Well when do I get to see this thing?" So, I think he's going to see it too.
Did you feel there were the pitfalls or challenges in filming the major religious scenes in the movie, s such as when Billy is preaching at a crusade? Did you approach those scenes any differently than others?
I didn't approach this as a religious movie. I don't worry about whether it was too Christian or not Christian enough. I was only concerned with whether or not we were portraying Billy truthfully. I did do some work as an actor to get Billy's cadence and things like that down, but I didn't think about playing the religious moments any differently than any other scene. I just looked at the emotional core of the scenes. This is a love story. This is a story about friendship and faith.