LOS ANGELES - If it weren't for the movie "Home Alone," Armie Hammer might not be starring in "The Lone Ranger." Seeing the 1990 Macaulay Culkin hit inspired Hammer to become an actor.
"I had a dream that night that I was the kid in the house with the blowtorch and all that stuff and thinking, `This is awesome! I love acting!'" said Hammer, recalling the thoughts of his 11-year-old self. "I knew this was for me. It was the only thing I wanted to do."
He convinced his parents to let him quit high school to pursue his dream, and now the 26-year-old actor is playing one of the most revered American characters in a big-budget blockbuster starring Johnny Depp.
After a bumpy start that included a brief return to school, he already counts Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts and David Fincher among his past collaborators. Hammer gained notice playing the Winklevoss twins in 2010's celebrated "The Social Network." Then he earned a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for his supporting role in 2011's "J.Edgar." But with "The Lone Ranger," the actor steps squarely into the spotlight with his first bona fide leading-man role.
"It's like I can't believe I've been this lucky," Hammer says with a sincerity belied by his football-captain good looks.
Though he auditioned for the part several times, director Gore Verbinski knew immediately he'd found his Lone Ranger.
"When I first met him, I just knew he was the guy," said Verbinski, who likened Hammer to "somebody who's a little out-of-time, like seeing Gary Cooper walk into a supermarket or something."
"He's like this classical leading man, and that's not to say that he isn't contemporary," the director continued. "Armie's tall, handsome, and genuine, and who doesn't want to throw that into a meat grinder?"
Hammer plays lawman John Reid and Depp is Tonto in this origin story of how the Lone Ranger came to wear his mask. To prepare for the role, Hammer spent months immersed in all the "Lone Ranger" radio and TV episodes and books and comics he could find, and perfected his gun-slinging and horse-riding skills at a three-week "cowboy camp."
He traveled the American Southwest shooting the film for the better part of a year, during which he befriended (and inspired) the crew and hung out with his world-famous co-star.
"He's just the nicest dude," he said of Depp, "and I was so amazed at how normal the guy is."
Hammer exudes an engaged optimism that Verbinski said permeated the set, and even shows in an empty conference room at Hammer's publicist's office during a brief stop on a worldwide press tour to promote the film.
"I'm convinced I've hit the pinnacle in terms of experiences while making a movie," Hammer beamed. "This was the best crew I have ever worked with, best actors, best everything, and we shot in the most amazing locations."
He's still getting the hang of globe-trotting promotions, though, and says he's not looking forward to the fame likely to come with the film's July 3 opening. Hammer enjoys walking in his neighborhood without much notice. But he has appeared on a few magazine covers, and his face looms large on billboards all over the city.
"Fortunately, though - I'm kind of relying on this - I'm wearing masks in so much of the advertising and stuff, so that it's probably not like, `Hey, that's the guy,'" he said. "I'm not excited about (the fame). I don't even like talking about it. I feel disgusted with myself if I even just say the term `my fans.'"
Married to TV personality Elizabeth Chambers since 2010, Hammer said his off-camera life keeps him grounded.
"I keep all my original friends. I'm married. I have a life. I have a dog," he said. "I don't get wrapped up in all of this. I'm delightfully ambivalent toward most of it."
He acknowledges - and Disney reminds him - that fans are critical to the film's success, and his own, since he has aspirations beyond acting. Hammer admires Mel Brooks and Robert Redford - artists who create their own characters and projects.
"I don't want to forever just say other people's words. I don't forever want to be an actor. I want to be responsible for my own content," Hammer said. "Directing is the end game."
Next up for Hammer is Guy Richie's "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," which starts shooting later this summer. Then he hopes to find an indie project - "Something where I have to pay for my own housing in the middle of the movie."
It's all part of Hammer's continuing education that began with "Home Alone."
"I would take any role in any movie if I thought the people I would get a chance to work with had something I could learn," Hammer said. "I didn't go to school. This is my school, and I should be learning every day."