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Industrialist's grandson channels young Billy Graham in new film
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The Orlando Sentinel (MCT) - A couple of ironies are connected with the new Billy Graham film biography, "Billy: The Early Years."
The first is that the Graham family has been sniping about the film in the pages of Christianity Today, with Franklin Graham, the heir and head of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, distancing himself and the organization from the movie. (He called it "dorky," according to his sister.) Billy's daughter, Gigi Graham, has embraced the movie, which opened Friday, as "good and positive."
The second irony is that, being a feature film, it has an actor playing Graham. And how did Armie Hammer follow up playing one of the most famous preachers in American history? With a TV role, on the CW's upcoming series "The Reaper."
"I actually play the son of the devil," Hammer says with a chuckle. "So, you know, no type casting for this boy!"
Armand "Armie" Hammer, 22, is the great-grandson of the industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer, and is just now beginning to make his mark. He's been mentioned as a possible comic-book hero (Batman) in the long-planned "Justice League of America" movie. Even though he grew up in the Cayman Islands and wasn't that familiar with Graham, he leapt at the chance to play him.
"It was a fantastic opportunity, going through this journey where you study and learn everything you can about this living icon, digging into his past so that I could figure out what he was about, how Billy Graham the preacher came to be."
Hammer sees Graham as "ahead of his time," particularly with regards to the sins that brought down more recent evangelists such as Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard. The actor marvels over "The Modesto Manifesto," Graham's 1940s pact with his advisers to never be in a room alone with a woman, "never lie about money or attendance ... use an outside accounting firm to handle the cash. We hadn't had all these TV preacher scandals, but Graham was determined to be scrupulous."
Unlike young Hammer, Graham knew the stories about Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday and what the taint of scandal can do to a ministry.
"In the world of today, we look for ministers to fall," Hammer says.
To play Graham, Hammer had to go through some of what the future preacher endured, practicing his sermons "to animals in the woods, inanimate objects," Hammer recalls with a laugh. Early images of Graham are the very picture of "hellfire and brimstone."
"I wouldn't say 'scary,' but he definitely had a very intense, charismatic stage presence," Hammer says. "He was set on literally scaring the hell out of people."
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And the eyes? Not something you can easily "act."
"He definitely had the (Charles) Manson lamps," Hammer jokes.
In watching films of Graham's early years, Hammer tried to pick up the rhythms of the preacher's speech and the Carolina accent.
"He was such a good salesman that he matched his accent to his audience, to a degree. He was still selling. Only now, he was selling himself, not Fuller Brushes. When he was talking to Southerners, his accent would be thicker. When he was talking with businessmen and others in New York, the accent would almost disappear.
"I didn't try to mimic him. I was just trying to have a deeper understanding of the character, Billy Graham, and have that shine through as I did the lines."
Acting is a true "total immersion" profession, especially when you're playing a real person. Did channeling Graham change Hammer?
"If I let every role I play change my life, at the end of the day I'd have no idea who I was," Hammer says. "This role definitely allowed me to see things about myself that I may not have seen before. But at the end of the day, I'm an actor doing a job."
© 2008, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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