Benjamin Svetkey
March 23, 2012 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away — that would be the Cayman Islands — there was a young prince named Armie. He was handsome. He was charming. He was heir to a great family fortune. But then, one night, a powerful chimera slipped into his sleep and transformed the young prince into something much more problematic than a toad or a newt. It turned him into an actor.

”I was 11 years old, and I had a dream that I was a kid in a movie,” says Armie Hammer, who, at 25, has now actually been in a bunch of movies. He played both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network and J. Edgar Hoover’s assistant in J. Edgar, and soon costars as a valiant prince in Mirror Mirror, a tongue-in-cheek take on Snow White with Lily Collins as the princess and Julia Roberts as the evil queen. Hammer sits in a Santa Monica hotel lounge, trying to recall the details of the dream that cast such a life-altering spell. ”I think I might have been the boy in Home Alone,” he says, taking a swig from a bottle of beer. ”I remember I had a BB gun. It’s fuzzy. But it was like a vision. When I woke up, I knew. The next morning I sat down with my parents and told them, ‘I’m supposed to be an actor.”’

Most parents wouldn’t bother to glance up from their Eggos, but this was the Hammer household. Armie Hammer — Armand Douglas Hammer on his birth certificate — is the great-grandson of Armand Hammer, the 20th-century tycoon who ran Occidental Petroleum, amassed one of the largest art collections in the world, and became Vladimir Lenin’s BFF (after shipping the starving Russians tons of American grain in the 1920s). Hammer is the sort of name that gets etched in granite above museum entrances (like L.A.’s Hammer Museum). It’s the sort of name that can be found on boxes in millions of refrigerators (Hammer’s great-grandfather didn’t start Arm & Hammer Baking Soda, but he did buy a lot of stock in its manufacturer because he got a kick out of the brand’s name). It’s not the sort of name that’s supposed to be on a film-credits scroll. ”They just started laughing,” Hammer recalls of his parents’ reaction to his epiphany.

They stopped laughing when he dropped out of Los Angeles Baptist High School in 11th grade to pursue acting full-time. Of course, algebra in an American high school must have seemed like a letdown to Hammer after having spent most of his preteen years running wild in the Cayman Islands. His family had moved to the Caribbean tax haven when Armie was about 7. ”My dad saw the movie The Firm and he thought the place looked like paradise,” Hammer says. ”So he just moved us all there, sight unseen. But it was the best. I could swim with stingrays and sea turtles whenever I wanted. I had ringworm, like, six times because I was always barefoot.” When his dad finally returned the family to L.A. after five years, Armie felt as out of place as Tarzan in Tarzana. ”I could tell you how to open a coconut without any tools, but I had zero pop culture knowledge,” he says. ”I didn’t know what the Lakers were. I didn’t know who Nirvana was. I didn’t know anything.”

The only thing he knew was that he wanted to act. So, after dropping out, he started auditioning — much to his parents’ horror. ”They threatened to cut me off unless I went to school,” he says. ”So I signed up at UCLA Extension but never showed up for class. I played the game, but I needed to do my own thing. My entire life had been this long, pressured conversation about the family I represented. ‘When you walk out the door, you represent us. You have to dress well and make sure your hair is combed.”’ His own thing may not have included finishing the 11th grade, but between roles he managed to cram several college degrees’ worth of literature into his skull. In the course of a 90-minute chat, he drops quotes from Hunter S. Thompson, Malcolm Gladwell, and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. ”I like reading,” he says. ”I just hate school.”

If Hammer feels burdened by his upbringing, it’s a load he wears lightly. ”You’d never know he comes from such a prestigious family,” says Collins, who’s faced similar lineage issues as the daughter of rocker Phil Collins. ”He doesn’t make that a part of who he is at all. It’s really important to him that his last name isn’t the thing that got him where he is.”

Getting where he is took some time, and a string of tiny, forgettable parts. He played ”Student #2” in an episode of Arrested Development. He had a line in 2006’s Flicka. But then in 2009, he was cast in a pair of breakthrough roles, both in the same film. ”There were two auditions for The Social Network, one with Aaron Sorkin and one with David Fincher,” says Hammer. ”I was a nervous wreck. I was like, ‘Okay, how do I hold the paper without my hands making it shake?”’ After his turn as the Winklevii, Clint Eastwood cast him as J. Edgar Hoover’s assistant-slash-possible-gay-lover in last fall’s J. Edgar. ”He’s boiled down filmmaking to its most basic form,” says Hammer of Eastwood’s technique. ”He’s like, ‘Put the camera there and I’m going to shoot it there. Good. Now put the camera there, I’m going to shoot it there…”’

Following those high-profile supporting roles, the leap to leading man wasn’t such a stretch — especially in a film like Mirror Mirror. ”When I first saw his picture, I thought, ‘If you were going to draw a prince, you’d draw Armie,”’ says director Tarsem Singh (Immortals). ”And then when I met him, I thought, ‘This guy has charm coming out of the ying-yang.”’ Most important to Singh, though, was Hammer’s willingness to commit. ”He had to do some silly things in this movie, and for it to work he couldn’t hesitate at all.” In one scene, in which a puppy-love potion forces the prince to act like a dog, Hammer had to jump into Julia Roberts’ lap and lick her face. ”It was the first scene I did with Julia,” says Hammer, who prepped by observing his Welsh terrier, Archie. ”It was like, ‘Hi, nice meeting you, ready to do this? Breath mint, please.”’

Hammer won’t get to slurp anyone’s face in his next movie — he’ll play the titular role in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (due May 31, 2013) opposite Johnny Depp as Tonto — but even his parents would have to concede that this acting thing is working out. Indeed, Hammer seems to be making his own fairy tale come true, having snagged both a beautiful princess (he married actress and TV personality Elizabeth Chambers in 2010) and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. His very own hard-earned gold. ”I am not supported by [family money] in any way,” he says, a big grin on his face. ”I support myself. My wife and I together — it’s all our household. I’m really proud of that.”

His great-granddad would undoubtedly be impressed.

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