Armie Hammer just went to Disneyland. It was partly for work — he was doing press for “Cars 3,” in which he voices super-fast racecar (and villain) Jackson Storm — but even when he got time to bop around the park, he couldn’t do all the rides. That’s because his kids are young: his daughter is 2 ½ and his son was born earlier this year. Not that the actor would be at an amusement park by himself. After all, he is 30 years old.
“I haven’t been on a rollercoaster in 18 years,” Hammer remarks. But when you have kids, you get to do all the things you did as a kid once again — get to re-experience childhood but from a vastly different perspective. Usually that involves playing teacher to his kids.
“It’s a lot of fun watching them process and learn and figure things out. Like, ‘What is this?’ ‘This is a caterpillar.’ ‘Why is this leaf brown?’ ‘It’s changing color because it’s fall.’ You get to go learn everything all over again,” Hammer tells us.
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Sometimes he draws a blank. “She’ll definitely catch me off-guard and say, ‘Why this? Why that?’ I’ll just say, ‘Well, I don’t know. Let’s figure it out!’ Then I reach into my pocket and take out a device that has the cumulative amount of all human knowledge,” says Hammer.
Up to this point, Hammer’s career has largely been spent in movies that are decidedly not for kids: “The Social Network,” “J. Edgar,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Free Fire.” Even “The Lone Ranger” is a little too intense for wee ones. If Hammer feels compelled to do movies his children can watch, he’s smart to do one with Pixar, an animation house known for tackling heavy, even depressing issues — aging, abandonment, obsolescence, death — yet in a way kids still want to see.
“That’s what they do so well: They take big issues but deal with them so lightheartedly that my 2 ½-year-old daughter can watch them and be enthralled the whole time,” Hammer says.
Sure enough, in “Cars 3,” our hero, red-coated speeder Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), has to wrestle with the idea that his career might be over — that newer, faster cars, like Hammer’s Jackson Storm, are taking over.
“It deals with the concept of gracefully phasing your life into the next, as a mature adult would do,” Hammer explains. “It’s about not getting locked up on one thing — saying, ‘Now I can do this, now I can do that.’” (For the record, he doesn’t think his character learns his lesson — “winning with grace and dignity,” as he describes it — very well.)
What do kids think of these sometimes brutally honest children’s films? What on earth do they make of “Inside Out,” which is all about that moment when kids realize that the world can be a dark and miserable place, and that happiness can be replaced by anger and sadness? Hammer knows that stuff goes over their heads. But that’s by design.
“When they get older they can go back and watch them with a new perspective,” Hammer explains. “There’s something for everyone. The older they get, the more sides they see.”
Hammer doesn’t allow his daughter to watch too many movies at her age, “Cars 3” being an obvious exception.
“We don’t really let her get too much screen-time. She has a fake iPhone that she’s able to use, because she sees us using ours a lot,” he says. Still, he doesn’t want her to go completely without technology.
“I have people warn me, ‘Oh, you don’t want her to have too much screen-time.’ But I realized there’s not really a world my daughter and son will live in where they don’t interact in some way with a screen or some kind of digital technology on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “If I limit her screen-time now, am I setting her back? Or if I give her controlled and monitored screen-time now, in a productive way, am I helping her? It’s less of a black-and-white issue than ‘Screen-time for kids is bad.’”
Hammer says he’s very careful about what he lets his daughter see — and read. Even children’s books can have terrible messages, he finds.
“There are some that are about bratty kids who whine and cry,” Hammer says. “You’re like, ‘Why am I reading this to my child?’”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge