Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES - Long before Armie Hammer ever put on the famous mask to star in The Lone Ranger, he had a disguise of his own - a full-face helmet.
Hammer gets around Los Angeles on his Vespa scooter, zipping unrecognized in the snarled traffic. He even has a temporary license plate on the back for illegal parking.
"They don't know where to send the ticket," says Hammer. "It's all about anonymity. No one knows who I am. I'm under the radar."
Sorry, Armie. This will change when The Lone Ranger opens on July 3, with Hammer in the iconic title role in the blockbuster directed by Gore Verbinski. Attention will always be paid to mega-star Johnny Depp, playing Tonto, but for Hammer, 26, it's a full gallop into the spotlight.
"This movie is going to make him a big star," says producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who says he spotted his 6-foot-5 leading man watching his breakout role as both Winklevoss twins in 2010's The Social Network.
It took some training to truly pull off the Old West once Hammer auditioned for the part. He attended a cowboy boot camp, where he learned to handle a six-shooter and improve his horsemanship.
"There was a lot of chafing involved before achieving the requisite callouses," says Hammer. "So there was a lot of saddle soreness."
By the time he put on the famous mask, Hammer was able to keep his game face while riding his steed, Silver. Although he concedes: "In reality, what you're thinking is, 'Don't fall off, I'm gonna die.' "
Still, Hammer was able to pull through a marathon 150-day shoot dealing with everything from snow to torrential rain to nearby forest fires. He even survived one stunt that involved jumping on the back of Silver, only to have his horse step aside, leaving Hammer on his back in the dirt.
"I had to lie there with the wind knocked out of me and just kind of go 'I don't think I'm a very good Lone Ranger,' " says Hammer.
"I just thought, 'That guy looks like the Lone Ranger,' " says Bruckheimer. "He's handsome and tall with this square jaw. He looks like a guy that came from the Old West."
Not a likely scenario. Hammer already has lined up his next high-profile project, starring as a Russian KGB agent in Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E alongside Man of Steel star Henry Cavill.
Hammer wants to make sure he keeps it low-key after seeing what life was like for Depp.
"Obviously I couldn't feel less badly for Johnny. But Johnny has a hard life," says Hammer. " When we would go out during production, they would put up big barriers in the restaurant. People do the craziest things. They try to grab his hair. Rip his clothes. It doesn't look like fun."
He wants very little to change his mellow L.A. lifestyle, which he shares with his wife, model Elizabeth Chambers, and his Welsh terrier Archie Leach.
"I like that in the mornings I can wake up, take my dog and go grab coffee and a bagel then bring back a box to my wife. I like that," says Hammer. "I don't want anything else or need anything. I have a great wife and a great life."
To help with the grounding process, Hammer already has plans for a month-long cross-country Vespa trip with his friends after he wraps U.N.C.L.E. - California to the Florida Keys with no highways, minimal gear and sleeping under the stars.
"And I'll trade in the mask for goggles," says Hammer. "But maybe I'll get goggles shaped like a mask."