Most Americans probably know Anthony Mackie best as Falcon, sidekick to Captain America in the massively successful Marvel movies. But this week, the 37-year-old actor is taking on a very different type of superhero: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in HBO’s All the Way.
Appearing opposite Bryan Cranston’s Lyndon B. Johnson, who becomes an “accidental president” after John F. Kennedy is assassinated, Mackie’s King is at the same time a stark defender of civil rights and a negotiator forced to make painful compromises for his cause. He vows to hold LBJ’s “feet to the fire” on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but in the process allows the equally important Voting Rights Act to get pushed to a more expedient time frame.
It’s a tall order for an actor who has spent much of the past few years with metallic wings strapped to his back, but Mackie is up to the task. Before he became Falcon, the actor had pivotal roles in two Best Picture Oscar winners, 2004’s Million Dollar Baby and 2008’s The Hurt Locker, along with three stints on Broadway.
Mackie spoke to The Daily Beast a few days before All the Way’s May 21 premiere on HBO, discussing what it takes to play MLK, diversity in the Marvel Universe and that time he inadvertently endorsed Donald Trump.
Is playing Martin Luther King something you have wanted to do for a while?
No, you know, I’d always respected and admired Dr. King. I’ve always appreciated what he did, not only for black people, but for the human race. But I never wanted to portray him, because I felt like it would be taking away from his legacy, from the aura, the mystique of him being so great. But I felt like now, I realized in my old age, the best way to honor him is by telling his story.
What was the research and preparation like for the role?
I was invited over to Morehouse College in Atlanta to look at their archives, their photographs and meet with some men who had actually worked with and marched with Dr. King. Also, I read these two amazing books. One was [King’s] Bearing the Cross and the other one was [Tavis Smiley’s] Death of a King.
Some major actors have portrayed him recently, from Samuel L. Jackson on Broadway to David Oyelowo in Selma. Did you have any concerns about taking the role so soon after those iconic performances?
Not at all. I saw Sam Jackson on Broadway, along with Angela Bassett, in The Mountaintop and I loved Sam Jackson’s interpretation of Dr. King. I felt like it was very real and satisfying to the audience, like he served the story well.
What about All the Way’s run on Broadway, did you get a chance to see that?
I did, but the movie is very different. The play was pretty much LBJ. It was all Bryan Cranston, all day. What they did with the movie, which is really great, is they opened it up and gave more of a story about LBJ’s world than just LBJ. You get more Lady Bird [Johnson], you get more Dr. King, you get more [Hubert Humphrey], you get more [J. Edgar] Hoover. So you get to see all the people around LBJ.
Yeah, the film depicts some of the really hard choices and compromises King was forced to make leading up to the 1964 election. Did playing those scenes give you a better sense of what that was like for him and for those fighting for change today?
Definitely. You know, the great thing about being an actor is you get to live different experiences, you get to participate in all of the things that you usually wouldn’t, that you could just watch from afar. But being an actor, you get to actually be a part of it. With this, there was no exception to that. It was very difficult at times, very emotional at times, in certain scenes to portray Dr. King. The amount of passion and vigor that he displayed, it was exhausting, very nerve-wracking.
Do you see any parallels between what King was going through then and what the Black Lives Matter movement is doing now?
Well, you definitely can see the parallels. I think what’s interesting about this time that we’re in today, everything that Dr. King and LBJ were fighting for, they’re definitely contemporary issues. Civil rights is the exact same thing as Black Lives Matter. Voting rights, we’re going through that right now, with them changing voting laws and the way you vote with the I.D. thing. When you look at healthcare, it was the same then as what we’re going through with the Affordable Care Act. Much hasn’t changed since 1963, it’s just evolved into different names.
So you broke the Internet a bit last fall when you seemed to endorse Donald Trump and then later said it was a “bad attempt at a joke.” What happened there?
You know, we live in a time of people using your words to justify what they think and what they want to say. It was sad, it was heartbreaking to see the reactions. But you know, you get past things like that.
Are you surprised that he is now so close to actually becoming president?
I’m not surprised at all. I was surprised, but after seeing the reactions online to what people thought I said, that took away the surprise of anything that could happen in this day and age. People don’t care about the truth anymore, so the reality of it is, instead of being rational it becomes lashing out and being more aggressive. We’re not in a reality of understanding and compassion.
What about Hillary and Bernie? Are you ready to endorse either of them?
No, but I’m excited about Hillary and Bernie. The two of them really complement and support each other in a very good way. I think it’s great that we’re having a conversation and our two presidential candidates in the Democratic Party are a Jewish guy and a woman.
So you think either of them could make a good president?
With their experience and background, definitely.
Anything you can share about what’s next for your character in the Marvel universe?
I don’t even know. If you hear something, let me know. They are very guarded with their information, so you don’t know anything until you get the script.
What was it like to see a new African-American superhero, Black Panther, join you in Civil War?
It was great, man. Chadwick Boseman did a great job with Black Panther. And it was even more cool to see Chadwick and Don [Cheadle] on the same set, at the same time. I think it’s very meaningful, I think it’s very important for people. Marvel has been very good on the forefront of showing diversity in their films. Not only black or white but male/female, Asian, Latinos. Marvel does a very good job—and I think that’s why the movies do so well—because they show the superhero world like the reality that we live in today, diverse.
So many of the Civil War reviews discuss how much more successful the film is than Batman v. Superman. Did you see that film and what did you think of it?
I did see Batman v. Superman and I think, you know, that was a movie that was made for the fans, not the viewers. And I think it was just a very different movie, it was a different concept. Our movie was more about the characters and continuing their storylines. I think what makes the Marvel movies so successful is the character development. I think what [Marvel President] Kevin Feige and [producer] Nate Moore and [directors] the Russo brothers have been able to do is make movies that are basically like a TV show. It’s a two-hour TV episode, because it never ends. Every movie is to be continued. So when you see the Marvel movies, it’s not a beginning, middle and end movie, it’s more of a to-be-continued movie and I think that’s why the movies work because they’ve created a feeding frenzy. People can’t wait for the next movie, because you know where it’s starting, but you have no idea where it’s going.
Now that you’ve played MLK, what would you say if someone offered you the role of Barack Obama in a biopic?
I would jump at it. I think they have a lot of things in common. They’re very similar in their realities. That would be a huge honor. If nothing else, I’d get to meet him.