That you probably haven’t heard of Anthony Mackie, one of the finest young actors in Hollywood, speaks volumes about the movie industry’s problem with race.
After making his debut as a rival freestyle rapper opposite Eminem in 8 Mile, Mackie has chalked up impressive turns in a diverse array of roles, as a boxer in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby; a seductive drug dealer in Half Nelson; Tupac Shakur in Notorious; and a former Black Panther in Night Catches Us.
His most acclaimed role to date was as Sgt. JT Sanborn, a bomb-disposal soldier in Iraq who clashes with his thrill-seeking team member in The Hurt Locker, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Mackie will next star as William H. Johnson, the valet to Abraham Lincoln, in the blockbuster Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which is just as crazy as the title indicates. He’ll also appear as a detective opposite Ryan Gosling in The Gangster Squad, opening in September, and is currently shooting Michael Bay’s black comedy Pain and Gain, alongside Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
In a candid, in-depth interview with The Daily Beast, Mackie opened up about his impressive career, Hollywood’s problem with race, his thoughts on gay marriage, and much more.
You were born in New Orleans, so what the hell’s going on with your football team, man?
The NFL has something out for us! I don’t know if Tom Benson didn’t pay the right person, but you can’t punish one team for what the rest of the league is doing. Even if you look at the evidence he presented, it’s insufficient. The Saints were the fourth least penalized team on defense three years in a row, so if we have bounties on people, why aren’t we getting penalties? If you look at the Patriots, Ravens, and Steelers defenses—those are dirty defenses. The Saints? Come on!
[Laughs] Now, had you always wanted to be an actor?
I really wanted to be an engineer ’cause my brother was an engineer and my father is a math guy. I wanted to blow shit up! But I did this play in my high school, King Lear, and it aired on this awful local access-TV show in New Orleans, so I was pretty popular. It came time for my character, Edmund, to die in the play, and these three girls popped up in the audience and screamed, “NOOOO!” I thought, “Yeah, I want to be an actor.”
You played rappers in your first movie role, 8 Mile, and also as Tupac Shakur in Notorious. What rappers are you into?
If A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Common, Cee-Lo have shows, I’ll travel. Outkast, too. There was this rapper from New Orleans, Mystikal, who when I hear his music, I hear myself. Whenever I wanna get hyped, I put on Mystikal. I like Lil Wayne pre-skateboarding. When he came out with that rock album? No.
What about Drake or Chris Brown? They’re closing down clubs in New York City.
I was at the barbershop talking to my barber about it and he’s like, “Man, these guys are at the club throwing bottles at 4 a.m. over a chick? They rich! They could have any chick they want!” And now they’re talking about rescinding bottle service in New York City over it. I dunno, man.
Your first lead was playing a gay artist struggling with coming out in Brother to Brother. That’s a pretty challenging role.
Growing up in the South, three things you grow up: homophobic, sexist, and racist. It’s just innate and in your blood. Growing up and going to North Carolina School of the Arts and Juilliard, a lot of my friends were gay. So that’s something that I wanted to deal with and move past in my own personal life—that homophobia that I was raised with and that was prevalent in the community I grew up in.
There seems to be a sea change now. Even rappers like Jay-Z and The Game are coming out in support of gay marriage.
Why wouldn’t you? The way I look at it: if gay and lesbian people want to be as unhappy as all the married couples in the world, go ahead!
You worked with Ryan Gosling on Half Nelson, which was amazing, and are reuniting with him in The Gangster Squad. Are you sort of befuddled by his status as this sort of hipster pinup?
Ryan Gosling: making the hipster hot! No, Ryan was a great guy and we had a great time working together on Half Nelson. We were both kind of at the beginning of our careers, and working on that and then working on The Gangster Squad now was a huge testament to where we’ve both gotten. He’s an actor’s actor and he gets it, and I think that’s why Half Nelson worked so well. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m going back to my trailer,” it’s “I’m making $25 a day so let’s stand out in the sun and figure this shit out.”
The Hurt Locker was a big coup for you, garnering nine Oscar nominations.
I felt like Hurt Locker was the first time people actually saw my work, so when they saw that they thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this dude in like seven other things!” It triggered the opportunity to watch everything I’ve done before that. We had a great time Oscar night celebrating that movie. I took one of Mark Boal’s Oscars and every time we went to a party they’d ask, “Do you have an invitation?” And I’d roll down the window, hold out the Oscar, and go, “Nope! Talk to my man!”
I thought your performance in The Hurt Locker was just as good as Jeremy Renner’s. Is it frustrating for you that he’s getting leads while you’ve been relegated to supporting roles?
It’s extremely difficult. There just aren’t a lot of them. Me being black, the height of black filmmaking was in the late-’80s up until 2002. Now filmmaking has become an international business as opposed to a domestic business, so the idea of making $200 million trumps the idea of making $50 million. It’s tricky. One of my good friends is an Asian actor, and he’s frustrated by the idea that he can only do a kung-fu movie. Another good friend of mine is an Indian actor and the only time he gets offered something is like Slumdog Millionaire, Part II. The film business has actually turned into a really bad business. I enjoy where I am and I don’t have a problem with being Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci, Don Cheadle, or Jeffrey Wright. They’re not the lead of every movie they’re in, but every time you see them they’re really good.
There is an incredibly low number of young black actors. And the Vanity Fair cover of up-and-coming stars always gets flack for never featuring people of color. What can be done?
The problem is most people write and direct stories from their perspective, and most people who are writing and directing stories are white. So you tell the story of the white young man growing up in the inner city. Financing is a problem, distribution is a problem, and having the stories to tell is a problem. A lot of people believe that there isn’t money to be made in ethnic filmmaking, because you can’t compare Boyz n the Hood to Spider-Man.
So what attracted you to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?
I really wanted to work with Timur [Bekmambetov]. I was a huge fan of his from Night Watch and Wanted, and when I heard he was directing this movie, William H. Johnson’s story—even if it was told under the context of vampires—I was honored to play him. If one kid Googles William H. Johnson and discovers that the Emancipation Proclamation came out of him being Abe Lincoln’s friend, then I’ve done my job.
What was the craziest moment during filming?
Shooting the train sequence was probably the craziest because we were on a 10-foot-by-30-foot platform with 17 people on top of this train, and there was that ax. I had never done green screen before, and if you really want to see how stupid you really look, have someone shoot yourself in slow motion!
What happened to that Jimi Hendrix biopic with you and Paul Greengrass?
It would’ve been the movie of all movies! It came up for like two weeks and then it disappeared.
And I’ve seen you attached to a Jesse Owens biopic forever.
We’ve been trying to put that together for a while. If you’re Matt Damon, Denzel Washington, or Leonardo DiCaprio, your passion is everyone’s passion. If you’re Anthony Mackie, your passion is your passion. You’ve got to get people to buy into that passion, so hopefully one day that will happen.
This Black Panther superhero movie that Marvel’s rumored to be making could be a big game changer, as far as perceptions of African-Americans in film go.
If Black Panther is made into a movie, I would love for it to be along the lines of Batman. It has to be an adult action hero. I would love to be a part of it, though, and I would sign on to it today.