Anthony Mackie is all smiles when we meet one recent afternoon, sunshine streaming through the open windows of his Beverly Hills hotel. The 37-year-old Marvel star has been bursting with energy all day on the promo trail for the political satire Our Brand Is Crisis, keeping spirits lively even as producer George Clooney and star Sandra Bullock occasionally let the strain of the drubbing they’ve been getting from critics crack their megastar facades.
A few days later Mackie would be roundly blasted in the media for backing Donald Trump’s bid for the White House—an endorsement he’d later explain, by necessity and on Twitter, was simply misconstrued as “a bad attempt at a joke.”
For now, he’s soaking in the warmth of being on the good side of the press, and he greets me with a friendly grin. “I’m in L.A.,” he says. “What could go wrong?”
Loosely inspired by the 2005 documentary of the same name about the role of cunning American strategists in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election, Our Brand Is Crisis stars Bullock as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a damaged but gifted political consultant who’s brought in to save the campaign of an unlikable candidate (a fictionalized version of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who hired James Carville to win him the presidency—which he did).
Mackie plays Ben, the morally decent campaign manager attempting to keep their campaign kosher. He’s also the only one trying, in vain, to rein in Jane’s destructive but effective methods. Mackie came onboard after years of trying to find the right project to work on with his old North Carolina School of the Arts buddy, writer-director David Gordon Green.
“When I read the script and talked to David about it, it was very important to me that Ben, my character, had a cognizant awareness of what he was selling to people, and that he had an opinion about it,” he recalls. “The character of this movie is the title: It’s branding. And it’s crisis.
“Who do you identify with, Tony the Tiger or Toucan Sam? If you don’t identify with Tony the Tiger, how do I get you to eat Frosted Flakes? That’s what politics has become. These politicians will lie and say whatever we want to hear in order to get elected. Then once they get elected they do nothing they said they were going to do.”
Mackie brings up the televised Democratic debates he’d watched avidly that week. “I re-watched the Republican debate and I realized no one said anything. I watched the Democratic debate and they said more in the first 20 minutes than they said in the entire Republican debate. I think that’s a certain skill. I give it to the presidential nominees because they know they have nothing to say, so they just talk about nothing.”
He didn’t have to go far to do his real-life research for his role in Our Brand Is Crisis. “Ironically, one of my closest friends is a senator,” he laughs, politely declining to identify said congressional bestie. “So I called him and said, ‘Yo, I’m doing this movie, this that and the third,’ and he gave me a whole spiel. I went to dinner with James Carville and he gave me a whole spiel.”
Mackie also studied the original 2005 documentary for clues into the character of these political free agents, determining that they’re a peculiar type of animal—a sentiment Clooney echoes.
“To be in that political world… they’re just different types of people,” says Mackie. “They’re not like normal regular people. They swoop in, impose their will, and swoop out. I think they have the ability not to care. Normal people, even if you do something, it still affects you in a certain way.
“In some way, shape, or form—old rule—you should never leave a place worse than when you found it,” he continues. “You should always try to make it a little better. But it’s funny to look at how drastically different people are in certain situations, because I don’t think we should go around the world and impose democracy on everybody. Some people just aren’t made for democracy. Some people just need a dictator. That’s just who they are.”
Really? I ask. A dictator?
“If it’s been working for you all this time, who am I to say that’s wrong?” he says, seriously, with no trace of humor. “Do it my way. That’s arrogant and asinine of me. I think if that’s working for you, let that work for you. I’m not going to judge you for who you are and the way you live your life. That’s your life.”
Mackie says he’s mindful of what he puts out into the world and how he lives with his degree of celebrity. That’s why he still calls New Orleans home. “If you live in the shit, you’ll be in the shit,” he exclaims. “That’s why I live in New Orleans, because no one cares! No one bothers you.”
In one respect, living outside of Hollywood makes it easy to control The Anthony Mackie Brand, despite the occasional Trump-related media firestorm. On the other hand, his objective is to “stay far away from the Anthony Mackie brand.”
“I don’t think there is one,” he smiles. “I’m very proud to say that 100 percent of people’s awareness of me comes from my work. I think when you look at most people who you respect and admire, it’s about what they contribute to society, not what they do in their personal time. It’s something I’m always aware of.”
Mackie’s best known these days for saving the world in Marvel’s sprawling Avengers catalogue, in which he’s played Captain America’s BFF Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, four times. He made his Marvel debut in last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, reprised the role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, popped up in Ant-Man, and just shot the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, with more Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances likely. Well, probably.
He’s pretty sure Falcon will be called for further duty, although even some Marvel stars never quite know until the phone rings.
“All we know is everyone who was in the first Guardians of the Galaxy is in Guardians 2. Spider-Man is in Spider-Man. You don’t know who else is in it,” he laughs. “They know. But like, when I was in Ant-Man, I didn’t know I was in Ant-Man—I just got a call from Kevin [Feige] saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing next weekend?’ When we did Avengers, I didn’t know I was in Avengers. I just got a call: ‘Hey! What are you doing in two weeks?’
“I am now an Avenger,” he smiles proudly. “But no one tells me anything. You never know when they’re going to call you, you just want to be ready when they do.”
Of course, the occupational hazard of not knowing when he’ll need to don Falcon’s spandex and wings means he might be off doing another project when Feige rings next. He might be bulked up as “Fat Mackie,” he joked with a self-deprecating chuckle, pointing to his still-trim frame. “Oh, this is Fat Mackie.”
Until Black Panther graces the big screen in his 2018 stand-alone film, followed by two marquee female heroes—The Wasp, sharing billing with Ant-Man later that year, and Captain Marvel, pushed to 2019—Marvel will be battling vehement criticism over the lack of diversity in its spandexed ranks. Mackie, one of the MCU’s only current non-white stars, praises the company for “pushing the envelope with characters who look like the people who are going to the movies.”
For years, and just a few years ago, Mackie dreamed of playing Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman eventually landed the role, signing a five-picture deal). But despite his interest in the character, and perhaps because of his investment in the company, he shies away from joining in on the call to hire an African-American helmer behind the camera on the MCU’s first stand-alone black superhero movie.
“I don’t think it’s important at all,” he says. “As a director your job is to tell a story. You know, they didn’t get a horse to direct Seabiscuit! The thing is I don’t think the race of the director has to do with their ability to tell a story. I think it’s all about the director’s ability to be able to relate to that story and do it justice. I think men can direct women, and two of my greatest work experiences were with female directors. So I think it all depends. May the best man—or woman—win.”
The versatile Mackie built his character actor’s filmography after making his feature debut in 8 Mile, battle rapping against Eminem. His first starring role, in the 2004 indie Brother to Brother, earned him the first of two Indie Spirit Award nominations (he notched his second for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker). He played the late rapper Tupac Shakur twice, once off-off-Broadway in the acclaimed play Up Against The Wind, while a student at Juilliard. His dozens of film credits run the gamut: She Hate Me, Million Dollar Baby, Half Nelson, We Are Marshall, Notorious, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Gangster Squad, Pain & Gain.
Lately Mackie’s been attracted to superhero roles of the nonfiction kind. His high-profile Jesse Owens biopic deflated in the wake of the Relativity bankruptcy, but HBO’s upcoming Steven Spielberg-anointed historical drama All The Way will see Mackie play civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. The 1963-set adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning play tracks the moves of Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of the Kennedy assassination through the fight for equal voting rights in America. History is repeating itself more and more as 2016 inches closer, Mackie muses.
“The weird thing, what I find so remarkable, is that Republicans have been trying to capture the vote and rework the delegation of voting rights since Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” Mackie says. “Since he signed that, the Republicans have not figured out how to get elected without the black vote. George Bush kind of cracked it by getting the Latino vote by going the Christian route, but they haven’t been able to figure it out.”
He blasts our current Supreme Court for setting America back on the eve of a presidential election. “The Supreme Court basically just gut the Voting Rights Act, three weeks ago,” he says. “Right before the huge presidential election. So now you go to the state of Florida, which was a huge electoral state, and they closed down like 60 DMVs. In order to vote, you’ve got to get your voting card. You get your voting card from the DMV. You mean to tell me your little 75-year-old grandma in the bay is going to drive 70 miles to the DMV and wait in line all day just to get her voting card? No. She’s just not going to vote. And that’s what’s scary—and we let them do it.”
He says he hopes Our Brand Is Crisis opens eyes to the machinations of the political system, the way politicians are elected, and how vulnerable the constituency is to candidates who renege on their campaign promises. “We’ve been arguing and fighting about the same shit for 60, 70 years,” he says. “Kennedy, all of them, had free health-care aspects of their campaigns. They’ve been talking about this forever. It’s the same stuff. Politics are so cyclical. We haven’t moved on to anything.
“When Lyndon B. Johnson ran against Goldwater, Goldwater’s whole campaign was, If we give them the right to vote, the next thing you know they’re going to be sleeping with our daughters and taking our jobs, living in our houses. Now: If we let Latinos in, they’re going to be sleeping with our daughters, taking our jobs. It’s the same thing.”