If there’s one thing I hate about reading, writing, and conducting interviews, it’s when the subject gives canned responses that seem like they’ve been sped through a publicist-run car wash to make sure nothing controversial, close-to-controversial, or interesting gets said. I’m even a fan of boring answers just as long as they’re original and boring. It’s the scripted bullshit that really seems like a waste of time. In fact, I’ve even written features when someone was so fake that it become culturally fascinating.
All of that to say: I loved talking with Anthony Mackie.
Not only is the guy a class act and a hard worker in his craft, he tells it like it is. Plain, simple and direct.
I had a chance to talk to the star of The Hurt Locker – a film you’re all probably tired of me gushing over – and if you don’t believe an actor is capable of rocking through questions without holding the hand of their manager, you’ve gotta check this guy out.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, The Hurt Locker is still playing in select theaters around the country even though it debuted back in June. That’s indie staying power. Hopefully more people will get a chance to see it before it’s name is plastered all over the Oscar nominations.
Are you doing a lot of this kind of thing now?
Yes, here and there. It kind of pops up then goes away. It all depends on the day, I guess.
Does it feel weird to still be talking about this movie?
[Laughs] It feels weird to start talking about it now. You know, we shot the movie so long ago. People are like, “What was it like shooting that scene?” I’m like, “Shit. What were you doing two years ago?”
[Laughs] So what was it like shooting the movie?
I’ve read a lot of interviews where you talk about it, and I think the most fascinating thing that you say is how The Hurt Locker doesn’t put a political stamp or a racial stamp on anything. I was hoping you could elaborate a bit for me now that the movie is out and you’ve seen the finished product.
When I originally went in to meet with Kathryn [Bigelow], she wanted to cast me as Eldridge, and when I read the script, I was so blown away by Sanborn in the way Mark Boal had written the character because he’d written so much humanity in all three of these guys. One thing I wanted to make clear to Kathryn and to everyone with this movie is that war has no sex or race. Women are our there dying just like men. Black people are out there dying just like Latinos, and so on and so forth. So it was very important to me to put in my bid for the best character, not the best “black character.” I think that’s something I’ve tried to do over the majority of my career.
What in particular about Sanborn really stuck with you?
His fight to stay alive was something that I found very jarring because in day-to-day life we don’t really deal with that. We don’t really have the obstacle that any minute can be your last minute, and his relationship with Eldridge – it wasn’t so much keeping himself alive, but it was very important to him to keep Eldridge going day-to-day. I thought that was a beautiful relationship. I thought it was a man’s relationship. Men can love and hug and spend time together without being, “Oh, that’s a funny move.” You know what I mean?
I thought that day-to-day type of coping that goes on in the military, I don’t think we’ve ever dealt with. We rarely see that in recent films. So that was something that I felt was very beautiful and very well-written – how much these guys really became each other’s family.
Did you know anyone that was deployed at the time?
A friend of mine’s brother was deployed, and I had met a few people here and there who had been deployed, but nobody in my family or anything like that, no. Most of the people that I met and talked to, I met online.
Did that help you or did you feel like it hurt you in trying to portray someone who in an active war zone?
No, I wouldn’t say it hurt me. I think that that aspect of fear I’ve definitely felt day-to-day in life. Maybe not to that level, but I’ve definitely felt it. I’ve definitely experienced the inability to know what’s going to happen minute-to-minute. Just growing up in the world, when it was such a tough city. The thing about it was, the movie wasn’t so much about war and about how Kathryn felt about war. It was very much about these men, them trying to survive.
Are there any other direct correlations you saw in that fictional world that applied to your life growing up in New Orleans?
Just survival. Growing up in New Orleans, it’s an amazing city, and growing up in a middle class house with a mom and a dad was an amazing experience that some of my friends didn’t have. So seeing how important family was in the Middle East – it was something that you don’t get to see on the news and something I’m very glad I got to experience. I found a kindred relationship between me and the people who were in Jordan, the people who were working on the film, and the people who I met in Israel, so I was glad that I got the experience to go over there and work on it. I’m glad we didn’t shoot it in New Mexico or something like that.
I’m sure Kathryn Bigelow was happy you didn’t shoot it in New Mexico either.
You’ve been in both indie and studio films. At this point do you have a preference?
It’s one or the other. Studio films can be very difficult at times just like indies. They both have their ups and downs. I feel like with the roles I get to play, I really enjoy indie films. I don’t get those same type of roles in studio films. Like, if this movie had been a studio movie, I doubt that I would have been Sanborn.
Why do you think that is?
Just because of the marketplace. It takes a lot of money to make a movie, so you need to be sure if you put that much money into a movie, that you get someone who gives you a decent shot at getting your money back.
As in, someone who’s a box office draw?
Exactly. You put me in, and it’s like, “Well, he’s a good actor, but…shit…nobody in Nebraska is gonna run out of their house.” You know what I mean?
You know, I’m definitely not, like, the talk of the town in Iowa.
[Laughs] Right. Right.
[Laughs] And that’s what filmmaking has turned into. Box office.
It sounds like as far as story or character goes, indie films afford what you’re looking for. Is there anything that frustrates you about the indie world?
The lack of money. [Laughs] And the lack of quality – I shouldn’t say quality – but, yeah, the lack of money. Especially for the Oscars, and at the end of the year we’re starting to see that a lot of the good films are indie films. So, it’s like all the big names now are starting to do independent movies. And I’m like, “A $15 million movie is not an independent movie.” You know what I mean? Twenty-five dollars a day and eating salami on crackers for lunch – that’s an independent movie.
Yeah, did they have you filming during Ramadan so they could cut back on craft services during the day?
[Laughs] I wish! Naw, we were filming on Ramadan just because it’s selling that time period. All of us, there was a little bit of naivete and ignorance on our part. We didn’t even know the customs or how we fit into it. It was fun. Ramadan was really interesting, dude. I was hiding in trucks trying to eat lunch so we didn’t offend anybody.
They actually did that on Bourne Ultimatum in Morocco, too.
To cut down on craft services?
[Laughs] No, no. I’m sure their budget for food was pretty huge.
But, yeah, they actually observed Ramadan when they were over there. A lot of the crew members did. That blows me away.
We did. When I was there, once I got into it, I started to observe Ramadan. So I started praying with some of the crew guys. It was a great experience. The idea of fasting – I feel like the best lesson I learned in the Middle East was a lesson of faith. I feel like we have faith here, but it’s like, optimistic faith. It’s like, “I believe, but only on Sundays and Thursdays.” You know what I mean? And when I got there, I was so blown away by faith, so I tried to take an active approach to the religious aspect of Ramadan. So I guess around the end of the first three days, I started to pray with some of the guys who were there working on the film. And it was cool. I mean, it really did form a bond. A kindred spirit.
That’s admirable of you.
Naw. Not at all. Not at all. I feel like anybody would have done it.
You mentioned the Oscars, and I know money is an issue there as well. Do you know if there’s going to be a big push for The Hurt Locker?
You know, with the rest of the movies that have come out this year, I don’t really think there needs to be a big push. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Wow. Are you insinuating in the positive for The Hurt Locker there?
In the positive. I think with the other movies that have come out, The Hurt Locker is by far one of the best movies that has come out this year. It’s definitely one of the best reviewed movies that has come out this year. If you look at Kathryn and everything she brought to the film, I definitely think you can’t be an Academy Award judge and forget The Hurt Locker existed this year.
So you’ll be shocked if you guys are shut out of several categories.
Not certain categories, no. I think if we get nominated for one, like if Kathryn gets nominated for Best Director, that’s a reflection on everyone else who worked on the film.
If we get nominated for Best Film, it’s a reflection on everyone in the film. I don’t think it’s one or the other.
Definitely agree. I wanted to hit on a few projects you’re working on currently. You’re playing Jesse Owens in a biopic, and you’ve said that the most interesting thing about it is that when people asked Owens what it was like when Hitler didn’t invite him up to the box after the Olympics, he said that the President didn’t invite him to the White House either. You’ve said that’s a basic theme of the flick – is that primarily how you’ll portray Owens?
The plan is to give a really crystal clear view of who he is and who he meant, not only to Jewish America, not only to Black America, but to the rest of the world. After Schmeling came over and knocked out Joe Louis, everybody thought Hitler was right. The world was pretty much in panic. When Jesse Owens went back and did what he did with those four gold medals, it was something that wasn’t really recognized. When he came back to America, he went down a ticker tape parade to the Waldorf-Astoria, and he had to go in through the servant’s entrance. So I think that sort of thing, that theme is what we’re going to carry through the entire film.
A juxtaposition of the grand achievement of what he’s done and his place within a group of people that was looked down upon at that time in American History.
Exactly. It’s like when all the soldiers came back from World War II, and they weren’t allowed to eat in restaurants, and all the chaos that caused. You know? So it’s that general theme, that general arc of the character and the country. I don’t think the country can be let off for the part that it played in what happened at the time.
You’re also working on a biographical film about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. Did you end up with a final title for it?
Right now the title is Bolden! We’re in the process of cutting it. We finished it maybe a year and a half ago. We’re just trying to cut it together and see what we’ve got. I know it looks amazingly beautiful. I mean, Vilmos [Zsigmond] shot the shit out of it. I’ve never seen a movie that looked like it. So either it’s gonna be Citizen Kane or it’s gonna be Ishtar.
[Laughs] Like, there’s no in between.
You gotta swing for the fences.
[Laughs] Exactly. Who you gonna be? Barry Bonds or the guy who didn’t get in to play?
Or the guy whose name we don’t know.
Was it difficult playing an iconic figure without being able to hear or know what his music sounded like?
You know what’s interesting about Bolden is that so many people referenced him, and we were working with Wynton Marsalis, and he definitely gave us a true depiction of the music at that time. Because, you know, he’s a music guru.
He’s a huge historian.
Exactly. Especially in New Orleans culture, and in that type of music. So if you listen to a lot of Louis Armstrong, and even Nina Simone, there are so many people that referenced him and the type of music he was playing. So Wynton just took that period and put a spin on it, and gave us an idea of what he thought it sounded like.
I’m jealous. I saw Marsalis at a show a few years ago, and I missed out on the opportunity to go talk to him afterward. I was just too sheepish to go up and talk to him.
And Wynton is not that dude.
I know! He’s completely normal. So casual and down to earth, but after hearing him play for an hour…
It’s like, “Holy shit!”
It’s like, “Take my girlfriend, please!”
You’re not sure he’s real at that point.
Exactly. You know he was the first person I met when I moved to New York. I was sitting outside this little restaurant across the street from Julliard, and it was my very first day in New York. My brother and I were sitting there, and he walks by. So I ran over to him, and I said, “Wynton! I’m Anthony Mackie, and I met you when I was 13, and I saw you at NOCCA, and blah blah blah blah!” He said, “You’re from New Orleans?” I said, “Yeah.”
He took out a piece of paper, wrote down his number, and was like, “If you need anything, give me a call.”
And we’ve been friends ever since. But that’s the type of person he is.
I’m sure we’ll biographies made about him forty years from now.
[Laughs] I’ll be the little, dumb kid chasing him down Broadway.
[Laughs] What stage are you guys at on The Adjustment Bureau?
Right now, we’re in the middle of shooting. We’re on day 30 of 60. It’s one of those things where it’s just working, and Matt Damon is truly an amazing actor. You think he’s good when you see him in a movie, but once you work with him, you realize the level of intelligence and focus he brings to a project. I’m learning a lot working with him. It’s been a great experience, and it’s a great movie. It’s a fun movie.
I’m not sure if it’s out of your wheelhouse. I wasn’t sure how much of the Phillip K. Dick science fiction element you guys were keeping with it.
I’m definitely not, like, in Vulcan ears or no shit like that.
[Laughs] I’m definitely not like a Transformer or nothing. But it’s an intellectual sci-fi movie. I basically play an Angel of Fate. I just help Matt Damon out from time to time.
Matt Damon’s character, right? Not actually helping out Matt Damon.
Right, right. Not like him in real life. “Hey, Matt! Go this way.” Not like that.
[Laughs] Is it safe to say you’re a big August Wilson fan?
That’s very safe to say.
Are you interested in doing any of his work on screen or do you think it’s best left to the stage?
I think I’ve always been surprised that August Wilson’s plays haven’t been adapted to film. I think “Fences” is probably the truest depiction of a son with his father ever written. I think August really gave something to us with the ten plays that he wrote, and I think they would make phenomenal films. If nothing, just to have movies that some studio can say, “I made those,” and they get a pat on the back. I think they would make amazing films.
Would you do all of them as films? Or, which ones would you love to put on screen?
My top three. My three creme de la creme August Wilson plays are “Fences,” of course. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” just simply because the dynamic of the characters. You have this young guy who’s just trying to be heard, who’s just trying to get his music out there and become famous because he thinks it’ll solve all his problems. But then he realizes it’s just another part of life.
Which was such a prescient play for the time. Predicting an obsession with fame now.
Exactly. Exactly. And how different that is.
He nailed it, what, thirty years ago? He wrote it in the 80s?
That was in the 80s. ’85.
He predicted the future a bit.
Exactly. And the other one is “Gem of the Ocean.” I think as a culture we really don’t acknowledge history that well. We think that everything that’s happening is happening right now and is directly because of us, when, in actuality everything that’s happened has happened before and it’s really just us riffing off the back of that. So, “Gem of the Ocean” is just a beautiful story of a guy trying to carry on the legacy of his family. How that factors in to his day-do-day life. So I think those three plays….as well as “King Hedley.” I mean, “King Hedley,” that’s like a young Sam Jackson. Just a dude walking around with a t-shirt on that says “Bad Mother Fucker.” You know what I mean.
I love that. Every time I read that play, I just go outside like, “I wish sombody’d fuck with me.” You know what I mean? That’s how that play makes me feel. If you know anybody, and you’re like, “That is a scary black dude.” That dude, is King Hedley.
Or had just read “King Hedley.”
You’ve had a fairly strong career in a short time. How do you feel you’ve grown since day one? Do you have any advice?
The biggest thing: I think a lot of people get into this business thinking, “Ah, it will afford me a great wealth, and I’ll be able to drive nice cars and go to Paris Hilton parties,” but I think if it’s truly about the craft, never do it for the money. Morgan Freeman once told me, “Work on your craft, and when Hollywood really wants you, they’ll come get you. And when they come get you, they’ll pay for it.” I think doing Half Nelson for $25 a day, doing Hurt Locker for $40 a day, you know it really expanded my career to a totally different level. I think that’s the best advice I got.
And hopefully we’ll see you in Los Angeles around February for that big awards show they put on.
[Laughs] Yeah, hopefully I’ll be up to $60 a day by then.