by Chesley Turner
We all know that the side-effects of overnight Hollywood success have overwhelmed many a young actor. So what does it take to maintain your footing when Tinseltown comes pounding on your door? Anthony Mackie is part metropolitan movie star, part southern family man: even as he advances through the ranks of “ones to watch,” he’s determined not to forget his roots. The contradiction is building his character, and helping him to handle success with poise.
A non-conventional bi-coastal resident jetting between the Gulf Coast and Mid-Atlantic, Mackie has an enduring love for both North and South. “I love New York. In fact, I don’t find New York and New Orleans to be very different until you’re out of the boroughs.” Both cities are big places, full of culture and sights and sounds. “So if you were to, like, do everything in New York at a slower pace, it’d be just like New Orleans. I mean, New Orleans was the New York of America up until 1915. New York is great when I want to be a city slicker, and if I need to be cool and everyday laid back, I prefer New Orleans. The quality of life is chilled-out, relaxed living. But New York, New Orleans; they’re both so much fun.”
While we’re talking about character dichotomies and North-meet-South, we might as well bring up politics. Mackie has a thing or two to say about the current state of the Union. “The debt crisis is so funny because everybody is on television talking about it, but not one network has explained it, described it, defined it. When you look at it, Reagan basically made a new debt ceiling every few months. But these politicians are making things more dramatic than we ever imagined. It’s like Housewives of Washington,” he jokes, “but no fun to watch, and with bad toupees. Turn on C-SPAN. They make the other Housewives look like normal, coherent women.” As for the current administration’s role in economics, there’s no mistaking Mackie’s position. “If Bush got 8 years, then every other President should have 16. It’s the quintessential Bill Clinton Question: Look at yourself. Are you in a better situation? I feel like we’re much better. Obama stopped the bleeding. And now we have to heal ourselves. We need to live within our means and tax who needs to be taxed.” Mackie sites the under-utilized revenue stream of international commerce. Revamping the taxation of imports, he says, could result in billions of dollars worth of national income. “Are we better off? Of course. Do we have a long way to go? Yes. Does any Republican candidate have what it takes to move us forward? Hell no.” So what do American voters need to do to gain a better idea of what’s what in American politics? “What they need to do is just read.”
Much like our President, Mackie realizes that his place in the spotlight demands heightened self-awareness. “I think the responsibilities are huge. It’s important to represent yourself and the people you stand for in a respectable manner. Being a young black man in America, you have to live up to the expectations of people around you, to your family and your family name. The idea of being a Mackie is very important to me. I have to represent myself to my family. I have brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews to answer to. That’s why I moved back to New Orleans.” His roots help keep him grounded, and the support and guidance of his family keep things in perspective. Behave with dignity, he says, and you’re in the clear. “As long as you’re not talked about on one of the Housewives shows,” he jokes again, betraying a lightheartedness, “or mentioned by a Kardashian.”
Still, in today’s cyber society, people have constant access to your personal business. Mackie’s career has progressed to the point where the public recognizes him, and he is a sought-after asset in the media market. “It’s definitely changed my self-awareness. People look for reasons to talk about me now. I used to be the guy who could go to a place and have a great time. I used to hang out a lot. Now I’ve opened a bar in Brooklyn so I have a safe place to hang out. My friends come out to my bar and we drink and have a good time there as opposed to going somewhere else and maybe having someone try to ruffle my feathers.” Not the type to court the paparazzi, Mackie is happy to keep his distance from the short-term fame of shock and scandal. “Not all money is good money. I don’t want my grandkids looking at the work I did and making a judgment about me. ‘Whoa! Grampa was on a tape doin’ WHAT?’ That has to do with family name. You’ll never hear any of that about me because my dad’ll have something to say about it.” It calls to mind childhood memories of crime and punishment on the family scale. Don’t misbehave, and don’t cross mom, because you’ll have to face dad when he gets home. “‘Cause you’re messin’ up his house…so you gotta pay.”
How else do you handle the ever-watchful eyes of the press? “I always do what they don’t expect. If you give someone a reason to label you, you will end up with a label. So do something drastically different. Do something to call their ideas about you into question. When they expect you to turn right, turn left.” Of course, it’s not always easy to remain unpredictable. Sometimes it’s tempting to make the obvious choice because it’s easy. But most of the time, Mackie asserts, it’s fun to be unpredictable. He recalls the advice of one of his Julliard instructors, Felix Evanoff. “He used to be a window washer, working on skyscrapers in Russia. So he told us acting is like window washing: you should never feel comfortable. If at any point you start to feel comfortable, get down. You should always feel like you’re going to fall, because when you think it’s not going to work, you work harder. I just remember sitting with this Russian dude drinkin’ beer at Coney Island, hearing this advice.” Mackie believes he will continue to grow by making unpredictable decisions and seeking out parts that make him feel a little uncomfortable. What happens if you don’t grow? “Then you find yourself in the parking lot yelling at cars.”
It makes sense, then, that Mackie is always on the lookout for challenging work that will expand his boundaries. “If it’s a good script and I’m impressed with the director, I’m interested. I did Half Nelson for $35 a day. It was a great script and Ryan Gosling is a great actor, so I wanted to work with him.” Mackie wastes no time providing another metaphor for quality work. “Any great athlete always wants to go up against his highest opposition, so why would you work opposite an actor you don’t respect or admire? You’re not growing. It adds nothing to your ability. For every script I read–and most of them are crap–a few gems I really go after, to be a part of the creativity.” Hollywood, it seems, has changed its ways in the past couple of years. Gone are the days of “dumb money,” when producers threw around funding to create giant blockbusters. The bubble has burst. “For a time there, movies were being made with people of every color and of every background. But now fewer movies are being made, fewer diverse movies are being made, so when you find quality films, they’re not being made for a hundred million dollars. The day of the movie star has passed. That being said, you have to figure out a way of doing quality work and surviving.”
So what about the stage? “If I could pull a Matthew Broderick,” he says, describing leaving film to become a Broadway denizen, “I would. I love it. It’s instant gratification.” In film, so many people have a hand in the finished product. The writer writes the script, the actor interprets it, and then the director tweaks the interpretation. And then it all goes to the editor, who makes the whole thing look the way he wants it to. But on stage, art is immediate. “Once you open and those lights go on, no one has any input except you. And you can come out of the theatre, head to the bar with your friends and have an intellectual conversation over beers. You can really experience it.” This spring, Mackie was in A Behanding in Spokane, performing alongside Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and Zoe Kazan. He loved every minute. “Every line was a tennis ball to the audience, and participation was 50/50. Definitely with Christopher Walken, it was a crazy show. Every night it got crazier and crazier, and it was so much fun to hear the audience’s response and feedback, to feel the gasp when the air gets sucked out of the theatre and watch people’s reactions to Chris. To be onstage with a legend is kind of – it reinvented the way I look at live theatre.
Mackie has his fair share of celebrity mentors. Samuel L. Jackson, he says, keeps him in line. And Morgan Freeman once offered him lasting advice. “I got offered a big movie, making lots of money, and a play for just $400 a week. He was like, ‘Do the play.’ And I was like, ‘But that’s a lot of money.’ And he said, ‘Do the play. Work on your chops. When Hollywood wants you, they’ll come get you. But you gotta be ready.'” Mackie listened. In fact, he says, “The hardest thing about acting is listening. But when you’re engaged in moment-to-moment acting, you can just stop and listen, and the right reaction will come to you.” Strangely enough, the same advice can apply to life outside the spotlight, as well. “I’m in a successful relationship. Most of the time, I just sit and listen. Well, 60% of the time. And when I’m fishing…I sit and listen for the fish, too.”
With an array of movies to be released this summer and fall, Mackie has given the press a number of unexpected turns to navigate. He’s also given his fans plenty to enjoy. “I’m really excited about Bolden! It’s shot in New Orleans in its heyday, before they completed the east to west railroad, when everything came through Mississippi. New Orleans was the hot spot. This movie is about the man who invented music as we know it today, with solos, freestyle, riffing off other musicians. Before Buddy Bolden, everything was coordinated and written down. Then he came along and would play with the group, then flutter above, and then fall back into the group. That’s jazz. And that’s R&B, rock, country–all of it.” He’s also excited about Real Steel, a distinctly different movie. “It’s got the Rocky heart and emotion, but with robots. You really care about this kid and this robot; it’s a really interesting project.”
In one final manifestation of his love for both North and South, Mackie has some twofold advice for New Yorkers. First he says, with a smile in his voice, “Be nice to people from the south.” But then he takes a breath and delivers a message that should hit every New Yorker right in the heart: “Take back New York. New York used to be great, with its flair for pizzazz, its individuality and charisma. But ever since 9/11, so much of that has been lost to fear. We should have our local pubs, have our clubs, and play our music. We should not live in fear. New Yorkers will defend New Yorkers and the New York way of life. That’s how I feel about it.”