By Todd Gilchrist | The Playlist January 24, 2012 at 6:17PM
Seeing the name Anthony Mackie in the opening credits is fast becoming a reassuring sign. Not necessarily of the quality of a movie -- we can't say we adored "Real Steel" or "What's Your Number" exactly -- but an indication that at least one good performance will take place over the course of the running time. Since breaking out two years back in "The Hurt Locker," Mackie has become one of the most in-demand actors around, and he's set to appear in dramedy "Ten Year," biopic "Bolden!," horrror "Vipaka," summer tentpole "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and starry drama "Gangster Squad" before the year is out.
But first, opening this week, is the thriller "Man On A Ledge," in which Mackie plays the ex-partner and best friend of Sam Worthington's disgraced cop, a man planning a spectacular revenge on the financier (Ed Harris) who framed him. We caught up with the actor last week to discuss the film, along with the place he feels he's reached in his career, his role in the aborted Jimi Hendrix biopic with Paul Greengrass, and much more. Highlights below.
Mackie used his real-life friendship with Worthington as short-hand for the relationship.
Building a friendship on screen with another actor is a tricky thing, particularly with relatively minimal screen time. "It's kind of a hit and miss situation," Mackie told us, "you never know what to expect from that other person. It could be hard work and intensive, method acting, or it could be a lazy guy who shows up to recite lines. You never know what to expect. So, as an actor, it's your job to make sure you're on your job, and hopefully the other actor follows suit." But he says that his job was made easier here after having encountered Worthington on the press circuit a few years ago. "...with Sam we'd known each other a while 'cause of the 'Avatar'/Hurt Locker' press stuff, so once we got to set...he's a very deliberate, smart actor, and he's a guy's guy, so we fell into that friendship on-set pretty easily."
Like Spike Lee's "Inside Man," "Man on a Ledge" is a heist movie that also manages to give a little flavor of its surroundings, with cast members getting to play roles that they're too often shut out of because of their gender or race. For Mackie, this came out of Danish director Asger Leth's view of the city, rather than political correctness. "I think when you look at Asger, he has a very specific opinion of the world around him, and that's how he sees the world. And I think when you spend time in New York, there's definitely a wide range of ethnicities and different types of people in the city. So that's just the world that it's in, rather than being one-sided or one-dimensional for certain people in the audience."
He's aware of the pitfalls of playing black characters in period settings, but believes that good performances will outshine everything.
A good deal of debate has emerged this year over "The Help," and its depiction of black woman as domestic workers in the 1960s, and a very different side of the same coin is sure to prove controversial next year with Quentin Tarantino's slavery Western "Django Unchained." Mackie's next two major roles, in the Civil War-era fantasy "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and the 1940s-set "Gangster Squad," could threaten to draw the same criticism, but according to Mackie, he's not letting them become token roles. "It's hard," he told us, "because I'm not the lead of those films. So I try to take small moments at opportune times of making a point of showing that aspect of culture. But for me, I'd like to show it more. Because it's very important, that if you have two films at that period of time, to show the place in society where black people were viewed and considered. So those two movies, I just tried to play it as honestly as I could."
He's aware of the criticism directed towards "The Help," but personally finds that the performances outshine any political subtext. "The best thing about being an actor is the level of humanity you get to bring to a character. That's why if you look at Octavia [Spencer] or Viola [Davis]'s performance in 'The Help', no matter how many people might view that as belittling and condescending, if you look at the level of humanity they brought to those characters, and the performances they gave, it transcends the aspect of racial relations it brought up in our society today," he says. "I think even after you play a character that's true to form in that period, dishevelled and down, you have to bring a level of pride, respect and dignity to that character. It is a part of our history, and it's not comfortable for anybody to look at, white or black. So that's why we shy away from it, because most people aren't comfortable with that."
Despite many of his major roles to date -- "The Adjustment Bureau," "The Hurt Locker" -- being ones that could have been played by any actor, black or white, Mackie still thinks that executives and directors define him by his race. But he hopes that he'll be able to overcome that soon. "I think at the end of the day, no matter what it is, you look at me and you see a black man. I don't think at any point in time, Americans, in the country we live in, specifically now, I think the idea of looking past race is kind of an impossible deed," Mackie said. "So it's one of those things, going into the business, you know you recognize, you understand, and you try to get past. But the more I do good work, the more quality films I do, the less of an issue it'll be."
Any movement on the possible Jimi Hendrix biopic that he was going to star in for Paul Greengrass is out of his hands, but he's actively developing his film about Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens.
"Vipaka" will mark Mackie's first true lead role since he went supernova, but things could have been very different. At the end of 2010, he was attached to a biopic of legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, to be directed by "United 93" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" helmer Paul Greengrass. However, the Hendrix estate intervened, and now, Mackie says it's in the hands of the studio as to whether they want to pursue it again. "I don't know where it is now. It was a dream of mine, and when I heard about it, I was flabbergasted and excited beyond belief to be a part of it. But now, it's one of those things that came, and it's up to the studio's discretion as to whether they want to make it or not."
We enquired whether he's discussed a possible role in the project Greengrass took on afterwards, Martin Luther King biopic "Memphis," but Mackie says it never came up. "I haven't spoken to him about that at all. That film has been on many different slates and many different director's plates for a long time now, I don't know where it is." But one thing he has control of is one he's developing himself, a biopic of sprinter Jesse Owens, who angered Hitler by winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Mackie says that more doors are opening to him on the film as a result of his ongoing success. "Because of the 'Hurt Locker' and the success of that movie, people are more aware of who I am and more interested to work with me. So I'm able to have conversations with people about Jesse Owens that I wasn't able to have two years ago. It's slowly progressing and becoming a reality, but we're just working towards trying to find the right group of people to make that happen."
Ultimately, he realizes that without having carried a hit movie on his own, few are going to be lining up to give him the money to star, even if he wishes it was otherwise: "It's a business of passion. If you have a passion, and it's not everyone else's passion, you're just a guy with a passion. The film industry used to be producers and filmmakers wanting to make a movie because they thought it would be part of their legacy. Even if the film wasn't successful, they would make that movie, because they wanted to be known as the people who made that movie. Nowadays, if it's not a slam-dunk financial success, it's damn near impossible to get anyone to make a passion movie that's not a 100% success on paper."
"Man On A Ledge" opens on Friday, January 27th.