THE BEST ACTOR
YOU HAVEN'T HEARD OF (YET)
YOU HAVEN'T HEARD OF (YET)
In 2006, however, Anthony Mackie proved to me that if he is given almost any part worthy of his talent, he can shine. I saw it in Half Nelson. I saw it in We Are Marshall, which came out a few months after. And I expect to see it in an upcoming film that may finally bring Mackie to prominence: a biopic about the great Olympic track star Jesse Owens. There are few young actors for whom I have such high hopes, and fewer still young black actors for whom I could have such I high hopes for, since they are so rarely given a chance. Having found one such actor whose work I greatly admired—and convinced that it might not be long before he would be too in-demand to get time with—I set up an interview right away.
I have conducted roughly sixty extensive interviews with major film industry figures over the past five years. Most of the time, things go pretty much as expected—I follow my script and the subject states facts or opinions that he has spouted many times before. On some very rare occasions, however, something special happens, and the conversation starts to take on a life of its own. The responses to questions are original, insightful, and seem, at least, to be spontaneous, which often leads me to go off-script and follow the conversation wherever it goes. It can go to interesting places and discover—or uncover—deeper truths about the subject, who at that time ceases to be just a movie star and begins to come into focus as a person.
How and why does this happen? I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it presumably happens early in the interview, when a mutual trust or confidence is affirmed. I like to think that it is because I quickly demonstrate to the subject that I have devoted hours to tedious advance research of his or her life—not necessarily in the wording or detail of the questions, which are often leading, but in the overall trajectory of the questions—and they reciprocate by having a more open and thorough discussion, but it is probably more than that. I think some subjects who are in the thick of their careers just do so much press that they build up a wall to their real thoughts and feelings that is nearly impossible to penetrate. Therefore, I have found, the best interviews tend to come from subjects who have not yet achieved that level of unquestionable stardom—or whose days of it are largely in the past. Then again, perhaps we just catch each other on the right day.
Whatever the reasons are, Anthony Mackie was one of those special interviews, and I hope it translates below.
(Please note: The wording of some questions—not answers—has been altered for clarity and brevity. Brackets within the response contain background information that I feel is relevant.)
I hope you can tell me a little about growing up in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans and, more specifically, what you have referred to in other interviews as the “hood” of the area…
Well, New Orleans is an interesting place—start off with that—because, you know, there’s truly no middle-class, so you’re either rich or you’re poor. And the Seventh Ward is the one place in New Orleans that, kinda, rides the line of being a middle-class neighborhood. And, you know, every kid who grows up in the nice house ventures away from his home, and trouble is never hard to find. So, in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, there was the St. Bernard Housing Project, and I spent most of my time there, to my parents’ chagrin! [laughs] And, you know, that was one of the biggest reasons I left New Orleans—because, you know, everyone was kinda into the same things.
Talk about the influence your parents and five siblings had on you, and what your relationship with them was like…
Well, my parents were huge influences. [His mother, Martha, died of cancer when he was fifteen. More on his father later.] All of my relatives were huge influences because, you know, when my parents weren’t around I had an uncle, an aunt, a cousin—somebody to keep me in line—and they were always supportive and understanding of everything I wanted to do and everything I tried to do. You know, I remember telling my mom that I wanted to be a paleontologist because I always watched The Discovery Channel; she had no idea what that was [laughs], but she was like, “As long as you can to school and learn about it, you can be whatever you want to be.” But, you know, having parents like that, it really put me in the position to be where I am now.
I understand that, for a time, you were going to trade school training to be something totally unrelated to acting. Talk about what that was, and if there was a specific moment when you knew you wanted to be an actor instead…
Well, Mobil Oil used to have these programs where they would bring inner city kids from public schools out to the oil plant, and it was this junior engineering program, and they were basically introducing kids to the idea of engineering and introducing them to different mentors, different black engineers and things like that, or whatever have you. And I always wanted to be my brother. [His brother, Calvin, is eleven years older and is now an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Tulane University. He has been greatly involved in the recovery effort following Hurricane Katrina, and features prominently in Spike Lee’s recent documentary on the subject, When the Levees Broke (2006).] Whatever my brother did, I wanted to do what he did. My brother was working on his Ph.D in engineering at Georgia Tech, so when I got the opportunity to go to this program, I jumped at it. Then, the subject of the space shuttle crash came up, and I remember the crash vividly because I was in elementary school, and it was such a big deal. And in every school in the country, you know, school stopped and they turned on the space shuttle. That’s when it exploded mid-flight. And there was a teacher on it. And it just so happened that the last two space shuttle tragedies, they say, were linked to the O-rings around the fuselage, and those O-rings were developed in Louisiana, right outside New Orleans, at the plant that I was at. And at that moment, I knew I did not want to be an engineer. [laughs] It’s just too much pressure! I mean, looking at my brother, I thought my brother lived a glamorous life. I mean, he was living in Atlanta away from home, he had his own house, he had cars, he had all these cool friends, so I wanted to be an engineer. But there was so much pressure that was placed on your shoulders.
And when did acting first emerge as an alternative?
[laughs] Well, I was a bad kid. [His behavioral issues may have stemmed from the devastation of the loss of his mother. Several schools “invited” him to leave, but Calvin always won him another chance. Mackie also credits his sister, Nellie, with helping the family get through the tough times. He recalled in another interview, “She took over the house; she had to become a woman at fifteen for us.”] So, instead of introducing me to Ritalin, I had this teacher [Sandra Anderson Richards] who wanted me to audition for this Talented in Theater program they used to have at the school. The kids would go down and meet with the drama teacher once a week and work on monologues, and just jump around, and act like a tree, and shit like that. So I started that, like, in fifth grade. Never took it seriously. But that’s when—around ninth grade, around the time I was doing this engineering program, I entered this competition, and I won a trophy. And I was shocked. You know? And this woman named Linda Cook came to me and told me to audition for the arts high school here. And I did. [The competition was The Speech and Theater League’s One-Act Play Festival of 1992 and Mackie was actually only in eighth grade, according to Janet Shea, who was in attendance scouting talent for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. She later told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “Anthony just stood out. He was very focused and intense for an eighth grader. There were maybe seventy kids onstage, but you couldn’t take your eyes off him.”]
I believe that ‘arts high schools’ was the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where I heard you experienced a sort of turning point while performing King Lear at the Le Petit Theatre…
[laughs] Yeah. I had this public access T.V. show here in New Orleans, and I was on the radio, and doing all this crazy stuff, so because of that I had become very popular. And I was playing King Lear—I was playing Edmond—and one of my classmates, Tristan, was playing my arch-enemy, Edgar. And comes to the end of the play where he takes off his mask, and I’m like, “Ah! I thought I had killed you!” And he’s like, “I’m not dead!” And we have this huge sword fight, and I die. So, you know, I jump up, and he comes at me with the sword, and I get stabbed—and about four or five girls in the audience jump up and scream, like, “Anthony! No!!!” [laughs] And I was, like, “Cool!” [Asked about this night by a local newspaper, Calvin Mackie recalled, “There were cheers, and I was cheering, too, because Anthony had stopped being my brother. I believed he was the character.”]
[laughs] That got you! That hooked you!
[laughs] Yeah, that kinda did it for me, you know? I mean, that kinda put everything in perspective.
After high school, you went off to study at prestigious Juilliard. How did that enter the picture? I know you had some very defining years there…
Yeah. My senior year of high school, I went away to boarding school at North Carolina School for the Arts. And, while I was in high school in New Orleans, Juilliard had this minority sleepover program where they invite these minority kids—I mean, from any ethnic descent—to come up and spend the weekend up at Juilliard, and take classes, and meet students. So my sophomore year of high school, I went up to Juilliard for the weekend. [During this visit, Mackie stayed at the Milford Plaza on the corner of 44th Street and 8th Avenue. Six years later, he made his Broadway debut in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Royale Theatre, which is located next-door to the Milford Plaza. Also, during the initial visit, he attended his first Broadway production, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, starring Whoopi Goldberg, who signed his program and greeted him warmly after the show. Six years later, Goldberg was his director and co-star in his debut.] Not only was I blown away by Juilliard; I realized that, as an actor, I had to be in New York, ‘cause I needed to be around what it is I wanted to do, good or bad. And I went away to North Carolina, and they had these auditions where they take all their kids up to New York for the weekend called “Consortium Auditions,” and you audition for however many schools you want to. And I auditioned for twenty-five-some-odd schools. And the only two schools I didn’t get into were NYU and Evansville. And when I found out I got into Juilliard, I was like, “Well, I, I gotta go to Juilliard! I mean, there’s no question!” [laughs] So, it worked out. I went up to New York, auditioned, and got in. [For his audition, Mackie prepared five monologues, greatly impressing the Juilliard admissions team. After being accepted, things reportedly went well for him until he “butted heads” with some of his sophomore year instructors. He told another interviewer, “That summer, while everybody else was going to Europe to smoke dope and get drunk, I went away to Chautauqua for their Shakespeare program, so I could work on my craft.” The New York-based Chautauqua Institute is renowned for its theater company and conservatory. “So I come back to school, and they’re like, ‘We’re going to put you on probation.’ For what? ‘Because you’re not working hard enough.’” Mackie concluded his instructors were miffed because they wanted him to seek more of their input, and thereafter he “learned to play the game better.”]
It seems to me that one of the big things that came out of your time at Juilliard was Up Against the Wind, the play written by your classmate about the rapper Tupac Shakur in which you starred during your senior year. Can talk about how that came about?
Well, Up Against the Wind was great, because it was a bunch of us who would get together every night after class, and read monologues, and do stuff like that, and just try to make this play work. It all started with one monologue that this guy who was in the playwriting program wrote for a friend of mine and, from that monologue, he wrote a play around that monologue. And we were all huge fans of Tupac and, at first, I was reading Biggie, who later became Tupac’s arch-nemesis. I was reading Biggie, you know, and I’m not a big dude, so [laughs]—everybody was like, “That’s weird!” But I did everything I could to make it work. That’s when the guy who was playing Tupac graduated from Juilliard. And we had a reading for Showtime, ‘cause they were thinking about optioning the script for a screenplay. So I begged and begged the writer to let me read. And he let me do it—with the, you know, understanding that if I fuck it up, he’s gonna kill me. [laughs] So I did it, and it went really well. And then we put on a production of the play at Juilliard with, like, all students—student director, student writer, and all students in the play from the Drama Department. And somebody—Jim Nicola and Jack Doulin from New York Theatre Workshop—came to see the play, and moved it from Juilliard off Broadway. And it was just unheard of—you know, when you go to Juilliard, you’re supposed to be [assumes haughty voice] prim and proper and only do Shakespeare in the Park and, you know, live contemporary theater, blah-blah-blah-blah, unless it’s David Mamet. [reassumes his own voice] But, you know, for a young black actor to come out of Juilliard and be able to do hip-hop as well as Shakespeare, street as well as businessman—nobody really knew how to take me, so I was getting meetings just because thought I was a freak of nature. [laughs] Yeah. So, you know, I had all these meetings where people were like, “I don’t have a project or anything. I just wanted to see who the hell were you.” You know? [Mackie did receive at least a few offers, because he soon appeared in Talk, an off-Broadway production at the Public Theatre, for which he won an ensemble Obie. Subsequently, he appeared in the aforementioned Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an August Wilson play directed by Whoopi Goldberg and starring Goldberg and Charles Dutton, who Mackie understudied. Mackie was offered the part of Goldberg’s stuttering nephew without even having to audition—he simply met with playwright Wilson, of whom he is greatly fond, and was delighted by the opportunity (even though it meant turning down a lucrative television offer to take it). He has said, “Wilson truly speaks for my family, and the class of people I come from.” Wilson, for his part, concluded, “Anthony Mackie is a great actor.”]
Presumably, that’s what led to the opportunity to understudy for some pretty big actors in George C. Wolfe’s production Topdog/Underdog…
Yeah. I mean, working with Don Cheadle was a life-changing experience, because he’s the reason I started acting. You know? And Jeffrey [Wright] is one of the, you know, best actors alive. So to have the opportunity to understudy Don and watch him and Jeffrey get on stage every night—I learned more in those five weeks than I had from years of school. But then I realized that school put me in the position to where I was able to learn for those five weeks. You know what I mean?
You have often discussed how much you value working in theater. Comparing that medium to film, at the end of the day, which do you prefer, and why?
I prefer theater. I mean, the thing about film is if you’re bad, you’re bad forever. [laughs] You know what I mean? There’s no way of changing that, you know? You’re bad forever. But in theater, there’s still great theater performances that you hear people argue about today from twenty years ago, you know? But if you’re bad one night, you can go back the next night and redeem yourself. Film, you’re bad forever, you know?
Talk about how you approach a script and develop a character. Do you classify yourself as a Method actor? Do you employ other techniques? What’s the genesis of a part for you?
I’m [emphasizes] definitely not a Method actor. Acting is my job [laughs], so when I leave work, I leave it at work. My technique is, basically—it all, one hundred percent, comes from the script. I read the script over, and over, and over again. I read for what people say about the character, what the character says about himself, and what the writer says about the character, and then from that you build the person. You know, I can ask you a lot of questions about you, but I’ll learn a hundred percent more about you from what people say about you. ‘Cause I think I’m the greatest guy in the world. I love myself. I can spend every day with myself. I can introduce you to fifty people that think I’m the biggest fucking asshole in the world, [laughs] and give you specific reasons why. You know what I mean? So I think you learn more about a person from what other people say about him, so I go through the script and try to see what people say about him. That’s when I build from that.
Your film debut came opposite Eminem as Papa Doc in 8 Mile, and that’s obviously changed things for you ever since. How did it come about?
Yeah. I mean, that was like winning the lottery. When I look at my career, you know, I’ve won the lottery about four or five times. You know? And 8 Mile was my first time, you know, rolling the dice and winning the lottery. Because it was basically a great director, a great producing team, and a bunch of young, dumb kids who had no idea what they were doing, and we all came together and did something very special—we made our generation’s version of Rocky.
I’ve read that a big reason why you signed up for the film was the involvement of producer Brian Grazer…
Yeah. Well, I was a huge fan of Brian Grazer and all the things that Imagine was doing at the time—you know, him and Ron Howard—and the type of films they were making. And, you know, Curtis Hanson. As an actor, I love directors. I love working with directors. I love hearing directors talk. I love the way they think. And I saw Curtis Hanson’s movie—what was it?
L.A. Confidential, maybe?
No, no, no, no. With Tobey Maguire. Oh, what’s the damn movie! It isn’t The History Boys—I’ll think of it. But I saw this movie, and I saw that it was a direct ode to Hitchcock.
Is it Wonder Boys?
Wonder Boys! If you watch that movie, the background of the film is more important than what any actor is doing. And that’s just Hitchcock style all the way. So for him to make a Hitchcock film, you know, and a lot of people not see it, you know, it just blew my mind. And for him to get a performance like that out of Tobey Maguire! [laughs] I was like, you know, this cat is somebody I’d really want to work with. So, you know, I was lucky. When I auditioned for that part, it was very small. I only had, like, five lines when I auditioned for it; I wasn’t in the battle raps, none of that. But he gave me the opportunity to build on it.
I’ve spoken with other prominent black actors—the Oscar winner Louis Gossett, Jr. especially comes to mind—who have talked to me about the large role race plays in Hollywood, even to this day. In an interview with New York Magazine, you said, “If I was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid, yeah, I’d probably be a $15 million man. But I’m not.” Based on your talent, I agree with you. I’ve also read about a conversation you had with Samuel L. Jackson in which you shared your frustration about the number of rappers taking roles away from legitimate actors. Talk about the role race has played in the evolution of your Hollywood career…
Well, I mean, the problem with the business is, you know, there’ll never be a black James Bond or a black Spider-Man. That’ll never happen. So, instantly, you’re put in a position of limitation. You know what I mean? So I realized what the business is that I’m going into; that’s why I choose theater as my primary medium. I will never allow somebody in Hollywood to dictate to me what it is I can and cannot do. Hollywood is not about good actors. [laughs]. You know that. So, I realized, eighty-five percent of my success in Hollywood has to do with my race. And I’m not mad about that; that’s just what it is. The reality is we’ll probably never have another Sam Jackson or Denzel Washington, because those actors aren’t given the same opportunities.
You think it’s gotten worse since they broke in?
Ten times worse! I mean, if they were making Glory today, that great role that Denzel had, do you think an actor would get that, or they’d give it to 50 Cent so he can be on the soundtrack? They just made the movie with Sam Jackson—what was that? A military movie. Not All the King’s Men—what is it? I don’t know. But it’s a movie that Sam Jackson is doing that, you know, 50 Cent is in. [Home of the Brave (2006) stars Jackson, with 50 Cent in a supporting role as an Iraq War veteran. Variety wrote of 50 Cent, “His performance is not just an exercise in attitude, his dialogue is occasionally incomprehensible. But he’s better than most of the subordinate players, who, it is hoped, are nonactors.”] You know, it’s just like over, and over, and over we see that it’s not about talent. But you’ll never see, you know, Chris Rock playing Romeo, I mean, or what’s his name, what’s the dude—
Nah. The rock-and-roll dude, always have on the hat—awful dude—Kid Rock! You’ll never see Kid Rock, you know, doing a great American classic.
So why is it? Is money all they care about?
One hundred percent business. Film, and even theater now, is becoming a business. It’s about the bottom line. One hundred percent. And I understand that. If my name isn’t worth anything, “Tough luck,” “I know you’re talented, congratulations on that. That’s very good.” But, you know, this is the only business where you get more on-the-job training than McDonalds. It’s the only business.
How do you beat the system, then? You’re a talented guy. You didn’t give up after taking a bit of a knock when you didn’t necessarily get the recognition you deserved with the two Spike Lee movies. You came back. How do you fight the system?
Well, you don’t buy into the system. I think, for me, it’s not about the amount of work you do; it’s about doing good work. If I didn’t see the potential in Half Nelson, I wouldn’t have did it for thirty-five dollars a day.
It was really cheap?
Woo-hoo! [laughs] You know what I mean? But, at the same time, reading that script, knowing it’s Ryan Gosling, meeting with Ryan Fleck, the director, and Anna Boden, the writer and co-director, I realized that they had the potential to do something very good. You know what I mean? And realizing you’re only as good as the person that’s acting across from you. And I knew if I could stand toe-to-toe with Ryan Gosling, he would make me twice as good as I could be with anybody else.
I do want to talk more about Half Nelson, but I want to jump backwards for a second, though, and see if you can diagnose what happened with the Spike Lee movies. I’ve read that you believe Sucker Free City may be the best work you’ve ever done—but virtually nobody saw it. When you’re offered the chance to work with Spike Lee, you must think, you know, you’re made—
What happened there?
Well, I don’t really know. I mean, I think, at the time, there was a huge backlash against Spike, you know? There’s always been a backlash against Spike, ‘cause he’s an intelligent black man that don’t hold his tongue. I feel She Hate Me and Sucker Free City, you know, I did some of my best work in those two movies. And Spike has a tendency of getting my best work out of me, taking me to the next level. But, you know, no matter what those projects would have ended up being, they would have never got the recognition because of who Spike is. Which is sad, you know? But, at the same time, you know, everybody coming up to me sayin’, “Oh, you’re it! You’re the next Denzel! Dawg, you’re the lead of two Spike Lee movies? Game over. Buy a house in the Hills and get outta here!” You know? So I had the great opportunity of being humble before I was humbled. And there’s a big difference. If you go into this business looking to be a star, it’ll eat you alive. But if you go into this business looking to do quality work and just get in where you fit in because of the love of the craft, you have the opportunity of building a career.
I think that must have probably been what led you to another movie I have to ask you about. Only twice have I been in a movie theater when the audience went absolutely ballistic in the middle of a movie. The most recent time was when Jennifer Hudson sang in Dreamgirls—
The first time was when Morgan Freeman knocks out an arrogant young guy [Mackie] in Million Dollar Baby—
That one came out of nowhere to win Best Picture—
It’s got to be unbelievable to work with Clint, and Swank, and, especially for a young black actor, Freeman.
Yeah. It was crazy. And, you know, Hilary Swank turned out to be one of the most beautiful young ladies I’ve met in this business—just all-around great person, you know? And Clint—Clint and Morgan—is so cool because you realize that this business works; when you meet it halfway, it works. If you have a passion, a drive, and a love for the business, it pays you back. It’s the other half of the business that’s fucked up. It’s the people that want to be on the cover of Star magazine and the people that are trying to get on MTV’s Cribs that’s fucking up the business, you know? And, I’ll never forget, I had this offer to do this really big movie, and I had the offer to do a play at the same time, and the play was a very important play to me. So I go to Morgan and I’m like, you know, “I don’t know what to do.” And, you know, he takes me outside, and we’re standing there, and he’s like, you know, “Do your play.” And, I’ll never forget, we’re standing there, and I asked him, “Could I take a picture” with him. So he took a picture. And he burped. And I was like, “Dude, that is the nastiest shit I’ve ever heard in my life.” And he looks at me, he’s like, “Do your play. Work on your craft. And when you’re ready, Hollywood’ll come get you. And when they come get you, they’ll pay for you.” I never really understood what that—I was like, you know, “Okay. I mean that’s like an old fucking wives tale. Okay.” You know? But then I got in the play; then I realized I have the opportunity, right now, to work day-by-day-by-day on my craft so, at thirty-five, at forty, when I do get the opportunity to shine in a role, like he did, I’ll be ready. You can run to Hollywood at nineteen, get one movie at twenty-one, and be never heard of and a washed up has-been at twenty-three.
I understand that, at one time, you were attached to play a character named Little Albert in Dreamgirls. I don’t know whether or not this is something you want to address, but was that the role in a big movie you decided to pass over?
No, no. Actually, Dreamgirls was a completely different situation. You know, I was fawning for the opportunity to work with Bill Condon. And, you know, Eddie Murphy is the greatest natural talent alive. And, you know, Beyonce basically wakes me up every morning. [laughs] So I was fawning to be a part of that project, and it just didn’t work out. This is a movie that was earlier than that; that I had luckily passed on to do the play. And it worked out. I mean, I have dodged a bunch of bullets. That was one of them.
I’m interested to know what went through your mind when you were offered Half Nelson. On the one hand, you’d be signing up to make a small independent film that might not necessarily find an audience; to work with first-time directors; and, like you said, to be getting paid dirt. On the other hand, I know you had previously expressed concern about the lack of role models for young kids, especially young minorities, and frustration about the one-dimensional portrayal of drug dealers as just self-centered bad guys, since they sometimes are able to do some good in a community. Talk to me about how you weighed the opportunity to address issues that are important to you against some of those concerns…
I really don’t worry about it. I’ve been lucky enough to do work that people have seen, and that’s done nothing for me, so I’m not worried about people seeing what I do. And if it’s good, people’ll see it. You know what I mean? The biggest thing in independent film is just to work—most independent films are so good that they can’t be done by a studio. You know what I mean? That’s why studios now, they buy independent films and put ‘em out like they made ‘em. Because good independent movies will be seen; bad independent movies you will never hear of. So the most important thing on independent films is the director. If I meet with the director and I don’t believe in him, if I don’t buy what he’s selling, I don’t work with him. ‘Cause, for me, it’s a one-time shot. You know, there are a lot of actors in Hollywood that have made five or six bad movies in a row, and they’re still considered the hot shit. You know? There are a lot of black actors in Hollywood that made one bad movie and their career was over. So I’m not afforded that luxury. So I have to choose very carefully, and if I’m not passionate about it, I can’t do it, ‘cause it would just come off as boring.
I hope I can push my luck. I know we’re running a little long, but can I get in, like, three more questions? They pertain to We Are Marshall, for the most part…
Nah, go ahead! I’m cool, I’m cool. Ask as many questions as you like.
Thank you, thank you. I saw We Are Marshall relatively soon after the Huntington screening because Matthew Fox was coming to Boston to do some press for it, and so they got together a screening. And I really loved it, and I thought you were terrific; I missed the boat when there was press for Half Nelson, which I also loved, but I figured I had to try to speak with you after this one, because I know that next time you’ll be too in-demand to even have a shot at you!
I want to ask you not only what drew you to the film, but especially to the character you portray—Nate Ruffin, a real guy who lived and, as I understand, recently died. I imagine that when you play a real person, you can’t necessarily take the creative liberties you would in interpreting a fictional character. Talk about how you brought this character back to life…
Well, I think when you’re playing a real person, it helps a lot when they’re no longer with us, because as soon as you meet that person, you start to imitate that person and you get stuck in a rut. And that was something I wanted to be very clear I didn’t do with this character. Because when we were in Huntington, I was always asking people questions, and everybody had a completely different way of describing him. Some people were like, “Aw, you know, he was a hardass,” “He was too serious,” blah-blah-blah-blah. Some people were like, “Oh, he was a jokester,” “He was a prankster,” he was this, and he was that. So I realized that with him, the most important asset I had was his family. So I went to them and just spent time with them. And didn’t ask them a question at all. Just spent time with them, laughed, and joked, and just talked with them, and let them know that I was coming from the right place, I wasn’t doing this for any reason but the love of the story, and I was gonna do the best I could. And, from that day, that dinner that I spent with them, I learned so much about him, that I kinda knew the person that he was, you know?
The people of Huntington, apparently, really embraced you guys for shooting it there, and when the film was finished, it must have been something else to watch it with these people, who were so connected to the events. Can you describe how the town responded to the film’s screening?
Huntington was an unreal experience. I mean, there was a main screen which was used as a fundraiser for the university. Then, there was a multiplex with sixteen screens running We Are Marshall all at the exact same time. And all sixteen of those screens sold out in forty-two minutes. Yeah, yeah. And, you know, the energy, not only in the theater, but in the town that night when we were leaving after the movie—it was just people walking on the street and, you know, it was really like breathing fresh air back into this town, and people remembering, not from a position of hurt, but from a position of just happy recollection. You know, one of my mentors and great teachers at Juilliard once told me, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” You look at any tragic event years down the line, once you’ve dealt with it, it becomes funny to you. Like, there are moments, when you look at it, that’ll touch you in a way that’ll make you smile. This event truly became joyous to the people that were at this premiere because they could talk about their friend—they could talk about Shalhoop, they could talk about all these guys who were on this team and, you know, the great stories, the great times that they shared together. You know? So it was very therapeutic for everybody involved—the actors, as well as the townspeople.
Even thirty-six years later, the community was obviously still dealing with the loss. While preparing for my interview with Matthew Fox, I was really stunned to learn what you went through during the first week of production in April. [Mackie’s father, Willie Mackie Sr., died suddenly.] First of all, I’m very sorry for your loss.
I wonder how you found the strength to come back to work so relatively soon after…
Well, for me, losing someone is hard. Losing a parent is devastating. ‘Cause it’s the first realistic sign that you’re an adult [laughs], you know? You know, to my dad, work was the most important thing to a man—you wake up, you go to work. You know, why wouldn’t you? You know, you deal with your things as they come to you, and you move on. And I realized that I not only had a responsibility to my director and castmates, but I also had a responsibility to everybody in the town. And my family gave me the go-ahead, patted me on the back, and gave me their well-wishes. And I couldn’t have did it if it wasn’t for the way they handled it. I mean, McG came to me and said, “Take as much time as you need. Do whatever you need to do. And I’ll support you one hundred percent.” Now, for him to come to me and say that, it kinda put everything at ease, because I knew, when I was ready, I could go back. I went back, it was over—“Let’s not talk about it, let’s move on.” You know? The thing that made that movie special is because everything dealing with that movie was very delicate. It was like family. Every aspect of it, from the filming, to off the set, to us just hanging out, everything was dealt with very respectfully. And, you know, I can honestly say, if it was any other movie, any other cast, any other crew, any other director, I don’t know if I could have done it.
A unique three months…
Just to wrap up, I was looking over your upcoming roles and I see, for the first time, really, title roles in major films about really fascinating characters. I see Nat Turner, the abolitionist; Buddy Bolden, the New Orleans jazz pioneer who tragically cracked up; and then, the one that really gets me excited, the legendary athlete, Jesse Owens. I’m interested to hear about all of them, but between you and me, is that last one the one that’s gonna make you the star you already deserve to be? Is that the one that’s gonna do it?
I don’t know. I mean, like I said before, I thought working with Spike, or working with Clint, or, you know, Half Nelson, or even We Are Marshall—when I saw the movie, I was like, “This is it! If this ain’t it, I don’t know what is!” But, after having all those experiences, you know, my brother always said, “If you continue to do good work, everything else will take its own course.” I just want to do justice to Jesse Owens’s family, you know what I mean? Because I’m basically introducing him to a new generation. You’ll be surprised how many people, it’s like, “Do you know who Jesse Owens is?” [pauses a beat] Oh, okay. Do you know who Hitler is? Yeah? Okay, motherfucker. Well, Jesse Owens was the dude who basically sent his own regime into a downward spiral.” But people have no idea who he is.
People who have no idea who Dick Cheney is! It’s terrible…
That’s even scarier! [laughs] So, you know, I think I’ve been lucky as a person to allow acting to influence my day-to-day life. And playing Jesse Owens, you know, 1930s America, dealing with that time period and what not only my family but, you know, people around my family were going through in the South—I think it’s gonna be a great experience to bring that to a new generation.
Is it physically demanding to prepare for that kind of a role?
Yeah, yeah. I’m in a process running five miles a day and going through extensive weight-training and just trying to get ready for it.
Well, I can’t wait to see that, or whatever you do. I really appreciate the time, and I really enjoy everything you do…
Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Take care—and I hope everything’s alright with your family in New Orleans! Is everybody alright there?
Everybody’s doing better. I mean, you know, the thing about it is the storms were, usually, you leave for two days and come back. And everybody’s realizing this ain’t a two day problem, it’s not a five year problem, it’s not a ten year problem. You know? So everybody’s kinda now, after a year and a half, you know, hunkering in for the long haul. You know?
Were they spread out or were they still in New Orleans?
They were spread out everywhere. But now some of them have come back, some of them are still outside the city. You know, the hard part now is the storm has cost lives, you know, so I’m trying to deal with that and trying not to be bitter or upset about that. So it’s an ongoing process.
Well, good luck with everything, and thanks again.
Thank you so much, Scott. I appreciate it.
Take care, bye-bye.
Alright, be blessed.