Anthony Mackie is having water troubles. During Hurricane Katrina, a canal broke in the New Orleans native’s family’s backyard, and now a pipe has burst in the New York home he’s renovating. A neighbor just called to tell him, “Your house is inside my house,” which is why one of the busiest black actors in the business offers profuse apologies for calling an hour late. Just 27 years old, Mackie, who readily admits that acting rescued him from becoming a career delinquent, is already a polished professional when it comes to dealing with the press, but he’s also spontaneous, funny and refreshingly free of the self-seriousness that often comes with being up-and-coming in Hollywood. At the CineVegas Film Festival in 2005, where I served on a jury with Mackie and filmmaker Allison Anders, he easily held his own with two garrulously opinionated women twice his age. Casually handsome in a crisp white T-shirt and khaki shorts, the actor moved with a panther’s stealthy grace, and his almond eyes, set wide apart in a delicately featured face, turned heads wherever he went.
Mackie has been turning heads in Hollywood ever since he got spotted playing rapper Tupac Shakur in the acclaimed New York Theatre Workshop production of Up Against the Wind and landed a part, rapping again (as is the lot of even the most gifted young black actors), as Eminem’s rival in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile. Mackie got his formal training when, after seeing Don Cheadle play a basketball star in Rebound, he decided to take acting classes in New Orleans. A “sleepover program” for young actors at Juilliard moved him to enroll at the school full time, because “it was the furthest away from home,” and also because he had fallen in love with Manhattan. Then came 8 Mile and more supporting roles in high-profile movies like Million Dollar Baby and The Manchurian Candidate, and a lead part he’d have done better to turn down, as a sperm donor servicing rich lesbians in Spike Lee’s She Hate Me.
Mackie has been a busy man in 2006, with Joe Roth’s ill-fated race drama Freedomland, the streetball drama Crossover (opening this weekend), and most notably Ryan Fleck’s marvelous Half Nelson, in which he invests yet another drug-dealer role with an inwardness and idiosyncrasy that ought to alert some creative casting director to the range of his talent. In one quietly sensational scene, Mackie’s dealer, who takes an ambiguous interest in a black teenager (Shareeka Epps) whose brother he has landed in prison, extends an equally ambiguous invitation to Ryan Gosling’s crackhead teacher to enter his home. In both cases, he could be coming on as a friend, a destroyer, or both. What Mackie says admiringly of Gosling — “He has an ability to get out of his own way” — is equally true of his own technique. “The one thing I try not to do is act when I’m acting,” he says. “Instead of waiting to say your lines, you listen and wait. When Ryan and I confront each other, I ask him what we’re supposed to do, and he says, ‘I don’t know.’ It signals confusion. Just because I sell drugs doesn’t mean I’m not your friend. I’m supplying you with what you need.”
The coming year will see Mackie get busier still, in the McG-directed football drama We Are Marshall, and as Nat Turner in a movie about the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion. With a practicality that recalls his mentor Samuel L. Jackson, whom he met while playing yet another drug dealer in The Man (“He sat me down and stopped me from being a hotheaded young actor when I was saying, ‘Why can’t I play Superman?’?”), Mackie is philosophical about the fact that most of the roles that come his way involve playing athletes, pushers or black heroes. Prod him a little, though, and he’ll vent about the narrow range of roles available to black actors of his generation. He’d like to see a black Raging Bull, Scent of a Woman or American Beauty. He was approached for a part in Crash but couldn’t get out of a play he’d committed to. “I would love to play a romantic lead,” he admits, and adds endearingly that when he had a girlfriend, she thought he was romantic. The role of his dreams, though, would be the lead in the Sam Cooke story, because “he was the original black music mogul. And he was a colorful character.”
Mackie knows that living in Los Angeles might be better for his career, but for now he enjoys the anonymity of New York, hanging with his friends and being low key. “I’ll be a celebrity later.”