The Inverse Interview

Anthony Mackie is the leading man we need

The New Orleans actor talks Netflix, Marvel, and finding his new partner in crime.

After a surprisingly busy 2020, Anthony Mackie was taking it easy in 2021.

In mid-January, with his upcoming Marvel show in the can and his new Netflix movie primed to climb the charts, Mackie was back home in New Orleans celebrating as only a local knows how. By rooting for the Saints.

Mackie's expressed his love for the New Orleans football team before. He's talked about the Saints not once, but twice while appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He even revealed an elaborate plan to prank the referees who cost the Saints their chance at the 2019 Superbowl using his Mardi Gras connections. But earlier that same day on January 14, Mackie took a break from getting ready for Sunday's big game to do a bit of self-promotion.

In Outside the Wire, Mackie plays an android super-soldier named Leo tasked with leading a human drone pilot through a futuristic combat zone. Cementing Mackie as an action hero capable of carrying a potential franchise on his back, the film finds him powering through an array of brutally kinetic hand-to-hand combat sequences.

“You have no limits,” Mackie tells Inverse, proudly adding that he performed “90 to 95 percent” of the stunts himself while personally lobbying to make Outside the Wire’s stunts as hardcore as possible. “I’m a super-being! I can fight, I can jump – I can jump off a building and not die, so why am I not jumping off a building?”

The Saints lost that game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, knocking New Orleans out of the running in 2021. But Anthony Mackie's year is just getting started.

Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris in Outside the Wire.Netflix

After premiering on January 15, Outside the Wire quickly rose to the top of the Netflix chart, signaling the beginning of a potential new franchise. Meanwhile, over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where Mackie has played Samuel “Sam” Wilson (Captain America’s winged ally Falcon) for more than half a decade, he’s preparing to finally take center stage in the six-episode series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, premiering March 19 on Disney+.

Leading-man status has never felt so secure. But Mackie is the opposite of an overnight success. On the contrary, he’s so consistently strong at embodying charismatic yet internally simmering men of action that he risks being taken for granted.

Few actors can match Mackie’s versatility or radiate the same kind of dramatic core strength. Whether he’s a ‘roid-raging meathead (Pain & Gain), a conflicted drug kingpin (The Hate U Give), or an interstellar warrior (the radically improved second season of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, in which he took over from Joel Kinnaman), Mackie commits fully.

In an ensemble, he’s just as capable, that high-wattage grin and acrobatic agility making him as fleet-footed with action sequences as he is quick with a punchline. The playfully rat-a-tat chemistry he can build with costars, even in the midst of a furious CGI-assisted firefight, is a wonder to witness. You might say his specific X-factor, balancing comic timing with perfectly calibrated physicality, is the secret ingredient to Marvel’s success.

AFFECTING CHANGE

Mackie and Todd Tucker at a voter registration event in Atlanta.Paras Griffin/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Sold on his star power and produced by him, Outside the Wire hinges on Mackie’s ability to balance Leo’s fast-changing loyalties with his penchant for ass-kicking and snappy one-liners (“I’m special enough for the both of us,” he smirks at Harp, channeling ‘90s icons Schwarzenegger and Snipes).

It’s not a revelation so much as a reminder of Mackie’s dramatic abilities, honed across a 20-year career on the stage and screen. On Broadway, he appeared in plays like August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And before Marvel came calling, he was delivering standout turns in films as varied as Kathryn Bigelow’s war drama The Hurt Locker, 2011’s Philip K. Dick adaptation The Adjustment Bureau, the academy-award nominated Half Nelson, and Seth Rogen comedy The Night Before.

Within the sprawl of Marvel’s super-cast, it’s been possible to overlook Mackie, whose Falcon played smaller roles in movies fronted by Chris Evans’ Captain America and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a former U.S. serviceman, Sam is heroic, capable, and through his own formidable strengths ill-suited to the role of “side-kick.” But he’s been treated as such by the films, which – from Avengers: Age of Ultron to Captain America: Civil War and even Ant-Man – foreground other characters’ arcs while calling on Sam to support them. As Mackie tells Inverse: “Sam’s a reactionary character.”

Leo, by contrast, drives the action of Outside the Wire, his enhanced abilities and man-on-a-mission mentality establish him as the ultimate field operative. “Leo goes out and affects change,” Mackie says. “Sam, it comes to him, and then he reacts. The reality of it is, Sam has a gray area. You look at Sam Wilson, and there’s not exactly right and not exactly wrong, but there’s someplace in between, where everybody wins.”

At the end of Avengers: Endgame, a 112-year-old Steve Rogers passed his vibranium shield down to Sam, implying the character could next assume the mantle of Captain America – becoming the first Black character to do so on screen. It’s dramatically fertile ground already mapped out by the comics, including in Sam Wilson: Captain America, which explored the good, bad, and ugly of how white America might react to a Black superhero donning the stars and stripes.

Mackie with his Disney+ co-star Sebastian Stan.Marvel

Though the series doesn’t premiere until March, we already know a copycat version of Rogers played by Wyatt Russell, dubbed U.S. Agent, will be running around in star-spangled regalia, and that Carl Lumbly has been cast in an unspecified role possibly based on Isaiah Bradley, a survivor of the super-serum program that first created Captain America. Whatever the specifics of its story, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will address what happens after Sam picks up that shield, the legacy of which – as Sam puts it in the first trailer for the series – “is... complicated.”

“Sam never accepted the shield.”

Asked about the Disney+ series, Mackie won’t go into detail about what’s ahead for Sam, but he’s more at ease discussing the character’s current headspace. “At the end of Avengers: Endgame, Sam never accepted the shield. Sam never said he was going to be Captain America. Sam never said he wanted to be Captain America. So, in the series, you learn who’s going to be Captain America, who the shield is passed down to, and where we go from there.”

Last May, the Black Lives Matter movement exploded globally, with tens of millions of Americans took to the streets demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, production of which was disrupted by the pandemic, filmed on both sides of that long, hot summer of protest. If Mackie does become Captain America by series end, it will be difficult to deny the symbolic power of such a moment.

“It was really interesting,” says Mackie of the direction his character will take, carefully steering clear of specifics. “And then this past year made it very interesting.”

“NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE.”

Sam Wilson becomes Captain America in the Marvel comics.Marvel

Though Outside the Wire is tonally far-flung from the Marvel Universe, at its center is a question of choice and consequence – of whether it’s possible to retain autonomy and moral integrity inside larger systems of government – that recalls Mackie’s arc as Falcon through the Captain America movies.

“How reality deals with ‘affecting reality’ or ‘being affected by reality’” is something I’ve always thought about,” says Mackie. “Those are questions I ask myself every day – especially in this day and age as a Black man in America.”

Defiant by design, as Outside the Wire’s tagline puts it, Leo follows a personally defined code of ethics – even when that leads him to break with marching orders. Resisting his programming, Leo is shown to have genuinely challenging opinions about both the collateral damage of U.S. military operations and the dehumanized nature of violence in the era of drone warfare.

“Leo is in the matrix,” says Mackie, who was drawn to Outside the Wire for the thematic parallels he saw between its script and the Wachowskis’ landmark 1999 sci-fi. “Once you realize you’re in the machine, do you go with it, or do you fight against it?”

“It was refreshing, really,” says Idris. “They became two soldiers. not two Black soldiers.”Netflix

Exciting as it is to see a military thriller with two Black leads, Mackie and his co-star Damson Idris (FX’s Snowfall) didn’t discuss race while shooting Outside the Wire.

“It was refreshing, really,” says Idris. “They became two soldiers. not two Black soldiers. It was only after filming that we consciously identified that, ‘Hey, this has never been done before.’ If there’s an outlook of it in relation today, it’s almost the rebellion of society today over race relations. I think that links.”

Outside the Wire includes a scene in which Leo challenges Harp to identify why the U.S. military would have chosen a Black man, not a “blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American peckerwood,” to represent the US military overseas. His answer is “psyops,” that a Black man’s face conveys neutrality where a white man cannot. It’s a charged moment.

“Black people are loved everywhere around the globe.”

“Anywhere you go – and I’ve experienced this being an American — Black people are loved everywhere around the globe,” says Mackie. “The only place that is a problem is America. And that has to do with over 500 years of history, and that history not being acknowledged by America.”

For a programmed warrior like Leo, he adds, being Black is part of his skillset as much as his identity. “When you’re a Black face outside of America, you’re not American,” says Mackie. “He can walk into a room a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed guy can’t walk into, because [that guy] is instantly American. And, people outside of America want to kill white Americans, not Black Americans.”

“On your left”

“You have Denzel and Hawke: that’s the pinnacle of the pinnacle.”Netflix

Mackie’s recent roles, in the mind-bending sci-fi Synchronic and the 1960s biopic The Banker, have similarly seen him expand his range in compelling ways while grappling with the business of being Black in America.

In the former, from indie duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Spring, The Endless, Marvel’s upcoming Moon Knight), Mackie plays a terminally ill paramedic who becomes unmoored in time by a new designer drug. Digging beneath his character’s hardened exterior and grim intellect, the actor communicates a history of hardship and alienation that had as much to do with personal tragedy as his broader experiences living while Black in racially divided post-Katrina New Orleans.

In The Banker, meanwhile, Mackie played 1950s entrepreneur Bernard Garrett, forced by the racism of his day to enter the real estate market through one hell of a back door: namely, by hiring a white stand-in to represent him in meetings with prejudicial partners. Calm and controlled, Mackie carries the weight of Garrett’s countless indignities on his shoulders; but when he dons a janitor’s outfit to enter a bank he owns, you can feel the anger rolling off him in waves.

Hawke and Washington in Training Day.Village Roadshow Pictures

Mackie brings that same coiled intensity to Leo in Outside the Wire, though the role also requires him to show a certain moral opacity. Given this, as well as the mismatched-buddy dimension of Leo’s relationship with Harp, it’s unsurprising both actors cite Training Day, in which Denzel Washington played a crooked cop partnered with Ethan Hawke’s new recruit, as a major influence.

“The biggest thing that attracted me to being a part of Outside the Wire was the opportunity to work with Mackie,” Idris says directly. “I was already well-versed in his work, but also everyone was on that high of Avengers during the time we were able to shoot the movie. I was excited to work with him. Mackie always says it reminded him of Training Day with a sci-fi element.”

It was “100 percent Training Day,” agrees Mackie, who says he pushed for casting Idris in the other lead role because of how he felt the younger actor could help him capture the same kind of dynamic Washington shared with Hawke. Both performances were nominated for Oscars, with Washington taking home the trophy for Best Actor.

“If I’m going to play Denzel, I’ve got to find my Hawke.”

A turning point in Washington’s career, Training Day let the then-established star relish an explosively commanding blockbuster role, bringing out his best by casting another actor with whom he could match wits or trade blows – a recipe not unlike Outside the Wire, and potentially not far off from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier either, which is shaping up to be a buddy adventure starring Mackie and his long-time Marvel co-star Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier).

“There’s an innocence to [Idris’s] approach, and a sophistication to his ability that puts you in a position as another actor that you can play off him and really bond with those two characters,” says Mackie. “When thinking about Training Day, you have Denzel and Hawke: that’s the pinnacle of the pinnacle. If I’m going to play Denzel, I’ve got to find my Hawke.”