Anthony Mackie is part of the impressive ensemble cast John Hillcoat assembled to play out the noir tingled crime story in his new cop thriller “Triple 9.” Mackie’s character, Marcus Belmont, is part of a heist crew made up of cops and ex-cops that also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Norman Reedus, Clifton Collins, Jr., and Aaron Paul, who are coerced into pulling off a dangerous job by the Russian-Jewish mob boss played by Kate Winslet, all while Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson, who still proudly wear the shield, try to stay on top of a spiraling situation. It’s a big murky moral stew with a lot of bad people making questionable choices that result in the sort of brutal violence we’ve come to expect from Hillcoat’s films.
For Mackie, the project represents another role in an increasingly diverse slate of projects that include tentpole Marvel movies where he plays Falcon, raunchy comedies ("The Night Before"), and mid-size dramas ("Our Brand Is Crisis"). We recently caught up with the actor to talk about making the gritty Hillcoat thriller, and the physical and emotional commitment of playing a really bad guy. Mackie tends to joke a bit as he begins each answer before going into real detail, but he’s purely effusive when talking about playing Martin Luther King, Jr. opposite Bryan Cranston for Jay Roach’s upcoming HBO film “All the Way,” discussing his career, and more.
You once described your “Our Brand is Crisis” character as the moral compass of that film. In this movie you’re basically the exact opposite.
I’m “morally obscure”! Whenever I do a movie or take on a character, I approach him from a place of no judgement. For this movie, Marcus Belmont is a character I related to. What John Hillcoat and our writer [Matt Cook] did was give every character a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most people can’t do that with one main character. John was able to do it with seven. The fun thing about being the amoral cop is, you don’t see it that way. When you do bad stuff, you don’t say “You know what, this is bad, yeah!” You say “I’m going to do this shit, and I’ll enjoy it. I’ve got my reasons, and that justifies it.” In this movie, as good or bad as anyone is, everyone is justified from their own perspective, and that’s what matters. You can’t look at my reality from your perspective and question it, and I can’t do the same with you. We all see this room completely different right now, because our perspectives are different. So that’s something I always try to do when approaching a character, and it really helped me with this one. I enjoyed getting my gun on in Atlanta.
What was the experience of working with that gear?
I don’t know if it’s an American thing, but there’s nothing like running through the streets of a major metropolitan city shooting a gun and not getting arrested. There’s nothing more empowering than just hanging out, bucking shots off and being cool with it. I relate this experience to the one I had on “Gangster Squad.” In that movie we played a rogue group of cops taking down Mickey Cohen, running down Wilshire in downtown LA, shooting guns at midnight, people calling the police and screaming out the windows. It was the same thing in Atlanta, the only difference was we’re running through the projects shooting at a guy, but we start shooting, and then we started hearing other gunshots. We had fake bullets, not real ones.
From medieval stuff to now, I enjoy weaponry. I like the feel of it, I like the aggressiveness of it, I like the testosterone. As many guys are in this movie, this movie wasn’t a testosterone-laced, fuel-injected man war. It wasn’t like that at all. There’s a lot of anxiety, more than testosterone. Casey and I really worked well together and enjoyed our gun time, going to the firing range, going to the gym. Hanging out and getting to know each other really helped make this movie work.
Your characters have a really combative relationship. He plays very restless in this movie, and I’m curious to know if that affected you.
It seems like his character feels like he has a lot to prove. Being ex-military, suffering from PTSD, all of that evolved into this character having sleepless nights and anxiety, and the inability to relate to anyone around him. It fed me, it really helped me. Because I didn’t like him. I don’t want him to be around me, it’s like “You make ME uncomfortable.” Every choice he made just gave me more ways not to like him.
Despite everything your character Marcus does, it seems like he probably sleeps pretty well at night.
I’m like Scrooge McDuck, I take all my money and lay it on the bed, just roll around until I fall asleep!
Does working with the weaponry become part of what makes Falcon [in Marvel movies such as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”] such an appealing character?
Of course! There’s nothing more I enjoy than my first day of fittings for the next Marvel movie. Every time I go into a Marvel fitting just I feel at home. It’s a close-knit community, and I love the ability to introduce the world to this character and his evolution. The guns and the weapons in the Marvel movies are so far out and abstract, I’m always nervous, and I think it’s never gonna work. Then you see the movie and it works really well! I just try not to make — I have a problem with making kissy face. Whenever I’m being intense my face goes to this [closes eyes, purses lips]. After every take I tell the Russos, “Just make sure I’m not making kissy face.” That’s my biggest problem with weapons, I go too hard, get too excited, and I make kissy face. I think the first picture of me that came out as Falcon, I had to jump off a platform and turn around, and my face was like this. I was like “You took all those pictures, and you got kissy face?”
Tell me about shooting the opening heist in this, with everyone masked and doing what seemed like a lot of long takes.
It was very annoying, because we were masked, yeah. So I was like “Yo, somebody else can do this, man, why are we here at 6 AM? I could be home asleep!” John was very intent on us doing all the work ourselves as opposed to stunt men. He wanted us to literally live in those characters’ day to day lives. You can’t play a bank robber if you’ve never robbed a bank. What he was doing, the way he shot it, which was so cool, was these long, lingering shots. So when we smash into the bank and go upstairs and spread out, Chiwetel walks in, there’s a different energy in him walking in and us running. There’s a different urgency that we have, and a different goal he has. All that stuff was very character specific.
I love Clifton [Collins Jr.] as an actor, he has all these little things that are so interesting in the movie. One that I think people might either question or overlook is, there’s a woman laying on the ground and I’m yelling at everyone to get down and be quiet, and he takes a handkerchief, it’s just the dirtiest thing, makes her put her lipstick on it. It’s such a creepy fucking thing, like “What’s he going to do with that?” Shit like that, John gave us the opportunity to go so far with that. It extended through shooting that bank sequence, all the little things. Chiwetel writing a number on his duct-taped watch. It was fun to shoot, but hard at the same time. The sequence was very difficult, we had to keep it up for so long because he was shooting long takes. Instead of ten-second pop-offs, he was shooting for two and three minutes. So while Chiwetel is doing all this stuff, we’re up there with guns on people, doing our thing as robbers.
I assume for Marvel movies, you’re doing a lot of those ten-second shots — does this change the work in any fundamental way?
It gives you a different feel for the character, it gives you a different understanding for the character. When living in someone else’s shoes, when you have to keep that energy up, it’s exhausting. For Marvel, it’s ten seconds here, wait for an hour. Ten seconds there, wait for an hour. That’s easy, and fun! You’re on set just hanging out. In this, it was so intense and so deliberate, they were long, exhausting days.
When you do the Marvel movies you have to change your diet and work out, do all this shit. Summer in Atlanta’s not fun for anybody, but I was able to use this movie to get in shape for "Captain America: Civil War" because I was just running my ass off and sweating for weeks.
You also played Martin Luther King for Jay Roach [for “All the Way,” premiering on HBO in May 2016.] I’d love to hear what that was like.
Mind-blowing. I had been offered MLK many different times before and I turned it down because I had never seen him the way I thought of him on the page. Paul Winfield did a three-part television series, I think in ’78, called “King.” I thought he was Martin Luther King. No prosthetics, no nothing. He was, up until I was an adult, he was Martin Luther King. I’d see real footage and be like “That’s not Martin Luther King — Paul Winfield is Martin Luther King!”
I always stayed away because I never wanted to take anything away from that performance, and I never wanted to be compared to that performance. Because I knew I could never do that, I’ve never seen anything come close to that. So when I read this script I was intrigued about this movie being about the relationship between LBJ and MLK. That’s such a scrutinized and ridiculed relationship, but to me it’s such a timeless and beautiful relationship. Because there were many presidents before LBJ, and there were many civil rights leaders before Martin Luther King, Jr. No one was able to achieve what they did, except them. Kennedy couldn’t even get those bills passed. You can say what you want about him, but look at his actions, and what he was able to accomplish in a term and a half was remarkable. Same with MLK. What he achieved far outweighed all his shortcomings.
Working with Bryan Cranston is kind of — I want Cranston’s career. I want to grow up and be Cranston. Everybody’s like “Oh, ‘Breaking Bad,’ he’s so awesome.” But now you see him in old movies and realize “Holy shit! He’s been awesome for a really long time.” So now, with “Trumbo,” “Breaking Bad” and this LBJ performance he’s going to be — if he’s not now — one of the top actors in Hollywood. I’ve never seen anybody do what he’s able to do with those actors in such a short time. People hope their whole career for three performances like that, and he’s done that in like, four years. It was exceptional to stand across from him and watch him work.
"Triple 9" opens in theaters this weekend.