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Anthony Mackie Is Your New Captain, America!


Once he was handed a certain shield at the end of Avengers: Endgame, ANTHONY MACKIE became the next evolution of superhero star. He's been working toward it for 20 years, and, as Brian Raftery learns, we're only just catching up.


HENEVER HE finds the time—that is, whenever he gets a break from being an Avenger—Anthony Mackie calls some friends in New Orleans and tells them he’s ready to build and sell another house. He’s been doing this for years now: putting together a crew, scouring dumpsters for old wood, even building doors and floorboards by hand. “Whenever you finish,” says Mackie, “you stand back and say, ‘That was a piece of dirt when I started, and now it’s a house.’”

Mackie tells me this on a quiet May weekday in downtown Vancouver, where the 40-year-old actor is eating pizza in a largely empty gastropub. He’s in the city to play a future-shocked mercenary on Netflix’s sci-fi series Altered Carbon. But because he’s a Marvel star, Mackie is also an unofficial ambassador for the movie playing just a few blocks away (and coming soon to digital on July 30 and Blu-ray on August 13): Avengers: Endgame. It’s the sixth film in which he portrays Sam Wilson, an ex-airman who doubles as the high-flying, highly lethal Falcon.

More important, it’s the movie in which Sam Wilson inherits the mantle—and the shield—of his best friend, the über-menschy superpatriot who’s anchored three films of his own: Captain America.


On this afternoon, Endgame has been out for barely two weeks, and it’s already made more than $2 billion worldwide. (Some of that money comes from Mackie himself: He’s seen Endgame four times so far.) And though the new Captain America is dressed in a style probably best described as “aspirational incognito” (beige pullover and blue jeans, a black Detroit Tigers cap resting on the table), a pair of 20-something backpack-strapped dudes soon appear nearby, quietly nudging each other.

“A quick picture?” one of them finally asks. Mackie nods, and what follows involves so much nervous fumbling on the part of his fans that, in an act of pity, the actor eventually takes the picture himself. As the two men scurry away, Mackie yells out some parting wisdom: “Work on that camera game, man!”

For years, such encounters would periodically end with Mackie’s newfound friends telling him how great he was in that one Marvel movie—only to name a film that starred Don Cheadle. “I’d be like, ‘That’s the other black guy,’ ” he says with a laugh. But that’s changed. “Now,” he says, “they know exactly who I am.”

Mackie’s promotion to leading superman represents a crucial moment in Marvel’s ongoing cinematic engineering project, as the studio turns one of its most beloved roles over to a new actor, and an African-American one to boot.


It’s also an epochal moment for Mackie. He’s long specialized in playing confidants, best buds, and the occasional semi-amiable schemer: the stoic Army sergeant in the Best Picture–winning The Hurt Locker, the charm-armed drug dealer in Half Nelson, the third-wheel weightlifter-turned-kidnapper in Pain & Gain.

He’s been pursuing these kinds of roles since he graduated from New York City’s Juilliard School in the early ’00s. Back then, “I thought I was going to have a Morgan Freeman career,” he says, “doing great work until, all of a sudden, I get one big job at 50 and everyone’s like, ‘Who is this guy?’” Instead, Mackie’s been steadily accruing a filmography full of “little flag moments,” he says, “with Endgame being the pinnacle.”

The last time he saw the film was just a few days ago in New Orleans. He was putting the finishing touches on house number ten—or maybe it was number 11; he’s lost count. As a teenager in the city’s Seventh Ward, Mackie reluctantly helped out on his father’s construction sites, mopping tar across a roof in 100 degree weather. He only came to appreciate the effort years later, when he went for a drive with Dad, who built homes there for decades, and realized how much pride his father took in constructing something new.


“It’s kind of like acting,” Mackie says now. “You get a piece of paper with words on it, and you build that character. Then, when you watch, it’s 100 percent your creation.”

He’s viewed his career in much the same way: as a sturdily designed creation in its own right. And with the arrival of Endgame—15 years after he was anointed a future movie star—everyone else is finally beginning to stand back and see it.

MACKIE'S SPENT most of the past four months in Vancouver—a long time to be away from New Orleans, where he has four sons with Sheletta Chapital and where his acting career began more than three decades ago. He was in third grade when a teacher pushed him into a local drama program, hoping Mackie’s class-distracting energy could be channeled elsewhere.

He would later attend the prestigious New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. One day, he spotted school alum Wendell Pierce, a distinguished Broadway and screen actor who’d come to speak to Mackie’s class. “He pulled up to school in this little red Porsche and had on this white linen suit,” Mackie says. “I was like, ‘Holy shit. That dude looks like money.’ From that point on, I set out to do everything Wendell did.”


Pierce had studied at Juilliard, which is partly why Mackie chose to enroll there in 1997. “The school’s paradigm at that time was ‘We break you down to build you back up,’” notes Mackie’s former voice and speech instructor Denise Woods. “And Anthony refused to be broken.” He insisted on keeping his New Orleans accent when he felt it fit the role, and—along with his classmates—he prodded the school to diversify its stage curriculum to accommodate new voices. “He put his stake in the ground and said, ‘This is who I am, and you’ve got to see me,’” remembers Woods.

While at Juilliard, Mackie developed the role of Tupac Shakur in Up Against the Wind, a drama that would open off-Broadway in 2001. His mother had passed away a few years before, and an aunt had died while he was still at school, giving Mackie “a connection to the turmoil of Tupac’s life,” says Woods. Up Against the Wind’s run was brief, but it earned Mackie the attention of Oscar winner Curtis Hanson, who cast him as a battle rapper in the 2002 Eminem drama 8 Mile. Suddenly, the actor was working with the director of L. A. Confidential and going to VIP clubs with the biggest rapper in the world—not to mention his entourage, which included a then-unknown 50 Cent. (“He was a chubby dude!” Mackie recalls. “I was like, ‘This dude’s never going to make it!’”)


Hanging with Eminem, with whom Mackie is still friendly, in Detroit taught him his first lesson about the unpredictable demands of celebrity. He’d experience it himself not long afterward, landing the lead in Spike Lee’s 2004 social satire She Hate Me, as a disgraced exec who sells his sperm to lesbian couples for $10,000 a pop. Mackie was just 26 years old, and during filming, he began to believe the people whispering in his ear, telling him he was destined to be the next Denzel. When the movie was later dinged by critics, “it was humbling,” Mackie says. “But it informed the way I’ve dealt with my career since: When you buy into celebrity, it can be taken away in an instant.”

After She Hate Me, Mackie opted for parts that would allow him to slip in and out of the story without carrying the burden of the box office. It was an approach that won him a series of small but impactful turns for filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby), Jonathan Demme (The Manchurian Candidate), and future Captain Marvel codirectors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson)—all before he was 30.

It was Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 war drama, The Hurt Locker, about blood- and sweat-stained explosives experts in Iraq, that would recalibrate the next decade of Mackie’s life.


Bigelow cast him as J. T. Sanborn, a protocol-minded sergeant who teams up with William James, a confrontational specialist (played by Mackie’s co-Avenger Jeremy Renner). “I put everything in that movie,” says Mackie. It dominated year-end lists and pulled him into the awards race. He told himself he didn’t care but was stunned when his name wasn’t included among its nine Oscar nominations. “That little fucker matters,” he says. “We try to protect ourselves and say, ‘I’m doing the work for the work.’ But when that happened with Hurt Locker, it hurt. I had to take a year off of work.”

The Locker snub came at a chaotic time in Mackie’s life: He’d just had his first son. A few years earlier, his father had died after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. (Mackie grew up so close to the levees that he could spot his parents’ house in TV coverage of the storm.) The actor wound up staying at home for most of that year, restoring a 1964 Mustang by hand.


“I sat in my garage and I built a car,” he says. “It was very, very therapeutic.”

Once he was ready to act full-time again, Mackie began lobbying Marvel. He’d always wanted to play a superhero, so he and his team approached the studio via email about a role—any role. “My line was ‘Yo, I’m the black dude from The Hurt Locker.

I would love to work with you guys.’”

OF ALL the lessons Mackie’s learned during his Marvel years, one has come at the highest cost: Man simply isn’t meant to fly.

He found this out the hard way in early 2013 while standing atop a towering platform on the set of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A cushion was far below him, and elaborate wires had been strapped to his body for his first day as Falcon, jumping and shooting and dodging imaginary aircraft. “I’m like, ‘Can’t we just start with a walking-and-talking scene?’ ” He spent the next several days crashing to the ground, concerned that he was letting down codirectors Joe and Anthony Russo. “I think they were worried,” he says. “Because they saw how bad I was, and how much fear was on my face.”

Mackie’s original Marvel audition was for Iron Man 3’s villainous Mandarin. That role went to Ben Kingsley, but his screen test led to a lunch with the company’s creative brokers, including Joe Russo and producer Nate Moore, about starring in Winter Soldier.


“He has charisma, but he also has the ability to convey integrity in a way that very few actors can,” says Russo. “And there’s a level of trust between him and the audience.” Still, because of

Marvel’s Vatican-like atmosphere of secrecy, even among its employees, Mackie didn’t discover he was playing Falcon until about two months before production on Winter Soldier began. “Growing up, I’d always loved Falcon, because he was a comic-book hero who was black who didn’t have ‘Black’ in the title,” he says. “He stood on his morals. He stood on who he was.”

Winter Soldier is very much the story of Steve Rogers/Captain America—and a fairly dark one at that. But it’s brightened by the at-ease relationship between its two ex-military heroes. “We wanted to make sure Sam felt like an equal to Steve Rogers both in disposition and in charm,” says Moore. “We knew we’d be sunk if we cast a younger actor, or an actor without weight. But when we sat down with Anthony, the Russo brothers and I realized that here was an incredibly talented, credible actor who would be believable as a former serviceman who would be capable of pulling Steve out of his shell in the modern day.”


Over the next several years, Falcon’s role in the Captain America films—and in the Marvel big-screen universe—would expand. So would Mackie’s relationships with his costars, many of whom he stays in touch with via an ongoing chat thread. “It’s not just MCU guys,” he says. “There are guys from other universes. Basically, all the young degenerates of Hollywood.” (Among the names Mackie’s willing to give up: Paul Rudd, Miles Teller, Garrett Hedlund, and Don Cheadle—“the adult who keeps everybody in line.”)

But it’s Chris Evans, the erstwhile Captain America, to whom Mackie has grown closest. It was thanks to Evans that Mackie found out he’d be named the new Captain America. It was a transfer of power that occurred in the Marvel comics in 2014, but according to Russo, the decision to promote Mackie’s character wasn’t officially made until three years ago. (“We don’t want anything to leak, so we keep everything a secret from the actors, especially Mackie,” Russo says with a laugh.) Mackie was only clued in during the filming of Endgame, when he and a few other young degenerates of Hollywood were watching football at Evans’s house. At that point, Mackie hadn’t been able to see the full Endgame screenplay. “Chris gets the look of a six-year-old kid on his face, runs away, and comes back with the script,” Mackie says.


“I’m reading it, and it dawns on me what’s happening.”

It didn’t feel real until he found himself on set. “They were like, ‘Are you ready for tomorrow? You’re getting your shield,’” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’ ” He’d never even touched the shield before; now it was being handed over to him by one of his best friends. The whole experience “was like winning the Oscar. I was nervous. I was excited. I was stumbling over words.” Adds Russo, “His performance comes across as genuine, because it’s the way he actually felt: both vulnerable and steadfast.”

And what does a vibranium shield actually feel like? “It’s unbalanced,” Mackie says. “And it’s heavy.”

BACK IN Vancouver, Mackie is scrolling through his phone, trying to find an old news story online. In the fall of 2013, he was stopped while making a late-night U-turn in Harlem and arrested for driving under the influence. Mackie fought the charge in court, and the article he pulls up on his phone demonstrates why: Not only did police officers disagree on whether he did in fact appear intoxicated, but a video shown at the trial found him walking a yellow line without difficulty.


Yet Mackie was still convicted, resulting in a fine and some community service—and prompting him to decide to leave New York City for good. He’d been there since his Juilliard days, at one point even opening a bar in Brooklyn. But it was time to go.

“It happened on 125th Street and Lenox—the epicenter of Harlem—with six white cops,” he says. “I was like, Nah. This ain’t my city. It’s not my Harlem anymore. So I took the lesson: You’re not allowed to be a human being anymore. You’re not looked at or thought of as a citizen anymore.”

He chose to return to New Orleans, a place where he can feel at ease, Captain America or no. “The thing about New Orleans that I love,” he says, “is that no matter who you are, you’re just as important as the guy next to you at the bar.”

Mackie will get to spend only a short period of time in his hometown this year. He’s wrapping filming in Vancouver and appeared in season 5 of Black Mirror. Then, in October, he’ll head to Atlanta to start work on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a live-action series for the forthcoming Disney+ streaming service, and one that will pair Mackie with fellow Marvel player Sebastian Stan. Just when and where the show will be set, and how it will incorporate Falcon’s new status as Captain America, is a mystery—even to Mackie. Once again, he’s not quite sure whom he’s playing. “I’m guessing I’m Fal-Cap, or . . . I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t even seen a script.”


Mackie’s also in the dark about Fal-Cap’s big-screen future: He initially signed on for ten Marvel films, but with the Disney+ show, he’s uncertain about how that all works. (“I just wait for the phone call,” he says.) Even if we’re years away from a new Captain America movie, Mackie’s ascent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would have been unlikely more than a decade ago, when the studio’s efforts were headlined exclusively by white guys. The fact that an African-American is now playing the role shouldn’t feel seismic in 2019. But until recently, black superheroes, or female superheroes, or people-of-color heroes, rarely got top billing. “I knew the magnitude of Black Panther, just like I knew the magnitude of Wonder Woman,” Mackie notes. “I’ve been saying for years: If you’re going to make any movie, you make those two movies, because they’re going to make a trillion dollars.


They represent a whole different sector of our society that’s underrepresented and underappreciated.”

Audiences agree: Marvel’s biggest solo outings are the $1-billion-grossing Black Panther and Captain Marvel, and there are upcoming films focusing on Black Widow and Asian crime fighter Shang-Chi. The future of Marvel—and the shows and comic books it spins off—now rests largely on the shoulders of Mackie and his peers. “It’s funny, because I feel like my friends are way more excited than I am, because I know the amount of work that has to go into it,” he says. “They’re just excited to say that I have to buy drinks now. But I definitely wouldn’t call it a burden. I would more so call it an opportunity.”

Right now there are more immediate challenges. This past April, Mackie took his ten-year-old son to the Endgame premiere in L. A. After watching his father take the shield, the kid played it down, raving instead about Thanos and Fat Thor.

“Two days later, his mom calls me: ‘A. J. won’t stop talking about you becoming Captain America,’ ” Mackie says. “So I FaceTime him: ‘What’s up, man?’ ‘Nothing.’ I’m like, ‘What? You were just crying! I can see the tears on your face!’ As a dad, you want the approval and acknowledgment of your kids. And he just won’t give it to me!”


There’s one way to win this battle: Captain America’s eventually going to have to sneak the shield home for a few days.

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