Anthony Mackie on ‘Altered Carbon,’ Captain America’s Future, and Why He Doesn’t Take His Kids to the Movies

Nick Schager
Marilla Sicilia/Archivio Marilla Sicilia/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Few stars working today are as cool—or as versatile—as Anthony Mackie.

Beginning with his debut turn in 2002’s 8 Mile, the 41-year-old Louisiana native has proven to be an actor with a range matched only by his charisma. Be it as a drug dealer in Half Nelson, a member of an Iraq War bomb-disposal team in The Hurt Locker, a former Black Panther in Night Catches Us, or an impotent bodybuilder in Pain & Gain, Mackie is comfortable in just about any guise. And that’s not even counting his most high-profile role to date: Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, the trusty compatriot of Chris Evans’ Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who (according to Avengers: Endgame) is soon destined to wield the iconic stars-and-stripes shield himself.

Definitive answers to Mackie’s superhero future won’t be revealed until this August’s Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. He is, however, more than eager to discuss his current small-screen endeavor: Altered Carbon, Netflix’s noir-ish sci-fi show (now in its second season) about a distant reality in which human consciousness is stored on digital drives known as “stacks,” thus allowing humans to live forever by constantly being installed in new bodies known as “sleeves.” It’s a conceit in which identity is divorced from physical appearance, and is the main reason Mackie has so easily stepped into the shoes of protagonist Takeshi Kovacs, who was played by Joel Kinnaman in its first 2018 go-round.

Set on a planet struggling with an anti-immortality rebellion, the saga finds Mackie’s Kovacs navigating knotty political intrigue while searching for his true revolutionary love, Quellcrist Falconer (Hamilton star Renée Elise Goldsberry), with the aid of bounty hunter Trepp (Simone Missick) and his holographic AI sidekick Poe (Chris Conner).

For Mackie, it’s a leading-man project that again confirms he’s as commanding a presence as they come, no matter the size of the screen. Ahead of Altered Carbon’s streaming premiere on Feb. 27, we spoke to the actor about assuming Captain America’s patriotic mantle, the appeal of making a genre show headlined by African-Americans, Altered Carbon’s progressive vision of tomorrow, and who he’d most like to become if given the chance to change his own sleeve.

Avengers: Endgame establishes you as the next Captain America. What’s the reaction been to that bombshell development?

The response has been really overwhelming. I feel like it’s calmed down some now, but the movie still has this iconic place in our generation, because people were so affected by it. I was in Vancouver shooting Altered Carbon when Endgame came out. My stuntman, whom I’ve worked with forever and who did Endgame and was also doing Altered Carbon, got us Thursday night tickets to the first screening. We go to the screening, and it’s midnight, and everyone’s tired and quiet. Then Tony Stark dies and you just hear people openly weeping in the theater. You never expect to have that effect on people. But you have adults openly affected by these characters. I think it says a lot about what Joe and Anthony [Russo] were able to do as directors, and what Robert Downey Jr. has been able to do as an actor for the past 15 years.

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How is production on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier going? And is it daunting to have such a vital part to play in the MCU’s next phase?

Not at all. I feel like, if we’re going to fail, we should fail 100 percent. Don’t fail halfway [laughs]. But it’s been fun, man. There’s so much stuff going on in the Marvel Universe since Disney has gotten involved, and we have a really supportive team. It’s Victoria [Alonso] and Louis [D’Esposito] and Kevin [Feige] and all the other guys over there—we always have people we can talk to if we feel like stuff isn’t going right. So it’s been great. We’ve definitely stumbled a few times, but we’re running full steam ahead to get these shows done.

Marvel is known for its secrecy. Do you only get information on a project-by-project basis?

One project at a time, you might not be back again! [laughs] No, they don’t really give us the future of the universe. It’s really one show at a time. You don’t get that script until you show up on set. They’ll send you pages, but really, random people will show up and you’ll be like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know you were in the show, and we’re doing a scene together—that’s amazing!”

I assume you’ve at least received some shield training?

The funny thing about the shield training is, I feel like everyone has had shield training. I went by WandaVision, and there was a random shield. I was like, everyone’s getting shield training now!

Maybe that’s their plan for replacing Chris Evans.

Everybody’s going to have a shield with Chris’ face on it [laughs].

Over the past couple of years, you’ve tackled a number of sci-fi projects. Is there a reason for focusing on that genre now?

I’ve always loved sci-fi movies. I grew up in a time of Demolition Man and The Terminator; those post-apocalyptic movies are the movies I grew up on. If you think about it, Star Wars is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. So I love those movies, and I love action movies. Film is a medium where people go to escape their reality, and when I think of film, I sincerely think of it for entertainment. I want people to be entertained. And I want people to be entertained in the way that I’m entertained when I see sci-fi movies. I’ve always enjoyed that genre, but I love all film. Now that I’m of an age where I actually look like an adult, I can do adult stuff and kick people’s asses [laughs]. Every 10 years, you fall into a different script cycle. In the next fifteen years, I’ll be playing dads, and then the next 20 years, I’ll be playing grandpas. You have to play those cycles as they come.

Altered Carbon’s conceit allows you to effortlessly slip into its lead role. But why did you want to join an already-established series?

I loved the first season of Altered Carbon, and I thought there was something I could add to what they were trying to do with the show. When I got the call about it, I was really excited, because I knew, when I had the meeting with everybody about the show, there was something I could bring to that character that would add to what Joel [Kinnaman] did in season one.

What was it you thought you could add?

Kovacs is a character that’s in constant search of his true love. This season is very Shakespearean in a way. He’s on this journey, but emotionally, he’s just spent. That vulnerability, that emotion—that wasn’t so much in the first season, you didn’t see it in the flashbacks of the character—and I felt like I would be able to bring that full-front with the way he was written. I had four really good directors in the eight episodes of this season, and we were very conscious of where Kovacs was emotionally. The action stuff fed into that, but it’s not as important as it was in the first season. This season is really about him mentally and emotionally, and as an actor, that’s something I do really well.

Altered Carbon is unique in that it’s big-budget sci-fi with three African-American leads—you, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Simone Missick. Was that also part of its appeal?

It was. That was something we talked about, and it was something I was very conscious of. I’ve known Simone for a very long time, her husband is one of my dear friends. And I’ve known Renée for some time now; she was one of my biggest crushes when I started doing plays in New York.

I’m sure that made the romantic part of the show easier.

[laughs] Exactly! Knowing that I would have the opportunity to be able to work with the two of them only added fuel to the fire of what I thought I could do with this character. Because they’re such dynamic actresses, I knew they would push me harder to go further as an actor.

Anthony Mackie in Altered Carbon

Netflix

Do you feel like there’s greater movement in Hollywood to cast minorities as leads in genre efforts like this, versus when you first started?

Not at all, and I think that’s a huge misconception. Because it’s all about ebb and flow. If you look at Hollywood when I was growing up, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had black mega-action stars. We had huge-budgeted black action films. From the list of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Wesley Snipes, even Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Morris Chestnut, Vivica A. Fox—all those people started in the early ‘90s. As far as the diversity of film, I feel like film was wildly diverse in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if you look at Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and all these Asian actors who brought kung fu movies, and then Ang Lee and all these people who came into Hollywood and really blew the top off Hollywood in terms of diversity. Now, the pendulum has swung back to where we don’t have the next generation of all those people. We don’t have a 25-year-old Ang Lee.

Does this show help that cause?

I think a show like this makes people aware of the lack of production and content that we have in this playing field; because if you look at it, Walter Mosley is a phenomenal sci-fi writer. There are some amazing African-American, Asian and Latino sci-fi writers, and those projects just haven’t been developed yet. And when it comes to sci-fi and the post-apocalyptic future that we all think we’re going to live in, race don’t matter, because everybody looks Puerto Rican! [laughs] We’re all growing up to be Puerto Rican, so good luck!

Altered Carbon presents a very progressive (gender-fluid, multicultural) vision of the future.

Yes, and that’s what I loved about the first season of the show: the idea of race and gender was never in question. A woman can kill you just like a man can kill you, because with this show and the sleeves and stacks, it’s more about the humanity of the person than the physical aspect of the person. You can be whatever you want to be—if you want to be a six-foot curvy blonde, and you’re a five-foot-two black dude, you can be that curvy blonde! What I love about the idea of the show is it proves that people don’t care about what you look like; people care about the person you are.

As with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, you’re playing an African-American superhero (of a sort) in Altered Carbon. Do you feel like that comes with some sort of responsibility?

You can’t think about that. I feel like, if I do good work, it’ll be recognized. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and this is my first time doing television. I’ve never done episodic television before. The idea is that as long as you do good work, people will watch it and appreciate it. What you want is your name to be synonymous with good work. And that’s the same as anybody, in any race, and any culture. I think with this, it just adds to the bag of projects I’ve done since 8 Mile that people can go back and say, wow, that’s a pretty decent body of work over twenty years.

Were Altered Carbon’s future to come about, is there a particular sleeve you’d most want to try on, at least temporarily?

Oh man, that’s funny you should say that! [laughs] OK, fine, I’ll say it: I would really want to be Halle Berry.

Why?

Because I would want to know how it feels to be desired by every human being on Earth. I would want to know what that power feels like. Maybe that’s self-absorbed, but I don’t care. Someone of that scope and magnitude, I feel like she can just walk into the presidency and say I’m going to be president and save the world and give every kid great free education, and it’ll happen! I feel like she has that power.

And if you’re Halle Berry, you can still be an accomplished actor.

I just want the power! [laughs]

How much fight training was required by the series, and has that become easier, given your Marvel experiences?

I’ve been working with the same stuntman since Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. His name is Aaron Tony, and he’s like a fifth-degree capoeira, jujitsu, Muay Thai crazy catch-flies-with-chopsticks dude. He knows what I’m good at, and what I’m not good at. I can throw a good punch, I can do a good block, so he lets me do all that. But the kicking, and some of the flipping, he’s like, “No, you suck at kicking.” With that stuff, he’ll step in. I always say, I’m Bugs Bunny and he’s Daffy Duck. Right when the car is about to land on me, they say cut and put him in, and drop the car on him.

As you said, this is your first time doing streaming TV. What was the motivation for making that transition?

To be frank about it, filmmakers don’t work in film anymore. If we look at the movies we grew up loving, that we think are the best movies of all time, those movies won’t be made now by studios; they’ll be made by streaming services. So if your movie isn’t an event—if you’re not in Avengers or Suicide Squad or Star Wars—it’s very hard to get people to go to the movie theater, for many different reasons. Fear factor, cost. I have kids, and for me to take my kids to the movies, it’s $115. So we watch movies at home. As soon as Fortune 500 companies bought all the film studios, the idea of making films was dead. So that being said, the only place you can go and work with the filmmakers you adore is streaming services.

But I assume that means streaming offers tremendous opportunities?

Definitely. I would love to work with director David O. Russell one day, and all these other directors again. But you can’t go to a studio and say, “Give me $20 million, I want to make this small movie,” because they’re not going to do it. Either you can make a movie for $2 million or for $100 million. It’s the worst business model of all time. There’s definitely a way to make money in movies. But everyone in movies has no idea how to make money [laughs]. It’s crazy.

If Scorsese can’t get his films into a theater

We’re looking at the dawn of a new age. When our grandparents used to say, “Turn off that devil’s music, nobody’s going to listen to that, it’s going to be dead in 10 years,” we’re now in that age from rock ‘n’ roll to hip-hop. We’re in the fast-paced generation where the younger generation is spending and being heard, and we’re the old fogies. We’re the ones who sit on the couch and complain about what these youngsters are doing, and the youngsters are out there changing the world.

Anthony Mackie in Avengers: Endgame

Marvel Studios

Still, great movies continue to get produced.

Great movies are being made, they’re just not being made for the theaters, because young people don’t want to sit in a room and chill out. They want to move, and watch it on their cell phones and tablets. They can’t sit still; it’s a different world now. We had time, because we didn’t have cell phones. We could sit in a movie theater and make out with a girl and eat popcorn. But dudes don’t do that anymore. You can do that virtually now; you don’t have to hide in a movie theater. And if you take a girl to a movie theater now, it’s $20 for each ticket, and she’s going to want popcorn and nachos, and then you add two sodas, and you’re out $70 and you haven’t even gotten in the theater yet. We used to go to the dollar show in New Orleans, and you’d get popcorn for $5, soda for $2.50, you’re out-of-pocket $10! So now you can pay $7 [for streaming], or you go on two dates a month, and that’s $150 just to see a movie.

Any chance you’ll be back for the third season of Altered Carbon? Or is their plan to keep changing who plays Takeshi Kovacs?

I don’t know what the future plans of the show are, but I’ll say I had a great time working on it. I feel like some of the actors have become lifelong friends, because you spent six months with people and you develop a relationship. It almost felt like I was doing a play—you come to set every day, you work with the same people, you spend time with people and meet their families, you’ll have an extended week and go away with people. And not only with the cast, but the crew. If there was an opportunity, I would love the chance to do this show again. It was an amazing experience. I didn’t have one bad day in the six months I was there. Now, Vancouver was a whole different story. Once I left work, it was like Dante’s Inferno.

You weren’t a fan of Vancouver?

You want to see a black dude in purgatory, put him in Vancouver in the winter [laughs]. Oh man. The only minus was Anthony Mackie in southwestern Canada.

You didn’t have your family with you?

No, because the kids are in school, and it would be obnoxiously selfish of me to pull the kids out of school. It’s so far away, you can’t take a day trip from New Orleans to Vancouver. You can’t really drive to Seattle because it’s Seattle, and you have to deal with the border. And you’re surrounded by ice. So what do you do?

What did you do?

Suffer! That’s what you do [laughs].

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