Usually, the supremely talented Anthony Mackie can be seen in dramatic roles such as Sgt. J.T. Sanborn in “The Hurt Locker,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010, and Marcus in the 2010 feature film “Night Catches Us,” shot on location here in Philadelphia. However, the Juilliard-trained actor is currently hob-knobbing with humongous humanoids in Disney’s futuristic fantasy, “Real Steel,” now playing in theaters.
Mackie plays Finn, a promoter and bookmaker in the brutal world of robot boxing, which exploded in popularity when regular boxing was no longer violent enough to satisfy the fans. The riveting robotic bouts in the action flick are choreographed by Olympic Gold Medalist and former boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard.
“I talked to the director (Shawn Levy) and met with him, and I was so excited by the idea of doing something unlike anything I had done in my career,” Mackie said, when I spoke to him recently about his adventures in the fictional world of robot boxing. “I told him, I was like, ‘Look, there are two things that are important to me that will make me do this movie — leather and baby oil! If I can get those two things, I’m in!’” He said, ‘Alright,’ and I said, ‘Cool! I’m in, and I want to be able to hang out with Sugar Ray Leonard!”
As with any dazzling Disney production, the special effects are breathtaking, with the gargantuan gladiators dueling to the “death” in the squared circle.
“We all became 10-year-old kids on the set of this movie,” said Mackie. “You walk on set and there’s an eight-foot tall robot moving around, pointing at stuff — and I live by the Jack Bauer state of mind. If you walk in a room and something don’t compute, you shoot it first and ask questions later!
“They made actual nine-foot tall, like, 1,000-pound robots, and it was the freakiest thing I’d ever seen. It was weird, because all the scenes where the robots weren’t fighting — those were real robots — so when you see the robot turn his head and the lights blink off and on, he was really doing that. I’m standing there talking to Hugh and I can’t even remember my lines, ‘cause I’m like ‘Whoa!’ I saw ‘The Matrix.’ I know this robot’s gonna come alive and kill all of us!”
After the intensity of “The Hurt Locker,” for which Mackie earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination, the fun and fantasy of “Real Steel” was a welcome change. I had never been able to be the sweaty, loud-mouthed, rambunctious guy, and I told Shawn that I wanted to be over the top,” Mackie said. “I wanted to go as far as I could possibly go. It’s fun to let go sometime. I did this movie, ‘What’s Your Number,’ that came out last weekend, and it’s unlike anything I had done, because it’s a comedy, and it was nice to be able to do something different. So now I’m at a point in my career where I feel that I’ve proven that I can act, but I kind of want to do something different and interesting and fun.”
Mackie, a New Orleans native, definitely got the most out of his first Disney experience, and said only partially in jest, “It was great! It was some of the best craft (food) service I’ve ever had! Okay, I’m doing a movie, I’m getting paid to hang out with Hugh Jackman and Sugar Ray Leonard, and Oh! Steven Spielberg is here! Wow! Where the hell did you get these apple fritters from?’ It was hardcore!”
A highly skilled thespian with a warm, resonant voice, Mackie has starred both on and off Broadway, and initially had aspirations of becoming an engineer before turning his attention to acting, “just because it’s fun.”
“I’ve been telling stories with my family ever since I was a kid and it’s just great,” Mackie said. “I love being on stage. I love talking about and reading plays and scripts. I love the idea of bringing someone’s story to life. It’s the only career where you get to do everything you want to do, like play with nine-foot tall robots! Now I’m in a movie where I get to drive 1940 American muscle cars and shoot a Tommie gun. You can’t go to work and shoot a Tommie gun! I love it!”
Among his cinematic experiences, Mackie particularly enjoyed the time that he spent in Philadelphia filming “Night Catches Us,” with his “She Hate Me” co-star, Kerry Washington.
“I loved Philly, man!” he said. “A good friend of mine owns the Eagles (that would be Jeffrey Lurie). I was having a good old time! I love Philly. We were shooting in Germantown and there was this house that was a part of the Underground Railroad, and literally the tunnel was there and the basement was there where they would bring the slaves in and they move them north. There’s so much history in Philadelphia.
“And they are the worst sports fans! I mean, we’re sitting in a suite watching the game, and this dude turned around and looked at Jeff, and was like ‘Boo! You suck!’ I’m like, ‘Whoa! Dude, this is crazy!’ And the fans are right there, like at the owner’s box. And the dude turns around like, ‘Jeffrey! WTF! You suck! Boo! You’re a crappy owner!’ And I’m like, ‘You’re going to the playoffs!’ It’s absolutely insane!
“But I love Philly. I had a great time there, and it’s just one of those cities. You know, Philly is like Detroit, your traditional blue collar city.”
With at least three films now in theaters and a half dozen on the horizon, Mackie’s career is in high gear, even though his name may not be a household word — yet. “I would like the people to know that I’m an everyday guy,” he said in conclusion. “I’m the dude that you come up on and can have a good time and laugh and joke, but at the same time, I’m also a grown man, so if you cross me, that’s a conversation we’re going to have as well. I feel like you lose yourself in the idea of a person being in film and not being real. I’m a real person, so in the words of Ice Cube, ‘Say hello and break!’”