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Anthony Mackie adjusts to film roles

Anthony Mackie had appeared in about two dozen films, including “8 Mile,” “Half Nelson” and “The Manchurian Candidate” before “The Hurt Locker,” 2009’s best picture Academy Award winner. But apparently, it took that performance — as a no-nonsense Army sergeant opposite Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner — to get some people in Hollywood to realize he had even been working as an actor.

“I loved the fact that everybody’s like, ‘Man, where were you?’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve been right here. I have no idea where you were,’” the 31-year-old said, laughing and flashing his mischievous grin as he recalled reactions to the movie.

Mackie’s anonymity is about to recede even further. In the new Universal Pictures movie “The Adjustment Bureau,” the adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story that opened this weekend, he tackles his most substantial role in a star-driven movie: a conscience-stricken guardian angel looking after Matt Damon’s down-to-earth politician.

He’ll follow that up with a trifecta of other big studio projects. “Real Steel,” Disney’s futuristic story about pugilist robots, opens in October. Next year comes the Sam Worthington thriller “Man on a Ledge” and the historical genre film “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” in which Mackie plays a friend of the 16th president.

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But if the classically trained actor has finally arrived in the Hollywood big leagues, he hasn’t quite reconciled himself to all that entails.

Born in New Orleans and educated at Juilliard, Mackie was first noticed by major filmmakers when Curtis Hanson cast him as Eminem rival Papa Doc in “8 Mile” nearly a decade ago. A wide range of roles followed — in movies directed by Spike Lee (“She Hate Me”), D.J. Caruso (“Eagle Eye”) and Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby,” in which, as with “Eagle Eye,” he had a small part). Mackie had more prominent turns as a complex neighborhood drug-dealer in the Oscar-nominated independent “Half Nelson,” and dipped into recent pop-cultural history as Tupac Shakur in the hip-hop biopic “Notorious.”

As he was tackling these screen roles, the actor was developing his stage career. He had barely turned 30 and already he had won an Obie in Carl Hancock Rux’s dialogue-heavy “Talk,” starred on Broadway in Martin McDonagh’s “A Behanding in Spokane” and toplined a Greek tragedy in the Shakespeare in the Park production of “The Bacchae.”

“I can’t keep up with everything Anthony is doing,” said Ryan Fleck, who directed him in “Half Nelson.”

And then came “Hurt Locker,” prompting a slew of studio offers.

Yet for all the screen opportunities, Mackie still describes film as a medium that “scares me because there are many too cooks in the kitchen,” and because he believes the audience usually comes to relax, not engage. “People go to films to escape reality,” he said. “People go to plays to evoke reality.”

Ordering a mai tai at Trader Vic’s on the afternoon following the Oscars, Mackie says that if it were up to him he’d work almost exclusively in theater, with maybe the occasional independent film thrown in.

“If I can make Matthew Broderick money doing plays I would be on stage every day. I’d be done,” he said. “But I found if I do a play for six months and an independent movie for two months, my whole year is almost gone and I made $8,000,” laughing as he draws out the figure in mock-disbelief. Many screen actors take occasional detours to the theater; Mackie sees tentpole films as a way to support his strong stage habit.

He splits his time between New York and New Orleans — he moved back to his hometown after Katri¿¿¿na and recently built a home there. (His brother Calvin Mackie is a New Orleans-based professor who was featured in Spike Lee’s multipart HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke.”) The actor has maintained his feverish pace while steering clear of the most obvious opportunities. “There’s a lot of film roles I’m not interested in doing because I don’t want to be seen that way, like a ‘Soul Plane’ or a ‘Who’s Your Caddy?’” he said. “I’d rather be No. 12 on a [film shoot’s] call sheet with an interesting character, than No. 1 with a boring character,” he added with a chuckle.

But beneath that laugh lies frustration. Mackie would of course rather be No. 1 with an interesting character, and he believes the fact that he isn’t is at least partly a factor of race.

“I can’t play Spider-Man because Spider-Man don’t look like me,” he said. “It’s frustrating that the movies I want to make I haven’t been able to make. Orlando Bloom was given 15 opportunities after ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Black men are given no opportunities.”

With nearly every high-profile black actor now over age 40 —Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx, to name just a few — Mackie is one of the few younger actors of color left to carry the mantle. He faults the studios for the small number.

“They say there’s no audience for black stars, but that’s because you’re not feeding” those filmgoers, Mackie said. “There’s a yin and yang,” he added — meaning commercial comedies aimed at black audiences, such as the “Big Momma’s” franchise, on one hand and serious films on the other — “and you can have one aspect but you got to have the other side. And right now we don’t have the other side.”

“In the early 1990s, every black actor you know now was starting out and making movies,” he added, becoming more animated. “They were making more movies under Daddy Bush than we are under Obama. Which is ridiculous.”

“Adjustment Bureau” does offer its performers, including Mackie, the chance for some substance, at least within the context of a glossy studio film.

Mackie’s character, Harry, is tasked with keeping track of Damon’s David Norris, a politician-turned-consultant who falls in love with a dancer (Emily Blunt). A higher authority known as “the Chairman,” to whom Harry reports, does not want the couple to be together. Harry must make sure that David stays on his fated trajectory, nudging him back onto it if he gets off course — adjustments, in the film’s parlance. At the same time, Harry must grapple with his own feelings about what’s best for his charge.

“I feel like fate and free will is an idea that’s lost on our generation,” Mackie said. “Everybody wants to live by the seat of their pants, but nobody wants to suffer the consequences of their choices.”

Writer-director George Nolfi said he didn’t intend to make a film with religious significance, although audiences at black churches, which have been part of the studio’s publicity tour, have sometimes read it that way.

“I don’t want to suggest one meaning of the movie,” he said. “You can interpret [the Chairman and his adjusters] in a science fiction way, or as fate, or as the society we’re born into. Or you can interpret it as a higher power.”

Nolfi says that Mackie has the ability to carry off this ambiguity even as he conveys movie-star charm. “Anthony has a huge career in front of him,” the filmmaker said. “I think he’s going to be a version of Will Smith, where he does a big studio movie and then he does ‘The Pursuit of Happyness.’”

Nolfi is hardly the only player in Hollywood to think so. Samuel L. Jackson, who has starred in several movies with Mackie, has taken the actor under his wing; in an e-mail, he called the actor a “young comer.”

But if large mainstream roles are increasingly beckoning, Mackie still has misgivings about what he calls the “dangerous negotiation” of bigger-budget movies.

“I would do ‘Half Nelson’ for $35 a day again,” he said, recalling the experience of making that film. “Hell, I’ll do that movie nine times out of 10 because it’s better than any of the others I could jump on for a million dollars a day.”

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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