Anthony Mackie on Hurt Locker and the Trouble with War Movies

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Anthony Mackie didn't need much convincing to take the role of Sgt. J.T. Sanborn, the by-the-book foil to Jeremy Renner's world-weary U.S. Army bomb defuser in the excellent new Iraq thriller The Hurt Locker. The only potential sticking point was Iraq itself -- the thematic albatross that has crippled more films and filmmakers than perhaps any other subject of the last decade. The veteran actor talked to Movieline recently about what makes a war film work, why so many anti-war films fail and the next great story he's got his eye on.

There is a lot of talk about how poorly Iraq movies do at the box office, but this is one that really could break through. What were your thoughts about approaching a genre that has experienced such difficulty over the years?

Well, if you look at movies like Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now, those movies were about the characters. The war was a backdrop. The reason why Three Kings did so well wasn't because it was about Desert Storm; it was because it was about these three characters in the middle of a war. I think the thing about Hurt Locker is that it's not about any war. It's about how these three guys adapt and navigate their way through these difficult situations that they're facing.

And the chemistry between you and Jeremy Renner and Brian Geraghty reacts extraordinarily well to that premise. Was there a point when you realized you guys had something special?

[Laughs] No! The thing about it is that you don't realize that when you're running around with 20 pounds of gear -- or if you're Jeremy, 100 pounds of gear -- in 115-degree heat. You don't really think about all the accolades that come with putting together a quality project. We had faith in [director] Kathryn Bigelow and faith in each other, and it kind of just worked out that way. We shot over a million feet of film. We had no idea what to expect. The fact that we were in Jordan with the heat and with everything so foreign to us, at times that felt like a big disaster. But that's the great thing about Kathryn: She has a vision, and she really was able to pull that vision out of us.

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How? What kinds of discussions did you have with her regarding your character in particular?

The first thing I did was I went to her, sat down and said, "Tell me the story." Because I felt like I needed to be very clear as an actor about what story she was trying to tell. If she was making a political film, then I didn't want to be a part of that. That's why I hadn't done any movies based on the Iraq War: I felt like so many directors were just trying to get their anti-war or anti-Bush message message across. Once she told me the story she wanted to tell, I really gave her my spiel on who I thought the character was and what I could bring to him. The most important word that kept coming to me was "humanity." When we look at soldiers, we can forget that they're men and women, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. That's something that I wanted to bring to Sanborn.

That's a little more specific opposition to most Iraq films than what you mentioned before. Why do you avoid them?

Because it's not important. We're in a generation now where everybody thinks everything they say is really important. And what happens to the filmmakers who just make movies? The reason the film medium is so great is because you can go to the theater and relate to people who aren't you. You can live vicariously through them. Tom Cruise was great in Top Gun; everybody came out thinking we were fighter pilots. It wasn't a message -- it was a great movie. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you came out with a little better morals for the two hours of your life you just spent. Sometimes it just boils down to giving people the escape of everyday life and allowing them to experience through your work.

Is that just philosophically across the board, or would you consider it project-to-project?

It depends on the project. Sometimes you need to make a message film. Sometimes you need to go into a film with an opinion and paint it across the screen. But sometimes you just need to make a movie. Every movie is not a film.

You're in the process of developing a film about Jesse Owens. What's the status of that?

We're in the position now where we have our script, and we're basically like every other filmmaker -- just trying to get it made. We're trying to find a good director. There aren't too many who can capture sports as well as dynamic characters. Usually you've got guys like Michael Mann or Brett Ratner, who can blow shit up, and you have Jonathan Demme and Clint Eastwood, who can create dynamic characters.There are not too many directors who can do both.

It sounds like you just described Kathryn Bigelow.

Exactly, right?

But the Jesse Owens story has extraordinarily deep political implications. Is that one where you are more preoccupied with the message?

I don't think so. I don't think the Jesse Owens film is a message film. I think at one point in time Jesse Owens was the American savior. He was the world's savior. When Joe Lewis got knocked out, everybody saw that as maybe Hitler had a point. When Max Schmeling comes to New York and knocks out Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium, everyone's afraid. He was the Brown Bomber, you know? So when Jesse Owens goes over [to the 1936 Berlin Olympics], not only is he running for black America, he's running for white America, Jewish America, the Jews who have been ousted out of Germany... It's not a message film; it's a triumphant film.

What initially attracted you to Owens and maybe playing that role?

I really became a huge fan of Jesse Owens ever since I started reading about his life in high school -- and the dark turn that his life took when he returned to the states. When he got back to the U.S., they asked him how he felt about Hitler not inviting him up to his booth after he won his gold medals. He said, "Hitler didn't invite me up to his booth, but the President didn't invite me to the White House either." And I thought that was a phenomenal way to look at it. ♦



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