‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ Star Anthony Mackie Soars to Marvel Leading-Man Status

Photographs by William Widmer

For his entire tenure as an Avenger, Anthony Mackie had never been the first name on the call sheet.

In a galaxy of stars populated by Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson, the actor was aware of his place in the on-set pecking order, but would never miss an opportunity to make his presence felt.

“Number six on the call sheet has arrived!” Mackie would routinely shout on films like “Captain America: Civil War” and the box office-busting “Infinity Saga” sequels, according to Marvel chief creative officer Kevin Feige.

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William Widmer for Variety

It exemplifies the sort of winning tone that the 42-year-old actor has brought to his superhero character the Falcon, aka Sam Wilson, for six movies from the top-earning studio — wry and collegial humor, with the potential to turn explosive at any moment. Both Mackie and his character are set to burn brighter than ever when the Disney Plus series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” lands on March 18.

On that call sheet, “Anthony is No. 1,” Feige is happy to report, “but it still says ‘No. 6.’ He kept it because he didn’t want it to go to his head.” The series is essentially a two-hander with his friend and longtime co-star Sebastian Stan, the titular soldier. All six episodes were produced and directed by Emmy winner Kari Skogland (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Loudest Voice”). The series, for which combined Super Bowl TV spot and trailer viewership earned a record-breaking 125 million views this year, is reported to have cost $150 million in total.

For Mackie, though, the show comes at a critical time for both his career and for representation in the MCU. Sam Wilson is graduating from handy wingman (Falcon literally gets his job done with the use of mechanical wings), having been handed the Captain America shield by Evans in the last “Avengers” film. While it’s unclear if he will formally don the superhero’s star-spangled uniform moving forward (as the character did in a 2015 comic series), global fandoms and the overall industry are still reeling from the loss of Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed Marvel’s Black Panther to culture-defining effect. With this new story, Mackie will become the most visible African American hero in the franchise. And when asked whether he’ll be taking the mantle of one of its most iconic characters, he doesn’t exactly say no.

“I was really surprised and affected by the idea of possibly getting the shield and becoming Captain America. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I did it the way they said you’re supposed to do it. I didn’t go to L.A. and say, ‘Make me famous.’ I went to theater school, did Off Broadway, did indie movies and worked my way through the ranks. It took a long time for this shit to manifest itself the way it has, and I’m extremely happy about that,” Mackie says.

Feige says that, especially with the advent of Disney Plus and the freedom afforded long-form storytelling, the moment was right to give the Falcon his due.

“Suddenly, what had been a classic passing of the torch from one hero to another at the end of ‘Endgame’ became an opening up of our potential to tell an entire story about that. What does it really mean for somebody to step into those shoes, and not just somebody but a Black man in the present day?” says Feige.

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NEW ORLEANS, LA – Feb. 19, 2021 – Actor Anthony Mackie photographed in the Tremé District of New Orleans. William Widmer for Variety

Like many comic book heroes, Mackie has an origin story marked by tragedy at a young age — specifically around the loss of a parental figure. The New Orleans native is the youngest of six children from a tight-knit middle-class family, whose trajectory was spun into chaos when his mother was stricken with a terminal illness.

“It was unexpected and very untimely. I was 15 when she was diagnosed with cancer, and a few months later, she was gone. She passed the day before my ninth-grade graduation,” Mackie recalls. “If my mom wouldn’t have passed away when I was so young, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Mackie had already gravitated toward the performing arts before the loss of his mother, having enrolled at the pre-professional school New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Like many young people grappling with trauma, Mackie says he began to act out. A core group of teachers helped get him out of trouble. Ray Vrazel, still an instructor at the school, personally drove the student to a Houston-based audition for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he was accepted for his senior year of high school.

“Everything I did, I did for my mama. The idea of leaving home at 17 to go away to school would have never been an option if she was still around. She was my best friend. Losing her gave me a kind of strength, and a desire to succeed,” Mackie says.

Succeed he did. Spending that formative year as a minor on a college campus helped Mackie find his “tribe,” a misfit crew of artists and performers, which propelled him to acceptance at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School in 1997. There he was part of the breakthrough class of students of color to be chosen for the notoriously selective drama program, which Mackie says was liberating given the institution’s track record.

“Our year was a huge transition. There were hardly any Asian people in the drama program, maybe one or two Black people and hardly any Black women. In our class, we had three black women, two black men, one Native American, one Asian female, out of 20 people. Ever since then, the classes have been wildly diverse,” says Mackie, whose fellow students included stage and film star Tracie Thoms and actor Lee Pace.

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NEW ORLEANS, LA – Feb. 19, 2021 – Actor Anthony Mackie photographed in the Tremé District of New Orleans. William Widmer for Variety

Following his training, Mackie launched a staggeringly versatile career. He has played Tupac Shakur and Martin Luther King Jr. to similar acclaim, a juicehead bodybuilder in “Pain & Gain” and a homeless gay teen in the Sundance player “Brother to Brother.” He has exhibited remarkable staying power in an industry that often pigeonholes actors and has a pockmarked soul when it comes to inclusion.

“I was drawn to Anthony because of his electrifying ability to combine intensity with sensitivity, courage with compassion, and all of it comes across as inevitable, as if it could be no other way,” says Kathryn Bigelow, who directed him in the 2009 best picture Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker.”

Samuel L. Jackson, whom Mackie calls a mentor and has played alongside in several films, says he has “an innate quality that first and foremost makes everyone want to cast him.” On a recent idle Netflix search, Jackson came across Mackie’s latest sci-fi film, “Outside the Wire,” and it triggered a memory of sitting in the audience for his performance in the 2010 Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s play “A Behanding in Spokane.”

“Watching him onstage, I thought, he’s a very adroit actor capable of putting on many hats. He’s fearless and will try to be anybody. Then, on my TV, he’s playing a nanobyte soldier or some shit,” Jackson says.

Though always humble about getting the next job, pre-Marvel Mackie was rarely offered pole position.

“There were certain pegs. My first was ‘8 Mile.’ It was a monumental step at the beginning of my career,” Mackie says of the 2002 Curtis Hanson film that elevated rapper Eminem to multi-hyphenate stardom.

“After that it was ‘Half Nelson.’ It blew up Ryan Gosling, so I was there to ride the wave. Then ‘The Hurt Locker,’ and it blew up Jeremy Renner. It was the joke for a long time — if you’re a white dude and you want to get nominated for an Oscar, play opposite me. I bring the business for white dudes,” says Mackie.

He remembers the sensation “Hurt Locker” caused during its awards season. It was a moment he thought would change everything as he stood on the stage of the Dolby Theatre with the cast and filmmakers, having just sipped from George Clooney’s flask while Halle Berry radiated a few rows away.

“I thought I would be able to move forward in my career and not have to jostle and position myself for work. To get into rooms with certain people. I thought my work would speak for itself. I didn’t feel a huge shift,” he says, “but I 100% think that ‘The Hurt Locker’ is the reason I got ‘Captain America.’”

He’s referring to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the 2014 Marvel film that was the first to be directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (the current title holders for the highest-grossing film of all time with “Avenges: Endgame”). Mackie says that blockbuster not only gave him his largest platform to date but changed expectations of superhero movies forever.

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NEW ORLEANS, LA – Feb. 19, 2021 – Actor Anthony Mackie photographed in the Tremé District of New Orleans. William Widmer for Variety

“It was the first of the espionage, Jason Bourne-esque action movies at Marvel. After that, the movies shifted and had different themes and were more in touch with the world we live in, more grounded,” he says.

Bolstered by the words of another mentor, Morgan Freeman, Mackie feels no bitterness about his path.
“We did ‘Million Dollar Baby’ together, and when we were shooting this movie, I got offered a play. When you do Off Broadway, it’s $425 a week. In New York, that’s really $75 per week. I got a movie offer at the same time, and it was buckets of money. Three Home Depot buckets of money were going to be dropped off at my door,” Mackie says. “The script was awful; the whole thing was slimy. I went to Morgan’s trailer and asked him what he would do. He took a second and said, ‘Do the play. When Hollywood wants you, they’ll come get you. And when they come get you, they’ll pay for it.’ That blew my mind, and I left him that day with such a massive amount of confidence. He’s been a huge influence on me.”

He used the currency of that first Russo Brothers film and five subsequent ones to do what many creators and performers in Hollywood have done in recent years to help balance the scales of profit and representation in content: make things on his own.

Last year, Mackie produced and starred in “The Banker” — what would be Apple Studios’ first foray into original streaming film distribution and the awards landscape — through his banner Make It With Gravy. The film follows the true story of America’s first Black bankers and the white frontman they deployed to acquire the institution, all while supporting Black-owned businesses and communities in the process. A late-breaking scandal over sexual misconduct accusations involving the real-life family members of the film’s subjects delayed the release, overshooting awards-season deadlines and entangling the fledgling producer.

“It was a good lesson, and gave me a new perspective on the world around us. It’s very important to me that the women by my side are treated equally. It was a valuable lesson learned. I was very humbled by my sisters, for once not being mean to me,” he says.

Mackie is in development on the film “Signal Hill,” about the early days of lawyer Johnnie Cochran and the theater he brought to courtrooms long before the O.J. Simpson trial, and is hoping to secure the life story of civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin as a vehicle for his directorial debut. Raising four sons of his own now, Mackie wants his off-screen work to make them well-rounded men.

“Look at Robin Williams,” he says. “He used to be crass and funny, and then he had kids, and he started doing all these family-friendly movies. Same thing with Eddie Murphy. I’m trying to curate my children’s experience with the things that I’ll be producing, rather than starring in. That’s what is most important. They know my job is my job; they know who I am. I’ve given up the idea of them ever thinking that I’m cool,” he says.

Jokes about the call sheet are among many of Mackie’s filming quirks. Jackson says that sets are often littered with hidden cigar stubs, to be fired up between takes or after long days. Bigelow says his rapport with crew has led to nights where the “clock was ticking but it was impossible to regain composure enough to shoot.” But according to Evans, no Mackie-ism is more famous than the phrase he bellows whenever his directors cut a scene: “Cut the check!”

Evans says this “will be forever associated with Mackie. I find myself saying it on sets all the time. I love it. But I’ll never be able to say it as well as him.”

As the man handing Mackie his armor, Evans says the Falcon’s “role within the Marvel universe has answered the call to action time and time again. He’s proven his courage, loyalty and reliability over multiple films. Sam has given so much, and he’s also lost a lot too. He believes in something bigger than himself, and that type of humility is necessary to carry the shield.”

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NEW ORLEANS, LA – Feb. 19, 2021 – Actor Anthony Mackie photographed in the Tremé District of New Orleans. William Widmer for Variety

The question of Sam Wilson’s humanity will be explored at length in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” what Mackie calls a deeper showcase for both himself and Stan and their characters. It was a prospect that at first confused and frightened him.

“I didn’t think we could do on the television what we’d been doing on the big screen. I didn’t want to be the face of the first Marvel franchise to fail. Like, ‘See? We cast the Black dude, and now this shit is awful.’ That was a huge fear of mine, and also a huge responsibility with playing a Marvel character,” Mackie says.

He was quickly assuaged by the level of depth in the scripts from head writer Malcolm Spellman (“Empire,” “Truth Be Told”), especially when it came to the nuances of Wilson — a Black American man with no powers beyond his badass wings.

“Sam Wilson as played by Mackie is different than a Thor or a Black Panther, because he’s not from another planet or a king from another country,” Feige says. “He’s an African American man. He’s got experience in the military and doing grief counseling with soldiers who have PTSD. But where did he grow up? Who is his family? Mackie was excited to dig into it as this man, this Black man in particular, in the Marvel version of the world outside our window.”

Mackie celebrates Sam’s relatability in a universe full of mythological gods and lab-made enforcers.
“I’m basically the eyes and ears of the audience, if you were put in that position where you could go out and fight alongside superheroes. It adds a really nice quality to him, that he’s a regular guy who can go out there and do special things,” Mackie says.

While bound by standard Marvel-grade secrecy, the actor confirms there have been no discussions of a second season for “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” As the majority of domestic movie theaters remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, he is equally unaware of the theatrical prospects for his Falcon character — or the Captain he may become by the end of this Disney Plus run. For now, he’s content to take up the mantle left by Boseman, a quietly understood pact of responsibility to Marvel-loving kids the world over.

“For Chad and I, [representation] was never a conversation that needed to be had because of our backgrounds. There was a hinted-at understanding between the two of us, because we’re both from humble beginnings in the South; we have very similar backgrounds. We knew what the game was. We knew going into it,” he says.

Outside comic book movies, Mackie is not done searching as a performer. There is a particular genre he would very much like to cut him a check.

“My team gets mad at me for saying this, but I would love to do a cheesy old-school ‘When Harry Met Sally’-type of project,” he says. “One of those movies where I’m working outside and have to take my shirt off because it’s too hot. I want a romantic comedy. I want to do every movie written for Matthew McConaughey that he passed on.”

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